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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Theatre - On Othello, Walterdale, and White Privilege

Theatre - On Othello, Walterdale and White Privilege

I'm angry.

And then I'm alternately sad.

I like the Walterdale. That theatre is fun, and we've mounted many shows on that stage. I've seen a lot of my friends cut their teeth on productions in that space, as actors, as directors. It provides a great training ground with different stakes that are necessary to provide more fuel for a successful theatre community.

Then I was made aware of their mid-season show, Othello.

It's heartbreaking.

It's heartbreaking because they want to challenge a piece of work which is a somewhat (or rather overt, depending who you ask) racist play that makes a caricature of African men. Only they want to challenge it by taking away the opportunity for a person of colour and minority, and give it to a caucasian woman so she can explore her ideas of privilege. I don't want to censor or diminish her, but that is NOT the same experience as that of Othello.


Gina Puntil puts it best in her letter:
"I am for people of all genders and diversities playing every and all roles in Shakespeare. But particularly when a role in that Eurocentric Canon calls for diversity, it should be a diverse actor in that part. Point Blank."
Why does the Walterdale, a theatre that produces work for the Community believe it is acceptable to produce work that takes a tone predominantly of whitewashing, erasure and oppression of persons of colour?

And I get it, they are well meaning. They're a well-meaning group of artists that want to take on a controversial piece of Shakespeare, they have something unique they want to bring to the story in terms of style. A post-apocalyptic, Mad Max, female-led...something. But it's just ...deeply, uncomfortably uninformed. What's worse is that they could've GOTTEN informed. There are many, vocal, strong voices in the community who are willing to lead discussions, who want to have conversations about these subjects. There are people with a myriad of informed opinions who want to lend their expertise. Mari and Gina are just two of many people who are deeply engaged, entrenched in the ongoing dialogue about privilege, discrimination and intersectionalism in arts.

But now, they've released a presser that frames them pointedly as the victim. I'm not saying they aren't either, it's completely plausible that they've been threatened for what amounts to being a particularly ignorant decision. I want to be clear and state that violence against artists for expressing themselves is never acceptable. They've cancelled their production, apologised with weeks left to go when they've surely been in rehearsal for months. But the discussions could have been happening. The explanations could have occurred. The time for thoughtful discussion as community building opportunities should have BEEN, but now are a footnote on an apology.

An apology that frames the conversation in a way to rile us about being censored. I'm not sure if it's intentional or not to do it that way, but it certainly reads to me like that.

I don't know if I personally wanted them to cancel their show or not. I think the answer for me would've been much more clear cut anyway if they had put it on. If they had, I simply would've boycotted, would have condemned the choice they made, felt bad for the artists involved, but then I guess the Walterdale could see on the strength of its ticket sales and letters written whether it was worth it, worth it to disregard opportunities to engage audiences of minority, or if the strength of white privilege to trample over the narrative is an acceptable compromise for attendance numbers.

I mean, that's a blase statement, but I don't know how else to really express it.

We keep seemingly taking steps forward. PoC in our community are becoming empowered enough to actually point out grievances. Five years ago, ten years ago, that was impossible. You were expected to keep your head down and your mouth shut. Those decisions were reserved for artistic directors alone, and if you were in bad with any one of them, you would absolutely be blacklisted.

The idea that a Stage Manager could possibly air concerns of artistic nature?


Fast forward to today. We now have a platform to enunciate and help educate each other on the problems of art and the intersection of privilege.

But as productions like the Walterdale's Othello prove, we still have a long way to go about actually enacting change that we so desperately want. More so because now those who decry or point out privilege, are still being painted as the villains. The problem with their 'statement' is that the Walterdale is more focused on the backlash, rather than the failure of accountability. And that's a small, but meaningful thing.

We are tired. I had this conversation with Mari repeatedly. It becomes hard to be indignant and upright in the face of repeated attempts to browbeat you as being wrong. You begin to wonder if you are wrong. Maybe you don't deserve a place at the table. Maybe your art actually isn't good enough compare to what White people do. Maybe the trials, that you go through are actually meaningless. That there is no racism and it's all personal instead. That you are not deserving of an opportunity.

I hate that we are still having the conversation about whether or not a piece of art is racist.

The threat of physical violence is terrible, and I do not condone lashing out at artists for their work. But the threat that nothing you make or do has value because of the colour of your skin, the culture you grew up in, the languages you speak, the clothing you wear, the blood in your heart? The threat of that is so much worse, and is something we are living.

