An emotional Valerie Sing Turner with UBCP/ACTRA board member/UBCP Women's Committee Chair, Christine Willes
June 25, 2019 – I must confess that I really suck at self-promotion. It's been more than three months since I was honoured with the 2019 UBCP/ACTRA International Women's Day Award on March 8, 2019, at a lovely mid-morning reception at UBCP's offices. And it wasn't until a complete stranger PM'd me on Facebook about a month ago asking for a copy of my speech that it occurred to me that what I said at the Westcoast Women in Entertainment (WE) gala at The Imperial the following evening might be worth sharing long after the fact. So here's the version of my speech from the gala, and here's to Lena for prodding me to share it...
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My thanks to the members of UBCP/ACTRA and the UBCP Women’s Committee for this tremendous honour.
But I have to say that when I got the call that I was to be honoured with this award, my reaction was frankly one of disbelief. In an industry that measures a woman’s success by the length of her credits on IMDB and the fatness of her bank account – perhaps the only time that “woman” and “fat” appearing in the same sentence evokes admiration – I didn’t think I fit the parameters of an ideal honoree.
In fact, I’ve been made to feel less than ideal for most of my career working in an industry that continues to prioritize the stories and perspectives of maleness and whiteness. In the early 90s in Toronto, when I got my first agent, someone looking like me didn’t get to audition for leading roles that insisted on women being “drop-dead gorgeous” – which was often code for white. Instead, I joined the same group of Asian women in the waiting room competing for nameless roles such as Nurse. Reporter #3. Immigrant. Refugee-Speaking-Broken-English. Victim.
Then I met my first mentor. Some of you may know Jean Yoon as the star of Kim’s Convenience, in her award-winning performance as Umma. Back in 1996, Jean cast me in the workshop of her multimedia play, The Yoko Ono Project, which she produced through her company, Loud Mouth Asian Babes. When we worked together to produce the premiere, Jean taught me how to be a Loud Mouth Asian Babe. I mean, you don’t challenge the status quo by being a “Quiet-and-Deferential-Asian-Wallflower” – particularly when Jean hands you the task of negotiating with Yoko Ono’s hard-nosed New York lawyer for the rights to use Yoko and John’s music and images.
It was Jean who made me understand that we’re not competing with other actors in the room, but with what’s inside the director’s male white head. (And yes, nearly 30 years later, they’re still mostly male, and mostly white.) That a win by a woman of colour in a significant role is a win for all of us, because one more role representing racialized women is one more disruption of the system. That we need to share with each other the opportunities that are out there, because the more women with skills and talent filling that waiting room, the less they’re able to deny that we exist. That by working together and holding each other up, we become undeniable.
So it’s no coincidence that it was a black woman, April Reign, who coined the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. And it’s no coincidence that another black woman, Tarana Burke, started the #MeToo movement. Here in Vancouver, yet another black woman, Diane Roberts, mentored me in expanding my sense of community. Through Diane, I was given the opportunity to collaborate with Indigenous artists as part of her artistic directorship at Urban Ink Productions – a company with an intercultural mandate founded by the awesomely talented, Métis filmmaker and playwright, Marie Clements. Another mentor.
These are just a few of the countless courageous and undeniable women of colour who have fought for ALL women to have a voice, whose grit and sacrifices made it possible for me to accept this award, and who inspire me to do my part in tearing down the walls of systemic racism and the white patriarchy.
So…I’d like to suggest that perhaps success isn’t measured by how much money you make, but by how much good you do with it.
Perhaps success isn’t measured by the length of your IMDB credits, but by the depth of your respect for every single person you encounter, no matter what their gender.
And finally, perhaps success isn’t measured by a man’s subjective estimation of a woman’s appearance, but by the number of men intimidated by her insistence on speaking truth to power. I’ve been told that by that metric, I’m incredibly successful.
The reality is, International Women’s Day is only one day; the other 364 days still belong to men.
#Nevertheless She Persisted.
#Nevertheless We – all of us – must persist.
Andrew Loewen, Omari Newton, Margo Kane, Brenda Leadlay, Shanae Sodhi, Kathryn Shaw
We are thrilled to release our first videos on Visceral Visions' new Youtube Channel!
Diversity versus Decolonization: an Honest Conversation in Technicolour (or How to Avoid Doing a Robert Lepage) is a timely conversation about cultural appropriation, presented by Visceral Visions and the Museum of Vancouver on November 28, 2018.
When someone mentions "cultural appropriation" or "decolonization", do you feel intimidated or confused – or even angry? Have you wanted to incorporate more equitable practices in your artistic work or organization, but feel paralyzed because you're afraid of making mistakes? Or maybe you're wondering where the line is between artistic freedom and freedom of expression (protest), or the border between censorship and criticism?
