Sask. theatre artists of colour say racism, tokenism persists in local industry

Theatre artist Logan Martin-Arcand asked an administrator for Persephone Theatre — the company Martin-Arcand worked for — what the theatre was doing to uplift local artists of colour at a 2018 Persephone event. The response took him aback.

Theatregoers in province 'overwhelmingly older and white' says SATP executive director

Actors Yulissa Campos and Andrea Macasaet were featured performers in a 2018 production of Prairie Nurse at the Station Arts Centre in Rosthern. (Station Arts Centre)

Theatre artist Logan Martin-Arcand asked an administrator for Persephone Theatre — the company Martin-Arcand worked for — what the theatre was doing to uplift local artists of colour at a 2018 Persephone event.

The response took him aback.

"[A senior member of the theatre administration] started yelling at me and pointing at me from the podium," Martin-Arcand said. "He said the most striking thing: there just aren't enough local Indigenous artists who are at the right level for me to put them on the Main Stage."

Martin-Arcand resigned from Persephone a few weeks later.

He is one of several theatre artists of colour CBC spoke to about what it's like working in the industry in Saskatchewan. They described barriers to inclusion and a lack of equity in the province and across the prairies.

'A lot of room for improvement'

Martin-Arcand said he did not feel comfortable confronting Persephone's administration after he was shouted down at a company event.

"It showed [that person] didn't see any worth in Indigenous people and he was the one, solely, who got to decide where the appropriate level of work is," Martin-Arcand said. "I realized I couldn't work for a business that used me as a form of representation but didn't actually see any value in the stories of my community."

Persephone Theatre board chair Nikki Hipkin said this week the theatre is committed to doing a better job of supporting local and emerging artists of colour going forward.

"There are many talented Indigenous artists in Saskatoon," she said. "We've had a commitment to Indigenous programming in our theatre, but there's been a failure in practice. We haven't done it right. And there's a lot of room for improvement in how we treat the humans in our building."

According to Saskatchewan Association of Theatre Professionals (SATP) executive director Mark Claxton, institutional power in the theatre world is often concentrated among a very few people.

"Sometimes … one individual makes all the decisions around casting and hiring and has a massive influence on the culture of the organization," Claxton said.

This can create challenges for professionals of colour — who are often underrepresented in theatre administration — trying to work their way up in the industry. 

"I think there's been too much of that, and too little accountability and not high enough standards on how that power is used," he said.

"That's a situation that is ripe for abuse."

Yvonne Addai, who used to work at Persephone and now lives and works in Toronto, said she often felt tokenized as a Black actor when she was building her career in the prairies. 

"I heard so many excuses like 'oh, well, there's just not enough of them' or 'they all move away,' but no one ever came to ask me what kinds of stories I would like to see on stage, or how to bring more people of colour into our audience," she said.

"It just felt like, 'We'll use you. We'll give you a show and say that we gave it to a person of colour, and that's it.' "

Yvonne Addai (right) and Myrthin Stagg in a 2019 production of An Atlas, A Necktie & Other Concerns at the Toronto Fringe Festival. (Submitted by Yvonne Addai)

Addai said she was often viewed as a "diversity hire" from theatre administrations looking to tick a box.

"I just wish I was seen as an artist and a creator, and the colour of my skin didn't determine why I got the job in other people's minds," she said.

Sask. theatregoers 'overwhelmingly older and white'

According to Claxton, many theatre companies in Saskatchewan are "beholden to a subscriber base that is in most cases overwhelmingly older and white."

He said this disincentivizes them from staging work those audiences might find challenging.

"Artistic directors will often say right out loud, we can maybe do one 'risky show' every season," Claxton said. "It's often expected that those shows won't be well-attended, and there's a fear that people will tell their friends 'don't go to this.'"

There's a fear that people will tell their friends 'don't go to this.'- Mark Claxton

Martin-Arcand said this often means shows that are more relevant to communities of colour are sidelined or that, when actors of colour are cast, they are pigeonholed into specific types of roles.

"I'd love to see Indigenous people, as well as Black people and other people of colour, in all sorts of stories and presenting all sorts of plays - not just the ones that focus on Indigenous or Black trauma or racism," he said. 

Theatres often operate on tight margins. Claxton said this makes it difficult to strive for what he believes would ultimately be a more successful model, where more diverse audiences sustain more diverse content on stage.

"There's this unending, relentless cycle of programming and budgeting that doesn't allow time to get a bit proactive in the kinds of markets we want to reach out to, rather than fighting tooth and nail to keep the current demographic coming to theatres," he said. 

Pushing boundaries in casting

Yulissa Campos is the creator of Ay, Caramba! Theatre, the first Latinx theatre company in Saskatoon. She said there is a vicious cycle at play in the Saskatchewan theatre community, where actors of colour are implicitly discouraged from auditioning for shows because theatres have a history of casting all-white actors. 

"I start thinking someone like me doesn't fit in with the director's vision of the play and the cast," she said. 

Campos also works in the box office at Persephone Theatre. She got excited in 2018 when she learned Persephone's production of Pride and Prejudice would have a racially diverse cast. She hoped it signalled more opportunities for actors like her. So far, she has not seen that possibility bear fruit. 

