How well do Victoria theatre companies incorporate gender equity and diversity?
HERE IT IS, SEPTEMBER AGAIN, and therefore a good time to look ahead at what the new theatre season is offering Victoria theatre-goers. It is always equal parts illuminating and frustrating to see where theatre companies are succeeding or failing in their attempts to program more plays by women and minorities, more women and minority directors, and more visible diversity on stage. This last one is a challenge in a city that is still pretty white in its cultural complexion, but as time goes by, the city is diversifying. So the question becomes, is this diversity being seen in our local theatres?
Let’s begin this survey with the only full-time professional theatre in the city, the Belfry. Artistic Director Michael Shamata has been very mindful in the past few years, particularly so in the wake of the federal report on Truth and Reconciliation. Each season, Shamata programs an Indigenous play, and this season it is The Ministry of Grace by playwright/ director Tara Beagan. Opening in February (with Focus as media sponsor), this is an all-Indigenous production and a world premiere. The play looks back at a pioneer time of travelling tent revivals, and how a young native woman is presented to a white audience as somehow miraculous because she knows how to read the Bible.
The Belfry Theatre's Artistic Director Michael Shamata
Shamata also scores very well this year in plays by women: the season features three works by women and two by men. And he has hired no fewer than four women directors this season. I am delighted to see that The Belfry has actually surpassed the 50/50 gender equity barrier; perhaps a first for this company?
Now let’s turn our attention to our community theatre, Langham Court. Of the six plays and musicals scheduled for the 2019-2020 season, there are two women directors (Heather Jarvie-Laidlaw and Wendy Merk) and two plays by women (Canadian Mieko Ouchi and American Lauren Gunderson). Statistically, this equity balance is in line with the situation across Canadian professional theatre, with around 30 percent of the country’s artistic directors, directors and playwrights being women. This maintains a status quo two-thirds majority of what we see on stage as written and directed by men. Langham Court can and should do better to move the needle closer to the 50/50 mark. As to diversifying who is onstage in Langham’s shows, I know that the company has become more mindful of reaching out to diverse communities and inviting minority actors to audition for shows. This is a very positive change for those of us (including me) who have been performing in and watching all-white-all-the-time productions at Langham.
And what about the season at my employer, the University of Victoria? The Phoenix Theatre this year has four productions, all four of which are directed by men. There is one play by a woman, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. This means that out of eight possible spots for plays and directors, only one is held by a woman, for a gender balance of one-eighth. Not good enough. I would like to see my close colleagues in the Department of Theatre making a more conscious attempt to move toward gender equity in their programming. I know it is challenging, given that they tend to produce plays from the (dead white male) canon, but I contend that it is possible to bring more historical and contemporary plays by women into their students’ theatre education. Plus, there are two women faculty members who direct: Jan Wood and Fran Gebhard. These two both directed last season, that is true, but perhaps could be staggered at one a year to increase students’ exposure to working with women directors? Or the department could make an effort to invite women professional directors in? The new Applied Theatre professor is Dr Yasmine Kandil, who also holds an MFA in directing, and would add greater diversity to the department as an Egyptian-Canadian woman director. These would be positive changes to see, along with the year-to-year increase in student cultural diversity I’m seeing on stage there.
Theatre Inconnu’s artistic director Clayton Jevne programs on an annual calendar, so we are halfway through the 2019 season. He has announced his 2020 season, so let’s take a look ahead at that. Jevne has let me know in conversation that he does not consider who wrote a given play, that he is more interested in the play itself. I have always admired Jevne’s eclectic approach to his programming, and he often does choose plays by women and often invites women directors in as well. That said, in his yet-to-be-finalized selection for next year (the fourth show is still seeking performance rights), only one of the four is by a woman, Canadian (and personal favourite) Hannah Moscovitch’s East of Berlin. And Jevne has so far got two of the four directors in place, himself for the fourth show and Kate Rubin for the first show of 2020, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. So in total, Jevne has chosen one play by a woman and one woman director (2/8 or 1/4), although this may shift as he finalizes his season.
Moving on, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre has announced its play selection for 2019-2020. Although artistic director Brian Richmond has not yet announced his choice of directors (this season featured one show directed by Fran Gebhard, Barefoot in the Park), his upcoming season features four plays, all of them by men. The plays are all good ones—including Tartuffe by Molière, Salt-Water Moon by David French and Betrayal by Harold Pinter—but I do hope that some women directors will be brought on board to even out the gender imbalance a bit more.
Finally, I will end this column in the same way I have done in the past, by reminding readers where they can find the most diverse theatre on Vancouver Island. Go out to William Head on Stage (WHoS) prison theatre in Metchosin this fall to catch their show that runs on weekends for five weeks from the beginning of October. Director Kathleen Greenfield is working hard with a large number of inmates and a team of all-women collaborators to create a new play rooted in The Wizard of Oz as inspiration. I have always felt that the metaphors found in this story would resonate with inmates, as Dorothy and her three friends search for brains, courage, a heart and (most importantly) a way back home.
When I have worked on plays out at WHoS, it has been by far the most diverse group of fellow actors of my career, including men of Caucasian, Asian, Indian, African-Canadian and African-American backgrounds, as well as a large number of Indigenous men. What this says about who ends up in prison I will leave my readers to ponder. But the good news is that this program, the longest-running prison theatre program in Canada, each year gives upwards of 2,000 members of the public a chance to connect with these men, and to speak with them after each performance about what creating a play and performing it on stage means to them.
So there you have it— another full year of theatre in and around Victoria to subscribe to and enjoy.
Monica has seen a number of terrific shows in Toronto, Stratford, Ontario and New York City this year. But she is always happy to come home to see the excellent theatre we produce on our local stages.