Practice or Hot Topic?: An Asian Canadian Perspective

Diversity is described as “the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas, et cetera [or, more popularly described as,] the state of having people who are different  races or who have different cultures in a group or organization.” (Diversity, Merriam ­Webster Dictionary). One can argue that public awareness of the concept has been heightened over the past decade or so through defining activist movements advocating for equal rights for the minorities. However, it has been proven difficult to gauge the progress. So, how does one gauge success? Through quantitative and qualitative research, and asking the right questions. Aside from researching statistics from Hill Strategies Research Incorporated and reading scholarly work, I have been asking various artists, established and emerging, about their experiences as Asian Canadian theatre artists. I asked them one common question: Is diversity a hot topic or has it become a standard practice? Many interesting points were brought up and they all pointed to a clear answer: It’s simply a hot topic. We can see this historically, currently in large established Canadian theatres, and statistically.

For Asian Canadians, our place in Canadian theatre has been molded by a tumultuous history. Birthed from activism in the 1960s to 1980s, Asian Canadian theatre tells a unique narrative of being othered. As Xiaoping Li writes, “[T]he identity of ‘Asian Canadian’ is a relatively recent construct by Asian Canadian community activists. ‘Asian Canadian’ is not a self-­contained and naturally given category that derives from cultural heritage; rather, it is a name or identity that some individuals or groups, after becoming conscious of their status as “other” in Canadian society, chose for themselves and brought into being through discursive practices and social, political actions…In a nutshell, these self-­designated identities entail a double claim: claiming Canada by asserting their Canadianness, and claiming the possession of a hybrid identity and “in­betweenness” (Li, 13).

We later see a shift in demonstrating and articulating the frustration as the “younger generation of Asian Canadian artists who were trained in and graduated from art schools and university arts programs became politicized by the ‘people of colour’ politics. Across the arts, Asian Canadian activists formed new collectives, allied themselves with First Nations, black, and Latin American Canadian activists, and launched a series of high­profile events in the first half of the 1990s. Some of them were directly involved in the effort to change arts funding policies and practices and, ultimately, to redefine Canadian art.” (Li, 20) To this day, as I ask my colleagues to discuss what their art may look like if this change had not happened, many say that “it wouldn’t have existed.”  Essentially, “it would look like a white man’s story” if the meaning and aesthetic of “professional” theatre remained eurocentric.

Some things still remain unchanged, however. Jean Yoon discusses how the Canadian Actor’s Equity Association (CAEA) and the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT) have failed to establish close and healthy relationships with the Asian Canadian theatre community. She notes that “Cahoots Theatre Company, Native Earth Performing Arts, Carlos Bulosan Theatre, Aluna Theatre, and b current are noticeably absent [from PACT’s membership. And] the failure of PACT to provide meaningful and inclusive membership services to these high­level performing professional companies is troubling” (Yoon, 82). A question I would pose to Yoon would be, how can the younger generation of Asian Canadian artists be used to push for a better relationship between these two parties? What kind of resources should we look towards to educate ourselves and to offer informed contributions?

The lack of diversity is seen today as we look into larger theatre companies. Most recently, Canadian Stage was on the hot seat for their 2016­2017 season as it was “dubbed the Great White North season” due to it having everyone involved with the season being white (Nestruck, Globe and Mail). Tarragon has had a predominantly white season as well, although they were not under much fire for it. They justified their season due to the unavailability of the directors of colour who they asked to be part of the season. I was unable to find Toronto based statistics on casting, production, etc. But I was able to find New York City’s information through the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC). According to the AAPAC, for Broadway and non­profit casting in New York City in the past six years , “…79% of all roles were filled by Caucasian actors, 14% by African Americans, 3% by Latinos and 3% by Asian Americans. Native American, Arab American/Middle Eastern and Disabled actors together amounted to just 1% of all total roles.” (AAPAC, Broadway and Non­Profit Casting 2006/07­2011/2012).  They also stated that “Asian American actors increased slightly from 2% to 3%” in 2011 and 2012. With such small numbers in such an established and thriving theatre community, how can we say that diversity is a practice?

