Valerie Sing Turner Takes Action For Meaningful Change

 Valerie Sing Turner: "Ah…right…the “D” word. To be frank, I am done with “diversity”. It is SO last decade." | Image: Valerie Sing Turner.

Valerie Sing Turner: "Ah…right…the “D” word. To be frank, I am done with “diversity”. It is SO last decade." | Image: Valerie Sing Turner.

At Unrestricted, the BC Alliance’s annual conference held in June, one of the most provocative and exciting sessions was “Not Your Usual Conversation About Diversity” and one of the most vocal and eloquent panellists was Valerie Sing Turner. A theatre artist who performs, writes, directs, and produces, Sing Turner founded her own company, Visceral Visions, 15 years ago to champion work by Indigenous, culturally diverse, and female Canadian artists. Recently, Visceral Visions received funding to launch DiverseTheatreBC, a database of Indigenous and culturally diverse theatre artists. Sing Turner shares beautiful wisdom in generous answers to questions we posed to her by email last week.

You are an award-winning writer. Why do you write? And why plays? I love words. There’s something very satisfying about finding just the right set of words to express a thought or feeling – a pursuit for precision exemplified by my ancient dog-eared falling-apart-at-the-seams Roget’s Thesaurus! And while my writing isn’t limited to plays, I love the theatre for its collaborative nature, how ideas can be explored in a way no other live art form can match, and the sheer visceral impact of the moment-to-moment interaction between living, breathing human beings — because with no “take two”, anything can happen! As the world becomes more and more digitized, theatre can be a refuge for human connection, a place to reaffirm our common humanity.

What is more important for the presentation of art: excellence or inclusion? I think this question sets up a false dichotomy by suggesting that excellence and inclusion are somehow mutually exclusive. But I firmly believe that in any field — whether it’s science, politics, or the arts — excellence requires rigour and discipline; and as many studies have demonstrated, ensuring a plurality of perspectives on any team or collaborative effort contributes to excellence as well as equity. So it’s not either/or, but both.

Everyone's a little bit racist. And everyone is a little bit sexist, and a little bit classist, and a little bit mono-culturalist... True or false? Absolutely true. Anyone who claims otherwise is deluding themselves. In Canada, we are steeped in colonial patriarchal white supremacist educational and political systems, and of course that “we” includes me. Unlearning these oppressive values and worldviews takes a lot of awareness, effort, education, humour – and a lot of embarrassing mistakes along the way. The good thing is, we’re all in the same boat. The bad thing is, we’re all in the same boat!

 Matt Ward and Valerie Sing Turner in  Confessions of the Other Woman . | Image: Tim Matheson.

Matt Ward and Valerie Sing Turner in Confessions of the Other Woman. | Image: Tim Matheson.

What are the goals of your new initiative, DiverseTheatreBC? I’m so glad you asked! DiverseTheatreBC is envisioned to be a digital platform whose central tool will be a searchable database of Indigenous and racialized theatre artists (IRA) — performers, directors, writers, designers, stage managers, and other theatre professionals. The idea was conceived out of my frustration that engagers kept claiming they “couldn’t find” IRA when I personally knew so many skilled and experienced IRA who were under- or unemployed. Even more important, though, was the fact that it’s often hard to find each other. For example, last December, I found myself in the stressful situation of trying to find enough East Asian and Indigenous actors — especially at the older and younger ends of the spectrum — who were available for the development workshop and public reading of my play, In the Shadow of the Mountains, which required 10 actors. (We finally confirmed the tenth actor two days before the workshop.)

So while one of the obvious goals is to have a central place where engagers of all kinds — theatres, independent producing artists, TV/film casting directors, schools and social non-profits wanting to work with artists — can easily find IRA, the primary goal is to create an online community in which IRA can connect and collaborate, support and empower each other, and facilitate offline events and mentorships. I sometimes get overwhelmed at the incredible potential of what DTBC could do, because if we establish the right model, the ultimate goal is to eventually expand across the country (DiverseTheatreCanada), and across artistic disciplines. 

DTBC will also serve to combat the misperception that there are not many of us out there. For instance, when a friend, Omari Newton, announced that he was co-directing a play with five black actors, people kept asking, “Where are you going to find five black actors in Vancouver?” Well, his production of The Shipment received five nominations in the Small Theatre category at this year’s Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards – including Outstanding Production – and Omari took home the award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a category with ten contenders (incidentally, two women of colour, Shayna Jones and Parmiss Sehat, also nabbed Jessies for their outstanding performances in Ruined and Jabber, respectively).

Studies have shown that diversity leads to more creative teams and increases a company’s bottom line. Why are arts and culture organizations still resistant to tackling this issue? Because public funding bodies are still rewarding them for doing what they’ve always done, so they have no incentive to change. Fortunately, arts councils are starting to shift their priorities — the City of Vancouver seems to be taking the lead in taking this seriously — but until they have all thoroughly examined and rectified their systemic biases, rather than just tinkering around the edges, we will continue to see painfully slow progress in our sector. Most critically, the arts councils need to apply a decolonization lens on what representation truly means on peer juries. 

