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Challenging inequities in and through the arts

Image: Seligman Performing Arts Centre. Public Domain.

On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Michele Decottignie and Olivia Marie Golosky. Both are involved in the performing arts in Calgary, Alberta. Discrimination and inequities pushed them both from their involvement in mainstream contexts in the arts sector. Both have taken up the radical theatre practice of "theatre of the oppressed." And both are now, through Stage Left Productions and through the Calgary Congress for Equity and Diversity in the Arts (CCEDA), turning their energies towards pushing for greater equity and for decolonization in the arts at the local, provincial, and national levels.

There’s a common idea that people in the arts, on the whole, get it -- that they’re a bit more enlightened, a bit more open minded, a bit more oriented towards ideals that include justice. Now, whatever else you might be able to say about where this idea came from and what basis it might or might not have, the sad truth of the matter is that people in the arts are produced by and live in the same oppressive, violent, messed up world as the rest of us. And as today’s guests discuss, the same kinds of marginalizations and exclusions that shape the rest of society also shape everything about how communities and institutions in the arts sector function, from access to resources, to aesthetic norms, to interpersonal conduct, and far beyond.

Michele Decottignie has been working in the performing arts in Treaty 7 territory in Calgary, Alberta, for more than 30 years. She is a white working-class lesbian with invisible disabilities and a socialist worldview. For the first fifteen of those years, she worked mainly in mainstream theatre companies. She witnessed and experienced any number of inequities. Eventually, in the face of a mainstream that wouldn’t change and was actively hostile to being told that it needed to, she struck out in a different direction.

From a series of artist-community collaborations that started in 1996, Stage Left Productions emerged in 2003 as an alterantive theatre performance company, with Decottignies as founder and artistic director. Stage Left is focused on being a politicized safe space for diverse artists whose work is based in using the arts as a form of activism. Over the years, they have put on a wide range of productions, hosted many festivals, shot 30 films, and engaged in a huge number of social justice-focused popular theatre interventions that push beyond what theatre is conventionally understood to be. In particular, much of their work has drawn on the approach known as "theatre of the oppressed" – a means of promoting social and political change originally elaborated by Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal in the 1970s.

Olivia Marie Golosky is Metis, Two-Spirit, and an artist. She grew up in Fort MacMurray in Treaty 8 territory and she now lives in Calgary. Golosky has worked in film, theatre, and radio, as a stage manager, as a playwright, and as a writer. Until quite recently, she was working in mainstream arts contexts in the city. She, too, was facing and seeing lots of marginalization in those contexts, and had no choice but to do the exhausting and alienating work of navigating it. One particularly galling aspect for her of how the arts sector in Canada has remained resolutely colonial is that even through the recent boom in arts funding focused on responding to the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, relatively little of that funding has actually been going into supporting Indigenous artists and Indigenous-led projects. During her time working in mainstream contexts, Golosky was also getting to know Decottignie and her work, and she reached a point about two years ago where she had to withdraw from those contexts and began to work exclusively with Stage Left and with grassroots arts organizations run by and for Indigenous people.

While Stage Left is still involved in doing and supporting theatrical pop-up social justice interventions, most recently the organization has turned its attention away from more formal productions and into advocacy work promoting equity in arts funding and arts policy. As well, Decottignie, Golosky, and Stage Left more generally have been involved in establishing CCEDA as part of their work to change arts policy. Not only that, they have begun to use the tools of theatre of the oppressed within the arts sector itself, in contexts across the country, as a way to advance an equity agenda.

Deccotignie and Golosky speak about injustice in the arts, about theatre of the oppressed and the work of Stage Left, and about their current efforts to push for justice and equity within the arts sector.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

The image modified for use in this post was taken by Jtherald and is in the public domain.

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