I’m not saying Vern Thiessen was a bad choice. On paper, it’s hard to imagine a more qualified application for Workshop West’s artistic director position—harder to imagine them not selecting him, which they did and officially announced last week. Thiessen’s an acclaimed playwright with both a solid history in town (he taught playwriting at the U of A; the Citadel Theatre’s produced his scripts) and great success elsewhere—a recent adaptation of his, Of Human Bondage, took home seven of Toronto’s Dora awards. Given Workshop West’s own mandate of cultivating new works, Thiessen’s an ideal fit.
But the other thing his hiring means is that we have another white male artistic director in town, which means Edmonton’s seven or so main stage companies all have white male artistic directors.
That isn’t to say there are no women or visible minorities running theatre companies in town. There are quite a few, actually, but only when we look at specialized companies, or ones that don’t do a full season of their own. A few examples: Marianne Copithorne helms the Freewill Shakespeare Festival (one month-long, two-show festival each year); Theatre Yes’ Heather Inglis and the women-led Maggie Tree both produce a show per season; Amy Shostak is in charge of improv company Rapid Fire Theatre (that does weekend shows and few festivals, and which, for full disclosure here, I’m a part of); Christine Frederick runs Alberta Aboriginal Arts, which produces the Rubaboo festival every year; TYA company Concrete Theatre splits artistic director duties between Caroline Howarth and Mieko Ouchi. There are more in the emerging groups of fresh-out-of-school artists and indiest-of-indie collectives around town—Punctuate theatre, which curates a full indie season as well as produces original work, has Liz Hobbs as its artistic director. But if we’re talking about the professional companies in town, nobody who isn’t a white male guides a season, and it’s been like that for a long while.
Thiessen will assuredly do good things in his new role, and we’ll be lucky to have him as a regular creative force around town. More than any criticism of him, or even any sort of call for affirmative action, this is a request for stronger awareness (and questioning) of one particular point: in a bustling theatre scene such as we have here, one that prides itself on scale and scope, why isn’t that same diversity reflected, even slightly, in its biggest artistic-leadership roles?