What We Celebrate Matters: Our Totems
Vancouver’s professional theatre awards The Jessie’s were last night. Not everyone believes in awards and there are valid questions around equity, metrics, consistency and jury composition but one thing that I’m trying to work on with my own personal artistic practice and community work is celebrating. Celebrating the efforts, work and achievements in the community, our community. It’s also a moment to pay respect and bear witness to the vulnerability and courage of the community. So I go to do just that.
I think the awards also act like a totem, a marker in a place in time of where this community is at. I’m paraphrasing from Best Actor for Small Theatre winner Omari Newton who said in his acceptance speech something to the effect of, “We did it, look we did it.” He was referencing the fact that there were BIPOC’s and LGBTQ2 members all over the stage and that was probably the most powerful moment of the night for me.
These totem’s also mark absences and it’s important we reflect on those. The design nomination categories are still really lacking in bipoc and women, in the large theatre lighting there was not a single female person nominated. I’m also curious as to why we don’t have a Stage Management category? I’m cognizant of when a show is being called seamlessly, or when the set changes are seemingly easy because of the work of the SM crew, I think SM’s and Asst SM’s are some of the hardest working people in the industry and I think they should be honoured and celebrated too. We also still have binary gender categories which is problematic.
I want to say that the lack of diversity and inclusive representation at the Jessie’s is in my opinion not the Jessie’s BOD or jury’s fault, it is a reflection of where the community is at and what people in leadership positions and decision making roles are supporting. If there are no women or non-binary identifying persons nominated in a category for design that is a symptom of a failing sector. Our sector, our community and our problem - we, I am responsible for that and I am going to use the power that I have to work towards real sector equity.
Rumble Theatre took home 6 Jessie Theatre awards for their creation and presentation of The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius. I had the privilege of being the Asst. Director on that piece and I’m really proud of the recognition that show got in particular because of what that show was about. Contextually, I don’t believe and I have never seen a classical work done “true to form”, which means not applying a contemporary lens or without adapting, that needed or needs to be produced today.
I don’t think the damage a classically approached and presented work does is ever worth it. Classic’s in their existence perpetuate a number of oppressive elements: misogyny, white supremacy, patriarchy and racism. Even if you be like “but this show is about love, it’s a love story.” Well ok, but is it love between two white people with no people of colour experiencing love? Or are the POC’s relegated to the help? Are women being portrayed in a way where they lack power and are being shown in perpetual victimhood because the good old days in Eurocentricity women were pieces of property? Whose absent in this? What’s the paradigm of thought in the world you’re presenting? What oppressive pedagogy’s are you forcing and reinforcing?
Which is why I stand and champion Rumble and Colleen Murphy’s loosely based adaptation of Titus because this script attacks all of those oppressive acts. It would be downright racist and misogynistic to present Titus Andronicus as is. Which is why I think Murphy’s approach and execution of it is liberating, vicious and powerful.
The frame of holding this story in a Society for the Destitute, of bouffants who got a $500 grant to put on a play gives the players agency to reclaim and assert themselves in this blood bath. They were able to pop in and out of "Titus" to comment. I could write a whole post about how she did that in the script in a way that was brutally honest, necessary and yet elegantly forceful but here are my 2 fave’s.
Lavinia speaks. Yes, her tongue get’s cut out but she gets a speech, words and the ability to have agency to speak to her violent treatment. It felt necessary and felt great as an audience member to watch and experience. I won’t give away all the ways she gets to communicate, but “oh bloody period” it’s gruesomely good.
My second example is Aaron, the use of the word “moor” which I think is dehumanizing was deliberately taken out of any of the Titus script, never to be referenced. Aaron and the character playing Aaron, Boots who was played by I think one of Canada’s finest performers Sarah Afful, was given lines like, “fuck white people” and instead of keeping Aaron in chains off the top Boots breaks out of them and says, “These chains are bullshit.”
In this script, in this staging, power, agency and freedom were rightfully given to the characters and people who are historically marginalized and racial attacked in Shakespeare’s script. That’s why I was so elated this play got recognized and celebrated for dismantling those oppressive literary structures and narratives.
As Drove put it last night, everyone was so courageous with what this story was trying accomplish, that it was like “jumping out of an airplane and building the parachute on the way down.” That’s the vulnerability and courage that society needs right now from theatre and if it’s the “destitute” that are going to be the ones to demand our attention and hold up the truth so brilliantly, bring it fucking on.
with excitement, humility and gratitude,
p.s limelet to the Jessie juries, the BOD and all the admin staff for creating this celebration and totem. To see a list of all the winners hit this link. To the Rumble staff for making it all happen, Amy for your rigour! A special limelet to Drove for your continued mentorship and friendship. To Murph for the giggles and the daily master classes in writing. To Mump for teaching me invaluable lessons about comedy, risk taking and restraint and to the Society for the Destitute, Pippa, Naomi, Sarah, Craig and Peter, for being so incredibly brave and generous.