Equity in Theatre

by Jini Stolk

I was planning to write on the above topic and then discovered that it’s the name of a welcome new initiative  from Playwrights Guild of Canada and a stellar list of partners including Associated Designers of Canada, Canadian Actors’ Equity Association, and the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres.

EIT’s focus is on the under-representation of women in Canadian theatre. My thoughts about equity were sparked by learning that as of 2013, more than half of Toronto residents were born outside of Canada. According to The Toronto Foundation’s recent Vital Signs report, one in 12 of those new Torontonians arrived in the previous five years, and one-third arrived within the past decade.

This should be more than a matter of interest to Toronto’s arts and larger community: it should be a ringing call to action. It should also, of course, be a source of pride and excitement, and will certainly test our resilience and ability to creatively adapt to this new reality.

The friend who sent me this link is much involved with welcoming newcomers to Toronto, and has attended a number of citizenship ceremonies where new citizens now receive a year’s free attendance at the ROM, AGO, and the Science Centre thanks to the good work of Adrienne Clarkson’s and John Saul’s Institute for Canadian Citizenship. She suspects, however, that many will not use the passes – not because of lack of interest, necessarily, but because attending a museum is unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

This is something we can work on and we’ve had exceptional advice from Donna Walker Kuhne on how to help people build personal connections to the art and the importance of going to the communities we want to invite into our spaces, listening to what they say, and creating a campaign based on what they tell us.

Leonard Jacobs, Director of Cultural Institutions at the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, has been sharing some recent pieces related to this topic. According to the Broadway League, the average Broadway attendee is a 42-year-old white woman with a family income of over $189,000; the nonprofit regional theatres have a similar audience profile.

Diane Ragsdale, a speaker at one of Creative Trust’s audience engagement seminars, recently quoted English playwright Mark Ravenhill in her blog: “We are a place that offers luxury, go-on-spoil-yourself evenings where in new buildings paid for by a national lottery (a voluntary regressive tax) you can mingle with our wealthy donors and sponsors from the corporate sector and treat yourself to that extra glass of champagne… but we are also a place that cares deeply about social justice and exclusion as the wonderful work of our outreach and education teams show.”

If we really care we might want to think about this from Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Shawn C. Harris argues here that “artists as a group (individuals may vary) possess a cluster of characteristics that can make us ideal educators, activists, and organizers for gender and racial equity in the arts…What struck me was how, if I looked at the traits for a community organizer and lined them up with the traits for a theatre or dance artist, there would be many commonalities. Such as:

  • The ability to form positive working relationships with many people from a variety of backgrounds, ability, and temperaments.
  • Organization: Who does what; when and where it happens; how to get there; where this or that goes; what needs to be bought, transported, or disposed of.
  • The power to imagine a new reality and manifest that vision even with limited resources.
  • Creative problem-solving: What do you do when you have a problem that needs to be fixed in a short amount of time?
  • The courage to dream big and pursue those dreams.
  • The talent for sharing the universal through the particular.
  • Empathy for people who have radically different experiences and perspectives.
  • The ability to communicate a message in a way that reaches people in the deepest parts of themselves.
  • The willingness to experiment with new forms and content.”

Who knew? Well, actually, I think I did. Exciting times.


Also of interest:

The Wallace Foundation which recently announced a new $40 million audience development initiative has released an infographic on Nine Effective Practices for Building Audiences for the Arts…starting with “Recognizing When Change is Needed”. The latest in its series Wallace Studies in Building Arts Audiences is titled The Road to Results: Effective Practices for Building Arts Audiences, based on audience-building projects funded by the foundation between 2006 and 2012.


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