PACTcon2019 Plenary: Work in Progress…
Saturday, May 25, 2019
Keri Mitchell (Theatre Alberta), Melissa Tsang (Arts Club Theatre Company), & Colin Wolf
Transcribed by Melissa Tsang
Transcription is of Colin Wolf’s Presentation
Good Morning again! Hello! Again, my name is Keri Mitchell, my pronouns are she, her, hers, I’m the Executive Director of Theatre Alberta, I live in Edmonton, further west in Treaty 6 Territory.
And my name is Melissa.. [woah, that’s loud!] my name is Melissa Tsang and I’m the Producer at the Arts Club Theatre Company, located on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɁɬ (Tseil-Waututh) Nations. (For those of you who don’t know, because I didn’t at first, the word “unceded” means there was no treaty. Unceded means that the land was never surrendered, relinquished, or handed over in any agreement.)
Melissa and I – in the spirit of this year’s conference theme Work In Progress, were asked to look ahead 10 years. “How are works of theatre created in Canada in 10 years? What steps can we make towards progress of that vision now?” In our initial conversations – we talked about a whole bunch of ideas including, mostly the interconnectivity of society and our organizations, and mostly our responsibilities to our communities.
In our limited time on how we can “work in progress” towards change now, we’ve distilled it down to two ideas: 1) Make your organizational strategies, societal strategies. And strategies, as you know, they are not just limited to artistic programming or audience development but guide all that you do– including the structure and systems for communication and dialogue – like this session right now. And, 2) I found this quote earlier this week which more eloquently expresses what we wanted to say, (because I’m not an actor!): “Practice paying attention. To change what you see, change how (and to whom) you listen”.
We recognize that, like many others in this room, Keri and I are privileged; we work for organizations with a voice, or are in positions of power. If we just stood up and talked, we’d be privileged members talking to mostly other privileged members.
So for this morning, and as Brittany so beautifully segued for us, Melissa and I have chosen to give this time and this space to local independent artist Colin Wolf to tell you about his art making, his dreams, and his perspective.
Colin Wolf is the co-founder of Thumbs Up Good Work Theatre, a company that produces across Treaties 6 and 7, primarily in Mohkinstsis, Amiskwaciwâskahikan, and Sâskwatôn. He is also a baker of fine breads and pastries. Please join us in welcoming, Colin Wolf.
Hello everyone. (This is an okay volume? This works? Great!)
Thank you Keri and Melissa for welcoming me to this space, and thank you both for giving me space to feel safe expressing this.
I was born and raised on treaty 7 in Calgary, Alberta in the Northeast of Calgary, (as I already said, Calgary), in Martindale. My mum, an accountant, from Athabasca, BC, and my dad, a stay at home dad, from Picton Ontario. Neither of them will tell you that they were raised there, but that is where they are from. I’ve been told I’m very lucky to have a white dad. My moms side is Metis, from Lac Labiche, North of Edmonton on treaty 6. The first time I went there was with the Alberta Workers Health Centre with Gina Puntil, and it is a memory I carry very dearly in my heart. The first time I felt heard as an indigenous artist, and producer and theatre maker, was talking with Yvette Nolan in university, the week before she was brought up in my theatre class. She didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know who she was, and she took the time to listen to me. I have a BFA from the University of Lethbridge. My grandpa spoke Cree, and I have no memory of him speaking it. My mum and aunties are starting to learn Cree and I couldn’t be more proud of them. We’re all going down our different paths to reconnecting to our indigeneity.
I work mostly in the prairies, splitting my work between Calgary, Edmonton, and Saskatoon, and on some occasions, Regina. My first time meeting the community here, in Saskatoon, was through their Fringe, which was the first time I produced a play with my sister, the first time we worked as Thumbs Up Good Work Theatre. Since then I’ve been back many times to work with Live Five Theatre, Sum Theatre, The Salt Baby Collective, and many of my dear colleagues in this city.
I have been told, mostly by white people, that I am lucky. I have training from a colonial house, the University of Lethbridge. Where folks say “don’t those Indians have a reserve they’re supposed to be living on?” Where profs tell you, “If you tan you could look like a real Indian and you can get one of those cultural advisor positions at one of those big houses.”
Our training systems are colonial. Our post secondaries are colonial. Our theatres are colonial. My advice to young marginalised artists going through these programs, and what I would have said to myself, is “Good Luck, Armor up”.
