Jessie Awards board of directors president addresses ReaCT's letter about racism in theatre

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      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.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at



      Runner Up

      Jul 24, 2015 at 6:02pm

      I've noticed a terrible lack of diversity in Chinese opera and theater, especially on mainland China! No matter. I'm sure Jessie and her fellow commissars will be on that next!



      Jul 24, 2015 at 7:30pm

      Hi Georgia Straight, you accidentally censored my comment the first time.
      Here it is again, devoid of offence:

      Has anyone considered that this could be an effect of voluntary self-segregation by racial groups in the Vancouver arts scene? Isn't it inevitable that when race-exclusive groups such as VACT (Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre) exist they will alter the demographics of the non-racially-labelled inclusive theatre scene?

      If this isn't a fair question, could you please post a note as to why?

      A.F. Ingram

      Jul 24, 2015 at 7:32pm

      Dear Mr/Ms Runner Up: your modestly humorous observation may be a clue as to why you're merely a runner up.

      As a member of the theatre community ( and director of The Whipping Man) I feel a real need to be relevant to the place and time I live in. I hope this discussion leads to our stages being more concerned with quality of work than colour of skin, and more accepting of theatrical traditions other than those emanating from Western Europe.

      Henry J Mah

      Jul 24, 2015 at 7:35pm

      @ Runner Up

      Uh ... No.

      Unless you've consistently been to Chinese opera and theatre in mainland China, I think you bring up an apples and oranges conversation. I have no idea if cultural diversity in mainland China is an issue or not, but I would imagine at the very least it's not as blatant an issue as it is here in North America. Therefore I suggest your attempt at being clever with your comment can only be construed as racist from a white privilege/entitlement perspective.

      I further suggest your comment muddies the conversation, and in fact comments and attitudes like yours keep the systemic exclusion in place. Since you are likely a white person I would imagine that you don't see an issue, or you're wondering what the big effing deal is.

      Or you take exception to having this issue being raised, as so far it has been less of a problem for you to be included in any artistic or social activities due to the color (or lack thereof) of your skin, and it will potentially threaten your future inclusion into these activities because of a more open playing field and greater number of competitors for the same spots.

      Whatever your deal is, I think your comment is insensitive to racially diverse people and specifically to Chinese people. As our cultural norms evolve, my hope is that comments like yours will become obsolete and part of a bygone era. By opening the conversation of inclusion for the various different groups (gender, race, age, sexuality) in the arts and society as a whole, and including the telling of our stories as central characters in the mainstream, only then will the attitudes of our current society transform.

      Martin Dunphy

      Jul 24, 2015 at 9:17pm


      Although I did not see your original post, comments are only very rarely "accidentally" deleted.
      Choose from the following possible reasons for deletion (and if you still have your original version to check, keep in mind for the future):
      -racist content
      -legally actionable content (libel, etc.)
      -ad hominem attack
      -poverty bashing
      That covers most of the (usually inadvertent) reasons the Straight deletes comments. (FYI, obviously, we will not edit posts to remove offending material, not even for one word. It's either in or out, and I am happy to report that the vast majority are posted.)

      Thanks and have a great evening.

      Henry J Mah

      Jul 24, 2015 at 11:58pm

      @ Jurgen: "Has anyone considered that this could be an effect of voluntary self-segregation by racial groups in the Vancouver arts scene? Isn't it inevitable that when race-exclusive groups such as VACT (Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre) exist they will alter the demographics of the non-racially-labelled inclusive theatre scene?

      If this isn't a fair question, could you please post a note as to why?"

      Uh ... no, no, and ... no, it's not a fair question. My note as to why:

      1) voluntary self-segregation in the Vancouver arts scene: Have you considered why this has even occurred? It's because these groups were excluded FIRST in the mainstream. So in order to get their stories told, they formed a theatre group/society to be seen and heard by at least their own communities.
      2) non-racially-labelled inclusive theatre scene: Have you seen most theatre productions in town, or are you just blind to any skin color other than white, and any gender other than male? And "non-racially-labelled": I can't believe you can say this with a straight face. It's a HUGE misnomer, AND it's both wrong and misleading. If you don't see the issue with what you've said here, it's because you're a white male. It's implied that you're already included based on those two things. So what's the problem? It's called "systemic white privilege".
      3) Why isn't this a fair question? Because with your comment, you're playing both sides of the white privilege card. On the one hand you're villifying ethnic groups for excluding themselves. On the other, you're not offering any workable solutions, AND in a back-handed way putting it back on the ethnic groups to solve the problem. By not taking ownership of your Caucasian entitlement, or even acknowledging that it exists, you're part of what's not working here.

