Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Darwin Lyons

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Darwin Lyons begins training in directing with Ravi Jain at Why Not Theatre in Toronto

(February 15, 2018)

This blog post was written three weeks ago, before the start of Animal Farm Rehearsals.

If I had been writing this blog post one month ago, it would have gone something like this: I have admired Ravi Jain’s work for a long time, I am very grateful to receive a grant to be mentored by him, and I am excited to turn a corner in my career where I focus on directing. That is all still true. In that blog post I would not have shared my quiet hesitation of working at Soulpepper. Or the conversation with myself that said: I trust Ravi and I want to work with him, I think Animal Farm will be an exciting project, not pursuing this opportunity simply because I don’t feel that Soulpepper is a safe place doesn’t feel fair to me.

Diana Bentley, Kristin Booth, Patricia Fagan, and Hannah Miller (whose claims in their civil suit against Albert Schultz and Soulpepper I believe) have allowed me to write something different. Thank you for this opportunity. I worked in Soulpepper’s box office right out of theatre school. Through the little box office window I saw examples of a lot of the behaviour that has now come out of the shadows. It made me feel very uncomfortable. I also saw the amount of financial security Soulpepper seemed to have. The financial success of Soulpepper is one of the things that make it such a tempting place to work, our capitalist society means that we cannot survive without income. The leadership at Soulpepper can give the promise of income in an industry where there is no job security because it is financially solvent. That is an incredible amount of power. As Ravi said on Metro morning, "Soulpepper’s privilege has protected them from a lot of scrutiny."

The stories that these brave women shared struck me as both horrific and mundane. Horrific because seeing these acts in print made me recognize them as not OK, mundane because I recognize the events. I, like almost every woman I know, in any industry, have experienced my own versions of these events. This story breaks into a cross section of art, gender, artistic employment, power, job security, human resources, capitalism and non-for profit structures. I am going to focus on what it clarified for me as a woman, an artist, and someone who lives in capitalism. What started on a global scale with Harvey Weinstein getting fired was made personal to me through this story. These brave women allowed me to go through past experiences I have had with new eyes. Experiences like, for example: being inappropriately touched by a man in power, trying to complain, then being told that nothing would happen if I complained anonymously, that I would have to complain publicly for any action to be taken, knowing from observation that a public complaint would come with a barrage of shit I didn’t feel strong enough to withstand, and finally the eventual self-censoring where I convinced myself this was part of my job. I didn’t feel like I had a choice. These women allowed me to look at my past and say: it felt wrong, and it was. This has been huge.

My whole career I have had a troubling conversation with myself: I don’t want to be treated like a sexual object, but it seems like that is the only value I have. When I smile politely at advances from powerful colleagues, I am given job opportunities, when I am outspoken, I am labeled as irritating and I am not offered future jobs. I always wished that my value lay in my ideas and skills, but believing that to be true involved ignoring all the sensory input I received in the world. It seemed like my choice was be valued for my body, or don’t be valued at all.

I remember the first time I directed a play. I was in grade 12, and I was directing a sweet one-act comedy. It had a series of intricate gags that took us a while to work out. I felt comfortable leading the team, because the team was comprised of my friends, and it seemed understood that the only difference between them and myself was that I was on the outside watching, and they were on the inside experiencing. I remember hearing the audience laugh and thinking: it worked! The audience is connecting with us! This happened three months before I attended theatre school as an actor. Actually pursuing directing didn’t really cross my mind. There are many reasons for that, but looking back I think one of them was: I didn’t know how to be the one in charge, I mean I did that with my friends but… I didn’t see a path for me to do that professionally.

I came to a point in my career where I felt like my choices were: quit, stay and turn off the part of me that feel uncomfortable, or try to change the industry. Despite all its failings I still love this industry, at its best theatre is an opportunity to connect meaningfully with other humans, something I find worthwhile. Changing the status quo is harder than I imagined.

When I was able to articulate to myself that I wanted to live in a different world, in a world where my ideas and skills were valued above my body, and where I had autonomy over my body, I started to brainstorm ways I could make that happen.