Using Robert Lepage's responses to community criticism of his productions of SLAV and KANATA as a jumping-off point, six brave panelists reveal their best practices on the RIGHT things to do through three case studies – real-life situations in which people like you found themselves in the midst of a very uncomfortable cultural controversy. Talking through the process of how they created a space that resulted in positive outcomes – while ensuring all involved felt respected and heard – we are pleased to present the evening's program divided into 4 videos, ranging from 14 to 24 minutes each:
- Introduction and full panel tackling the intricacies of history, cultural appropriation, and freedom of speech in the context of Robert Lepage's controversial work
- Case Study #1: Omari Newton (artist) + Andrea Loewen (former board president, Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards) discussing the 2015 open letter calling out the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards for systemic racism
- Case Study #2: Shanae Sodhi (artist) + Kathryn Shaw (Artistic Director, Studio 58) discussing the establishment of Langara College's Studio 58's very first student diversity committee in 2016-17
- Case Study #3: Margo Kane (Artistic Director, Full Circle: First Nations Performance) + Brenda Leadlay (Executive Director, BC Alliance for Arts + Culture) discussing the process of decolonizing the 2018 Unrestricted Conference
With Visceral Visions' Artistic Producer, Valerie Sing Turner, as moderator.
This talk was programmed by Visceral Visions as part of its development of CultureBrew.art (formerly DiverseTheatreBC), a digital platform featuring a searchable database of Indigenous and racialized artists that is due to launch in June 2019.
To view all four videos, check out Visceral Visions' Youtube Channel!
And the Jessie goes to: Adele Noronha (Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role, Brothel #9 by Anusree Roy, produced by Touchstone Theatre); Valerie Sing Turner (John Moffat and Larry Lillo Prize), and Chris Gatchalian (Vancouver NOW Representation and Inclusion Award) at the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards ceremony, June 26, 2017
So there I was, sitting at a table on the main floor of the Commodore, with Chris Gatchalian on one side and Jack Paterson on the other, at the 35th Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards. Truth be told, I hadn't planned on attending this year's festivities on June 26, 2017; award ceremonies aren't really my thing, despite sitting on the Jessies board the previous year as part of the effort to address the systemic racism called out in an open letter from the community in 2015, when it was discovered that two out of four juries had zero representation of artists of colour. (It's kinda hard to say "no" when someone asks you to help fix something you've loudly complained about.) But I got a phone call while I was working in Toronto as guest artist with Canada's National Voice Intensive, advising me that I'd been selected to receive this year's John Moffat and Larry Lillo Prize for mid-career theatre artists. And now I was on my second gin-and-tonic, trying to stop myself from inappropriately blurting out to Chris that he'd won the Vancouver NOW Representation and Inclusion Award (I was on that jury as a member of the Jessies Diversity Committee), and alternately anxious that my acceptance speech was going to be cut off by the band for being too long, or worse, drowned out by the well-marinated colleagues at the bar for being too political.
But as noted in a recent Facebook post, that evening made me pretty damn proud of my theatre community. It's not often that we get to see meaningful social change within two years of an action. Out of the 27 regular categories, 20 or 74% featured at least one nominee of colour, with three categories dominated by artists of colour: Reneltta Arluk, Donna Soares, and winner Yoshie Bancroft for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, Small Theatre; Raes Calvert, Aadin Church, and Tom Pickett for Outstanding Performance by Actor in a Lead Role, Small Theatre; and Shannon Chan-Kent, PJ Prudat, and winner Adele Noronha for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role, Large Theatre. Adding up all the other artists of colour who took home trophies – Laara Sadiq (Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, Large Theatre), Quelemia Sparrow (Sydney Risk Prize for Outstanding Original Script), Alessandro Juliani (with Torquil Campbell, Outstanding Sound Design/Original Composition, Large Theatre), Rohit Chokhani (Significant Artistic Achievement, Large Theatre), Angie Descalzi (Mary Phillips Award for Behind the Scenes Achievement), Alexandra Lainfiesta (Outstanding Performance by Actress in a Lead Role, Small Theatre), and Carmen Alatorre (a double-winner garnering both Small and Large theatre prizes for Costume Design) – the 12 awards and 41 nominations for artists of colour represented a significant improvement over the previous 34-year history of the Jessies.
Building on innovations rolled out for the 2016 ceremony – the beautiful welcome and blessing by Elder S7aplek Lanakila (Bob Baker) and Sapkwus Slulum (Eagle Song Dancers), and a terrific mix of culturally diverse presenters and hosts (Munish Sharma, Tetsuro Shigematsu, Carmen Aguirre, Kim Harvey, Emilie Leclerc, Ming Hudson, Bahareh Shigematsu, Bryan Woo, Aliyah Amarshi, Raes Calvert) – the 2017 Jessies impressed even further by adding two ASL interpreters, an accessibility ramp to the Commodore stage (instead of the usual stairs), and a gender non-conforming house band, the awesome Queertet.