      That all said, the main issue has to do with the uneven portrayal of diversity in the theatre, and that means more than just race; it's also gender, age, and sexuality. Granted, many of the stories being told are written by straight white men about straight white men. But I think latitude MUST be given to include an artist of diversity to portray any of the central characters in any play, regardless of period; e.g. in Godspell, currently running at the Arts Club, Jesus is played by Jennifer Copping, a WOMAN. Next time I hope a woman of color gets to play the Saviour. That'll rattle some cages.


      Jul 25, 2015 at 12:12am

      We're all human. Is there a need to divide us by gender, culture, sexuality, etc.? I don't believe in race. I do believe in diversity. I've cast many productions in Vancouver and I go in hoping for the strongest, most diverse cast as possible. The reality (for myself anyway) is that most of the actors that audition are of European descent (I find calling people White or Black, Red, Yellow, Brown offensive) so the cast isn't always as diverse as Vancouver or as I'd prefer. I believe some of that is rooted in culture and tradition; each culture values and is passionate about different things. I believe that many cultures still pressure their kids to do something "more practical and respectable" than theatre as well.


      Jul 25, 2015 at 7:18am

      @A.F. Ingram

      Why must art be "relevant"? Why must art make its central purpose to be inclusive? Why can't the central purpose of all art be to be wonderful and moving? Does the fact that Shakespeare's roles were historically played by all white men (nevermind if some of them were gay) make Richard III less valuable?
      When I read Richard Wright's "Native Son" should I say--well this is a story about a poor young black man in Chicago, and it doesn't include me, so into the flames with it, I need to read my white literature? Yet this is exactly what so called inclusiveness does.
      Did Shakespeare and Milton say "Hey read my play, poem about the heterosexual white experience?" No, they were just being artists.
      To make truly great art, I'd submit, you must try to forget about your own condition and focus instead on the human condition. "Relevant" art is about as interesting as loading your dishwasher.

      A. F. Ingram

      Jul 25, 2015 at 12:36pm

      @Jurgen : VACT is not exclusive to asian artists. I've worked for them and I'm western european.

      @Beerbelly : I'm trying to figure out how "inclusiveness" causes the kind of exclusivity you describe and, for the life of me, I simply cannot. The idea being proposed is not that inclusiveness should be the the "central puprose" of art; rather, that if we want our art to speak to our audience and, yes, entertain our audience or at least make them feel welcome to enjoy and participate in that art - wouldn't it make sense to represent that audience through the art?
      If one looks at it in simple economic terms, it would seem to make sense that if over fifty percent of your audience is non-european, you should be considering creating something that non-europeans would be interested in paying money to see. I'm not saying that stories about western european people are not of interest to people of Japanese descent. I'm sure some of them are as interested in european culture as I am interested in Japanese culture. What I *am* saying is that we as artists need to recongnize that the culture of Vancouver is not primarily western european, and our audience probably gets more information and representations of european culture than it knows what to do with.
      If we were to make an effort to widen our scope - say, by casting an actor of Phillipino descent as Richard III and an actor of Egyptian descent as Hastings and an actor of Sudanese descent as Princess Margaret - we might actually see our audience base expand. We might experience new ideas and themes.
      As to suggesting that you exclude "Native Son" from your reading list because "it doesn't include you" entirely misses - or, in fact, deliberately obscures - the point. One of the most incredible things about art is that it allows us to get a peek inside different experiences. That, in essence, is what we're asking for. That is the ultimate goal of inclusiveness: a sharing of experiences. That is how we learn and appreciate "the human condition" which, as you say, creates "truly great art."


      Jul 25, 2015 at 3:17pm

      Race is such a hot issue . Diversity means so much more than skin colour. You are right that theatre in the city looks pretty one note. What about the lack of acceptance for, dare I say ... NON Studio 58 actors !!?!? But if we are talking about race....What about the fact that when the Arts Club did dream girls and a white actress applied to audition she was told " this show is just for black actors". No one questioned that..... Because colour blind casting is important, right ? Oh wait , that is color selective .

      We are attacking this issue from the wrong direction. I think we need to be including theatre companies that tell " non white stories" in our community better . For sure . Buy it isn't about casting. Color blind casting doesn't mean you pick diversity . It is a result of being open minded. What needs to be more widely accepted is the kind of story telling. Being celebrated I don't care if I see ten white people and one black person doing the color purple. Or a cast of all white men doing joy luck club. I don't care . I care about the story. But we all know that wouldn't happen. So don't worry about casting . Worry about the stories .

      Telling white people they are to blame is like kicking a baby because it's mother didn't tip well. It doesn't solve anything .