As two independent blogger collectives, both New Ottawa Critics and ourselves are inspired by what theatrically is happening beyond our borders. Each month, we will correspond with all the latest happenings in our cities. This is an opportunity to learn, be inspired, communicate and collaborate! This month, the New Ottawa Critics talk to us about initiatives currently being set up to help diversify the arts.
Dear Lucy and Theatre Full Stop,
It’s been a little while hasn’t it? Summer has come and gone in a blink of an eye and Fall is in full swing here in Canada. It may only be three-and-a-half months into our new theatre season here in Ottawa but there’s already been so much to do and see that we’ve hardly known what to do with ourselves! A major motivator behind all this has got to be Ottawa’s most recent push towards showcasing more diversity on its local stages.
Ottawa, sitting on the south bank of the Ottawa River in the eastern portion of Southern Ontario, is largely seen as the political centre of Canada. Bordering Gatineau, Quebec, the two cities form the uniquely bilingual core of the Ottawa-Gatineau metropolitan area and the National Capital Region. Given its geographical location, Ottawa is made up of an interesting amalgamation of public servants, university/college students, and international ambassadors. Having built itself up on a solid foundation of community theatre (the Ottawa Little Theatre, for example, is currently in its 105th season and is one of the most well-attended theatres in the city), Ottawa often suffers criticism of having a somewhat lacklustre local professional theatre scene. Not to mention that the heavy focus on keeping arts linguistically balanced between French and English communities has made way for a predominant focus on more Eurocentric styles of performance (and lots of Shakespeare).
In the last few years though Ottawa appears to be undergoing a change in perspective. As the political centre in Canada, the city sees more than its fair share of protests- perhaps none more immediate than the #decolonize150 movement that came up in direct response to the numerous (and often government-subsidized) events happening across the country this past year in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation. Canada, you see, has an incredibly troubled relationship with acknowledging our treatment (both past and present) of this country’s Indigenous peoples and the idea behind #decolonize150 was to highlight the hypocrisy of celebrating Confederation when it came at the cost of mass oppression and cultural genocide. Moreover, there appears to be an unfortunate underbelly of xenophobia at work in this country which has come to manifest itself in some new legislation; namely Bill-C62 in the province of Quebec, prohibiting anyone from covering their face while giving or receiving public service (undeniably aimed at Muslim women, as anyone who lives in Canada knows that our faces are 99% covered from December through to April given that Canadian winters don’t mess around). There are, however, those who are starting to fight back against racism and Ottawa’s artists are beginning to realize their responsibility to help broaden their community’s collective horizons.
One tiny yet hugely significant gesture, first started by the National Arts Centre (NAC) and now carried on by almost every theatre house in the city, names and acknowledges the traditional territory that remains to this day unceded by the Algonquin peoples before each and every show. While, on one hand, it might be argued that this feels a bit like lip service to some degree; the fact that it happens with such frequency and regularity means that it will undoubtedly be drilled into the heads of regular theatre-goers who will then pass that information on (or ‘cross-pollinate’, if you will) to others. Not to mention that there is power in naming the Algonquin as the original caretakers of this area of land because of the subtext that suggests the institution of the NAC is only here because of our bloody history as colonizers.
What is more, is that the NAC, in conjunction with the English Theatre and Théâtre Français streams, now has a dedicated Indigenous Theatre stream with renowned actor and playwright Kevin Loring at the helm as Artistic Director. For the first time (according to my research anyways) Ottawa will see a professional theatre that not only caters narratively to the Indigenous experience but expressly features the work of Indigenous individuals. This, for me, is huge. Not only does it offer professional work to those who have, historically, been underrepresented in this community but it will give Ottawa’s predominantly white middle-class audiences something to learn about (given that the history of our Indigenous communities was by all intents and purposes stricken from our history textbooks) while simultaneously attracting brand new demographics of spectators who may not have attended the theatre before given the lack of programming they felt spoke to them.
In a similar vein, one local theatre festival has explicitly set out a new mandate geared towards making the event more inclusive and accessible for BIPoC artists and artists living with disabilities. The Fresh Meat DIY Theatre Festival, in the past, has been criticized for featuring line-ups comprised mostly of Caucasian artists. In a Digital Town Hall titled “Ottawa Theatre So White” the team behind Fresh Meat chose to acknowledge their shortcomings, looked to the community for assistance, and created a tangible (and realistic) action plan moving forward. This included (but is certainly not limited to) a more stringent dedication to community outreach and the creation of a blind jury to help curate the 2017 festival programming.
The result was incredibly well-received by the majority of the Ottawa theatre community. This year saw the inclusion of pieces like Le Crip Bleu which is a burlesque act performed by two men who use power wheelchairs which pushed all sorts of boundaries in regards to sex and sexuality, disability, and the genre of burlesque itself; In-Between, which had performers Helen Thai and Franco Pang relay an incredibly beautiful story of two siblings trying to navigate the waves of South Asian diaspora while the performance itself is being ‘timed’ alongside a rice cooker cooking rice; and In-Sight, a short movement piece whereby monocular performer Geoffrey Dollar attempts to show audiences the inexplicable feeling of losing one of your senses through music and dance. Though it can hardly be said that Fresh Meat has “solved” the racism problem in Ottawa (and they don’t claim to have done so by any means), these first steps are super encouraging for not only the Fresh Meat Festival but also for Ottawa’s theatre community at large.
What we can glean from these two examples is that Ottawa is ready to see something different on our stages and that we no longer only want to see ourselves reflected onstage (as in, we are starting to move past the whole ‘I only identify with people who look like me’ thing). Though we still have loads of work to do in this regard (getting some BIPoC critics in Ottawa is another avenue of interest and import, though that’s a whole other letter), the groundwork is definitely being laid down.
Looking forward to your next letter!
Brie McFarlane and the New Ottawa Critics
Webmistress & Critic
New Ottawa Critics
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