Kudos to the Jessies board of directors and producer Christie Watson for respectfully listening and responding to community concerns with empathy and energy. Enshrining representation and inclusion as a policy has not only increased well-deserved recognition of artists of colour; it has also resulted in a more wide-ranging slate of nominees across the board, with no single company or production dominating, as has happened in previous years. This kind of bold leadership has increased awareness and positive action among individual companies and artists, which reflects positively on the entire community – so much so that by the end of that night, I felt like we, as a community, had won something much bigger.
And my speech? Well, the band showed marked discretion in letting me finish to the end, and at the request of a friend, I've published it below. Congratulations to everyone!
In one of my mother's many photo albums, there's a picture of my younger sister and me when we were two and three years old. We're in my parents' living room, flanked by the couch and the coffee table. Marilyn is sitting on a towel; she's laughing. I'm standing next to her on another towel, a third towel tied around my waist, and the sleeve of a red sweater extending out from my hands like a rope, a serious expression on my face. We're in our underwear. And despite the fact that Marilyn is sitting, we're pretending that we are waterskiing, having seen a man waterski the day before when my family had a picnic at Shawnigan Lake.
In another album, Marilyn and I are about 5 and 6. This time, we're in the basement. This time, we're both smiling. It's a fairy-tale wedding. Marilyn is Cinderella, and I'm her debonair prince. Our costuming is slightly more sophisticated: Marilyn's in a long skirt purloined from our mother's closet; I'm sporting a jacket and trousers, a lace frill at my neck, my long hair tied back. My mom has captured for posterity the happy-ending of the play we had put on. Just for her.
My sister and I had a rich imaginative life, fed by the storybooks our parents read to us, the books we voraciously consumed ourselves, the characters we saw on TV, in movies, in theatre productions, and in our everyday lives. However, I never imagined that I would one day be standing here, accepting a prize to support the stories I myself would write for the stage. Because as rich as my childhood imagination was, it was, frankly, stunted. When I was seven, I was a princess in a community production of The King and I. All the adult Asian roles were played by white actors in yellowface. I remember my sister and I having dark brown make-up applied to our faces, hands, and feet; I guess they thought we didn't look "Siamese" enough, not realizing that Thai people come in all sorts of shades, and that royalty would not have the same dark skin as commoners labouring under the sun. I didn't see anyone who looked like me on a professional stage till my 20s, when I was in London studying music on a scholarship. It was an Andrew Lloyd musical in the West End. And yeah. The first professional Asian actor I ever saw onstage didn't even play a human being; she was a cat.
That little Asian girl in my parents' basement dreamed of being an actor. But she lacked the imagination to pursue that dream. Because she hadn't seen a real-life possibility, she got a degree in music, and pursued a career in classical music. Without seeing it, she couldn't imagine it.
In the age of the internet, it's hard to imagine that our imaginations might be stunted when the entire world is literally at our fingertips. But there's a reason why the CBC website no longer allows commenting on any story about Indigenous peoples in Canada, even when the story is positive. Because until someone has a living, breathing experience of another person that allows them to see the full humanity of that person, they will lack the imagination to see more than the stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated to this day. And if certain groups of people are completely invisible, the imagination has nothing to build on. Nowhere to go. Stunted.
We, the theatre community of Vancouver, specialize in living, breathing experiences. We need flexible and wide-reaching imaginations willing to seek inspiration in all kinds of places: a brothel in India. A poet's secret. A moonlodge on Turtle Island. An Indigenous WWI soldier. We need to forge a bigger space for Indigenous and culturally diverse artists in order to create meaningful living, breathing experiences that will inform our collective and community imaginations, and in turn, expand society's beliefs as to what is possible.
I want to thank the families of John Moffat and Larry Lillo for having the generous imagination to establish and fund this award. And I humbly hope that my standing here will allow more young people of colour to see that it is possible to imagine ourselves onstage, telling the stories that matter to us, and pursuing our dreams.
Those were the final words in an essay I wrote entitled, The Danger of a Single Story, which appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of the Canadian Theatre Review, at the invitation of guest editors Rebecca Burton and Laine Zisman Newman (co-organizers of the EIT initiative) for an issue devoted entirely to the notion of "Equity in Theatre". The title was inspired by and borrowed from the remarkable 2009 TED talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and as noted in the magazine's contents page, I argue that "the danger of the single story is that people fail to see the possibility of other stories that have been ignored and erased from history" - a pretty crucial matter for a cultural sector, the theatre, that is all about telling stories.
Are you implicitly racist despite your best intentions? If you're brave enough, there's an actual test to definitively find out!
Most Canadians believe that they are not racist. That we are better than our American neighbours. That if we don't actively discriminate against marginalized individuals or groups because of their skin colour, then we're not racist. But what if we unconsciously privilege white people over people of colour? Doesn't that, in fact, produce the same result of inequality? Of erasure? What about systemic racism? The infrastructure of racism?