How Theater on the Prairie envisions a just and inclusive future

The reckoning of anti-Black racism, colonialism and inequality in our precarious post-pandemic world is immense, drastic and unprecedented in recent times in various sectors including the theater sector in Canada.

Theater is a social practice, meaning it is both inherently collaborative and plays a critical role in helping communities articulate, understand, and address the pressing social struggles of their time.

As a social practice, theater must reflect and respond to the dynamics of a changing society. It is imperative that the performance sector engages with the critical and ethical questions of racism, identity, representation, colonialism and systemic change.

As prairie-focused researchers, we knew that industry participation was critical to this work. We brought together theater professionals from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta to reflect on the impact of the times we live in and to envision pathways to a just and inclusive future.

Avery Hunt, Bongani Musa and Jadav Cyr in a scene from The Borne Settee directed by Kathryn Bracht in 2019. The production had students from the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana in Mexico City provide live streamed sound.
(AV service/University of Regina), Author provided (no reuse)

About future prairie theater

The Future Prairie Theater project was a series of community-centered conversations with independent theater artists and representatives from theater institutions.

It focused on the need to rethink and rebuild the prairie theater sector in a pandemic world.

One of the authors of this story, Taiwo, invited Prairie artists and theater companies to reinvent theater for the post-pandemic world as one aspect of the work as a theater practitioner and researcher at the University of Regina.

The nature of the project prompted it to partner with various organizations, including the University of Calgary, where Christine, one of the co-authors, teaches.

Discussions with participants took place via Zoom in a series of 10 meetings from October 2021 to March 2022. On average, 33 participants attended each session.

The intention of the sessions was to engage the community in an ethical way, to reflect together on the past and present conditions of both the artist and the sector, and to envision ways in which problems could be addressed. Four main themes emerged.

Character actors seen on a stage: To the right of the frame appears to be a cis-gendered black woman wearing a bronze bustier with a tubular bodice and long metal-style bracelets, surrounded by crouching figures who appear to be actors, wearing animal masks.
Precious Akpoguma performs in a 2018 workshop world premiere of Canadian playwright Susanna Fournier’s “Antigone Lives” at the University of Calgary. The play, based on Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old play Antigone, depicts a capitalist society whose ideas are crumbling amidst a raging war from within.
(Tim Nguyen), Author provided (no reuse)

1. Keep artists and practitioners on the prairies

We asked ourselves: Why are artists leaving the prairie? Why do artists stay on the prairie? Participants observed that artists stayed on the prairie because of family ties, connection to the country, and long-term residency.

Some participants spoke of years of training and professional networking that led them to set up and develop their own theater companies. Reasons for leaving included lack of access to continuing education, insufficient resources, shrunken artist communities, and harsh weather conditions.

Despite these factors, some participants stayed, preferring the sense of community that is characteristic of the Prairies. All of the artists gathered said that keeping artists on the Prairies depends on artists having reliable access to funding and resources to develop professional skills.

Read more: Music communities and improvisation: “Finding a way out of nothing” in this year of precarious living

Although participants felt that these opportunities were hard to come by now, they suggested that providing individuals with middle-of-the-road opportunities – support for artists who are midway in their careers – would be crucial to the future success of the sector condition.

This would involve a more equitable reallocation of resources across the sector to ensure that all theater artists and in particular BIPOC artists and artists with disabilities have access to them.

Participants also noted that a change in policy and governance culture, particularly in the not-for-profit sector, is needed to properly implement and support changes in the reallocation of resources and opportunities.

2. Mentoring on the prairies

Mentoring emerged as an issue that received significant attention from both emerging and established artists. We asked our participants: What is mentoring? What does mentoring mean to you?

One participant compared providing mentoring to aspiring artists to providing a toolbox filled with knowledge about the theater ecosystem, in the same way one might give a new parent a gift box filled with things to support their new parenthood and child . Many artists recognized the need for mentoring tailored to their lived experience: for example, the importance of working together with disabled, black, indigenous or racialized or 2SLGTBQIA+ mentors and mentees.

Some felt that it was important to have intentional agreements and a formalised, structured approach to mentoring. Other artists felt that informal mentorship had an impact on their lives.

Young and emerging artists in particular have expressed their hunger for access to mentoring within the Prairie Theater ecosystem. Established artists discussed the need for a symbiotic relationship between mentors and mentees. True mentoring (or “radical mentoring” as some call it) involves a mutual exchange of knowledge so that both parties learn together and from each other.

Actors on a stage: In the center appears to be a white cis woman in a tank top and shorts, seen by actors wearing gas mask-like gear, their hands held on either side.
“Cassie Doane appears in ‘Antigone Lives,’ a premiere 2018 production of the play directed by Christine Brubaker. The show was staged to resemble a rave, with the theater converted to resemble a storeroom and bar open before and after the performance.
(Christine Brubaker), Author provided (no reuse)

3. Approach and Accessibility at the Prairie Theater

To frame our conversation about access and accessibility, we made this prompt:

“In 2042, theaters on the prairies are considered very accessible to many communities because…”

One participant said this is a goal that could take 20 years, and they cited the complexities of accessibility and the structures of oppression that needed to be removed.

To further respond to this request, we asked:

“What is access? what is not Prairie Theater is currently open to who? Who grants access?”

Access has different definitions and can have multiple effects such as: B. financial, family, physical and mental.

Many participants agreed that “access is the process of giving space”. Other thoughts were:

  • Accessibility comes through language and translation;
  • Working with the community and taking small steps;
  • good communication and exchange;
  • Structural and programming shifts for physical and neurodivergent access.

In discussing what access is not, one participant shared his strenuous experience of having to ask for access: when someone is forced to ask for access, some of that has already been taken away.

4. Community and its complexity

The theme of community came up in every conversation and seemed to be a common touchstone that everyone understood in one form or another.

When we asked participants what exactly the definition of community was, the answers were not easy. We have devoted a number of sessions to identifying, unwrapping and clarifying this ubiquitous concept and realizing that it is a powerful word with multiple meanings.

The gathering of these artists and the rich conversations that ensued articulated the realities of what it means to be a theater maker on the prairie.

What emerged was a set of desirable avenues. If enacted, these could ensure greater inclusion, representation, safety and real change in the prairie theater ecosystem.

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