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Apprentice director Shyanne Duquette (left) and director Tara Beagen are behind Tarragon Theatre’s production of The Herd.SUPPLIED

Despite obstacles and inequities, productions and theatre companies led by women step into the spotlight

Over the last decade, more women have been hired for leadership positions in Canadian theatre. And yet, barriers and inequity persist. These challenges are being conquered with ingenuity, creativity, sheer guts and social pressure, too, the latter of which makes theatre companies accountable to audiences who want to see fair and equal representation on and off stage. This is evident with the 2022 season, with a bounty of productions led by women.

Alberta’s Tara Beagan heads to Toronto to direct her first play for the Tarragon Theatre. Written by Kenneth T. Williams, The Herd (May 11 to June 12) examines the clash between culture, science and politics after twin white bison are born into a First Nation herd. Beagan, also an accomplished Ntlaka’pamux playwright and actor, has won numerous awards, including a Dora Mavor Moore Award in 2005 for Thy Neighbour’s Wife, and was named the 2020 laureate of the Siminovitch Prize. Despite her acclaim, she finds there are still obstacles, especially for Indigenous women in theatre.

When you have a bright, young female-identifying person who comes to you for guidance, you should move mountains to help empower them.

Tara Beagan, Director of Tarragon Theatre’s The Herd

Métis multidisciplinary artist Jani Lauzon directs Where the Blood Mixes opening at Soulpepper on May 26, 2022.SUPPLIED

“For the most part, when large theatre companies program their seasons, they look at having maybe one Indigenous play,” she says. “And I would say 60 to 70 per cent of the time, they’re programming [the work of] male playwrights.” Like other women, she’s found the current system has necessitated a workaround strategy. For some, that has meant founding their own theatre companies, such as Canada’s foremost feminist theatre, Nightwood, helmed by artistic director Andrea Donaldson and managing director Naz Afsahi. Beagan, too, has gone this route and forged her own path.

“I’ve come to the understanding that if I want to work in a way that privileges Indigenous voices, and in particular female ones, I have to work outside of the ordinary parameters,” she explains. In July 2013, she and her partner, Andy Moro, created Article 11, a not-for-profit organization that aims to create well-resourced works with an inclusive model inspired by traditional Indigenous ways of living. “We feel a number of the systems that exist, go against Indigenous values and practices,” adds Beagan, “so we have to establish our own and force the industry to bend to us rather than having to be the other way around.”

Film and theatre director Weyni Mengesha directed the smash stage hits Da Kink in My Hair (Mirvish Productions) and Kim’s Convenience (Soulpepper). She has been the artistic director of Soulpepper since 2018.SUPPLIED

To welcome more women in leadership roles in theatre, she feels having strong mentorship is invaluable to help make it happen: “From my own mentors in Indigenous theatre, I’ve learned that, when you have a bright, young female-identifying person who comes to you for guidance, you should move mountains to help empower them and make sure they know that they absolutely should take up space.”

Challenges aside, women are very much taking their place in Canadian theatre. In 2018, Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company hired Weyni Mengesha as its artistic director. She was responsible for smash hits such as Da Kink in my Hair and Kim’s Convenience. In Soulpepper’s new season, there is a very strong female presence. Métis multidisciplinary artist Jani Lauzon directs Where the Blood Mixes (May 26 to June 26), a story of healing and resilience in the wake of the residential school system. Playwright Erin Shields’ Queen Goneril, which has King Lear’s daughters fighting a patriarchal system, has its world premiere on August 24 with Mengesha also serving as director.

The cast of Soulpepper production Kim’s Convenience.SUPPLIED

At Festival Players of Prince Edward County, Ont., the core executive team is made up of women, including Vikki Anderson (managing producer), Kristen Leboeuf (producer and production manager) and Gillian Armstrong (development director). Anderson started at Festival Players in 2019 and brought with her an abundance of experience from the past two decades, including working as artistic director with Theatrefront. Her goal now is to make Prince Edward County a nationally recognized hub for the performing arts. For Anderson, the move to Festival Players represents a new chapter in which she will build not just a theatre company but a new arts centre as well.

In the theatre world it’s not unusual to find women in executive and administrative roles, she says, but it’s often tougher for those more on the creative side, like artistic directors. “It has been changing dramatically in the last 10 years, but for a long time, a lot of theatre companies were run by men, then handed off to other men,” she notes.

Like other women, she spearheaded opportunities for herself. “I began companies, like DVxT Theatre, so I would get to run them,” explains Anderson. “I didn’t have to convince somebody to get that job.”

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