Are Vancouver stages too white?

ice-cream-conePlank Magazine today posted a letter by local theatre-goer David C. Jones which posits that our local theatre scene doesn’t accurately reflect the inherent cultural diversity of the city. Mr. Jones goes further to suggest that the lack of actors from non-white backgrounds could constrain the growth of our theatre industry:

Young, diverse high schools students do a field trip to see a show at The Arts Club or wherever. They see an all white cast and no matter how much they are captivated or intrigued by the thought of acting and getting training – they figure – why spend the money for training since I won’t get cast anyway since the theatre is a mostly exclusively white career choice. Then a theatre company tries to cast diverse but there are no trained diverse actors.

The article also reprints an letter sent from Mr. Jones to which continues the discussion. An quick exerpt:

If one of the jobs of theatre is to hold a mirror up to society, then I don’t know what society they are reflecting because it is not like any I have seen anywhere in Greater Vancouver.

What do you think? Do we have a responsibility to our city to be better representing it demographically? Should our companies be choosing racially diverse material reflective of our cultural growth? Or do artists only have a responsibility to produce material reflective of their own tastes and backgrounds?

Click here to continue the discussion at the original article

There’s some great must-read letters about this being reprinted at too…


  1. Ah the old debate rears its head again.
    Other questions to be asked:

    Why does the make up of the staff at theatre schools not reflect anything other than a European sensibility?

    Whats with a European canon being the mainstay of said theatre schools?

    Why are no theatre venues in Canada run by a culturally diverse {as defined by the Canada Council} theatre company?

    and why after all that if you run a cough black theatre cough you get accused of running a racist company?

    I don’t believe that browning anybodies stages is the way to reflect the world around you. At best it is a sop but it doesn’t effect real change. You have to brown the companies from the inside out. Change the colour of the Board and the admin and pretty soon the whole organization will reflect the street.

    Non-white artists have to make an investment it all companies and then they will have the ability to change the entire ecosystem. Waiting for someone to give you a part will always keep you in the weakest position.

  2. Hey Philip, thanks for this, it sounds like you know a thing or two about the topic.

    Just to clarify, are you saying that it’s more the responsibility of non-white artists to get involved with the existing community than it is for the companies to make an effort to source racially diverse material?

    This is turning into a fascinating subject for me.

  3. I think it is not a one way street by any means. Artists of colour cannot spend their life waiting for white directors/administrators etc to notice them.
    I saw in the posts on the other sites where this dscussion is taking place that some directors {I believe that they were all white} were commenting how artists of colour just don’t come into their mind. And frankly I can understand that. But until we can break out of this idea that a culturally specific director can only direct that cultures shows we will continue to have this happen.
    You can actually be black and direct say Salt Water Moon or any other Canadian/European classic. But that happens quite rarely.
    So what we have are organizations/directors/casting directors/artistic directors/venue management etc that are overwhelmingly white. And as such they will mostly not truly be aware of the non-white sectors.
    Which is why I say…change the structure. Invest in a theatre of your choice and change the cultural demographic from the inside out and then we will truly be getting the full range of Canadian Theatre.
    Stratford has done a huge amount of work in diversifying over the last few years but I do believe it all started when the colour on their Board started to change and these issues were visible to all.

  4. Here’s the bald faced truth about why you don’t see coloured actors on stage: White people don’t care. Seriously. Why would they? In the cut throat world of showbiz, people are broke, nervous, and one mistake from waiting tables. Casting that brown guy’s the least of anyone’s worries, so forget multiculturalism and live in the real world.

    I was recently surprised to hear Bill Maher say he’s against all government funding for the arts. He’s never been given a hand out, and never wanted one. He brings value to the market place and is thus rewarded ten times over for it. Think about it. Everyone, black, white and brown, pays their taxes. But when the government dishes it back out, most of it will fill the pockets of white actors.

    A great lesson can be learned from black people in America. And it is this. They don’t care about white people. They’ve always done their own thing and created their own art for their own selves. From Rock n’ Roll to Soul to Hip Hop, they’re mimicked all over the world, with heads of state using urban slang and 80-year old white men dancing to Snoop at weddings. The pen is mightier than the sword, and it can also make you rich.

    Now from Obsidian Theatre to Fu-gen to Anita Majumdar, there are actors of colour who do get regular work. Because instead of sitting around moping about injustice, they take the reigns and make their own stuff. More importantly, they don’t shy away from their ethnicity, they embrace it and exploit it.

