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Matthew Jocelyn, artistic and general director of Canadian Stage, has been called on to explain what’s being dubbed the Great White North season. speaks about funding and grants from the perspective of artists involved with Toronto theatre. Matthew was interviewed at the company's Toronto offices on Jan. 29 2014. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail) (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Matthew Jocelyn, artistic and general director of Canadian Stage, has been called on to explain what’s being dubbed the Great White North season. speaks about funding and grants from the perspective of artists involved with Toronto theatre. Matthew was interviewed at the company's Toronto offices on Jan. 29 2014. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail) (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Matthew Jocelyn ducks real discussion on Canadian Stage diversity failure Add to ...

Leadership is, in part, anticipating crises before they happen.

Matthew Jocelyn has never exactly been known for being on top of the current cultural conversation in Toronto, Canada or North America. That’s been a large part of his idiosyncratic charm as the Eurocentric artistic and managing director of Canadian Stage since 2009.

But the theatre director’s cluelessness was not so charming this week.

On Tuesday, Canadian Stage announced its 2016-2017 season – one in which every single Canadian director, playwright, choreographer or translator was white.

You’d have to have your head in the sand, or perhaps somewhere else, to not anticipate that there would be criticism of this in Toronto in 2016, amid the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and right after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speech on diversity “as a source of strength” at Davos.

But Jocelyn – startlingly – seemed to have not thought about it at all when I spoke to him in advance of the season announcement. “I think you’ll see a lot of the diversity of our casting,” he told me. “I guess that’s all I have to say.”

What came next was entirely predictable – and, in my view, understandable. On came the online outrage, out came the hashtag #CanStageSoWhite.

If you can’t anticipate crises, then I guess leadership is knowing how to handle a crisis when it arrives. Jocelyn didn’t. He flailed, then bailed.

First, he got defensive with a Toronto Star reporter and was quoted calling criticism of his season “parasitic” and a “non-argument.” Then, having poured fuel on the fire, he hopped on a plane to the United Kingdom – and Canadian Stage went into media lockdown.

What follows is an account of this theatre columnist’s earnest attempts to get Jocelyn to clarify what he meant by his comments, hardly constructive, in the Star and to get anyone else at Canadian Stage to explain or justify what’s being dubbed the Great White North season.

Wednesday morning: I hear back from Canadian Stage’s publicist in an e-mail that begins, “From what I understand …” Too second-hand for my purposes, I ask to hear from Jocelyn directly by e-mail or phone.

While waiting, I contact artists who have criticized the season online. They all respond quickly.

Derrick Chua was the first to question the upcoming season on Facebook. A Toronto theatre producer known for his boosterish social media presence, he was surprised by the language used by Jocelyn in the Star, which many people interpreted as aimed at him.

“The bottom line for me is still: Here are 13 shows, and all the directors, choreographers, playwrights are white,” Chua says. “Either you didn’t notice or you didn’t care – neither is really acceptable these days.”

Raoul Bhaneja, an actor and producer who has acted at Canadian Stage in the past, suggested on Facebook that Jocelyn apologize for his comments. When I speak to him, he notes that justifying all-white creative teams in the present by pointing to programming in the past – as the head of Canadian Stage also did in the Star – is a weak defence. “If they want points for what they did before, sure, take your points – but then you have to lose your points on this,” he says.

Tanisha Taitt, a theatre artist and activist who had tweeted her disappointment with the season, was even more unimpressed with the response. “When our community says that the inclusion of only white playwrights and directors in your season is troubling, and you reply in part with talk of black women playing Hedda Gabler and Prospero, that is telling,” she tells me over Facebook. “It’s like expressing concern to a college dean that there are no female math or science profs on staff, and having the response be that the registrar and librarian are women.”

Thursday morning: Having still not heard back from Jocelyn, I start submitting questions to managing director Su Hutchinson and board members about whether anyone raised any concerns when the 2016-2017 season went for board approval. I say I need a response by 4 p.m. Thursday as my deadline for Saturday’s paper is 5 p.m.

While waiting, I decide to audit the six seasons that Jocelyn has programmed to date – as Canadian Stage’s publicist has told me that by “non-argument” Jocelyn meant “it would be difficult to argue a lack of diversity if one was to look at the body of our work as a whole under his Artistic Direction.”

It’s not difficult at all to argue this, I discover. While Jocelyn has imported a diverse group of artists to Toronto, he does not seem attuned to the diverse voices in his own city or country. Of the Canadian creative teams, I can count the directors, choreographers and playwrights of colour over six seasons on one hand.

Thursday noon: Having relived six seasons of Canadian Stage programming (much of it fondly), I start to wonder whether Jocelyn deserves to be singled out. Looking at the seasons at Soulpepper, the Stratford Festival and even the Shaw Festival – the artistic institutions Canadian Stage would like to be compared to, despite dwindling attendance – I find they seem to have come to the conclusion that behind-the-scenes diversity is at least somewhat important.

But Tarragon Theatre is a real disappointment in the diversity department. Somehow, artistic director Richard Rose managed to program a 2015-2016 season with no directors or playwrights of colour without anyone noticing. (Rose e-mails, relatively quickly: “Offers were made to two directors of colour and they were unavailable.”)

Thursday, 3 p.m.: Now, I’m just passing the time on Twitter. A tweet from Councillor Josh Matlow catches my eye: “Leadership’s about making brave decisions, accepting facts & seeking consensus rather than division to get results.” I wonder if Jocelyn is spending all the type crafting a careful apology – and a concrete plan to better reflect Toronto in the future.

Next, a story from BuzzFeed on #OscarsSoWhite scrolls by with a comment from President Barack Obama. “I think when everybody’s story is told, then that makes for better art,” the leader of the free world says.

3:30 p.m.: Managing director Hutchinson finally calls me to say the company’s response will be in my inbox in a moment – and that she wants to tell me something off the record. I tell her I don’t want to go off the record. She discloses something about Jocelyn’s personal life anyway – seemingly in order to elicit sympathy for him. But when I ask for further details to determine if it is relevant, she does not answer – then hangs up on me.

Jocelyn’s statement is now in my inbox – and I’m told there will be no further comment from anyone. No apologies. No explanations. No concrete future commitments. Only a weak promise from Jocelyn to open “our theatre in the coming months for a more substantive discussion around the representation of Canada’s diverse voices in the theatre today.”

I end up getting Hutchinson back on the phone, who tells me there is one person of colour out of 22 Canadian Stage board members. She refuses to answer any other questions about the board meeting at which the season was approved – or to let me speak to any of the board members.

I guess that “substantive discussion” about diversity has limits. Hopefully, there will also be a discussion about leadership at Canadian Stage too – or lack thereof. Five o’clock, time to file.

Update

Five hours after this story appeared online Friday, Canadian Stage issued a new statement from Jocelyn on Facebook - one that included an apology. It read in part: "For the record, I believe that diversity is essential and we should have done better this season by continuing our long history of inclusion. For that, I unreservedly apologize."

As for that "substantive discussion around the representation of Canada's diverse voices in the theatre today"? Canadian Stage's artistic director now promises to open the theatre for one in "the coming weeks", rather than months.

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