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Brothel #9, the final production by Touchstone Theatre’s artistic director Katrina Dunn, opens this month. The Vancouver theatre has found itself thrust into controversy with the hiring of its new artistic director. (EMILY COOPER)
Brothel #9, the final production by Touchstone Theatre’s artistic director Katrina Dunn, opens this month. The Vancouver theatre has found itself thrust into controversy with the hiring of its new artistic director. (EMILY COOPER)

Vancouver’s Touchstone Theatre thrust into equity conversation Add to ...

A respected independent theatre company in Vancouver has found itself thrust into the ongoing national discussion over diversity with the hiring of its new artistic director.

The controversy includes allegations that the candidate initially chosen by the selection committee – who did not get the job – was asked during the interview process about her child-care plans should she receive the position. The allegations were contained in an open letter to Touchstone Theatre’s board last month. This week, the board responded, saying it stands by its decision and rejects any suggestion that the choice had anything to do with candidates’ gender or family circumstances. Now the woman who wrote the open letter is calling on the president of Touchstone’s board to resign.

Touchstone Theatre has an all-Canadian mandate and a 40-year history. Among its accomplishments, it co-founded the acclaimed PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver. Touchstone recently announced that Roy Surette has been selected as its new artistic director, replacing long-time AD Katrina Dunn. Surette is a beloved and respected theatre veteran who was previously AD at Touchstone. He left 20 years ago, passing the torch to Dunn. Surette is currently artistic director at the much larger Centaur Theatre Company in Montreal.

The controversy at Touchstone comes in the midst of a larger conversation about equity in Canadian theatre as a number of artistic-director positions have recently been filled by white men – including Surette. The list includes the Magnetic North Theatre Festival; the Shaw Festival; the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton; the Grand Theatre in London, Ont.; Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops and Magnus Theatre in Thunder Bay.

“Part of this narrative is that statistically, women still make up only 28 per cent of artistic directors in Canada,” the open letter states, citing statistics by the Equity in Theatre initiative.

But some people in Vancouver theatre are concerned the letter is unfair, inflaming the situation and causing divisions in the community.

It was written by Heidi Taylor, artistic and executive director of Vancouver-based Playwrights Theatre Centre, which collaborates with Touchstone on a play-development initiative called Flying Start. According to Taylor’s letter, another candidate for the position, Mindy Parfitt, was the choice of the selection committee. But the board ultimately hired Surette. According to the letter, Parfitt, who is a mother, was asked twice what she would do about child care if she got the job. The first time, when asked over lunch, she indicated that she had a nanny; the second time, in an interview, she refused to answer, stating that the question was illegal. This is according to Taylor’s letter; Parfitt did not speak with The Globe and Mail.

According to the B.C. Human Rights Coalition, a person cannot be discriminated against in matters of employment because of family status. Asking such a question itself is not a breach of the B.C. Human Rights Code or unlawful from a human-rights perspective, but an employer cannot discriminate against a candidate based on their answer. So if the person is asked a question that breaches the code and then isn’t hired, that could open the door to an allegation that the question and ultimate decision were related.

The letter states that Parfitt, who is co-founder of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre, was phoned afterward and assured that the question wouldn’t be considered in the decision.

“The fact that it was asked, that nobody stood up in the room and said no, especially when it’s asked in the presence of other people more than once, it speaks to a culture that does not take sexism seriously,” Taylor said in an interview.

But a male candidate was also asked that question and says complaints about discrimination based on gender may not be justified.

Michael Scholar Jr. – one of the final three candidates in the initial selection process – was also asked the question twice; like Parfitt, once over lunch and once during an official interview. The question was posed by board president Pamela Hawthorn, he says.

As the process continued, Parfitt was asked to repeat her presentation and twice refused, according to the letter.

In the meantime, Dunn left the organization ahead of schedule; she was supposed to stay on until the end of the current season. An interim artistic director, Amiel Gladstone, was announced on Wednesday.

Scholar, after waiting to hear about the job for nearly two months after he was told a decision would be made, e-mailed Dunn to ask if they could discuss it. He found it odd when three days later, on Aug. 29, an e-mail went out announcing that Dunn had left the company effective Aug. 15.

