BELANGER: Grand Theatre amends mission statement to aid racism fight
E.B. Smith has helped set the stage.
Now it’s time for the Grand Theatre to perform and stamp out systemic racism within the organization and the broader theatre community.
Smith, the actor/director who has delighted Grand audiences with memorable performances in The Mountain Top and Art, has spent the last few months “guiding” the theatre staff on the journey “to disrupt the cycle of oppression, marginalization, and exploitation” and make theatre more equitable.
“I’ve encouraged the staff and board to set their intentions both personally and professionally,” said Smith, the son of a Jewish mother and Black father who run the Cleveland-based firm HC Smith Ltd., an executive search firm that also provides anti-racism and anti-oppression training.
In 2016, while in London rehearsing The Mountain Top, Smith was twice assailed with the N word and has experienced several instances of racism, systemic and overt, over the last decade since arriving in Canada to perform at Stratford Festival, where he’s appeared in about 30 productions.
Smith served on the Grand’s board of directors for nearly two years before stepping down to bring his “unique perspective” to the theatre’s anti-oppression initiative.
Smith said the board and staff have worked to shift their “personal” and “collective” lenses to help in the fight against systemic racism.
Amid the pandemic blackout of performing arts, “what we can and are rehearsing are our administrative practices,” said Smith.
“Using a metaphor that resonates with our theatre community, we are reading the scripts of the past, present, and future; we are rehearsing, taking notes, going back into the ‘rehearsal hall’ and examining how we must put these notes into practice.”
The theatre has adopted an anti-oppression mission statement that is on their website to guide future work and has already brought new people onto its board who better reflect the city’s cultural and ethnic diversity.
“Our board now more clearly reflects the voices of the greater community, and this will allow for richer discussions of the future direction of the Grand,” said Anita Shah, board president and anti-oppression committee member, in a statement.
The theatre has hired a London consultant, Rumina Morris, to provide intensive anti-racism training and implement “necessary steps to establish anti-racist attitudes and practices,” said Deb Harvey, the theatre’s executive director.
“From how we select plays and contract with artists, to how we market, hire, fundraise and interact with our patrons and the community at large, we are identifying and confronting the systemic barriers in all of the work we do,” Harvey said.
“There are many more hard conversations to be had and much more work to be done.”
The battle against systemic racism was ignited anew last spring after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which sparked a wave of protests across the continent, including Canada and London, calling for systemic change.
Smith explained he believes white supremacy is embedded in society, including the theatre, because “other voices” — Black, people of colour and Indigenous — are erased from the stories told on stage, which are mostly written through a “white lens.”
This starts at an early age, such as children playing cowboys and Indians without realizing it’s a story about “eradicating Indigenous people and taking their land . . . reinforcing the concept that Indians are an ever-present threat, an impediment to white progress,” said Smith, adding it will take time and effort to bring the awareness and take the action needed to tackle the issues that uphold systemic racism.
“It’s not about cancel culture,” Smith said. “People tend to assume when we talk about exploitive narratives that we’re talking about cancelling it. It’s not about cancelling it, but about telling the story truthfully, about how, why and what really happened. To put it into proper context.”
He said systemic racism is “as pervasive as the air we breathe, it is the cultural soil in which we are grown and therefore we must work to be aware of it and disrupt it.”
Smith said the Grand must keep examining all its practices to ensure it is welcoming to all people, from what they see when they walk into the theatre to what they see and hear on stage.
The process is already having an impact on the Grand’s operations. Recently, the theatre held general auditions that drew 400 applicants and “we saw more diversity in the applications,” said artistic director Dennis Garnhum.
Another example is Garnhum’s decision to abandon the musical Starlight Tours, which he conceived and was developing until the sudden death of playwright Cathy Elliott. The show was to tell the story of police in Saskatoon who were picking up First Nations people, driving them to the city limits and abandoning them at roadside in winter, leading to several deaths.
As it was being workshopped, Garnhum said it became clear his vision may be hurtful to Indigenous people.
On a practical level, Garnhum said he welcomes the challenge to change and is “grateful” for the opportunity to make change, for instance, taking time to explain to audiences the importance of stage works not written through the lens of a white person.
“I have to prepare audiences better, so that it’s not something to be afraid of, but to be curious about,”he said.
Smith said he’s “proud” of what the Grand is working on. “I’m really proud of how far the Grand has come and where they are headed and I’m very confident in their leadership.”