The reckoning around anti-Black racism, colonialism and inequality in our precarious post-pandemic world is immense, drastic and unprecedented in recent times across different fields, including the theatre sector in Canada.
Theatre is a social practice, which means both that it is inherently collaborative and that it has a critical role helping communities voice, understand and address the urgent social struggles of their times.
As a social practice, theatre must reflect and respond to the dynamics of a changing society. It is imperative that the performance sector tackle the critical and ethical questions about racism, identity, representation, colonialism and systemic change.
As Prairie-focused researchers, we knew that sector-driven participation was critical to this work. We gathered theatre makers from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta to reflect on the implications of the times we are living in and imagine pathways towards an equitable and inclusive future.
About future prairie theatre
The Future Prairie Theatre project was a series of community-centered conversations with self-employed theatre artists and representatives from theatre institutions.
One of the authors of this story, Taiwo, invited Prairie artists and theatre companies to reimagine theatre for the post-pandemic world as one aspect of work as a theatre practitioner and a researcher at the University of Regina.
The nature of the project prompted entering partnerships with different organizations, including the University of Calgary where Christine, one of the co-authors, teaches.
Conversations with participants took place over Zoom through a series of 10 gatherings from October 2021 to March 2022. On average, 33 participants attended each session.
The intention of the sessions was to engage community in an ethical way, to collectively reflect on the past and present conditions of both the artist and the sector, and to envision ways to tackle issues. Four main themes emerged.
1. Retaining artists and practitioners on the Prairies
We posed the question: Why do artists leave the Prairies? Why do artists stay on the Prairies? Participants observed artists stay on the Prairies due to family ties, connection to the land and long-time residence.
Some participants spoke of the years of training and professional networking which led them to build and develop their own theatre companies. Reasons for leaving included lack of access to advanced training, inadequate resources, shrunken artistic communities and harsh weather conditions.
Despite these factors, some participants stayed as they preferred the sense of community that is characteristic of the Prairies. All artists gathered said retaining artists in the Prairies depends on ensuring artists can reliably access funding and resources to develop professional skills.
Although participants felt these opportunities were difficult to come by now, they suggested that giving individuals mid-level opportunities - supports for artists who are midway into their careers - would be crucial to the future success of the sector.
This would include redistribution of resources across the sector in more equitable ways - to ensure all theatre artists, and specifically BIPOC artists and artists with disabilities, are accessing these.
Participants also noted that a change of policy and governance culture particularly in not-for-profit sector would be necessary in order to properly implement and to support changes in resource and opportunity redistribution.
2. Mentorship on the Prairies
Mentorship emerged as a topic of great concern among both emerging and established artists. We asked our participants: What is mentoring? What does mentoring mean to you?
One participant likened providing mentorship to emerging artists as providing a tool box filled with knowledge about the theatre ecosystem, in the same way one might give a new parent a gift box filled with things to support their new parenthood and child. Many artists identified the need for mentorship that was tailored to their lived experience: for example, the importance of partnering disabled, Black, Indigenous or racialized or 2SLGTBQIA+ mentors and mentees together.
Some felt that it was essential to be intentional about creating agreements and a formalized, structured approach to mentorship. Other artists felt that informal mentorship has been impactful in their lives.
Young and emerging artists especially expressed a hunger for access to mentoring within the prairie theatre ecosystem. Established artists discussed the need for a symbiotic relationship between mentors and mentees. True mentoring (or "radical mentorship," as some called it), has a reciprocal exchange of knowledge so both parties are learning together and from each other.
3. Access and accessibility in Prairie theatre
To frame our conversation on access and accessibility we posed this prompt:
One participant said this is a goal that might take 20 years, and they noted the complexity of accessibility and the structures of oppression that must be removed.
To further respond to this prompt, we queried:
Access has different definitions and can have multiple implications such as financial, familial, physical and mental.
Many participants agreed that "access is the process of giving space." Other thoughts included:
- accessibility comes through language and translations;
- working with the community and implementing small steps;
- good communication and exchange;
- structural and programming shifts for physical and neurodivergent access.
When discussing what access isn't, one participant shared their exhausting experience with having to ask for access: If someone is forced to ask for access, part of it has already been taken away.
4. Community and its complexity
The topic of community came up in every conversation, and seemed to be a shared touchstone that everyone understood in one form or another.
When we asked participants what specifically was the definition of community, answers weren't straightforward. We dedicated a number of sessions to identifying, unpacking and clarifying this ubiquitous concept and discovered it's a powerful word with multiple meanings.
The gathering of these artists and the ensuing rich conversations articulated the realities of what it means to be a theatre maker on the Prairies.
What emerged was a series of aspirational pathways. If enacted, these could ensure greater inclusion, representation, security and real change in the prairie theatre ecosystem.
Authors: Taiwo Afolabi - Canada Research Chair in Socially Engaged Theatre; Director, Centre for Socially Engaged Theatre (C-SET), University of Regina | Cali Sproule - Master of Fine Arts candidate, Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Calgary | Christine Brubaker - Associate Professor, School of Creative and Performing Arts, University of Calgary | Ibukun-Oluwa Fasunhan - Phd Student, Theatre Department, Faculty of Media Art and Performance, University of Regina | Yvette Nolan - Community research partner and theatre practitioner