Edited March 24th to correct grammatical errors
When I walked in to Persephone Theatre on Monday to begin my shift for the season launch announcement, I was expecting to be told that there would be very few job opportunities for me there this coming season.
Not a good sign.
I love every single person who works at Persephone. I think they are a group of intelligent, kind, and hilarious people that I am proud to call my coworkers and friends. I equally feel that many of them are failing to perform the various roles they are tasked with as a regional theatre. My love for them as individuals and my disappointment in their capacity to do their job are not mutually exclusive and I can (and do) recognize and feel both at the same time. It is because I have a genuine love for the people who work at Persephone, its patrons, its board members, its collaborators, its sponsors, and especially the audience that it is failing to reach, that I feel compelled to say something in a more public way than perhaps others feel is appropriate for me to do. May I remind you that the theatre community has, for a long time, been asking that we have better means of communicating with each other and that we stop whispering behind closed doors the woes we have and that we find ways to have respectful conversations on all levels. You may be saying "But Lauren, hiding behind a screen to voice your opinion isn't a respectful or productive form of discourse!". Let me jut tell you that I have already voiced the following opinions to anyone who has asked, including some of the folks who work at Persephone. I frequently feel disrespected when I voice my opinions publicly, despite being quietly encouraged and applauded by others who feel that sharing their voice with mine is too much of a risk to them somehow. So I'll take that risk alone, here, now. I'm just trying something that other people haven't tried yet, and when I have the proof that it doesn't work, I'll stop. If I knew on Monday that there was little chance that I would be hired, I know too that I do not need to work at Persephone and I would much rather speak my truth than silence myself in the hopes of being employed. I feel that the individuals at Persephone would never ask me to be silent in the interest of pleasing them- but their status is so much higher than mine that they probably don't realize how hard it is to bring these issues forward. If you remember the experiment that was Saskatoon's Theatre Blog, this is also somewhat an attempt to be the best version of that. I do not believe that project was a mistake, but I would certainly do things differently if I could go back and start it again. So, on to the controversy:
The following is a collection of thoughts I've had about Persephone either as a result of this season announcement or my experiences there in the past three(ish) years. I have mostly eliminated the subjects of equity and diversity because I could make that into a whole other post, and I understood that those issues were brought forward in my absence on Monday night.
Fewer jobs for actors/Who is here?
The elimination of the Deep End Series is a necessary evil. Persephone's financial situation means that things have to be scaled back. On the budget that Persephone has, they were already putting out way more material than other companies would have been able to with the same funds. I understand this decision, though it saddens me.
Because of this same apparent lack of funds, Persephone is now also bringing in more shows for their mainstage season. Lots of things come from that decision, but to me what I'm getting out of it is that there are a lot fewer job opportunities for local actors.
Additionally, the upcoming season doesn't seem reflective of the actors who are actually here. Saskatoon, and indeed most cities with a theatre community, is populated by a lot (A LOT) of incredibly talented female actors, mostly of a young age. It frustrates me then that there are so few roles for the largest demographic of available employees. I also was told earlier this year that someone was flown in to be in a show because "we don't have an actor that fits that character in town" and it simply wasn't the case (it was a role for a young white male). It seems to me that Persephone isn't actually certain who is in town and who can be a resource to them. Actors don't aloofly wait to be asked to be in something, we tend to throw ourselves aggressively into the mix, so if Persephone doesn't know who they have in town, they're the ones not paying attention. I want programming that doesn't facilitate the hiring of white people from any other community. We have enough white actors of varying demographics here. However, if Persephone was doing programming that called for an actor of any minority, I would be thrilled if they brought in a person of colour as opposed to white-washing a show in the name of casting locally (which Persephone has already done, and their local casting didn't apply to the multiple people from Toronto). The current season doesn't facilitate either of these dream situations.
No shows that ask a question or generate a conversation
The most recent show at Persephone, The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, was possibly my favourite thing I had ever seen them do. Every aspect of the production was solid, but most important, the play generated conversation and debate. People were lingering in the lobby after the show, not even to meet the actors, but just to talk about where they stood on the issues brought up by the play. I think that theatre, while being multi-purpose and ever changing, should at some point make us think about something, and maybe make us question where we stand on certain issues. The upcoming season at Persephone doesn't ask questions. It's a lot of comedy, it's way more improv than usual, and it's not really challenging. Entertainment for entertainment's sake is fine, but for a whole season? I want to think when I go to the theatre. I hate feeling like I have to turn my brain off when I see a show there (which is what I felt I would have had to do to enjoy Farndale). And while I certainly can't speak on behalf of every audience member in the world, Persephone's audience and subscriber base is dwindling. So why are they not trying to appeal to multiple sensibilities? Are we really so afraid that the audiences in Saskatoon aren't intelligent/curious/insightful/what have you enough to handle things that aren't funny? Do we really want to please the small percentage of people that we are getting out now, by alienating potential new audiences? What is the point of NOT having something a bit more hard hitting on offer? I was once told by a staff member at Persephone that women don't write lot of comedy because they are "railing against the machine" that has oppressed them for so long. Maybe in the interest of improving their equity score and providing something that isn't comedic, they could have done one of the plays that this person was thinking of when he said that.
Bringing stuff in from Edmonton/Programming the same shows
I love Edmonton dearly. It's where I trained! I think Catalyst theatre is a wonderful company. I love supporting them. Saskatoon and Edmonton are pretty geographically close- I would like to see, in the coming years, more shows brought in from other centres. We see a lot of Edmonton, and in fact, we end up with similar programming too, whether by intention or accident (like Mary Poppins, Persephone's upcoming offering). I think we in Saskatoon discount ourselves too readily and we fall a lot into imitation. We want to imitate other things and seek the approval those other things got (I don't believe this is exclusively true of Persephone, I think it's something we all do). I want Saskatoon theatre folks to start thinking of ourselves as innovators. Look at the excellent work that Sum Theatre is doing to engage with our communities. Look at the programming and partnership improvements that Will Brooks and his team have brought to Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan. We are capable of making work here that people will talk about all over the country. Persephone is currently finding out who they are all over again- I encourage them to be innovative and brave in their choices in the coming years, and maybe bring in some shows, if they must be brought in, from somewhere other than Edmonton or Vancouver/Prince George.
This is the thing that has me really upset. Persephone is completely failing to market itself. As a social media marketer, I find myself swearing at my computer screen when I see that the Persephone Facebook page has three posts over the course of a run, or when I see the house counts for that night's show, being totally astounded that attendance for exceptional work is so low (but maybe the amount of inadequate work- of which there has been too much- makes it harder to get folks out for the "good" stuff, a problem that having resources that are more focused will hopefully solve). Moreover, Persephone has made it known to the people that it employs as artists that they are not necessarily one hundred percent behind every show.
All of these problems I listed above that I want you, Persephone, to think about? If you can make me think that you genuinely believe in what your company is doing, I will stop taking issue with what you do (I probably would also stop trying to work for you because your programming and choices are too frequently offensive to me). But I don't. I feel like Persephone alternates between apologizing to me for failing to do its job, and telling me that I can't have everything I want in life and that I am the problem and I need to handle it. I feel very little enthusiasm for the content from the full time staff members whose job it is to make people pay money to see Persephones shows. If this isn't the season that you wanted to do, if you are disappointed that you didn't get your first choice, why are you continuing to make theatre that you are making us feel like you don't believe in? There are SO MANY PLAYS in the world! How do you have a list so limited that at the end of the day you're left only with ones that don't excite you? Are you excited by your programming? Your lack of enthusiasm in advertising it doesn't make it seem that way! Your presence in the media, online, in the office, everywhere affects the perception of your company. I have perceived you as people who are unexcited to do your jobs. And you're not doing your jobs. But here is my most important, largest, cannot-get-over-it-and-I-expect-an-apology issue: performers in Persephone productions have expressed to me their understanding that the marketing department decided that no one was going to come to a certain show anyway, so they might as well not put their support or energy behind it. Regardless of whether there is any truth to that statement at all, that is how our regional theatre has made its artists feel. Unsupported. And that is possibly the worst thing a theatre company could do.
These issues aren't even all of what I feel and think about Persephone right now. I just don't think it's fair to subject you to more.
In the past few days, people have been coming to me and asking me to have discussions with them about the announcement. Some have expressed to me that they will have to move away because there simply aren't the opportunities here that they need to make a living. Some others are probably seething in silence, unable to speak too much for fear of compromising some position that they hold. Others, like myself, have committed to filling the gaps that Persephone is leaving because Saskatoon audiences and theatre artists deserve work and material that is not currently being offered here. While maybe that will be overall a great experience for me, I am so sad that I feel the need to pick up Persephone's slack, as opposed to being a contributor to a thriving, healthy theatre scene.
Agree? Disagree? Have more to add? Want to attack me as a person as opposed to discussing the issues I've raised? Comments are on.
Look, I don't run a regional theatre. I don't have the skills required to run a regional theatre (yet). But looking at what's happening here versus what's happening elsewhere, I don't understand why we don't seem to be discussing the resounding disappointment that I am certainly hearing. Theatre companies certainly all have problems- this seems more than average. A lot of the problems appear to be fixable, and I know that the company will want to fix them, and I hope that this year many of them will be fixed with the changes the company has begun to implement already. I'm still worried, and angry, and scared, but ultimately, I know we can be better and I expect us all to be. Including myself. And I know that we're all trying. Let's just talk a bit more, yeah?