Winnipeg theatre companies’ diversity promises followed by mixed results

Two years after Manitoba’s theatre industry made promises to increase the diversity of people working in the industry, local artists say they’re not seeing changes from all companies. 

“I feel like it’s 50/50,” says Winnipeg actor Karam Daoud, who was born in Morocco and now lives in Winnipeg. 

“Some people are hearing these things, listening and self-reflecting … What can we do better? While others are like … Whoa! Are you saying I’m racist?”

Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (RMTC) was one of the companies that released its Commitment to Action plan, which listed their intentions to expand their commitments to equity, diversity and inclusivity. As part of that plan, in the fall of 2020 they conducted an organizational audit which found 60% of racialized staff did not feel comfortable raising concerns about racism.

“It’s not hard to see that there needs to be more systemic change in in our theatre,” says artistic director Kelly Thornton.

“It’s a transformational long game. It doesn’t happen overnight. But you have to you have to start putting things into process now.”

Winnipeg artist Karam Daoud says she feels half of the theatre industry is progressing in their diversity promises while the other half is still pushing back. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

“That’s a little sad to hear,” says Daoud.

“It feels like an excuse almost to say that it’s going to take a long time.”

Other theatre companies in Winnipeg continue to make changes.

When Rainbow Stage released their initial anti-racism statement, they said they needed to “tread carefully” as diverse works may not resonate with their patrons. It was received with anger from the theatre community.

Rainbow Stage’s artistic director Carson Nattrass says it was difficult to hear the response.

“In our statement, we failed to recognize past and present racist behaviour,” Rainbow Stage said in a written apology to the theatre community.

“The words we chose were hurtful.”

Carson Nattrass looks forward to the upcoming season as he stands in the empty theatre in March 2022. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Nattrass says because of their initial statement, the company was presented a learning opportunity.

“[It] brought in one of the most beautiful things that has happened for us; a community-led conversation” to address diversity.

Identifying barriers

In addition to diversifying their board of directors, Rainbow Stage made moves to identify barriers keeping people from the industry, and working to remove them. Nattrass says they realized the audition process was a barrier. As a result, Rainbow Stage took a new approach to casting their production of The Hockey Sweater: A Musical.

“We went to seven schools and community centres in the city and three in the province in order to introduce [kids] to Rainbow Stage,” says artistic director Carson Nattrass.

With a production like The Hockey Sweater, Rainbow Stage realized even having a pair of skates and a helmet to bring to an audition may be a barrier. So they raised donations of almost 30 pairs of rollerblades helmets to provide to families for the audition.

Carson says because of their active outreach, audiences can expect half the artists being featured in their upcoming season to be new faces.

Artistic associate Anna-Laure Koop from Théâtre Cercle Molière says outreach to different artists and communities is impactful. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Anna-Laure Koop, artistic associate with Théâtre Cercle Molière, says reaching out to different communities and creating one-on-one dialogues with artists is impactful. It’s been a foundation of the theatre for a long time, and they’ve seen success with reaching out to artists.

“Sometimes it’s literally meeting somebody at a show and chatting, and seeing if anybody is interested in developing anything that they want to pursue [at Cercle Molière],” she says.

Concerns about sales

Kara Joseph is an independent artist, but she’s also the Training Programs Manager at Creative Manitoba. 

She says she still sees access barriers for racialized artists in the industry. Now that Manitoba can move back to in-person shows, she feels theatres are shifting back to asking themselves which shows will sell more tickets instead of which shows are important to Manitoba.

“There have been a few companies that I would love to audition for. But when I saw the shows that they announced, I thought … they’re not asking for [people like] me, so I won’t.”

Artist Kara Joseph says there are still access barriers for racialized artists. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Joseph, who identifies as a Black artist, says she wants to be able to tell all kinds of stories.

“I’m not just meant to tell stories of the trauma of my race. I want to tell stories of joy. I want to tell stories of love and song. I think that’s the thing that we’re missing right now.”

Thornton says RMTC features many new and diverse faces. However, most of them are hired from outside Manitoba.

She says she’s had to search elsewhere for diversity due to the lack of racialized artists talented enough to carry the roles needed at RMTC. This includes the cast of their current production of Calpurnia, which features many artists from Toronto.

“That’s when you have to start to look in other parts of the country.”

Kelly Thornton stands in front of the production of Calpurnia in March 2022. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

When other companies and artists were asked if Manitoba lacked talent, they had another opinion.

“Incorrect,” says Nattrass.

“I think it’s there. There just needs to be a curiosity to pursue and to be vigilant, to go looking and to be open to various opportunities,” says Koop.

“I mean, spend one day at Winnipeg Fringe. Go to Folk Fest. Go to walk around the exchange district and see what people are creating,” says Joseph.

“It’s everywhere. It is so ingrained in everything that this province is. I don’t know how you could miss it.”

As part of their Commitment to Action, RMTC has committed to providing residencies and mentorship programs, such as Pimootayowin Playwright’s Circle, to invest in Manitoba’s artists.

Thornton says the long game is “to have a community of local actors that can populate our stages.”

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