Well, I made it. We are at the official 6 week point of my tenure at the Stratford Festival supported by Theatre Ontario’s PTTP, and the Ontario Arts Council. I arrived on February 20, 2018 and had no idea if I would enjoy the experience of being a student again. What was I thinking? I loved school, and being mentored by David Auster, the best producer at the largest theatre company in the country, is incredible.
On my first day at the Stratford Festival I was given a desk in the Director’s Office. I was seated next to Ted Witzel (who is being mentored in Leadership by Artistic Director, Antoni Cimolino), a wonderful person to bounce ideas off of as they pertain to the intricacies of theatre production. The first couple of weeks had me sitting at my desk, kind of working on my own projects guiltily while waiting to hear from David or Bonnie. Eventually I realized that it made complete sense for me to continue building and nurturing my own projects while absorbing producing knowledge from my mentors.
I treat my mentorship like a full-time job, even though I’ve been told that I’m not obligated to be in the office every day. But I like the routine of working on something, anything, theatre-related every single day. It has served me well. Initially I would be pulled into meetings David would have with different department heads where they would discuss issues that I would have to figure out myself when I was producing a show: how far in advance to begin promotion, how much on-line, in print, and on what social media platforms; where will we source xyz if this is the cap on how much we can spend; how did we do last year compared to this year and what can we do differently? Like a sentient mushroom, I sit in the room, absorbing every nuanced discussion about the business of making art.
Since my arrival I have learned about Strategic Planning for the future, audience retention, marketing, how last year’s sales compare to this year’s, how important the ‘Not in Our Space’ initiative is to the company, and had an opportunity to observe the wardrobe and props department creating whimsy and magic out of textiles and zip ties. Everyone at the festival has made me feel very comfortable and welcome. My calendar is full of meeting invites from multiple departments so I’m not just getting an education in producing; I am getting a comprehensive overview of every area in the theatre that makes the season a success.
But let me be clear: I’m a black woman in a mainly all white space. I spoke up about diversity in a meeting 2 weeks ago and it was terrifying. I am not a Stratford employee and many of the people at the meeting were very important. Kamala Harris is a politician and lawyer serving as a junior US Senator. She is also black and been subjected to some of the worst dog whistle politics you can imagine in this current administration. On March 19, 2018 she wrote, ‘My advice to black girls everywhere: whenever you find yourselves in a room where there are lots of people who don’t look like you – be it a classroom, a boardroom, or a courtroom – remember you have an entire community in that room with you, all of us cheering you on.’ I heard these words in my head when, heart racing and voice shaking, I spoke up; women of colour need to speak up in rooms where the marginalized rarely get a voice.
Jennifer Palmieri, communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and author of Dear Madam President: An Open letter to the Women Who Will Run the World, speaks to the fact that concept of women in powerful leadership positions in business and politics is still a radical idea for a patriarchal society. Adding race to that equation makes the obstacles seem even more insurmountable but I have been invited to sit in the rooms and asked to speak. I’m not in Strategic meetings out of politeness and I need to get over my own fear of sounding stupid or, heaven forbid, making people feel uncomfortable. Discomfort is useful, and if my presence disrupts spaces in a way that moves ideas forward then I will take advantage of this unique opportunity that I manifested for myself a year ago. Palmieri says it best, ‘If you inhibit yourself, you’re not just inhibiting yourself, you’re robbing everyone else of your perspective, and if you don’t look like everyone else, and if you’re one of a few women in the meeting…your perspective matters more, not less.’
My last 6 weeks at the Stratford Festival will be about taking up space, speaking up, and going to the Swan Parade on April 8. I will conduct research in the mornings, brainstorm with administrative staff at lunch, and write in the evenings, making this the best idea I’ve ever had for my career as a theatre professional in Canada; I could not be happier.