An Open Letter to the Jessie Richardson Board of Directors

Inclusivity

A group of concerned theatre artists in Vancouver (lead by ReAct) have written an open letter to the Vancouver Jessie Society critiquing the lack of diversity on Jessie juries and the resulting lack of recognition at the awards themselves. 150 artists from around the city have signed the letter. There are a number of issues raised in the letter that are at once connected to, but also separate from, the Vancouver professional theatre awards.

A response has been posted by the Jessie board. Both are published below.

Have a look. Do you have a position? A comment? Do you see an elephant in the room? We’d love to hear what you think!

*****************

 

July 22, 2015

#REALCanadianTheatre

To: The President & Board of Directors

Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards Society (the “Society”)

Hey All –

We want to begin this letter by thanking you – our friends and
colleagues – for the huge amount of unpaid labour you put into making
the Jessies happen every year. We sincerely congratulate all the artists
who were recognized with Jessie awards and/or nominations this year,
and applaud the Society for its work in promoting and celebrating
Vancouver theatre.

At the same time, we feel compelled to point out to the Society that
we see an uncomfortable truth about the Society’s work. With few
exceptions, these awards historically and continuously represent the
best of Vancouver’s white theatre-makers. At the same time, the
Society’s stated mission is “to celebrate excellence in professional
theatre and to educate the public about Vancouver’s fantastic theatre
scene.”

We believe 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.” If part of the Society’s
mandate is to “educate” the public about our “fantastic theatre scene,”
then it is our belief that the Society is doing a grievous disservice to
the public by largely excluding work by artists of colour. And while we
recognize this is in no way intentional, we see a historical pattern
that is, in our experience, irrefutable.

For us, the composition of the 2014/15 juries provides clear evidence of the
Society’s historically exclusionary practice. For Small Theatre – easily the
most competitive category, in which the vast majority of culturally
diverse and Indigenous productions are adjudicated – zero of ten jury
members were artists of colour. Zero. There were also no artists of
colour on the Original Script Jury, only three artists of colour (out of
12 jurors) on the Large Theatre Jury, and only one artist of colour on
the Theatre for Young Audiences Jury.

For us, in 2015, these numbers are intolerable, and we believe
undermine the credibility of what should be a joyous celebration of our
city’s finest theatre. As noted, we believe that these exclusionary
practices are largely happening unintentionally and without malice. In
our experience, a way of understanding how that could be is to
understand it as a manifestation of systemic racism. As
folks may know, systemic racism is not the result of the intentions of
individual people. It can be defined as policies, systems, rules and/or
assumptions that perpetuate inequalities for racialized people. We feel
both sad and encouraged by this: sad because, despite people’s best
intentions, it’s still happening in 2015; encouraged, because with
mindfulness, collaboration and effort, these practices, and the
assumptions underlying them, can be changed.

Our best guess is that the Society is either wholly unaware of the
problem, or – more likely – unsure of how to address it. It has been an
ongoing discussion in the community for many years now; you may remember
the Georgia Straight article in 2012 that addressed the issue directly.

We believe the reason why the actor, director and writer nominations
largely shut out artists of colour year after year must have something
to do with the fact that the directors of the Society, its Advisory
Committee and juries, are predominantly or exclusively white. In a city
like Vancouver, easily one of the most culturally diverse cities in the
world, wherein the Aboriginal and so-called “visible minority” groups
together exceed 50% of the population[1], we believe this has to change.

We applaud this year’s recognition of Carl Kennedy and Tom Pickett in
the Outstanding Actor category. At the same time, we find it
disheartening and somewhat predictable that their considerable talents
were acknowledged for portrayals of that most stereotypical of
disempowered (and therefore non-threatening) characters: black American
slaves.[2]

Time and time again in many contexts, the recognition of
artists-of-colour has been limited to the portrayal of characters who do
not stray from a “place” of low status, who do not provoke nor
implicate audiences into thinking about the ongoing impact of
discrimination in the here and now. We believe these stories reinforce a
myth that we live in a post-racial society, and do little to challenge
some audiences’ preconceived notions. Some people might believe that
there were very few eligible culturally diverse/Indigenous productions
eligible for nominations. We would happily provide a list of artists’
work we feel deserved serious consideration.[3]

In our view, the exclusionary nature of the Jessie awards not only
diminishes work created by artists of colour. We believe the history of
de facto white affirmative action is equally a disservice to white artists.