Our UK funding counterparts are doing a better job at instituting funding consequences for organizations unable to clearly demonstrate equitable practices. Since January 2018, Ireland has “made equal opportunities, including gender equality, a condition of funding.” 

During our annual conference, you had some powerful thoughts on the word 'diversity' and how it's applied. Could you elaborate on how the term 'diversity' can be used in problematic ways? Ah…right…the “D” word. To be frank, I am done with “diversity”. It is SO last decade. The now common use of the term has become so superficial: it’s literally skin-deep, with little regard for the cultural or life experiences that artists can contribute beyond their skin colour, gender, sexuality, disability, or age — a richness of perspectives well-earned (and paid for) from living with difference. I prefer to talk about representation and inclusion in terms of artistic practice, because problems with “diversity” usually arise when it is dispossessed of artistic vision and rigour. Witness the difference between the Edmonton company that thought it would be a good idea to cast the role of Othello with a white woman and the Liverpool Everyman theatre company that decided to cast a black woman in the same role:

Rosheuvel’s Othello, in Gemma Bodinetz’s production, will almost certainly create waves because her general is an out lesbian… “I wanted to make a modern audience sit up and feel something of what a Jacobean audience must have felt at seeing a black man commanding an army,” explains Bodinetz. “I wanted to make the play feel electric again.” But by making Othello female and gay she is not setting out to shock for the sake of it. “We’re not doing this despite the text, but with the text,” she says. “We are just trying to rub it in our own times, and make it shine for the beautiful dare of it, and in the process come up against some of our own prejudices and our assumptions about what leadership is and who can hold power.” 

I’d like to see that show; wouldn’t you?!

These days, instead of diversity, my thinking has evolved to figuring out what decolonization means to me, and how my work and artistic practice might respect the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For me, decolonization implies an interrogation — a questioning — of all systems, diving as deep as I can to examine the root of our most problematic issues, and unlearning our white supremacist patriarchal biases (which we all have to some degree, not just white folks). At a time when one of Canada’s most respected artists, Robert Lepage, attempts to justify cultural appropriation under the guise of artistic freedom when the local black community protests his production of SLAV at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and with Indigenous artists releasing an open letter voicing similar concerns about Kanata Lepage’s upcoming Paris premiere, about the history of Indigenous interactions with their colonizers in Canada, I believe that only by placing decolonization at the centre of artistic practice will we, as a community, herald the beginning of the end of this fight for equity and representation. 

While it’s true that we’ve made progress in that at least most people acknowledge that lack of diversity in the arts is a problem, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in which some artists and arts organizations are following the colonial example set by the federal government throughout modern Canadian history, i.e. go through the motions of “consultation”, but ultimately ignore BIPOC — Black, Indigenous, and People Of Colour — concerns and forge ahead with whatever they had originally planned. So in the arts, instead of forging a creative relationship that acknowledges equality of skill, talent, knowledge, and respect among collaborators, some artists (usually white) are cynically “checking the diversity box”, and equating research and/or “consulting” with a few folks of colour as being synonymous with getting a rubber stamp-of-approval to do whatever the hell they want, while tokenizing or even completely eliminating any meaningful participation by IRA in the work (I’m looking at you, Robert Lepage).

What is the first step arts organizations can take towards decolonization? During the gender parity debate, a truism made the social media rounds: men are considered competent until proven otherwise, while women are considered incompetent until proven otherwise. The same can be said of the racial parity debate: white people are considered competent until proven otherwise, while people of colour are considered incompetent until proven otherwise. 

This is particularly valid in the Canadian theatre landscape, where the theatres with the biggest budgets are predominantly headed by white men. If we accept the overwhelming scientific literature that finds no difference in intelligence, leadership skills, and other such qualities between men and women, it should be statistically impossible for men to be in more than 50% of those leadership positions if all other factors are equal. Remember when Justin Trudeau announced his gender parity cabinet in 2015? Remember how the press worried about how Trudeau would find enough qualified women among his elected MPs, and how misogynist media and online commenters raged about how “meritocracy not gender” should inform hiring decisions — the underlying implication being that women as a group are generally unqualified. Funny how those same pundits failed to wring their hands about the lack of competent men in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, when it was brutally clear that many of those (white) men were completely out of their depth. Looking south of the border for another example: if one were to objectively list Hillary Clinton’s qualifications and political experience, she would likely rank as one of the most qualified candidates in history for White House office, yet her ability to satisfactorily carry out presidential duties was questioned ad nauseum, while the deeply unqualified and politically inexperienced Trump was given a free pass over and over again. Anyone who thinks we live in a world of equal opportunity in which the most talented people always rise to the top is living in a fantasy world.