That’s it. I hope the best for them, I hope they don’t get crushed, I hope they don’t bear the brunt of a racist society peering down on how they don’t fit the colonial theatre mold of what an artist should be. I mean bodies, I mean skin colour, disability, wealth class, I mean all of it.
My advice to marginalized artists finishing their training and starting to audition? Armor up. It’s harder.
My sister and I graduated from our training programs battered and bruised (not quite lucky enough to come out unscathed), and decided to start our company, Thumbs Up Good Work Theatre. We did a fringe tour and we were just learning how to be Metis artists. We held bake sales and asked our aunties for donations. Thankfully, I’ve got about a thousand aunties and I’m a very good baker.
Around this time, I was invited to audition for a regional theatre company for an indigenous role, and also a white role, kind of a joint audition thing. And immediately after my monologue I was asked, “How has being indigenous affected your life and your art? How do you find it is working as an indigenous artist? What’s it like that’s different from being a white person?” I fumbled over some comments about struggles, not wanting to point out the irony that one my biggest struggles is feeling dehumanized in exactly this situation, exactly what this person was doing to me. I fumbled through something about not wanting to complain, not waiting to whine too much or sound too negative, knowing in my heart, that this was costing me, and it would keep costing me. But I’m very lucky. I went to university as a half-breed in a polarized city. I know how to keep my head down and I know, I was taught, I was told, when to bite my tongue. He said, “Don’t worry. The scene’s changed, those things aren’t really a problem anymore.”
Five years ago.
These things, he said, These things aren’t an issue. My experiences, so far, as an Indigenous artist, the specific experience they were asking for, which I think is illegal but I don’t really know. Did I not tell the right story? Was I not noble savage enough? Should I have talked more about mental illness, alcoholism, smudging? Maybe I should have said I love to use theatre to share my culture with white people? Are my experiences as an Indigenous artist just exceptions? Are other Indigenous artists having a better time? Is it easier for other artists? Maybe it was just Lethbridge? Maybe I… This spiral lasted for days.
I shared this experience with a handful of white peers I still felt close with. I was told I was Lucky to have gotten to audition.
I went back to indie producing with my sister, who I love and trust! I only work for other people who I trust. I rarely submit for auditions for companies in this house because of these experiences. I rarely apply to positions, whether they are Indigenous or for artistic producer because of these experiences.
By 2015, Thumbs Up Good Work Theatre had attracted a small group of folk who wanted to little indie projects together with us. Mostly misfits. It was important that we do our best to compensate them fairly for them time and efforts and the bake sales just weren’t cutting it anymore. And so we decided to apply for a grant. We needed funding for a 1 week run with a short rehearsal. Before pen could touch paper, we were having a 2 week conversation on if we were indigenous enough to apply for indigenous funding. We never ending up submitting that grant. We got 80% of the way through it before we gave up, for our own health.
Instead, I started a gardening company. I was 23, and I could sell my back and my knees to pay my peers to make their work. I run it with my wife, and my Cousin. For the last 3 years, I used the gardening company profits to seed projects, pay fees for our small productions, and keep my rent paid, while I try to tackle the unpaid work that always comes with trying to produce.
For our most recent project, and our largest project, The Born Again Crow, written by my sister, scored by my brother in Law, and production managed by my wife, we did apply for funding. At the municipal, federal, and provincial levels. I emailed one granting board to seek advice on if I should apply for an indigenous stream or not because I felt, well last time, it was my fault. I didn’t seek the right help. I should look for more help. So I emailed them. Their response was short and sweet. “You’re the indigenous person, shouldn’t you know if it’s indigenous or not?” Indigenous or not. I’m a half-breed so that rings really sharp in my ears. For me to access funding, the first thing I have to do is dehumanize myself. For me to submit for positions at many companies, the first thing I have to do is dehumanize myself.
I didn’t respond. I almost didn’t submit that grant. In the end I did. I did submit it. Since I don’t know who MY elders are, I submitted for the “Normal Funding” at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels and I got ¾ of our funding. The reaction from my white peers? – my “Normal” peers?- “Why did you apply for OUR funding, don’t you have Indigenous funding you’re supposed to apply for?”
