Skip to main content
stepping up
Open this photo in gallery:

Brett Christopher, artistic director of the Thousand Islands Playhouse theatre company, is photographed inside the company's theatre in Gananoque, Ont.JOHNNY C.Y. LAM/The Globe and Mail

This is part of Stepping Up, a series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.


Location: Kingston is home for Christopher; the Playhouse is based in nearby Gananoque, Ont.

Biggest influence: A line of poetry by the late Leonard Cohen has proved especially useful since his kids were born, Christopher joked. "Do not be ashamed to be tired. You look good when you're tired." The excerpt is lifted from a piece called How to Speak Poetry, and he's often returned to it.

“There is some real beauty and raw, naked vulnerability when you’re tired,” Christopher explained in a recent conversation with The Globe and Mail. “That is a wonderful place to create from.”

Best piece of advice: “There’s a long list of people Christopher considers mentors, guiding him along an especially twisted path into the theatre industry. Before spending approximately 15 years as an actor, he was pursuing a completely different degree at university. At one point in his early 20s, he changed paths and bought a restaurant in Kingston, where friends studying at nearby Queen’s University would congregate to eat and drink.

The restaurant later folded after he decided to leave town for theatre school. “I always say I stand, or sit, or squat, on the shoulders of many wonderful people that have led me to where I am right now,” he said. He lightheartedly notes that he’s failed at more pursuits than many people attempt in a lifetime.

But no matter what he’s working on, he says he draws inspiration chiefly from his parents, his wife and the couple’s two young daughters, now aged 10 and 12. “They’re amazing people,” he said.

Sitting in his first set of auditions as artistic director of the Thousand Islands Playhouse, Brett Christopher felt like a witness to a cattle call. Scores of actors – predominantly young women – shuffled in and out of the room, their resumés listing physical measurements to be perused.

Their heights and weights were blazoned above experience, education and special skills. It felt irrelevant, antiquated, sexist, Christopher said. His mind went reeling back through his 15 years as an actor, where he says he altered his true height on multiple resumés to feel somehow more manly.

“It always hurt just a little bit to write 5 foot 10, which is ludicrous,” he said. “I can only imagine what it would feel like – especially as a woman – to write your weight if you’re not feeling comfortable with what that is, if you’re feeling that’s going to be judged.” And when resumés can determine who enters the audition room, sifted through before invitations are extended, the addition felt especially like a barrier.

Outside a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in Toronto that night, Christopher gulped back a drink and penned a missive on Facebook, directed to anyone auditioning for his Eastern Ontario company in the future. "Please feel free to remove your ‘measurements’ and ‘physical features’ from your resumé,” Christopher wrote. "We cast for heart, brains, chutzpah and poetry. Not waistline.”

By intermission, the post was swarmed with comments. The Professional Association of Canadian Theatres gave the idea a nod, and Christopher said several companies reached out to him to pledge their support – though he declined to specify which ones. Kelly Thornton, artistic director of Toronto’s Nightwood Theatre, agrees with Christopher that the Canadian theatre industry is generally trying to reflect more diversity on stage. That includes an exploration of barriers that may stand in the way of performers with diverse gender or racial identities, and performers with non-traditional body types.

Open this photo in gallery:

Christopher wrote a Facebook post in which he said his company will 'cast for heart, brains, chutzpah and poetry. Not waistline.'JOHNNY C.Y. LAM

However, both expressed the belief that the gears may turn more slowly when it comes to change in older institutions. “The assumption might be that their audience won’t travel down that road with them, and they’ll cause some kind of financial challenge to themselves,” Christopher said.

Neither the Stratford Festival nor the Shaw Festival – two prominent institutions in Canadian theatre, existing for more than a century combined – currently request measurements from actors (the exception, Stratford says, is children, who may be required to be under a certain height). “There is no institutional memory of us ever requesting the information,” said Stratford publicity director Ann Swerdfager. Still, actors often choose to provide their measurements in CVs, said Tim Carroll, Shaw’s artistic director.

Talent agencies may ultimately be the organizations to convince about making significant change, said Nightwood’s Thornton. It’s the agencies, not the theatre companies, who are building actors’ resumés, and determining which performers would fit a role or should audition for a certain company. “I hope in the future that things will evolve, but it has to start with the agents,” Thornton said.

The Playhouse recently entered its first casting cycle since Christopher’s declaration. Discussing this cycle in comparison to the last, he expressed optimism that the agencies may in fact be on board. “Some of the biggest talent agencies in the country are sending their clients’ resumés to me,” he said.

“And they don’t have, specifically, weight on them.”

Read more in the Stepping Up series:

The animation executive who makes parents' lives easier

A theatre company without a venue? Yeah, Why Not

How a research lab is taking lessons from music

Vancouver teacher is schooling educators on the value of inclusive classrooms

Dalhousie Indigenous student showing Canada the way to reconciliation

Toronto human rights lawyer sounds the alarm on Canada’s plans to use AI in immigration

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe