Safely back on campus. Learn More.

U of R program prepares BIPOC performing artists to lead across Western Canada

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: June 10, 2022 8:00 a.m.

Artistic director of the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, B.C. Michael Shamata, left, and Taiwo Afolabi, an assistant professor at the University of Regina and the Canada Research Chair for Socially Engaged Theatre, co-founded the Arts Leadership Training Program for BIPOC performing artists and arts administrators.
Artistic director of the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, B.C. Michael Shamata, left, and Taiwo Afolabi, an assistant professor at the University of Regina and the Canada Research Chair for Socially Engaged Theatre, co-founded the Arts Leadership Training Program for BIPOC performing artists and arts administrators. Credit: University Advancement and Communications

Casting projects during the pandemic made emerging playwright and director Justin Lee acutely aware of just how much more work he was putting in to casting roles for people of colour.

“To gather people of colour, it takes 10 times as much effort,” he said. “There just isn’t that representation.”

It’s one of the reasons Lee participated in the inaugural 2021-2022 Arts Leadership Training Program for BIPOC performing artists and arts administrators through the Centre for Socially Engaged Theatre (C-SET) at the University of Regina, in partnership with 10 performing arts organizations across Western Canada.

It’s important for people, in general, to feel seen in their industry and in their workplace, said Lee, noting the same holds true for performing artists.

“Having artistic directors, having producers in the bigger theatre companies and such, who are representative of people of colour, will only strengthen our Canadian arts scene and at a broader scale –Canadian culture,” he said.

Systemic Realities

Taiwo Afolabi, an assistant professor at the University of Regina and the Canada Research Chair in Socially Engaged Theatre, co-founded the program with Michael Shamata, the artistic director of Belfry Theatre in Victoria B.C.

Prior to joining the University in 2020, Afolabi worked at the Belfry as well. He was the manager for community and artistic engagement and the only Black person on staff at the time.

At the U of R, Afolabi said he found a home for the idea he had been ruminating over with Shamata – to begin to consider the structural and system changes needed to foster “equitable representation at a decision-making level in the arts.”

Ten BIPOC artists from across Canada enrolled in the first iteration of the one-year, two-phase Arts Leadership Training Program.

Panorama of people like a zoom window
The inaugural C-SET Arts Leadership Training Program cohort. (Top row, from left to right: Sima Saxena, Charles Umeh, Colin Wolf, and Justin Lee. Middle row, left to right: Rosemary Jeffery, Ming Hudson, Pedro Siqueira, and khattieQ. Bottom row, from left to right: Yulissa Campos, Kevin Takahide Lee, and Andrea Lemus.)
Photo Credit: Taiwo Afolabi

The first three months consisted of weekly virtual seminars – not only about performing arts policy and management, but how to navigate challenges in performing arts policy and management as a BIPOC person.

“It was an opportunity to talk about some of these systemic realities and to be able to share their experiences,” Afolabi said, of the participants, who also completed three months of paid internships.

The first iteration of the program included venues in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. For the second iteration, organizations from Alberta and Manitoba have come on board as well. 

Mutual Learning Experience

Shamata hired one of the program’s interns at the Belfry. He said was crucial for him – and the theatre company as a whole – to go into the experience with heightened awareness.

Shamata said since people have tendencies to gravitate toward ideas with which they are familiar and stories that they understand.

“I think it’s important that other voices are in the position to do the curating and to decide what stories are important,” he said. 

“This is an instance where rocking the boat is a good thing.”

The Belfry and the other organizations that hired interns all undertook specialized sensitivity training.

“For us, what was critical was for participants to land a paid internship position where they felt valued,” Afolabi said.  “Having multiple voices at the table… multiple voices that might bring different perspectives… lets us rethink all of these things.”

Lee is still employed with the Electric Company Theatre in Vancouver, B.C. where he interned.

“The arts can help people outside of the arts feel welcome,” Lee said. “It’s extremely important to approach it from a view point of sharing culture and that it isn’t all just a replacement. It’s a reintegration or a re-exploration of what our cultural makeup is in a global sense.”

The Arts Leadership Training Program through C-SET at the U of R is accepting applications for 2022-2023 until June 21. Application forms are available on the trainings section of the C-SET website.

The University has committed to creating a healthy campus community and learning environment in its 2020-25 strategic plan All Our Relations, or Kahkiyaw kiwȃhkomȃkȃninawak in Cree. Well-being and Belonging is one of the five Areas of Focus in the strategic plan, with three interconnected objectives below it: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; Healthy Living; and Mental Health Literacy and Research.