A system that excludes some means no-one can ever be sure whether the
merits of their talent are being recognized, or if the odds stacked in their
favour put their own awards and nominations into question. To paraphrase
anti-racism academic Tim Wise, white baseball heroes of eras past –
DiMaggio, Williams, Ruth and Cobb – benefited from the racist exclusion
of black athletes from the major leagues, which casts doubt upon the
validity of their records and achievements.[4]

On a purely practical level, the Jessies are valuable for marketing
and grant purposes. By bestowing awards and nominations almost
exclusively to white artists, we believe the Society is – likely
unwittlingly – perpetuating a cycle of systemic racism that
disadvantages people of colour. For an example of more inclusive
practices, we suggest looking at this year’s Dora Awards in Toronto.[5]

It is our hope that the Society is open to asking more artists of
colour to serve on its juries. We are happy to suggest people. We know
professional theatre artists of colour who have tried for years to sit
on juries, but whose offers to do so were not accepted. Our guess is
this has something to do with social networks. It is common for social
groups to feel safest with the people they are most familiar with.
However, if the Society is truly committed to accurately representing
the community, and celebrating and educating the public about
“Vancouver’s fantastic theatre scene,” we ask that meaningful efforts be
made to reflect the reality in which we live and work.

As caring, passionate members of this community, we would like to
meet with you at your earliest convenience to discuss tangible
solutions. We believe this is a great time to work together for change.
There is a global movement around issues of inclusion. The Canadian
Actors’ Equity Association has just completed a national diversity
census with an unprecedented participation rate; the Canada Council is
transforming its granting programs, making diversity a key
consideration; internationally, UK Equity members are calling for the
implementation of quotas.[6

#OscarsSoWhite, #IdleNoMore, #NoOneIsIllegal and #BlackLivesMatter were
internationally trending social media campaigns. We believe there’s no
excuse for a city as diverse as ours to lag behind, and we are willing
to work to help make this happen. We feel this is particularly important
in the arts, a field that we believe should be leading the charge in
challenging the status quo.

Renowned African-American activist and scholar Angela Davis said that
racial segregation was “dis-established because ordinary people became
collectively aware of themselves as potential agents for social change,
as holding within their collective hands the power to create a new
world.”[

We urge the Society to join us in considering these words, and to work
with us to move the Vancouver theatre ecology toward a more inclusive
and representative future.

Sincerely,

 