Update: People ask me why I care. I have been out of the Edmonton Scene directly for 4 years now. I donate to a few organizations that I still believe in, but otherwise, don't purchase tickets to see shows, I am not an Edmonton Stage Manager any longer, but am now more of a Vancouver Producer and Designer, though I am still an Equity Member.

Why I care? It is because if I didn't, I would be agreeing with everyone who tells me that Edmonton is a backwards art community not worth my time to elevate itself and get past its trenches. That it's not worth helping. That it won't learn, that the people leave that city that trained me which is filled with people I love. I don't believe that. I think the art is good, the work is strong, worthy of touring around the world to share as I had opportunities countless to do myself. I care because everyone deserves those opportunities, as stage managers and designers like me, or as artists and playwrights and actors and directors.

They deserve those opportunities regardless of gender, orientation, or as the case may be, race. Or any other method we seem to see fit to use to divide us.

That's why I care.

The full Walterdale press release is below:
Monday, January 30, 2017
Walterdale Theatre Associates cancels production of Othello. ----
It is with deep regret that Walterdale Theatre Associates announces the cancellation of Othello, the third show of its 2016-2017 season. Othello was due to open on February 8, 2017. Patrons can e-mail walterdalefoh@gmail.com for ticketing information.

“This is a heart-breaking decision, but as a community of volunteers and artists, we can’t continue with a production where the safety of members of our cast has been threatened,” said Adam Kuss, President of the Board of Directors of Walterdale Theatre.

Both online and in-person threats were received by members of the production from people who were angered by Walterdale’s decision to cast a white female in the role of Othello, traditionally a role filled by a person of colour. The matter has been referred to police.

“Other members of the theatre community expressed their concern to us as well,” said Anne Marie Szucs, Artistic Director of Walterdale and Director of Othello. “We understand and appreciate those concerns. The vision we were presenting for this 400-year-old play was a post-apocalyptic world where traditional power structures were inverted and where the focus was on the battle between the sexes. We’re sorry this caused offence. We will continue to build on the respectful interactions we’ve had with community members on this topic, and continue to engage with and welcome any groups or individuals who want to get involved in our productions.”

Walterdale Theatre is a volunteer-run community theatre that has operated in Edmonton since 1958, and offers opportunities for people from all backgrounds a chance to engage in live theatre. Walterdale casts plays based on an open audition process which welcomes everyone, and roles are filled by those who attend the auditions for each play. Decisions about the artistic vision of each production are the responsibility of the Director, the Artistic Director and the Board of Directors of the theatre.

For more information please contact:
Adam Kuss, President, Walterdale Theatre Associates E-mail: walterdaleadadam@gmail.com

Mari Sasano, and her elegant response to the letter:
When well-meaning but uninformed white artists knowingly take on controversial works -- Othello is an already pretty racist caricature of African men, and casting aside, producing a racist play is still producing a racist play -- they're surprised when people are upset? And worse, people take them to task for it, we get onto the "let's have a dialogue" merry-go-round to keep us all busy. It seems that the old "let's have a dialogue" allows the discussion to go on indefinitely, but ultimately lets people off the hook from actually doing anything about it. And certainly "we were aware of their concerns" but then doing it anyways until threats are made, is saying telling us that they don't take the thoughts and feelings of the community seriously. I find it hard to believe that no one on their board or crew didn't object to it, and I'm disappointed that they were not heard.

You should talk to the cast. Some theatre people are having a conversation on my Facebook, and I'll ask permission to release contact info. And I think you've already talked to the wonderful Gina Puntil about this. But the threats are a red herring that turns the anti-racists into the villain. It frustrates me that this is how the company is choosing to tell the story. They don't have to talk about why they thought it was ok to do it. They don't have to talk about the overall problem with diversity that the arts community, and theatre in particular, has. From what I've seen, many who have commented so far have been respectful and loving in their criticism. They don't want their discipline to repeat past mistakes. They want to attract a more diverse audience to theatre. They want to do better. But at this point, all the public has been told is that there have been threats. 

Thoughtful discussions have taken place. But since the company didn't act on them until a week before opening, it meant nothing. And now we are told that because of threats, they're cancelling the production. Despite centuries of debate about the racial politics of Othello, despite all the patient explaining. During the months-long process of putting the show up, no one took any of the thoughtful discussions seriously. 