Let’s take a side step. What is power? The clearest definition I have come across is: power is choice. If you are in a position of power, you get to choose the course of action. Now, people can get sneaky about the semantics of this. So let’s be clear, if one of the “choices” includes death, loss of home security, loss of food security, loss of personal autonomy or control over one’s physical body, that doesn’t count as a choice. If one of the choices includes the chooser being slightly uncomfortable, not being seen in the best light, having to work harder, or not getting exactly what they want, that is still a choice. So. If I wanted to change the status quo, I had to find a way to be the one making the choices. I began to seek out circumstances where I would have a say. Producing and directing became clear paths.

My cumulative life experience and anger at some of those experiences made me say: even if it is scary, I want a hand in making these decisions.

I went through a series of experiences where I learned on my feet, and in that learning I kept butting up against this thought: all the examples I see of people having power seem… not ideal. One person making all the decisions? There’s no way that one person isn’t going to crumble under that pressure, begin to feel like they are shouldering all the weight and stop checking their privilege. We as humans need a new system.

I started experimenting with new systems, systems of joint decision-making, collective creation, collective producing and consensus. There are many exciting artists experimenting with new systems (and have been for a long time, even if those systems haven’t always made it into the mainstream), I tried to seek out those artists to work with. This was exciting, but could at times be messy. A new system requires more time than the shoestring budget of indie theatre can often afford. Capitalism: halting meaningful progress.

I was the Artistic Producer of The Paprika Festival for two years. That is the organization with the highest profile that I’ve had a leadership position at. Paprika runs upwards of seven free programs for youth on an annual budget that is smaller than a single persons’ modest salary. So many amazing staff work and have worked there and give so much more than they are paid to give. We do that because we consider the work extremely worth doing, but time and again we are limited by our budget. There are moments I wasn’t able to live up to my ideal of leadership because there was too much to pay attention to and too few resources. As I was in the position of leadership, I know I had the most power, I know those slip-ups were my fault. Ultimately I couldn’t continue and stay healthy.

Around this time a play I co-created and co-produced was accepted into Why Not Theatre’s Riser Project. I had met Ravi ten years before; he was leading an educational exchange to Nairobi, Kenya that I was participating in. The Riser Project is an example of what I had seen when I first met him, a constant nudging of the status quo. There aren’t enough platforms for independent artists to make their own work? Create a platform. There aren’t enough roles for people of colour? Cast Salt Water Moon with people of colour. There aren’t enough roles for women? Cast a woman as Hamlet. And what was more I found his work artistically exciting, and it seemed financially viable. This seemed like the perfect person to learn from. I asked Ravi if I could assistant direct one of his upcoming shows if I found funding and we agreed on applying with Animal Farm, a show that deals with the innate corrupting force of power.

In the status quo rehearsal room the director has the most power. This means that even if I try to upend that dynamic as a director, I have to recognize that I am in the position that has, in the past, been the default power position, that means that it still comes with privilege. It is up to the director to make sure the room is safe. I already am a person who has a lot of privilege, and need to be constantly listening to those with less privilege to make sure that I am not blindly abusing my position. In this new moment, I am making a promise to myself (and an invitation to all my colleagues) to listen when I make a mistake and to voice when I see a mistake being made. That is the only way I see for us to use this moment for positive change.

Fast forward to now, working on Animal Farm will require me to work at an institution that I am not convinced has rid itself of its corruption, an institution that is in a moment of great upheaval, and has some very big choices to make. I won’t lie I feel trepidations. There are some great steps being taken at Soulpepper, and there is a long way to go. Now that, for the first time in my life, it seems possible to live and work in a world where women’s voices are respected I don’t want to support an institution that hasn’t. I don’t want to find myself in more situations where I feel the need to compromise my voice. But Diana Bentley, Kristin Booth, Patricia Fagan, and Hannah Miller have given me a gift, the gift is that now, when I feel that something is wrong, I know to trust myself. And that gift allows me to walk into any space and know I have a choice.

Related Reading:

  • (ED. NOTE: You can read the response from the Theatre Ontario Board of Directors to the lawsuits filed by members of the theatre community against Albert Schultz and Soulpepper Theatre Company on our website.)
The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is March 1, 2018.

Learn more about Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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