Carmen Aguirre

Dima Alansari

Carmen Alatorre

mia susan amir

Sebastien Archibald

Reneltta Arluk

Norman Armour

Elaine Avila

Joseph Bardsley

Kim Barsanti

Stephen Beaver

Scott Bellis

Michel Bisson

Sam Bob

Majdi Bou Matar

Nita Bowerman

Leanna Brodie

Diane Brown

Renee Bucciarelli

Adriana Bucz

Tim Carlson

Tim W Carlson

Camyar Chai

Pedro Chamale

Vicki Chan

Judy Chan

Eury Chang

Rohit Chokhani

Rena Cohen

Tricia Collins

John Cooper

Kate Declerck

Charles Demers

Jan Derbyshire

David Diamond

D Michael Dobbin

Jay Dodge

Leslie Dos Remedios

Stephen Drover

Katrina Dunn

Lesley Ewen

Kathleen Flaherty

Wilson Fowlie

Evan Frayne

C.E. (Chris) Gatchalian

Christopher David Gauthier

Rosemary Georgeson

Jeff Gladstone

Steven Greenfield

Dennis Gupa

Chelsea Haberlin

Jordan Hall

Nicola Harwood

Daren Herbert

Joanne Herbert

Jane Heyman

Jennifer Hogg

John Howard

Ray Hsu

Terry Hunter

Anthony F. Ingram

Celeste Insell

David C. Jones

Obediah Jones-Darrel

Josette Jorge

!Kona K

Margo Kane

Andree H. Karas

Kevin Kerr

David Kerr

Martin Kinch

Alyssa Kostello

Chris Lam

Joyce Lam

Colleen Lanki

Amy Lee Lavoie

Brenda Leadlay

Khaira Ledeyo

Su-Feh Lee

Kristina Lemieux

Milton Lim

Andrea Loewen

Minh Ly

Shannon Macelli

Henry J Mah

David Mann

Billy Marchenski

Mohamad Masri

Broadus Mattison

Susinn McFarlen

Mark McGregor

Ruth McIntosh

Caitlin McKee

Troy McLaughlin

Sophie Merasty

William Merasty

Emilie Monnet

Angela Moore

Allan Morgan

Carolyn Nakagawa

Lissa Neptuno

Omari Newton

Irwin Oostindie

Mindy Parfitt

Corey Payette

Rachel Peake

Monice Peter

Tom Pickett

Linda Pitt

Christine Quintana

Brenda Racanelli

Martha Rans

Lisa C. Ravensbergen

Jennifer Reddy

Marsha Regis

Paulo Ribeiro

Carlos Riveira

Sarah Roa

Diane Roberts

Joyce Rosario

Patrick Sabongui

Loretta Seto

Odessa Shuquaya

Troy Slocum

Arielle Spence

Laura Suarez

Jovanni Sy

James Fagan Tait

Heidi Taylor

Agnes Tong

John Emmet Tracy

Fane Tse

Valerie Sing Turner

Dirk Van Stralen

Hazel Venzon

Kim Villigante

Lisa Voth

Lianna Walden

Jeremy Waller

Savannah Walling

Christine Willes

Deborah Williams

lee williams boudakian

Roma Wilson

Richard Wolfe

Adrienne Wong

Nelson Wong

Todd Wong

Donna Yamamoto

Sherry Yoon

Marcus Youssef

Raugi Yu

Kya Zagorsky

 

FROM THE JESSIE SOCIETY

In response to the open letter that the group ReAct has been circulating
with regards to diversity at the Jessie Awards, the board of directors
would like to state its full and enthusiastic desire to enter into a
dialogue about these issues. We value diversity highly and recognize the
importance of concrete action, not just words, in creating equal
opportunities. In fact, our "big picture" focus for the coming season is
already set to be diversity: the primary agenda item for our upcoming
summer retreat is the make up of our board and juries, setting goals,
actions, and standards to increase diversity on both fronts, and at the
coming AGM/Town Hall Meeting we intend to bring this conversation to our
membership and the community at large. At the start of this season we
also formalized our jury selection process, allowing people to
self-nominate.

This removed some of the "ad hoc" nature of jury selection in the past,
something we hoped would prevent those interested in serving on the
board from falling through the cracks. We seek to attract jury members
that represent diversity with respect to gender, sexual orientation,
cultural background, and theatre practice, and so far it seems that the
formalized process has helped: almost all of our juries have seen an
increase in visible diversity. We plan to set measures in place to continue
this trend. Of course, we know that there is more we can do. We had not
been contacted directly by ReAct prior to the letter being circulated, but
as soon as we heard about it we contacted a representative of the
group who also sits on a jury to let them know we are keen to enter into
discussions. On top of our commitment to taking firm action to increase
diversity on the board and juries this year, we look forward to deeper
conversations and consultations about other potential barriers to access
and what the Jessies can be doing to encourage and reward diversity in
the community.

We look forward to entering into discussion with ReAct, and anyone else
who would like to join. As a not-for-profit board made up entirely of
volunteers, we welcome constructive discussion and help and urge any of
the signatories to become more involved in the Jessies. If you would
like to be kept informed of public dialogues, have a specific concern or
idea, or would like to enquire about positions on the board of
directors (there are current openings), please contact Board President
Andrea Loewen at info@jessies.ca.

Sincerely,

Andrea Loewen, Diane Brown, Evan Frayne, Steven Greenfield, Lois Dawson,
Shawn Sorenson, Meredith Elliott, Mike Mackenzie, Kathleen Duborg, Alyssa
Kostello, Marijka Asbeek-Brusse, and Ava Forsyth,
The Board of Directors for the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards Society

 

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