    In fact, why should a brown man get cast in Salt Water Moon? What the hell’s he doing there in the first place? He has his own rich tradition to draw from, so let him tell his own stories. Insist on it. Force him to. He’ll probably find himself in a better play.

  5. For anyone who doesn’t know, Phil Akin runs Obsidian Theatre. They are perhaps the most successful multicultural theatre in Canada. They focus mostly on people from the African diaspora (is that right?), but they also work with the larger multicultural community.

    They are certainly a model to be followed – from a producing standpoint.

    Now for the rest of us who would rather not produce (I do it reluctantly), there certainly should be opportunities for talented actors of colour to work. Not everyone has the entrepreneurial savvy required to successfully run a company. Most actors have no interest in running a company. Actors want to act. That’s why they train, that’s why they abandon notions of making a regular wage, that’s why they defy their parents’ wishes and chase a dream…

    I myself left theatre school playing leads, then entered the industry playing bit parts as an ‘ethnic’. I play leads in projects created by people of colour, but generally white people will only allow me to audition for tiny roles in their projects. Younger white people with the power to hire are more progressive, older white people less so. These things are changing, but very sssssllllllllooooowwwwllllllyyyy….

    For any actors of colour who are looking for more opportunities, I created/run INCLUDE – Canada’s largest multicultural network in theatre, film and television. It’s FREE to join, and I get casting notices for projects that specifically are looking to hire actors from non-white backgrounds. Most of the auditions however are non-union, as union auditions are exclusively distributed through agencies.

    This is a LONG discussion, but I’m happy to see it happening in other parts of Canada. Here in Toronto, we’ve been quite active on this issue. If anyone needs advice/contacts, please drop me a line at

    Also, e-mail me to join INCLUDE. There are opportunities for actors, writers, directors and producers from multicultural backgrounds. We have members all across Canada, but we are Toronto-based. So until we get more national members, the opportunities remain local…


  6. Its not just the stages though.

    ‘Also, living in Surrey (12.67% South Asians) for the past decade, i can not help notice the activities of organizations such as Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SIWC). Over 25% of Surrey’s ‘visible minority’ population is South Asian (Punjabi Sikh majority) yet the representation of Punjabi and South Asian writers in the SIWC has been none or negligible. See the presenting authors’ list for the SIWC 2008.

    Now view one of the strongest reasons for this non-representation:


    Surrey International Writers Conference (SIWC) sports an all ‘white’ organizing team in a multicultural city (46.1 ‘VM’), and year after year, produces a conference promoting English language writers of Anglo-Saxon origin while using public funds endowed to it by Surrey Board of Education through its Continuing Education program.

    I wonder if the decision makers at Surrey Board of Education are aware of Surrey demographics, and if the mandate of the Board does include equality of representation when allocating public funds for literary and cultural development of the people of Surrey.

    Also, the SIWC Team may not be aware of literary groups and organizations of Surrey Punjabi writers that are operating here for over thirty years, and of the fact that Surrey South Asian communities do have published authors in them.

    If my expectations are unrealistic, the situation needs clarification from the SIWC, Continuing Education program and Surrey Board of Education.

    Failing all else, my usual suggestion would be to at least change the name if not the essence of the Conference. Instead of just ‘Surrey International Writers’ Conference’ (SIWC), it could be ‘Surrey International White Writers’ Conference’ (SIWWC) or ‘Surrey International White English Writers Conference’ (SIWEWC).

    I will not worry about the increased length of the proposed names and their abbreviations as to my estimation, it may not require much additional Continuing Education funding to implement a name change.’

    From ‘Punjabi literature Conferences’

  7. In Short, I agree. Vancouver’s theatre scene does not reflect it’s multi- ethnic population.
    I would pose that it is, however, reflected in other forms of performing arts like dance and music because they are more genuinely evolved from the cultures. Where we as tend to lack is in our ability to draw on these alternate art forms as inspiration and methods to expand cultural understanding.
    This also is reflected in the attending audiences.

    We are responsible for presenting works with valid content. Can you make me relate to the character and their situation? That’s all that matters.

    Multi-ethnicity is under-used as a potential tool for rich subtext. I think directors tend to be afraid of making that type of bold choice.

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