Ovalhouse Executive Producer Stella Kanu talks about this year’s #CONNECT: Black Women in Theatre event

Stella Kanu

We’re living in a time where changes within the industry are proving incredibly significant; conversations around making theatre accessible and a lot more diversified are greatly prominent. There’s a feeling that within the next few years that theatre will truly reflect its audience, both on and off stage. It’s a very exciting time and offers hope to many who perhaps wouldn’t have thought theatre was a space for them, due to the feeling of theatre being an elitist art form. Many initiatives are shaping our landscape, one of which – #CONNECT: Black Women in Theatre offers a space for black creatives within the theatre industry to contemplate various issues to further advocate change. Founder and Executive Producer of the initiative, Stella Kanu tells us more about the event’s second year!

Hi Stella, you’ve recently hosted #CONNECT: Black Women in Theatre at the Ovalhouse; a celebration of women of colour within the industry. How was the evening?

Curated by Winsome Pinnock and backed by a panel of the most badass Black Women in Theatre the evening was exciting, genuinely inspiring and full of the most amazing women in our sector on the stage and in the audience! It really was a chance to see people who you hadn’t seen for ages, talk face to face with names you had maybe only read about and listening to phenomenal points of view from respected theatre professionals at all levels of their careers. Everyone left on a high and with some serious food for thought – we got to talk about some really challenging things like how do we take care of ourselves in a time that requires we do more and do it better in less time!

The event is in its second year, having received a positive reception last year. What did you learn from last year’s event that helped to shape this year?

Last year we rode on the excitement of the concept, this time we knew that people would show up. From feedback we knew that women really related to the sense of safety in the space, and that it was a real space where real things would be felt and said. We learnt that celebration is so needed among us all, as well as having every career level represented and every career level heard.

What inspired you to create the event?

When I joined Ovalhouse there was two other black woman working there, Annika Brown is now at Stratford East but at the time had been at Ovalhouse for 8 years and Naomi Shoba is now at Creative Scotland. Over the last 4 years we have recruited 5 other black women so we began to talk about our networks and shared our experiences of the sector. Including myself that’s 8 black women and me in a leadership role. That’s got to be unheard of! We also refreshed our freelance practitioner pool and reached new places with recruitment, bringing on board record numbers of black female facilitators. The spotlight can be on you from within your organization but outside it you can still be invisible or hidden away. It was really refreshing to share knowledge and think about how the political dimensions of Black Girl Magic and Black Lives Matter might have relevance in the theatre sector just by sheer numbers we began to see how visibility was really important and empowering, not or the diversity agenda but for ourselves. It’s like our informal conversations burst and grew!

This year’s event was curated by critically acclaimed and award winning playwright Winsome Pinnock. How, alongside Learning and Participation Manager, Titi Dawudu have you worked together to organise the evening?

We talked and talked and talked! We gave Winsome free reign really to really think about what she would like to create. If she could create any space what would it be? and what would she want to say to the tens of women we know will show up? She was amazing and really chose a theme, (What or who nurtures you?), that everyone fell in love with. Titi and I focused on creating the right atmosphere and making sure we prepped the whole organisation for the event. The success of every event is when everyone gets on board and this one was no different. From Theatre to Front of House to Marketing we have had support from everybody at Ovalhouse. We sat in a dark room to contemplate the panel questions though- fell down the rabbit hole a few times, saved by tea and cake!

Key questions formed the basis for the evening’s talks, these questions were:

*What does the recent ground-breaking number of BAME artistic appointments mean for black women artists/ leaders?

*Does experience matter?

*What does it mean to celebrate black women’s contribution to theatre?

*What is the future for black women in theatre?

*How do women overcome the gatekeepers and those that do not want to see progress?

*Does visibility count?

What were responses towards these questions?

What was beautiful about the panelists answers is how personalised they made them. They all felt like real responses, so they were sharing parts of themselves as well as imparting the wisdom of their experience. There is a lot to celebrate about recent artistic appointments, we gave everyone a shout out and a cheer! What everyone wanted is more. We all want to see steady, forward thinking financially secure, well governed venues in the hands of capable, resilient and innovative black women like ourselves. We know that will flow down to artists and audiences. The future is not without its struggle but it is bright. Not all questions are answerable but the fact we are willing to ask ourselves the hard questions, together is really something to celebrate.

What do you hope attendees take away from the evening?

Anything that gives them confidence to try or try again. To feel they are part of an amazing legacy and future that will continue to open up for them whenever they say yes. The images and names of over 130 black women in theatre over the last 40-50 years right up to last week should remain etched on their brains!

Are there plans for #CONNECT: Black Women in Theatre event next year?

We do want to make this a regular event – we might want to travel to other venues and spread the love, especially when we move out of our current building at the end of this year.

What advice would you give to any aspiring theatre creatives?

Try and stay loving what you do, find others who love it too. Talk to people and always be in a position to learn from people who demonstrate the best in human behavior. This can be a challenging industry but at its best it can be like magic and alchemy rolled into one.

This year’s #CONNECT: Black Women in Theatre event took place on Wednesday 6th march 2019 at the Ovalhouse Theatre. To find out more about the event, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop