Racism in the arts: Calgary artists want ‘vicious cycle’ broken

Calgary artists say the city is bleeding BIPOC talent because systemic racism limits opportunities

Vertigo Theatre's Sherlock Holmes and the Raven's Curse. Mike Tan (left) and Kristen Padayas were both in the cast. PHOTO COURTESY TIM NGUYEN

Institutionalized racism has created a destructive environment for artists who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) who choose to remain in Calgary, say local artists working in the industry.  

It’s a cycle that’s driven away local talent, leaving the Calgary arts scene lacking in diversity.

“So many people [of colour] have started here and left,” said Janelle Cooper, a Black actor, director, producer, writer, and the artistic director of Calgary’s Ellipsis Tree Collective – an Afrocentric performance society.


This deeper look into racism in Calgary by Jenna Shummoogum was funded through our crowdfunding campaign. Work like this takes time and money. For more thoughtful, ambitious, objective and agenda-free, community-focused local news content, consider contributing.


“We’re certainly not encouraged to stay. It feels like there is no place for us here.”

That’s echoed by Mike Tan, a Filipino- and Chinese-Canadian actor with more a decade of experience.

“It almost feels like it’s a war of attrition,” he said.

“You wind up being the one [person of colour] who represents because you didn’t leave. I can think of so many people who have left in the last 10 years, and even in the last five years, who have gone to Vancouver or Toronto and done so well.”

‘You wind up being the one [person of colour] who represents because you didn’t leave.’

Mike Tan, Calgary actor

Disparity revealed in 2017 artists’ survey

The trend hasn’t gone unchecked. Calgary Arts Development (CADA) has done work over the past three years to address the problem.

These observations were confirmed by CADA’s 2017 voluntary Arts Professional Survey, which assessed Calgary’s arts ecosystem. The key findings around ethnicity revealed that 83 per cent of Calgary artists identify as white, compared with 67 per cent of the city’s general population.

CADA also produced a report on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

Cad Edi Report by Darren Krause

Bottom line: People who identified as white were overrepresented in the industry.

Furthermore, the survey revealed a wage gap favouring white artists compared with their BIPOC counterparts.

“Anecdotally, are we noticing BIPOC [artists] leaving the city, and it’s part of that vicious cycle,” said Patti Pon, President and CEO of Calgary Arts Development.

“They leave the city because there aren’t enough opportunities.”

‘Third spear carrier from the left’

When CADA questions artistic directors about their casting choices, the directors reply that there aren’t enough BIPOC artists in Calgary, and they feel pressured to hire locally.

The cycle continues. Pon said the sector had resigned itself to this outcome rather than saying it wasn’t good enough.

“The 2017 survey was intended to be a bit of a baseline for us and also to either confirm or dispute what we suspected,” she said.

“Regrettably, it confirmed what we thought in terms of the community that we work most closely with. If you’re an artist of colour, and you’re getting cast in a play, you’re the third spear carrier from the left. That’s as good as it gets for parts. Then, of course, the salaries are going to remain low.”

Some of the sector’s major players are also aware of the problem. They’re committed to addressing it, they say.

“The results of the CADA survey provides important perspective of the need for change that lies ahead,” said Stafford Arima, artistic director of Theatre Calgary.

Arima said that since he moved to Calgary three years ago, it’s been inspiring to meet emerging BIPOC artists who are looking for a home to tell their stories and share their art.

“I know that there is still a long way to go to fully realize, and make an impact on, the results from CADA’s survey. The findings are a sobering reminder of the work that needs to be done,” he said.

Type casting

There’s a general lack of roles for BIPOC artists in Calgary’s theatre industry. If they’re available, they’re small roles that go easily unnoticed.

“When there are roles, they’re just a shell of a person, or a stereotype, that oftentimes perpetuates racism because even though there is representation, it’s a shallow representation,” Tan said.

When BIPOC artists do get roles in big productions, they’re often the only one in the room. It creates pressure that can lead to a difficult work environment.

“It’s a weird dynamic,” said Kristen Padayas, a mixed-race actress and associate producer of Chromatic Theatre – a company focused on developing culturally diverse voices in Calgary’s theatre community.

“You get in the room and you’re just supposed to be grateful that you are there,” she said.

When you are there, you’re expected to shoulder the load as the BIPOC artist.

“I’m so often denied the capacity to be my full self in a space because I have to represent something,” said Jenna Rodgers, a mixed-race director and dramaturg, and founding Artistic Director of Chromatic Theatre.

‘…but I try to cast you.’

Some companies that do wind up hiring one or two artists for a production, consider this an accomplishment.

“I’ve had a particular director who casts these all white shows, and when I brought it up to him, he was like, ‘but I try to cast you.’ Again, I can’t be your checkbox. And what is it within yourself, that feels as though you can applaud yourself for getting one person,” Tan said.

Janelle Cooper – Ellipsis Tree Collective.

Ellipsis Tree Collective’s Janelle Cooper splits her time between Toronto and Calgary and is ready to make the leap to fully move out east because it’s a more progressive and supportive city. In Toronto, there are substantially more BIPOC artists in positions of power. There are more opportunities for those artists to acquire those positions, she said.