The threats are terrible. No one should be making threats. But the real story is being glossed over, and people are quite frankly confused that this is how they're dealing with it. We tried to #makeitawkward, but we were unheard.The Walterdale felt awkward, and instead of taking responsibility, they found a way to distract us from the actual issue. And the thoughtful discussion spins on.

Gina Puntil, and her letters
Hello everyone,
I understand that mass emails are not the ideal way to communicate on sensitive issues so I appreciate your patience and grace with this format.
As you may be aware the Walterdale Theatre is producing a production of Othello with a non person of colour playing the role of Othello which I believe is highly problematic.  Which I outlined in a letter that I have sent to their board president after meeting with the artistic director/director of the production.
I encourage you to engage in this conversation.  With the theatre, their board, with the director, with me….
I realize in my letter what I am asking for is big.  However, we are living in a time with a history of people who have promised to do better in the future regarding diversity and inclusion.  I am here still forced to prove that as a person of colour our voice, our presence is worth something in the community.  Action needs to happen now.
Here is the letter that I sent to board president Adam Kuss.  Thank you for taking time to read this.
I am open to continue this conversation.
Gina Puntil

Hi Adam,
I’m sorry about sending this through facebook but it was the only contact that I have for you as the Walterdale Theatre’s board president.
As an artist in the Edmonton community I feel the decision to cast a non person of colour in the role of Othello is highly problematic.  After speaking with Anne Marie on Thursday about my concerns I was pleased to hear about her new awareness to the toxic issues of exclusion, erasure, and whitewashing specific to her choice to cast Linette Smith as Othello.  Gratitude to Nasra Adem for having that conversation with her.  Anne Marie understands that the current outreach for auditions has significant barriers that need to be addressed.  She has expressed that her intention of casting Linette was not to hurt or create issues but the effect has created just the opposite.  These actions are offensive regardless of intent.
I posed the question to her, in her new found awareness and her belief in inclusive spaces, knowing the damage, oppression and disrespect that this is causing within the community, how can you stand behind the production of Othello to continue as it currently cast. I believe that it can not be allowed to continue.  I understand it is the big ask and a hard decision. I asked what would they need in support to delay the show in order to fix a problem that she has now recognized.
Her response was that she couldn’t do that to all the people who worked so hard on the production.  She couldn’t do it to Linette.  She feels it’s too late.

I offered to create space to discuss with all the people who worked so hard on the production with to have a discussion as to why this can not happen as it currently stands.
Again, she feels it’s too late.  She has spoken with her cast and those who wish to drop out can.
After the meeting with her I was unpacking my thoughts of the the 45min that we spent talking, and I am thankful that Anne Marie met with me, but I am left with this analogy:
The people involved in this production of Othello are standing on this plateau and each of them have the people of colour by the fronts of their shirts on the edge of this cliff.  A choice has to be made.  Pull us onto the same safe space that the people of Othello occupy.  Or, fully aware of your discrimination and oppression through whitewashing, let go.  Let us fall because you believe that it’s more important to showcase your work at the expense of a whole community of underrepresented artists.
This is not edgy.  This is wrong.
And unfortunately, this is not new.
I am reminded by a friend that this conscious act of continuing to with this production of Othello as it stands is supporting biases and systems that have been put in place to oppress diverse communities and their voices for centuries.
I don't want to censor her, demean, demoralize or diminish her.  I get her politics, she is coming from a privileged white female perspective.  It's her experience that she is focused on.  But she needs to take it further than her experience, her politics, her privileged viewpoint.  The Walterdale is after all, a community theatre.   Not meant for elitism and white privilege.
I am for people of all genders and diversities playing every and all roles in Shakespeare.  But particularly when a role in that Eurocentric Cannon calls for diversity, it should be a diverse actor in that part.  Point blank.
So I am now looking to the board for an answer to the same questions.
How can the Walterdale Theatre stand behind the production of Othello to continue as it currently cast?
Does the Walterdale Theatre believe that it is acceptable to produce work that supports the toxic history of oppression, erasure, exclusion and whitewashing?
My hope is that the board will use this opportunity to let Walterdale Theatre’s true intent speak through their actions.  The production of Othello cannot continue as it is currently cast.
I am open to continue this conversation.
Gina Puntil
Update, Jarret also puts it more succinctly than I do.

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