Allegations of systemic racism in Vancouver’s theatre scene could spark change

WATCH: Allegations of systemic racism in Vancouver’s theatre scene pull the curtain back on an issue often whispered about but never addressed. Nadia Stewart shows us how it’s a wake up call that could change what you see up on stage.

A group of Vancouver actors and playwrights are sending shockwaves through the city’s theatre scene following allegations of systemic racism, prompting a much-needed conversation about diversity.

An adhoc group called REAL Canadian Theatre, sent an open letter on July 22 to the president and board of directors of the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards Society, a non-profit organization that, for the past 33 years, has been handing out awards to Metro Vancouver’s theater talent.

In the letter, the author’s point to what they feel is a glaring absence of diversity in the people winning the awards and on the juries set up to chose those winners.

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“We all felt like it was important to address the issue of diversity and inclusiveness in theatre,” said Omari Newton, a Vancouver-based actor and one of the letter’s co-authors.

“We don’t think that this is a malicious thing, we don’t think that it’s a conscious problem, but it’s definitely a problem.”

In the letter, REAL Canadian Theatre says it believes “that by bestowing awards and nominations overwhelmingly to white theatre artists, the Society is – unconsciously but implicitly – sending a message that it is primarily white theatre artists and white theatre productions that are “excellent.”

The problem, they say, is one of systemic racism: where people of colour are unintentionally squeezed out because of a system not properly designed to ensure that doesn’t happen.

While women are fairly represented in the juries, actress Valerie Sing Turner says visible minorities are not.

“Both the small theatre jury had zero people out of ten that were culturally diverse and the script jury had zero people of colour out of six people,” said Turner, who also co-wrote the open letter.

Change is needed, says awards organization

Even before she received the letter, the board’s president, Andrea Loewen, said the conversation about race and diversity is one she knew needed to be had.

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“They couldn’t have known this at the time, but it was actually something I’d been thinking about a lot for the coming year,” said Loewen.

“It was just this perfect timing–I’m thinking about this, I’m talking to the board about this and now this letter has come.”

Loewen admits that, unintentionally, the awards organization might have been shutting some people out. In the past, the process by which jurors are recruited has been informal.

“It was sort of a word-of-mouth kind of thing and, to be honest, it was a big job that a lot of people don’t want to do,” explained Loewen.

“When we were at the time of recruiting, it would be a lot of, ok this person said no, who else can we ask. A lot of it wound up inadvertently relying on people’s social contacts and who they were already working with.”

Loewen said changes have now been been implemented so that anyone wanting to sit on a jury must fill out a form–where, in addition to their experience, they could also identify whether they’re a visible minority.

“Already we saw a huge improvement,” said Loewen, of the applications submitted.

Problem is bigger than Vancouver

Loewen and many of the members of REAL Canadian Theatre group say the issue of diversity in theatre extends beyond Vancouver.

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“Canadian theater in general does have an issue with diversity, but there are some cities like Toronto that are further along. I just think Vancouver has a lot of catching up to do,” said Newton.

Long-time Vancouver theatre critic and UBC Professor Jerry Wasserman said the open letter has the local theatre community talking…and thinking.

“This was a surprise to most of us and maybe it shouldn’t have been,” said Wasserman. “Maybe the problem is that we hadn’t noticed this before that nobody had called anyone’s attention to the fact that these juries were so relatively lily white.”

Nearly 200 members of the local and national theatre scene have pledged their support, adding their names to the open letter and calling for change. Wasserman says but it’s a wake-up call Vancouver and the theatre industry needs.

“We need to be, as a community, proactive about this and not passive,” said Wasserman.

“Vancouver has definitely not been in the vanguard when it comes to colourblind casting, to cross gender, cross racial casting–the kind of things that are going on elsewhere.”