"I audition sometimes, when I see a show where they could push the boundaries with ethnicity, but I'm always disappointed because they always end up choosing an all-white cast," she said. "I keep hoping to have an opportunity, and then they disappoint me every time."

Regina-born Natasha Strilchuk, who now lives in Toronto but frequently returns to the Prairies for shows, has had a similar experience as a South Asian actor. 

"If you see a director's body of work and you don't see many people that look like you … it's hard to say 'Well, am I the person that they need to be in that?' "she said.

Natasha Strilchuk performs in Globe Theatre's 2018 production of Mama Mia. (Submitted by Natasha Strilchuk)

She said she has to work harder than her white peers to help directors "justify their decision to cast me in things." She seeks out directors who have a history of being thoughtful and intentional about integrating diversity into their work.

Martin-Arcand said his opportunities have also been limited because he is seen as less versatile, or more inherently distinctive, than a non-Indigenous professional.

"There's this idea that the 'ideal' human would a a white cisgender heterosexual male," he said. "Everything that is not that has some sort of caveat put before it, or some sort of indicator that really says we are a human below that neutral."

Claxton said that discrimination in the audition process can be hard to identify and easy to deny when it is present.

"It's so easy for a director or a theatre manager not to say the words out loud, but simply decide not to hire a person," Claxton explained. "Without feedback, an artist doesn't even know the reason. They're left to speculate." 

It can be difficult — or even risky — for theatre professionals to speak up when they see a pattern. 

"You are so often in a situation where you can be one move away from feeling like you're never going to work again," said Claxton. "There's all kinds of incentives not to speak up."

While Persephone theatre does not collect demographic information on actors and employees, Martin-Arcand said he saw Persephone go many shows in a row without an Indigenous actor on its Main Stage. To him, that sent a message. 

"It says they don't care about the livelihood of Indigenous people, that they don't think our stories are relatable or that we are neutral enough," he said. "I'm not saying Indigenous people need to be part of every play. But we need to be a bigger part of the picture."

For some theatre professionals of colour, the best way to get the roles they need to develop their career is to create their own work. 

Regina-based theatre educator Chancz Perry said this comes with its own challenges as well.

"You need to learn to write a grant, for example, so you can mount your work successfully," he said. "I can't say that a lot of people, particularly white actors, know how to go about doing that. They've always relied on people finding work for them." 

Racism from coworkers, patrons

Theatre professionals of colour also experience direct racism from coworkers or patrons. 

Addai had a patron call her the N-word while she was working at the Persephone box office a few years ago. 

"We were doing one of those radio ticket giveaways, and I guess someone had won and I didn't know - I hadn't been told," she said.

"So when he came in and was like 'I'm here to collect my ticket,' I said it wasn't ready, and I needed a few seconds. He started yelling at me, saying he had just parked in the middle of the road to come get the tickets and I'm an N-word, that I need to get myself prepared and he can't stand when people are disorganized. It was a lot of anger towards me."

She said she also faced repeated microaggressions at the box office, such as patrons assuming she did not speak English. 

She said that while her box office managers were supportive, she found it difficult to speak out about her experiences of racism because she did not feel supported by the Persephone administration. She said there was no policy she could turn to for help and encouragement. 

"There was no mandate or mission statement or anything like a code of conduct to suggest [the Persephone administration] had anti-racism training or even really cared about it," she said.

Hipkin said hearing about Addai's experiences at Persephone has been particularly motivating for her as the theatre works on creating new anti-racist policies and updating its older statements and commitments. 

"It's so unacceptable that that happened in our building," she said. "Going forward, I want to make sure that all employees feel supported and welcomed and valued. I want to make sure that there are clear policies in place that are known by everybody and supported throughout the organization. I want to make sure that we are fostering an environment where we're all encouraged to speak up and step in, particularly when somebody is behaving in a racist way."

Martin-Arcand said people would avoid saying racist things to him directly, he would still hear second-hand about things like staff joking about cast members being late because they were Indigenous.

"I think it creates this environment where we just do not feel safe," he said. "We always have to be walking on eggshells, worrying about how we act and how we come across, what things we might be doing that diminish our value even further."

We always have to be walking on eggshells...- Logan Martin-Arcand

Overdue conversations

Even when theatre companies choose to stage shows where race is a major theme, the burden of making sure diverse characters are represented authentically can be disproportionately borne by actors of colour.

"If you're doing a show that talks about a certain culture or a certain people, it needs to be done with people who know about that culture," said Strilchuk. "If the director or creative team doesn't [have that knowledge], that becomes extra, usually unpaid work that can fall on the actors."

Perry said that when theatre companies are deliberate about bringing in consultants to help them address race at every stage in the process, it can lead to more inclusive casting and more thoughtful creative decisions.

Perry worked as a consultant for Regina Summer Stage's production of Hairspray last year. He said he focused on how the company could best honour and expand on the play's intersectional themes of race, class, gender, size and ability.

Theatre educator Chancz Perry says being asked by theatre companies to share his experiences is a sign the industry is changing. (Michael Bell)

He said his being asked to come and share his expertise was a sign that the theatre world is evolving. 

"No one had ever really asked me to talk about theatre as it relates to my experience in terms of race and diversity," he said. "I'm going on 50 years old now, and I've been in the theatre industry since I was 16, so being approached for this made me think ... about how these conversations — way overdue — are happening so late in my life."