And getting the grants would not have mattered without the $2000 donated from my gardening company, and the money my aunties donated, all the $2000 of pie bake sales that I did over Christmas, we wouldn’t have been able to pay deposits on anything because not a single penny of those grants came before our deposits at venues were due. My wife and I took on that financial burden for 4 months and just lived in poverty until the grant funding came in. This is my reality of producing theatre right now for me and in my future.
Working class artists have awesome ideas, and we have folk in our circles who have incredibly artistic ideas. But we don’t have space to explore it, and to nurture it.
Big spaces sit empty, rehearsal halls, performance spaces, offices, backrooms. And I have been asked by some folks who are trying to address this problem at larger organizations, “What is the space that will be most useful to you? How can we grant it to you?” All of the spaces will be useful to me. I could use any space offered to my advantage. I run my theatre out of the same living room I run my gardening company, hang out with my friends, do respite care for my cousins, feed my family, all of it. Any space would be a game changer for me.
So yesterday and today I came up with 10 Game Changers for Space for things that you can do that would change my life as an artist, and I definitely recommend connecting with your communities to see what they say.
Ok, 10 Game Changers for Space I came up with yesterday and today (or fairly low risk bones you could throw us)
1 hour in any room with access to your wifi and a printer
2 hours talking to your staff about best practices, marketing, producing, development.
3 hours of community connection hosted in your lobby
4 hours in a boardroom for us to write grants, proposals, and plays.
1 day in a large room to experiment on our feet with our current project
3 afternoons in your rehearsal hall when you aren’t using it to hold indie theatre company auditions
A share on your Facebook page about indie people in your scene that are doing stuff? That would be really awesome.
Access to your workshops with your staff to safely build our sets so we aren’t in our cousin’s shed until 4am in minus 38 because we don’t have tools or workspace or anyone who knows how to fucking build anything.
Big houses leading difficult conversations through funding, space, mediation, community building, without the need for first being petitioned to do it by at risk community members.
Was that ten? I think that’s ten.
It took me 2 days to come up with this, on a whim, not thinking too hard about it. I definitely recommend, get your communities together, get the people who aren’t invited to your room and ask them about these things. Emerging artists, future arts administrators, marginalized artists, excluded artists, hidden artists, together in a room to brainstorm game changers for space like this. You will be surprised what you learn and I’m sure we will be surprised by how much you want to help us. I’m sure we will.
This is also, quickly, to say, that if your company gives free space to your handful of darlings who are new and young, but not to people who challenge your organization, and you give everyone else the cold shoulder, you are creating a culture of copies and that is not community building. You are finding the people who won’t challenge you, the people who won’t do the labour that is required of turning such big ships.
I am told often by folks that big ships are the slowest to turn. Well, they are also the easiest to let drift on the same course, in my opinion. Let us in. Let us help be the crew that turns your ships and breathe life into your empty rooms.
We all fail or succeed together. In my opinion, theatre is in a rough way. You want fully developed, nuanced, experienced artists applying for your mainstage shows, and your administration, and leadership positions? Let us in, show us how you work. Let us show you how we work. Put us on your mainstage, host a resident company, share our shit on facebook, buy our baked goods, make honest efforts to see our work, challenge us, and let us challenge you. We can disagree but please do not disengage.
I truly believe that we all need 40 mentors, 100 colleagues, and a 1000 peers, and these positions need to constantly be shifting.
I was very recently told that some of the people here are lucky to witness the radical change that is happening within these walls.
In my eyes, in ten years Theatre will be essentially the same as it is now, if we don’t make active, bold, radical choices about who and what we are putting on our stages, and in our leadership positions. It is going to take risk. It is going to be fucking hard. It is going to cost us more than just money. We will make mistakes. All of us.
But without action now, without meaningful support, without a change in the inherent way we treat each other, without open access to space, without meaningful action to show, marginalized communities that they are welcome, celebrate it and protect it, in your spaces, without that meaningful change now. This week, this month, this season, I can tell you right now, that I personally will not be interested in what is happening in this room, in ten years.
We are only wrapping up for a quick moment to tell you about a local organization that Colin has suggested and recommended to us called Lighthouse, here in Saskatoon. The website is lighthousesaskatoon.org. So if you’ve been inspired by what Colin had to say, he has requested that we direct contributions for our time in this land to lighthousesaskatoon.org.
We also wanted to thank… thank you very much to Colin!