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applause, please

Obsidian Theatre’s artistic director Philip Akin.

With the series Applause, Please, The Globe and Mail recognizes the efforts of dedicated citizens and those behind the scenes who make a difference in arts and cultural programs and institutions.

Philip Akin is certainly not looking past his theatre company's coming production of hang, a riveting drama from the star British playwright and lower-case-letter enthusiast debbie tucker green. As the play is one of Obsidian Theatre's two main Toronto productions this season, it is absolutely a big deal for the company.

Be that as it may, speaking to artistic director Akin over the phone, it's not hard to imagine him rubbing his hands in anticipation of his next project, which is to find and nurture young black directors.

Given that Obsidian is dedicated "to the exploration, development and production of the black voice," focusing on black directors is, of course, nothing new to Akin. A mentorship-apprentice program has long been in place. With hang (which begins previewing on Feb. 6), Akin is sharing directing responsibilities with Kimberley Rampersad, the actor and choreographer who is making the move to directing.

But now, thanks to the recent largesse of the Canada Council for the Arts, Akin is "taking things to the next level," in his words.

Previously, fledgling directors often worked as assistant directors or apprentice directors. With Obsidian's new program, upstart directors will get their own productions – smaller mountings in Toronto back stages with only modest pressure involved.

"So much rides on a main-stage production," Akin explains. "It's an unfair burden to place on a young director to say, 'Oh yeah, and you've got make $30,000 in box office.'"

Historically in Canada, culturally specific directors have typically been hired to do culturally specific shows. That practice results in limited opportunities for black directors.

"Up until a year ago, everything I've ever been offered has been black shows," says Akin, who this past season at the Shaw Festival broke through the culture barrier when he directed Rick Salutin's 1837: The Farmers' Revolt.

With a new shift in focus on diversity in the theatre world, companies, according to Akin, are asking for black directors and designers. The demand has increased, and now, with Obsidian's new program, funding has been earmarked for the supply.

"It's now a matter of finding the right scale plays, with smaller casts and the right spaces," says Akin, who hopes to have things in place by 2019, if not later this year.

"This is something I've wanted to do for years," he says. "This new funding will allow young black directors the opportunity to build their craft and take control of their work."

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