Fresh Meat 7 is just around the corner. We’re launching our lineup next week, and we’ve never been more excited about the state of independent theatre in Ottawa. We’ve been a bit quiet this year about our efforts to promote Diversity & Inclusivity at Fresh Meat, but don’t get it twisted. Just because we’ve been quiet doesn’t mean we haven’t got some things to say.
Last year, we saw some amazing changes at the festival. We amended our application and selection processes and undertook a targeted outreach campaign towards underrepresented groups. The result was that 60% of our applications received featured artists who self-identified as members of underrepresented communities, and 9 out of 10 of our mainstage shows featured performers who also identified as such. We also saw an increase in student tickets sold (35% of all tickets), an anecdotal increase in first-time theatre goers, and an overall increase to an average house of 118% sold, selling standing room tickets almost every night. Overall, we were pretty happy.
Now, did we do a one-hundred-percent-rainbows-and-butterflies-peachy-keen-bang-up-bees-knees job? Did we permanently fix the problems of representation in theatre and single-handedly undo the barriers that exist within the professional arts community? We both know the answers to those questions: of course not.
But we tried, in our small way, to show that the artists who aren’t being represented are out there. And that people want to go see their work.
And we received a lot of feedback from the community. A lot. Was it all one-hundred-percent-rainbows-and-butterflies-peachy-keen-bang-up-bees-knees positive? We both know the answer to that one, too.
So we’ve spent a lot of the last year using that feedback and thinking about how we can use it to move forward and be better. And the question that keeps coming to mind is: who are we doing this for? And the answer is simple enough. We’re doing it for the artists who self-identify as members of under-represented communities, that’s who.
So, there’s one piece of feedback we want to talk about.
Last year, the New Ottawa Critics offered up their take on Fresh Meat’s recent initiatives. Fair enough. Our approach in this area is to always be game for critical dialogue, to always be open, and to acknowledge that the community is going to keep us accountable.
But there were some problems in their article. While claiming to be advocating for the presence of BIPoC artists, it was instead actively erasing the presence of artists of mixed-race, Indigenous artists, and non-visibly-disabled artists while simultaneously placing an unfair burden on specific artists of colour, artists from the deaf, disability and mad arts community, and queer artists to “represent” their respective communities and tokenizing their presence at the festival. Knowing that this article was not the first published by the New Ottawa Critics that caused an underrepresented artist to feel tokenized and/or erased by the reviewer, we contacted the NOC immediately with our concerns.
To their credit, they were open and ready to chat with us. We held multiple meetings with the NOC, and they sought to correct their actions as they saw fit. We’re thankful for the NOC’s willingness to chat, but the adjustments they made did not sufficiently address the changes we needed to see. We’re deeply saddened that their initial article and consequential amendments came at the expense of real harm and anguish experienced by the artists at the festival. We had worked, over the course of a year, to create positive and tangible change for artists who don’t usually hold space at performance festivals, and in one short article, the New Ottawa Critics had undone so much of that work. We followed up, in person, with each of the artists affected by the piece, and one artist said to us, “I was reading the article, saw my name and thought ‘Huh. So this is what it feels like to be tokenized.’” *
Which is why we will not be inviting the New Ottawa Critics back to Fresh Meat this year as reviewers. We cannot invite, as our guests, those who tokenize, erase or act as gatekeepers to our underrepresented voices. Fresh Meat’s approach to this work seeks to highlight, amplify and showcase its artists. Now we know that we have to protect them, too.
If you’re reading this, and you’re thinking “Wow, okay, then I won’t ever speak up or ask questions ever again. I’m just a Wrongy-Wrong-McWrongerson, and this conversation isn’t for me,” that’s not the point.
The point is, if you don’t know something, ask. If something makes you feel uncomfortable, maybe that’s ok. Maybe that discomfort is just a little taste of what the person you’re talking to experiences constantly at the hands of a system that overwhelmingly benefits you, whether you know it or not. If you feel like dismissing someone because they’re angry, or you don’t like someone’s tone, question why you might be thinking that.
And sometimes, just listen.
Because all of this might not be about you. We’re doing this for people who rarely, if ever, are permitted - let alone invited - to take up space in performance contexts. Our obligations are to them. To keep our efforts and our conversations focused around them, to prioritize and protect their safety and wellbeing at the festival and to use the feedback we gathered as fuel for action within the community.
In 2016, we started work aimed at making Diversity and Inclusivity core tenets of Fresh Meat. Now, in 2018, we’re moving to make Equity and Justice core tenets, as well. [Infographic here, to learn more]. In the hopes of being more equitable and just, we also need to acknowledge the work and emotional labour that has gone into the initiative from our community: several artists who identify as members of underrepresented communities have taken the time and effort to give us their open and honest feedback. Namely, Monica Ogden, a Filipina artist whose work centres on creating equitable safer theatre spaces, has acted as an indispensable resource, helping us with work that too often goes unrewarded, undervalued, and ignored.
And now, we’re moving forward. We’re continuing the same work we started in 2016: 7 out of 12 of the creations at this year’s festival feature artists who self-identify as members of underrepresented communities, and overwhelmingly the creations themselves show us that this year more than ever, the artists feel emboldened to take up space that they’ve been denied in the past. To help create the right environment, we’re implementing our Safer Spaces Policy, and we welcome feedback and community engagement at firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, if you don’t know something, or want to learn more, just ask. We mean that. Just ask! And lastly, we’re renewing our resolve to refocus our efforts on the artists this whole thing was supposed to be about.
It’s their party, after all.
*Statement published with the expressed permission of the artist.