At long last summer is here, and as the temperature rises it’s a great opportunity to sit in my air-conditioned office and take a few minutes to reflect and plan for the future. It is no secret that theatre companies and theatre artists around the province are grappling with the wicked challenge of building audiences for the future, and engaging with our audiences in new and exciting ways. There are many factors impacting audience development, including an uncertain economy, seismic technological changes, and shifting demographics. As I meet with people in large and small communities around the province, the question of engaging with diverse communities is a common thread to many conversations. At Theatre Ontario, we are always looking for ways to help our members proactively respond to challenges, and while there are no simple solutions, there are certainly a number of avenues that we can explore collectively, which is what inspired us to partner with the Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario (CPAMO) to present a panel discussion at our annual general meeting on Diversity, Engagement, and Inclusion in Theatre, with a goal of exploring some positive strategies for engaging with diverse communities.
The panel discussion was moderated by charles c. smith, who in addition to being a published poet, playwright, and essayist, is a lecturer on Cultural Pluralism in the Arts at the University of Toronto Scarborough as well as being the Program Lead of CPAMO. In his remarks, charles stated that an important aspect of cultural pluralism is “about unpacking those stories that all of us can connect to. We're all in the process of ‘trying to know.’”
This was a terrific opportunity for everyone who attended to hear the compelling and inspiring stories of the panelists: Yvette Nolan, Ravi Jain, Trevor Schwellnus, and Soheil Parsa, each of whom are busy theatre artists from diverse backgrounds who have navigated a unique path in the theatre sector by building inclusive practices and strong collaborative relationships.
Our panelists agreed that theatre is gradually becoming more intercultural, and that by working within each other’s communities our resources can go further, especially when funding resources are shifting. Ethno cultural theatres are often more focused on community engagement—engaging with the broader community. Our panelists believe that there is a tremendous opportunity for collaboration and partnership for theatre companies with each other and with the communities that surround them—partnering to produce theatre that represents the story and voice of the community.
Without doubt theatre is a dynamic art form that is continually evolving, telling our stories in new and innovative ways—it is a constant and exciting process of exploration, looking at different perspectives as part of the creative process, but also as part of the process of engaging with our audiences in a meaningful way. A point that I found compelling and was emphasized by each of the panelists was that need to step back and take another point of view or perspective when we engaging with diverse communities, whether they be ethno-cultural, geographic, seniors, or communities with disabilities:
- Are we telling their story? In other words, do the plays we perform resonate with the people that live and work in the communities around us?
- Are the plays we are performing in a language that the community can understand?
- Does our audience understand the conventions of attending the theatre, for example, picking up tickets prior to performance time?
- Are we accessible to the community? For example, is transportation or parking an issue? Is our marketing and outreach in a language or format that is readily understood by the audience/community we are trying to engage with?
- Have we included members of the community in our volunteer group/paid staff to help us better respond?
- Do the actors on our stages reflect the people that live and work in our community?
For myself, I am looking forward to continuing these important discussions and helping to bring similar panel discussions to other communities across the province. I look forward to coming together, and challenging ourselves to look at theatre as well as the communities in which we create and perform our work, from a different perspective that just might open new and exciting opportunities to build our audiences and share unique theatrical experiences.