How do we become the champions of making diversity a practice? As I have mentioned before, there has been a shift from the Eurocentric mindset of what “professional” looks like by adding diversity as a criteria in the “Excellent Theatre Handbook.” But I believe that we can take a step closer by defining what kind of excellence and legacy diversity can add to theatre and strive towards that vision. What is excellence or good theatre and how do we create it? Ins Choi tells me that, “In order to do good theatre, you need to be excellent at what you do, create your own theatre, be hungry for work, do your own work. Because right now, people are waiting for work when they should just really be doing their own.” By making our own theatre, we allow ourselves to fail, learn from the experiences, and create better theatre works. There are people who are writing their own work; they’re actively pursuing their own careers and creating work, instead of yelling from the outside and demanding equality. So don’t yell; go into it and make the change yourself.

Perhaps we need to strengthen our relationship with other minority groups again, as it has proven in the past that change happens in proactive participation and numbers. Chloe Hung, the playwright for All of Our Yesterdays, suggests that “we do need more cross­cultural work.” She recounts the Toronto Chinese community having an interest in her work, because she was a Chinese writer of a story that was centred around Nigerian sisters. Marjorie Chan discusses the work that Cahoots has focused on within the past ten years, where they bring various communities together to foster a unique collaborative, creative community. This requires artists from various walks of life to come with an open mind to learn from one another and to invest their time and skills into these communities in order for them to create their own unique narratives.

But the most important thing as an artist, I believe, is to unlearn our own biases. I once posed a question to a friend of mine who was born in the Philippines about how she views theatre productions while taking into consideration the diverse factor, i.e. how many people of colour are part of the production. She started off saying, “I grew up in a culture where everyone who was white was good and everyone who was black was bad. And when I came here, that sort of thinking creeped into my critique. It’s sad but it’s true.” She later stresses that importance of educating ourselves as it plays a major role in unlearning biases and helping us, as artists, to approach all possibilities and other artists of colour with a spirit of celebration. Isn’t that all what theatre is about? Celebrating the diverse narratives that our people have to offer? I want to stress that I do not have the answers. If anything, I have more to learn before I can do anything. But if we look at our theatre community right now and see the lack of diverse work or the startling statistics, we see a need. In order to meet that need, we can start with ourselves. We must start by being proactive in listening to others, standing in solidarity with other communities, and creating works of excellence. When a small community grows and thrives, everyone benefits from it. Inclusion is a pro­active action, as opposed as the term diversity, which is a part of rhetoric and more useful in discussion than practice.

Works Cited

Asian American Performers Action Coalition. “Stats Season 2011/2012: ETHNIC REPRESENTATION ON NEW YORK CITY STAGES.” Stats Season 2011/2012 (2013): n. pag. AAPAC, Feb. 2013. Web. 1 Apr. 2016. <­2012.pdf>.

“Diversity Definition.” Merriam­Webster. Merriam­Webster. Web. 01 Apr. 2016. <http://www.merriam­>.

Li, Xiaoping. “Performing Asian Canadian: The Theatrical Dimension of a Grassroots Activism.” Asian Canadian Theatre. By Nina Lee. Aquino and Richard Paul Knowles. Toronto: Playwrights Canada, 2011. 11­28. Print.

NESTRUCK, J. KELLY. “Matthew Jocelyn Ducks Real Discussion on Canadian Stage Diversity Failure.”The Globe and Mail. 29 Jan. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.

Yoon, Jean. “Reflections on the “Roots” Panel and “The Generational Divide”” Asian Canadian Theatre. By Nina Lee. Aquino and Richard Paul Knowles. Toronto: Playwrights Canada,
2011. 79­85. Print.

Interview with Chloe Hung
Interview with Daniel Nguyen, Eunillyne Tan Lazado,
Interview with Ins Choi
Interview With Marjorie Chan
Interview with Thinh Nguyen

(Transcripts available upon request)