“It’s not easy [in Calgary]. There are a lot of things that need to change on the back end before anything can change on stage,” Cooper said.

‘It’s not easy [in Calgary]. There are a lot of things that need to change on the back end before anything can change on stage.’

– Janelle Cooper – artistic director of Calgary’s Ellipsis Tree Collective

CADA town halls

CADA has held a series of town halls about their commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility (EDIA). The final meeting went Aug. 26.

“This summer Calgary Arts Development hosted a series of virtual town halls to discuss issues around the deep-seated racism that exists within our communities and systems, and how we can further develop anti-racist policies and practices governing our work,” their website reads.

They have committed to create and commission a working group to help recraft their goals for diversity and inclusion. They want to further develop anti-racist policies and practices. The organization is moving to EDIA as part of their granting requirements.

Moving through this process, Pon wants to embed permanent change – not tokenism. She doesn’t want arts companies to just mark a checkbox.

“The whole point is not to force somebody, but to say, ‘when you open yourselves up to the possibilities and the diversity of the art sector in Calgary, it will make you a better organization,’” Pon said.

Arts organization board changes

Change also requires examination of organization boards and artistic leadership. It also would need buy in from the people currently overseeing these groups.

Currently, Calgary’s big arts players are composed of almost entirely white faces. There is only one artistic director of colour among them. That lack of BIPOC representation has created a trickle-down effect in the sector, say industry insiders.

Theatre Calgary – Has 0 BIPOC of 10 executives on the board and 3 BIPOC of 13 board members

ATP – 3 BIPOC of 7 Executives with the Chair being BIPOC, and 1 BIPOC of 11 board members.

Vertigo – Has no BIPOC board members (that we could identify via search.)

– Jenna Shummoogum

The people who help to create the work, who choose the programming, the people who write about the arts, and the people that attend theatre in this city, are all predominantly white.

Pon said we know how to fix the system.

“Put BIPOC artists in more senior positions who are qualified to do that. Cast BIPOC artists in major roles. We know that there’s lots out there,” she said.

Cooper and Tan would like to see the white people in power, who have held those seats for years, graciously step down to allow for some of those senior positions to be filled by BIPOC artists.

“As an arts organization that reaches [many] Calgarians, we need to re-focus our efforts to best represent the community that we live in. This starts from a board level and moves down throughout the organization,” said Theatre Calgary’s Arima. 

“But first, we must begin the journey of opening up conversations within our team about systemic racism. Theatre Calgary’s responsibility is to listen and engage in a thoughtful and thorough examination of our past and current working practices. Going forward there is no option but to make this a major focus of who we are, and who we will be.”

Theatre Calgary is among the companies that must refocus. The company’s board is mostly white. A look at their productions in 2019/2020, (keeping in mind that their season was cut short), shows that they hired 16 BIPOC artists and 102 non-BIPOC in their creative teams.

Vertigo Theatre and Alberta Theatre Projects both declined interviews, citing that this is a time to listen rather than comment.

It’s… complex.

Real change can also be a bit complicated.

Rodger said like most institutions, there are several layers to peel back.  

“It’s not that everyone is a bunch of racists. It’s that even if you diversify your board, if white supremacy culture exists, your very diverse board might still believe that whiteness is best,” Rodgers said.

“A change in leadership can make a difference. I don’t think it changes everything [though], with white supremacy culture deeply ingrained in the way we live, work and play.”

Companies moved quickly for COVID. Everyone shut down and government was able to implement relief plans.

“I think with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the social consciousness, it is so clear to me, that these things are intertwined,” Rodgers said.

“We chose to move quickly because a lot of white people would be affected. And we choose to move slowly when the people in power are not affected.”

Not just a one-off

Companies can no longer just do one BIPOC play and expect the community to accept that as change.

“We need to keep encouraging BIPOC folks to write plays and we need to program those plays in their seasons. That’s the big one that is missing from Calgary theatre companies,” Padayas said.

She also said that once those stories are being brought forward, then you can hire more BIPOC artists to tell those stories. If a play is written by a white person, and it’s a period piece, you can still include BIPOC artists in those plays.

“I don’t know why people think we didn’t exist [back then],” Padayas said.

Tan would like to see more of a springboard for BIPOC artists who graduate from training programs. Also, more support for BIPOC artists to work in Calgary, to gain valuable experience.

“If that artist doesn’t get that experience initially, they aren’t going to get more [experience] if you’re not going to afford that to them,” he said.

Changing Calgary’s arts community

The commitment to telling BIPOC stories needs to be steadfast and not be just tokenism, artists say. There needs to be more than just performative ally-ship. Just saying that these voices matter but not actually doing anything about it doesn’t cut it.

Theatre Calgary is committed to continue listening and evolving.

“The focus of ‘why’ has never been clearer. The journey for Theatre Calgary now is the ‘how’. I am confident that our board and leadership will continue to pursue the change that is not only desired but required.” Arima said.

We need to ask the hard question of the Calgary arts community: What is their true commitment to anti-racism?

They have a captive audience.

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