Why Not Theatre was way ahead of the curve in realizing that this great intermission may be full of heartbreaking cancellations, but also offers performing arts organizations a unique opportunity to focus on truly tackling long-standing inequities within their sector.
“There are things in this industry that need to stop right now, but there’s no reason that we can’t take this time to slow down and look inside,” says Miriam Fernandes, the Toronto-based theatre company’s associate artistic director.
To that effect, back on May 26, Why Not announced the seven inaugural participants in its ThisGen Fellowship – a long-in-the-works national leadership program aimed at helping female-identifying BIPOC (Black, Indigenous or Person of Colour) theatre artists advance to the next stage of their career.
That was the day after George Floyd was killed by police in the United States – an event that would soon thereafter lead to protests against anti-Black racism around the world, and also send Canadian artistic institutions from the Stratford Festival to the Canadian Opera Company scrambling to release statements about their histories of exclusion and create concrete plans to reckon with them.
The ThisGen Fellowship will no doubt benefit many of these larger organizations – as it shines a light on a group of up-and-coming BIPOC artists from across the country who will leave the program ready to take on bigger roles in the industry.
Importantly, it has been created to think beyond artistic directors in terms of where the leadership gaps are in the performing arts in Canada: Where are the Black dramaturges (who work on scripts or recommend them for production), or production managers of colour (who keep things running smoothly between departments)?
The ThisGen 2020 fellows are Intisar Awisse from Waterloo, Ont. (dramaturgy); Tai A Grauman from Edmonton (writing); Bianca Guimaraes de Manuel from Calgary and Echo Zhou from Toronto (set design); Crystal Lee from Toronto (production management); Nikki Shaffeeullah from Toronto (directing); and Olivia Shortt from Toronto (sound design).
These seven fellows, who all receive around $5,000 and a budget for professional development as part of ThisGen, are studying bespoke curriculum in their areas of interest and working over Zoom or Slack with world-class artists who, because of COVID-19, are more available for mentorship and master classes than they might normally be, says Ravi Jain, artistic director of Why Not.
That includes Kirsty Housley, a British dramaturge and director who co-directed of the innovative Broadway show The Encounter; Mimi Lien, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and the Tony-winning designer of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812; and Camellia Koo, the six-time Dora Mavor Moore Award-winning set and costume designer who has worked extensively at the Shaw Festival. “They all jumped on board because they all saw the value and importance of mentorship, but mentorship specifically for BIPOC artists to be leaders in the sector,” Jain says.
While a professional placement originally envisaged as part of ThisGen fellowships has been postponed, the rest of the program has been adapted to work during the pandemic.
For instance, Shortt, an Indigenous artist who studied classical music but has found a more supportive home in theatre, has enrolled in online classes in Logic and Pro Tools to gain the technical skills in sound design she is missing. She’s also working on script analysis over Slack with her ThisGen mentor Elisheba Ittoop, a New York-based sound designer and composer who has worked from the Kennedy Center to NPR.
“I’m still early in my career as a sound designer, which is why this fellowship is so perfectly timed,” says Shortt, who believes more sound designers and theatre composers from more backgrounds will help those art forms evolve into new exciting and experimental areas. “Sound has such an impact on a show and it’s sometimes an unsung hero.”
Right now, Why Not was set to be in rehearsals for the biggest production in the company’s history – a new stage version of the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata adapted by Jain and Fernandes, involving artists from five countries and set to be presented in two parts as the centrepiece of the Shaw Festival season.
But the forward-thinking organization – which has a healthy reserve of cash and no fixed costs from a venue – has been able to postpone and pivot easier than many of its peers. Its nine staff members are all still employed and using the opportunity to do their own work on inclusion and anti-racism, taking, for instance, language classes in American sign language.
Jain is glad to see the bigger Canadian arts institutions having what he calls “an honest conversation” about some of the systemic issues Why Not has been talking about and trying to tackle for years. But, ultimately, he says the goal of the ThisGen fellowships is “ensuring that artists are of the calibre that they’re undeniable; that they’re so good that those institutions can’t deny them.”
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