So… the first step is to understand that there are two distinct forms of bias that hold us back: implicit (unconscious) bias at the individual level, and systemic bias at the institutional or societal level. Making effective change means addressing both levels of bias, hopefully at the same time.

In 2013, I read a fantastic book entitled, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, by two social psychologists at Harvard and the University of Washington. They developed a series of online implicit association tests that reveal people’s implicit biases about race, skin-tone, gender, weight, sexuality, nationalism, and age, the results of which are a stronger predictor of how people will behave, rather than what people believe or say they would do. If your members are brave, they can take one (or more!) of the seven Harvard Implicit Association Tests for free here

I must confess that I was terrified to take the race test, because I was horribly afraid that I might be harboring an unconscious anti-black bias, despite years of advocacy work. So I was relieved but surprised when my results came back as having a “strong preference for black people”, because I didn’t grow up with any black people around me at all. The one black student at my Victoria high school of 1,100 kids graduated the year before I arrived, and I didn’t interact in any meaningful way with black people until I moved to Toronto after completing my bachelor’s degree. However, as a lover of the precision of words, I’d like to point out that I don’t think I actually have a preference for black people so much as I don’t have a preference for white people. That’s quite a big distinction.

 Valerie Sing Turner, Kevin Loring, Matt Ward in Confessions of the Other Woman, written by Valerie Sing Turner, co-directed by Diane Roberts and Gerry Trentham. | Tim Matheson.

Valerie Sing Turner, Kevin Loring, Matt Ward in Confessions of the Other Woman, written by Valerie Sing Turner, co-directed by Diane Roberts and Gerry Trentham. | Tim Matheson.

All of this is to say that even if the person at the top mandated that their organization be more inclusive and equitable, meaningful change could not happen if the majority of the folks in power (boards, senior staff, key creative artists) are not aware of their respective implicit biases — which will influence their behaviour in ways that will effectively sabotage every good intention. But once you’re aware of, acknowledge, and overcome your implicit biases (and yes, you can overcome implicit bias[1]), you will then be equipped to surround yourself with the right team to effectively address systemic bias, which is where the real power differentials lie.

For people who are having a hard time with diversity and inclusion, what would you tell them Just as an addict on the path to healing and health recognizes that their addiction hurts not only themselves but everyone else around them, colonial white supremacist patriarchal systems rob all of us of our humanity. Because when we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. How else to explain how easily we turn away from the suffering of others? Decolonization benefits ALL of us by making us better human beings, and therefore better artists. We do it because it’s the right thing to do for everyone and everything, for future generations and the health of our planet.

But no one said it would be easy. If we’re not uncomfortable discussing these things, we’re doing it totally wrong.

You are an accomplished actor. Briefly describe what you think makes a great actor. Listening. Listening with every cell in your body, and allowing what you hear to have an impact on you. 

And I don’t mean just onstage or on camera. Listen to what the world has to say. There’s so much to learn and unlearn, and those experiences inform our acting choices in how we respond. And study voice work with the best teachers you can find, because when you do respond, you want your body to be the fine-tuned instrument that has the capability to offer the emotional and vocal range that the moment demands.

Your email signature includes this quote, “Abstaining from politics is like turning your back on a beast when it is angry and intent on ripping your guts out.” by Taiaiake Alfred, Kanien'kehaka (Mohawk). What does this quote mean to you? I came across Prof. Alfred’s words while researching Canadian history from the Indigenous perspective for my current play in development, In the Shadow of the Mountains. His striking metaphor really resonated with me as both a wake-up call and a call to arms. We live in an inherently political society, so for me, art is inherently political. Indigenous and racialized artists in particular do not have the luxury of avoiding politics when too many people are dying or being incarcerated in disproportionate numbers or rendered powerless simply because of their skin colour. If we acknowledge that all media — film, TV, news, social media, internet, commercials, theatre, visual art — influences thought and behaviour, what we do and represent in the theatre has real world consequences. And if we, as artists, are not engaging with the realities of this world in the here and now, what the fuck are we doing? As anti-apartheid and human rights activist Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” 

Most important issue facing the arts and culture sector today? IDEA: Inclusion, Decolonization, Equity, Access. I admittedly stole this acronym from the Vancouver chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (so clever!), and not content with theft (like a true artist!), I replaced their original use of “diversity” with “decolonization”.

What is your greatest extravagance? Finding the time to read a great book. My love of writing is rooted in my love of reading. I’ve just finished Arundhati Roy’s astonishing Booker-Prize-winning, The God of Small Things. Though there are many reasons why I was entranced by Roy’s first novel, it was her deft and wholly unique use of language that drew me in – often making me laugh out loud in the sheer enjoyment of her craft – along with the poignant, almost aching affection for her characters in their struggles to find some small measure of happiness.

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[1]Shakil Choudhury’s book, Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs Them, is not only an excellent read in the Canadian context, but offers exercises to overcome one’s particular biases, once you’ve become aware of them.

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