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    Moving beyond the (dead) white man syndrome


    Monica Prendergast

    A gender equity and diversity report card for local theatre companies’ 2018-19 productions.

     

    IT HAS BEEN THREE YEARS since I last took a look at what was on offer for the Victoria theatre season with an eye to how well local theatre companies are fostering gender equity and diversity in their programming. Studies show that less than a third of Canadian professionally-produced plays are by women, or are directed by female directors, or appear in companies led by women artistic directors (the latter determine seasons of plays). The stats are worse in the US; less than 20 percent of plays produced there are written by women.

    Thus, it remains important to keep a close view on the equity we have on Victoria stages. Diversity is another area that needs improvement in Victoria, including increased programming of plays by international, minority and Indigenous playwrights, hiring directors with a view to diversification, and using more actors from multiple backgrounds with the principle of colour-blind casting in place. So how well are we doing for the 2018-2019 theatre season?

    Let’s begin with Victoria’s only full-time professional theatre company, the Belfry Theatre. Artistic Director Michael Shamata has had a good track record in staging plays by women, and a number of plays by Indigenous playwrights. This season features two plays by women, Kat Sandler’s quirky and surreal comedy Mustard in the fall, and Amy Herzog’s intergenerational dramatic comedy 4000 Miles next spring. Shamata is also bringing in the Indigenous musical Bears by Matthew MacKenzie, produced by Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre (Edmonton) Productions. I do note only one woman director for the season, Anita Rochon, who will direct 4000 Miles. Overall, Shamata gets top marks for programming 60 percent of the mainstage season with gender and diversity in mind.

    The spring Spark Festival at the Belfry includes a solo play, The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale, by talented actress Haley McGee, and one by Vietnamese-Canadian playwright/ performer Franco Nguyen, Good Morning Viet Mom. Halifax’s 2B Theatre brings us Hannah Moscovitch’s Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story about Moscovitch’s Jewish grandparents’ emigration to Canada from Eastern Europe, their courtship and marriage. I saw this show in its off-Broadway run in New York this year, where it gained six Drama Desk Award nominations, including for Best Musical. Victoria audiences are in for a treat, and the theme of diversity is very present in this one. Alongside popular local comedian Mike Delamont’s new show Mama’s Boy, there is something for everyone at Spark next March.

    Turning now to our very well-established community theatre, Langham Court, how well does its 2018-2019 season stack up? It is Langham’s 90th season, a remarkable achievement and a testament to all of the volunteers who make the company work so well. Program Chairs Alan Penty and Pat Rundell have picked six plays and musicals, only one of which is by a woman playwright. That Elusive Spark by Victoria’s Janet Munsil is also being directed by one of two women directors for the season, Mercedes Bátiz-Benét. Shauna Baird is set to direct David Wood’s Goodnight Mister Tom. I also note that a couple of shows are based on books by women (Goodnight Mister Tom, 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee), but overall I have to give Langham a middling grade. Although I know that the company is consciously working on diversity issues, in terms of both membership and casting, I would still like to see some plays by international and/or minority playwrights included in their season planning.

    The University of Victoria’s Phoenix Theatre season programming is hampered by the need to produce plays from the dramatic canon for the sake of students’ theatre education. Most often these plays are by (dead) white men. This season, however, although three of the four plays are written by men, we do have an alumni play written and performed by Nicole Nattrass, Mamahood: Bursting Into Light. And in 2019, Euripides’ Trojan Women and Morris Panych’s 7 Stories are directed by faculty members Jan Wood and Fran Gebhard. So this 50 percent for women directors and 25 percent for one play by a woman gives the Phoenix an above-average grade compared to many past years. I have been seeing a welcome growing diversity in the student body at the Phoenix; it would be good to see equal attention paid to plays by women and minorities.

    Theatre Inconnu programs their season by the yearly calendar, so is already halfway through its 2018 season. Artistic Director Clayton Jevne has done better in past years with programming of plays by women and more women directors than is in evidence here. Only one of the four plays is being directed by a woman, Wendy Merk, and all four plays were written by men. I do note, however, that Jevne’s wife, writer Ellen Arrand, has written and will be performing her play Water People for the Fringe Festival, directed by Jevne. While overall, I am not seeing a level of gender equity that approaches 50/50, the diversity of the season scores very well, with plays from Chile (Neva by Guillermo Calderon) and Israel (Tenant Haymovitch by Ariel Bronz). Jevne often programs international plays that would otherwise not be seen by local audiences; this aspect of his season planning is always a strength.

    Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre stages its shows throughout the spring and summer at the Roxy Theatre. Artistic Director Brian Richmond tends to program modern classics, so the dead white man syndrome can prevail in this company’s seasonal fare. This year we saw one-act plays by Anton Chekov (arguably a diverse choice for his Russian ethnicity), Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Canadian classic The Drawer Boy, and my all-time favourite musical Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim. All four shows this season were directed by Richmond or by his son Jacob Richmond. It would be good to see some plays by women in future seasons, along with more women directors invited on board. And although Blue Bridge has a challenging mandate in terms of increasing its diversity, I still believe it is possible to find national and international plays in translation that would add to our understanding and appreciation of 19th and 20th century theatre.

    I am going to conclude this column by highlighting what, in my experience, offers one of the most diverse casts and women-centred production teams in the city. William Head on Stage cast members reflect the harsh reality that Indigenous and minority men are incarcerated at higher rates than the white majority population in Canada. In my time spent as a mentor actor on two shows with WHoS, I was struck many times by the diversity of my fellow actors, who were Asian-Canadian, Indo-Canadian, African-Canadian, African-American and Indigenous. And this fall’s production, an inmate-devised show called The Crossroads: A Prison Cabaret, is once again directed by Kate Rubin, in her fourth show for this long-running and unique prison theatre company. Rubin is working with a large production team made up of a majority of women: set designer Carole Klemm, stage manager and sound design mentor Carolyn Moon, writer and actor Kathleen Greenfield, actors Anne Cirillo and Jeni Luther, choreographer and costume design mentor Ingrid Hansen, and lighting designer Poe Limkul. They are joined this year by local musician and musical director Alfons Fear along with a number of other artists helping in different capacities.

    The irony that one has to trek out to a federal prison in Metchosin to see the kind of diversity and gender equity I am calling for is not lost on me.

    Monica is spending this fall on a welcome study leave from her faculty position at the University of Victoria. Her travel plans will take her to a number of international destinations where she plans to enjoy some theatre.

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