The president of the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards Society board of directors gets it.
Andrea Loewen understands where the 152 signatories of REAL Canadian Theatre's open letter to the Jessie Awards are coming from.
"These conversations about diversity have been happening in our community a lot lately," she told the Georgia Straight by phone. "I think a lot of people in the theatre industry as a whole are starting to see that diversity has been talked about for years….I think people are starting to realize we keep talking about this but nothing changes."
ReaCT released a letter on July 22 to raise the issue of white theatre artists primarily being nominated and winning Jessie awards. The problem is one rooted in the entire theatre scene, which in turn is a reflection of the larger local society as a whole. ReaCT emphasized that this is a systemic problem, not one due to the conscious or intentional efforts of any individual or group but one resulting from self-perpetuating social structures.
In response, the Jessies published an open letter online, stating that they welcomed the discussion and were interested in taking steps to do what they could to improve things. (To read full versions of the letters, download the PDFs listed in the lefthand column.)
"When we saw the letter…people just went, 'Yeah, this is something that we're happy to deal with, that we need to deal with.' It felt like one of those things it was a good time to be a part of this organization and to see how everyone really wanted to have the conservation and to do what we can to help."
Loewen said that her board had already been planning on addressing diversity but was glad that both groups had this "synchronistic idea". She noted that she had observed a shift in her industry towards people taking action rather than just talking about the issue.
She said she understood why ReaCT chose to circulate an open letter due for the purpose of creating a public, rather than private, dialogue.
The Jessies board had already planned a meeting retreat in August in which their main agenda will be to talk about diversity on their juries and board.
As noted in their letter, the Jessies saw an increase in diversity on their juries after they formalized the jury application process, which they started doing in January for the new jury season, which runs from May 1 to April 30.
In the past, it was simply an informal word-of-mouth process, thus often limiting inclusion to social networks. Loewen also noted that it was "easy for things to fall through the cracks".
They have since created a jury application form on their website for people to apply with.
One problem in the past is that many people turned down opportunities to be jurors as it requires an extensive time commitment involving attending numerous shows and meetings.
Another limitation is that the Jessies are run by a not-for-profit, volunteer-run board.
"Everyone is so busy just trying to keep things going, to maintain the awards and make sure they happen every year, that it's kind of hard to take that step back and look around and see the other things that are going on in the organization," Loewen said.
Similarly, she said many theatre companies with small funding and staff also have limited resources, which makes it difficult to address bigger picture issues.
Nonetheless, the Jessies are going to do whatever they can to make concrete changes.
"One of the things we're actually planning on doing is starting to engage with members of the community who we know do a lot of work to do with diversity to see what they would suggest, if there are certain places that are great to post the call for jurors that you might start getting more different people than normally apply," she said.
Also, this year's annual general meeting on October 5 (at 6 p.m.) will also be a town-hall meeting that others invested in the theatre industry or those who want to participate in the discussion can attend. One of the main topics will be diversity, both at the Jessies and in Vancouver's theatre industry.
She added that on her own, independent of the Jessies, she's hoping to create a diversity tool kit that will include such things as a list of resources, tips on how to approach diversity, suggestions of what to do to increase diversity in organization, and more for people who are at a loss of what to do.
Although ReaCT focused on racial representation, the Jessies are interested as well in diversity with regard to gender, sexual orientation, age, theatre practice, and more.
The problem is not one restricted to the theatre scene, as the lack of diversity is an issue that has been raised in numerous local industries. The visual nature of theatre, however, makes it more immediately apparent.
"In some ways, that means that the theatre industry really has an opportunity to be more of a leader in this because the people involved in the art are so much more visible," Loewen said. "A lot of industries, you don't really see it because it's people going into their offices…or working from home."
Another issue in local theatre is what content is chosen and available for artists of colour.
Vancouver playwright and actor Omari Newton, who helped organize ReaCT's letter, said that would be the next phase of the conversation.
He does think it's a real problem if audiences cannot see the reality of what's on our streets reflected on the stage.
"If anyone gets out of a taxi in downtown Vancouver, it doesn't take much research to figure out this is a very diverse city," he said by phone. "If somebody with a blindfold walked into a theatre in Vancouver, they would have no idea what the demographics of the city are."
He had expressed how pleased and encouraged he was with how the Jessies chose to respond. In turn, Loewen was happy to hear he had zero criticism of their response.
Loewen's understanding of systemic racism demonstrates that for her, these issues aren't something to be silenced or ignored but talked about openly.
"I know that when it comes to these kinds of conversations, if you get too caught up in trying to defend you're not a racist, you completely stymie the conversation because it's not about me as an individual; it's about the organization and the system and our culture and all this bigger stuff."
This article is the second of a series. To read the first article, click here.