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Illustrations of the Stratford online panel called Black Like Me.

The Globe and Mail

The Stratford Festival changed course online last week, postponing a planned online screening of Hamlet and live-streamed interviews with its cast. Instead, the world-famous Ontario repertory theatre company handed over its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts to Black company members, staff and crew amid the demonstrations against anti-Black racism that started in the United States and spread to Canada and around the world.

No offence to William Shakespeare, but this social-media takeover resulted in online content that will be remembered long after most digital performances and live-streams from the pandemic era are forgotten.

First, the repertory theatre’s Black artists launched the hashtag #inthedressingroom on Twitter to share stories of racism experienced behind the scenes (and from patrons and in theatre reviews). As artists and artisans joined in from places such as Winnipeg and Charlottetown to share experiences at other Canadian theatres, the conversation ended up trending across the country.

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It was striking to hear how often Black stage artists are still told, either directly or indirectly, that they don’t deserve the work they get in the theatre. Peter Fernandes, an award-winning Toronto actor currently in the Shaw Festival company, tweeted that an artistic director once told him outright, “Actors of colour are getting opportunities they don’t deserve.”

But more common seems to be the casually racist complaints by white artists about how much “harder” it is for them to get work now as priorities and repertoire change with the times – that is to say, as some theatre companies make belated moves to be less exclusionary than they used to be.

(As I often point out to people when I hear variations on that theme, a Black Canadian actor played Othello at Stratford for the first time only in 2007 – and you could go see four plays at a major Canadian repertory company and only see actors of colour in silent or servant roles as recently as 2014.)

Structural issues remaining at companies that not too long ago hired almost exclusively white artists were also raised on #inthedressingroom. A number of tweets, for instance, focused on the often inadequate hair, makeup and lighting resources available to make Black actors look good on stage.

But long-time Stratford company member E.B. Smith also raised the issue of “as cast” clauses at repertory companies, contracts that essentially force actors to take up small, often silent roles in plays without knowing what they will be. In Smith’s case, he once ended up playing a Black soldier who tried to kill Othello in a 2013 production of that play directed by Chris Abraham. (Smith’s full story is here, and Abraham’s response is here.)

Following all these hashtag revelations, on Saturday morning, nine Stratford artists and artisans participated in an online discussion called Black Like Me – which is still online to watch on the Festival’s YouTube channel.

Skillfully moderated by new company member Beck Lloyd, the panel included the voices of Stratford and Shaw Festival stars including Allan Louis and André Sills, as well as young actors who would have been in their first season at the Stratford, Ont., theatre such as Amaka Umeh, who was set to play Hamlet, and Ngabo Nabea, who was understudying her in the role.

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I found it particularly interesting to hear from two individuals with decades of Stratford stories – crew member Erica Croft, who moved from Toronto’s Scarborough neighbourhood to the small town 21 seasons ago, and veteran actor David Collins, who has been with the Festival for the past 12 seasons but had been auditioning to get in since 1983.

Black Like Me has more than 17,000 views so far, and it’s well worth a watch to hear from these artists directly.

Based in Kingston, The Festival of Live Digital Art – or FOLDA – is a summer Canadian performance festival that hasn’t had to cancel this year. The three-year-old festival, run by Sarah Garton Stanley, Michael Wheeler and Adrienne Wong, has existed since conception, at least in part, on the internet.

FOLDA, which runs this year from June 10 to 13, divides its “shows” into three categories: Alpha (performances in their earliest stages), Beta (performances ready for public testing) and Go (performances ready for release).

I’m curious to tune in for the Alpha live streams of an intriguing new performance called Haven, created by Murdoch Schon and Angelica Schwartz. On Friday, two strangers will share a meal online and ask questions to each other delivered to them in envelopes; then, on Saturday, two actors will attempt to recreate the previous night’s dinner conversation as the verbatim transcript is fed to them through earpieces.

A major live-streamed event presented this year by FOLDA is Thursday’s talk Field Notes from the Future, with Alanna Mitchell, the Canadian journalist behind the internationally acclaimed Sea Sick. This online follow-up to that show about climate change is being co-produced by The Theatre Centre with the PuSh Festival and Luminato Festival Toronto (which is also holding an online edition this week).

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Ghost River Theatre, an innovative theatre company based in Calgary, has partnered with Vertigo Theatre for a online remount of Eric Rose, Matthew Waddell and David van Belle’s audio adaptation of the Ray Bradbury short story Tomorrow’s Child this week.

I reviewed it in 2016 when it was at Toronto’s SummerWorks Festival, played for a blindfolded audience in a room full of speakers. The show should translate well to an at-home experience. Tickets are on sale here.

New Vintage Theatre, a company based in Kelowna, B.C., is also selling tickets this week to a brand-new “production” of Elise Forier Edie’s The Pink Unicorn, a solo show about a Texas widow whose child tells her one day, “I am not all girl; I am a boy, too.” Kelowna actor Kendra Hesketh’s performance was filmed outside by members of the local independent filmmaking community – and “performances” are followed by a live-streamed conversation with the artists.

New Vintage has already sold tickets to audience members in Germany, Taiwan, Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver and New Zealand – but if you’re tuning in from Kelowna, you can get wine and cinnamon buns delivered to drink and eat while you watch.

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