He had been told Dunn, as outgoing AD, would not be involved in the hiring. He says she was ultimately involved. Dunn declined to speak to The Globe and Mail for the story. Touchstone’s general manager, Laurie-Ann Goodwin, also declined to speak to The Globe.

The board – whose members include several lawyers and a human-rights and diversity consultant – widened the search based on the criteria in the job description. Surette, an accomplished senior artist, got the job. His appointment was announced in September – much to the delight of many in the community here.

“I have to say all the cheers and love letters I got when I was announced have frayed around the edges a little bit,” Surette said Wednesday, adding that he’s thrilled to return home to Vancouver and to Touchstone.

Surette notes that there is supposed to be strict confidentiality around the hiring process, and calls the letter completely inappropriate and says it contains “a lot of speculation” and “some big inaccuracies.” He would not specify what those were. “I wish it had been handled more discreetly,” he says.

“I do believe that it was [written] out of a sincere care for the community,” he adds during an interview from Montreal. “I really admire how scrappy and resilient and collaborative the community is there.”

As for why it was Taylor who wrote the letter, she says Parfitt and two members of the selection committee – Martin Kinch and Manami Hara (both of whom declined to be interviewed) – asked her to, in part for Surette’s benefit.

“I do have a sense that there was gossip starting in the community, a sense of confusion about the process and my own feeling knowing Roy, having a great deal of respect for him as an artist and a leader, was that it wasn’t really fair for him to be coming into a leadership position without having this issue in some way put to rest within the community in a way that was not simply lip service. So that was one reason [for writing the letter],” Taylor says. “The other reason was that as participants in the process, none of them wanted to step forward to put their own narrative first; that they wanted somebody to listen to what the story was and to present it in as factual a way as possible but from a less implicated place.”

Taylor received a response from the board on Monday. It said its decision was made based on the best interests of the company – and that it is the board’s mandate to ensure the fiscal and artistic health of the company.

“Roy’s long and notable career and his experience in running small to large theatre companies will be invaluable for Touchstone in the coming period,” it states.

On the matter of diversity, the letter asks the community to judge Touchstone on its past and future work. Dunn’s final production for Touchstone, Brothel #9 by Anusree Roy – a female, Indo-Canadian playwright – opens later this month. Meanwhile, for the past two years, Surette’s Centaur Theatre has been a recipient of the 50/50 Applause Award, which goes to professional theatre companies where works by female playwrights make up at least 50 per cent of their season. Touchstone has also received that award in the past.

Hawthorn, the Touchstone board president, did speak with The Globe but said she could not discuss the process due to privacy and confidentiality issues. She said the open letter was written without speaking to any member of the staff or board of Touchstone Theatre and contains “considerable conjecture and supposition.”

Taylor believes Hawthorn should resign. “I say that with real regret. Because Pamela Hawthorn has been a huge leader in the community; she was a former artistic director of my company. She has contributed hugely to the theatre community. But I also feel like when each of us makes a mistake it’s up to us to own it and to deal with the consequences of it.”

The letter is causing a stir and splinters in Vancouver’s theatre sector.

“There are a number of senior artists in the community who feel the letter is very biased and unfair,” said one person who asked to remain anonymous. “As a woman working in the theatre I would hate to think that I got a job solely because I was a woman; that diversity is bigger than that and any jobs or breaks I get as an artist I would want to be on the merit of my work, not because I happen to be of a particular gender.”

“I think there are bigger issues in Canadian theatre that we’re all certainly looking at,” says Jay Dodge, artistic producer at Vancouver’s Boca del Lupo. Dodge (who is also president of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, but was not speaking on behalf of PACT) says systemic racism and inclusive practices around gender are crucially important. “But I do have trouble trying to figure out exactly where Touchstone fits into the larger picture of the conversation and where it rises out of something that is really an internal issue for the parties at play to deal with themselves.”

Taylor says she circulated the letter for the good of the company. “I am really committed to Touchstone’s ongoing health and success; that is the reason why I stepped forward.”

Hawthorn, who would not comment on Taylor’s call for her resignation, says Touchstone can move forward from this. “By doing good plays, by having an interim artistic director who’s well respected in the community, by having a board that is united and feels strong about the company and the choices and decisions they have had to make in the last five months.”

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