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Reflections on Learning at the Volcano Conservatory

Deidre Walton (our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Project Coordinator) shares some thoughts on attending a workshop last week that was part of Volcano Theatre‘s conservatory program.

I am a leader…?

18 sluggish voices raised ever-so-slightly in pitch towards the end of the one-line script, rendering the statement a query. It sort of belied the point. Kinda, a little bit.

No wonder our erstwhile facililtator/trainer, Simeilia Hodge-Dalloway, insisted we say it again, and again, until it sounded like we were at least ready to “fake-it-till-we-make-it”. By the end of our four days together, we were more than ready.

Last week I had the pleasure to join 17 other artists from racialized communities for the Volcano Conservatory’s workshop “Making the Future Present: An Artistic Leadership Intensive for Culturally Diverse Artists”, run by Simeilia, Founder and Managing Director of a London, UK organization called Artistic Directors of the Future. Our group represented diversity on many axes: from across the GTA and as far away as Kitchener-Waterloo and (gasp!) Edmonton; across genres from poetry to theatre to dance; from students and emerging artists to seasoned practitioners; artists, arts administrators and, yes, artistic leaders.

Simeilia, looking fabulous, expounds upon the joys of her work creating access for racialized folks in the theatre sector in the UK. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Fed up with the “old boys’ club” that exists at the leadership level of theatre in the UK, Simeilia started Artistic Directors of the Future (ADF), whose mandate is to support BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) directors at varying levels of experience to inspire, prepare, and empower the next generation of artistic leaders, giving them the leverage they need to progress to the next step, with a laptop, a dream and enough determination to float a boat. Or, a theatre company.

In addition to providing leadership training and mentorship for aspiring BAME AD’s, ADF also runs the Up Next program, in which their members get to “take the keys, take the budgets, take the space and change the game”. You got it: these artists actually get to step into the AD role – with full power and authority – of a major British theatre company for two months. Sink or swim, the incumbent gets to program a season of new work in line with their own artistic vision. Given the phenomenal funding that ADF has been able to procure to sustain the program, it appears that things are going swimmingly.

Things were, perhaps, not quite so rosy for those of us seated in a circle at the Theatre Centre last week. As we took turns around the room giving brief descriptions of our work, it became clear that we WERE a roomful of leaders, despite our reticence. While exploring the barriers that racialized people face in stepping fully and comfortably into an AD role, common themes demonstrated that what we lacked was not skill, innovation or dedication to our art, but rather welcome, trust and confidence.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

The workshop was tailored for our Canadian context: joining Simeilia were Ryan Cunningham (formerly AD of Native Earth Performing Arts) and Marjorie Chan, (currently AD of Cahoots Theatre), who each lent their expertise to the proceedings for a day. The similarities between ours and the British professional theatre sector meant there was lots of relevant overlapping ground, and I for one, was inspired by Simielia’s story of art, action and social change.

The workshop allowed participants the opportunity to name – perhaps for the first time – a creative dream that they wanted to manifest, and get feedback and support from others to help hone that vision, problem solve potential pitfalls, and identify resources and allies. The input of each small group helped to breathe life into our nascent ideas in a supportive and fun atmosphere, and the growing confidence became an almost palpable presence in the room. Once we got going our energy and excitement were activated, allowing each of us to give credence to our ideas. For me, this workshop was a stepping stone from dreaming to planning, and I am grateful to Simeilia, the Volcano team, and my fellow participants for their energies.

I am a leader!

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