More than a hashtag: Making diverse, inclusive theatre the norm

Personal stories of race, gender and sexuality shared in a Caribbean hair stylist's chair. A glimpse into a convenience store and an Asian-Canadian family's struggles. A thoroughly remixed Hamlet delivered in English and American Sign Language.

Canada is no stranger to acclaimed plays told from diverse perspectives, but a new wave of theatre artists is pushing past existing boundaries to make inclusive storytelling the new normal.

"I want a contemporary colour palette. I want the people of the world that I see around me to be telling those stories," says director Ravi Jain.

"That homogenous world that I see onstage [traditionally]? It's just not my world. I don't recognize that."

Toronto-based Jain's latest work is his Shakespeare reboot Prince Hamlet, featuring actors in gender-swapped roles, performers from different racial backgrounds and a key character who is deaf and narrates the story in American Sign Language.

It's the latest reason his aptly named Why Not Theatre, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, has earned kudos for innovative, thought-provoking and entertaining productions that offer something fresh to devoted theatre-goers, while also appealing to communities underrepresented in the performing arts.

"That's the thing for me," he says. "Can we let people be their fullest selves when we tell stories and let their experiences they had growing up be the lens through which we see the story told?"

Making change

Canada has seen past blockbusters like Trey Anthony's da Kink in my Hair or Ins Choi's Kim's Convenience and the work of indie troupes such as Cahoots, FuGEN and Obsidian, which specialize in stories from diverse communities. But Canadian theatre overall has long been a bastion of white, European stories. There's still a distance to go toward more inclusive representation, especially for the larger, more established companies.

"If you look around, you go to the theatre and a lot of times – especially at the established ones – the audience is predominantly aging white people," admits Martin Morrow, president of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association.

"There's definitely a serious awareness of a lack of diversity in the past and a real sincere attempt to improve that today," he says.

Theatre has yet to regularly reach some large, untapped audiences – in part "because what people are seeing on the stage are not the faces on the street," according to Morrow.

A generation of artists raised on traditional Canadian theatre is now changing the game, settling into roles as sought-after and influential creators, leaders and decision-makers.

They're revitalizing the scene by casting a wider net of collaborators and highlighting unheard perspectives. The argument heard in the past, that Canada didn't have the necessary pool of diverse actors, directors, playwrights and other creators, no longer holds. Being inclusive – as other industries have shown – makes financial sense.

"The private sector figured out that it was good for business and good for society to have a more diversified workforce and to try to promote change at all levels of leadership. It seems like we're just figuring that out now [in theatre]," says director and playwright Jovanni Sy,

The challenge of every theatre company in Canada, especially in urban centres, is to navigate the divide between engaging existing subscribers and attracting new ones, he says. Sy has seen thousands of new audience members visit Richmond, B.C.'s Gateway Theatre for the first time after he introduced a contemporary, Chinese-language adjunct to the mainstage offering: one that appeals directly to residents of Chinese heritage (who comprise nearly half of Richmond's total population).

As artistic director, Sy's approach has been two-pronged: choosing programming that "shows the rich, multicultural nature of modern-day Richmond," and reaching out with initiatives like the Gateway Pacific Theatre Festival "as a way of opening our doors and making a bigger tent.

"People want what's comfortable to them," he explains, but "one of the beautiful things about theatre is it lets you glimpse into someone else's reality, lets you sit in someone else's shoes for a couple of hours."

A holistic approach

As in film and television, the performing arts world is increasingly acknowledging its lack of diversity. In recent years, funding bodies such as the Canada Council for the Arts have started entrenching inclusiveness as a core criterion for grants and financial support. However, for many, that's only part of the solution.

"It's not enough to program a writer of colour and hope that diversity starts happening in your theatre. It needs to be a holistic approach," says Weyni Mengesha, a director who counts da Kink in my Hair, Kim's Convenience and Butcher among her achievements.

That might mean diversity training for institutions and their boards as well as a company's creative team re-examining every level of a production, from carefully considering who is interpreting diverse stories to thoroughly exploring possible cultural sensitivities and engaging in meaningful audience outreach. 

"You have to do more than just invite one person – a playwright [into the mix]. You have to invite the whole community and work on different levels," Mengesha says. "It's time to reinvestigate the model."

True diversity must extend beyond those standing onstage at the curtain call, agrees Theatre Calgary's newly ensconced artistic director Stafford Arima.

"It also means the writers, the directors, the designers, the musicians, the choreographers, the men and women who work within the theatre company," says Arima, fresh from steering the Broadway musical Allegiance, which starred George Takei and explores the Japanese-American internment during the Second World War.

Expanding the definition of Canadian theatre to include a multiplicity of voices and staging a wide assortment of exciting, provocative, illuminating or transformative stories – it's simply what Nina Lee Aquino considers doing her job as an artistic director of Toronto's Factory Theatre.

"I want diversity and inclusion to go beyond being a hashtag on social media," she says. Factory Theatre is concluding a much-lauded season of plays that explore the new Canadian experiences and the notions of identity and home.

"It's about action. It's about doing it."