Fresh Meat Theatre Festival just opened their call for submissions for their 6th annual edition, and have also taken some really exciting steps towards increasing the diversity of programming available in the awareness of the Ottawa theatre community.

What’s the big deal about diversity anyways? Diversity exists on a (ha ha) wide range of axes, but the principal variables are form, content, and creator, though venue might also be worth including on this list. Honestly, I’ll probably come back and expand this list five or six times before I’m done writing this article.

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I’ve gone on at length about boredom in the theatre before, but let me expand those thoughts to include this one: we want to see art that has the right balance between the expected and the novel. In a sense, this means that it meets our expectation to a certain extent, and then, rather than falling into the realm of the predictable, it diverges from our expectations to surprise us.

This sort of reassuring comfortable balance is often what people are trying to create when they talk about “increasing diversity in the arts”. To pull a timely example from the world of journalism, it’s like when the Toronto Star fires their columnist Desmond Cole for being an “activist” (read black man). The trick is that the aesthetic biases of the people in charge of arts institutions are informed by their training and experience. The precise experience that we are trying to diversify from. It’s little wonder that we continue to program the same shows and artists, and that those artists continue to make the same work that gets programmed.

Fresh Meat is taking real steps to change this. You can check out the Sparknotes version of their digital town hall and the resultant action plan, or even read the full report, which also contains a host of appended articles for more context and information about diversity in the arts.

I’m in Tampa Bay, Florida right now, at the first Tampa International Fringe Festival, and let me tell you, while the population of this city and the neighbourhood the festival is hosted in is significantly weighted toward people of colour, the theatre festival is attended almost exclusively by white people. I’m not sure what that means, other than the problem of diversity in theatre is obviously not unique to Ottawa.

Certainly, most of the shows at the festival are also produced by white people, to say nothing of the festival itself. It’s their first year, which is a whole different thing that I’ll talk more about in an upcoming article, but the point is that the failure to welcome diverse populations into spaces traditionally called “theatres” is widespread. The institutions (festivals, presenters, artistic producers and directors) don’t program work from diverse populations. So those populations don’t come.

Clearly those populations don’t feel the need to come into theatre spaces in order to find fulfillment in their artistic endeavours. (I’d also like to point out the arrogance and violence inherent in the assumption that theatre spaces are the centre of the discourse around performing arts). Leaving aside the glaring historical and ongoing socio-political marginalization of these individuals, which I’m not going to get into, the art also suffers.

Who knows what innovative performances might take place in our theatre spaces if the artists who are already working in the theatre were engaging with a more diverse range of art that was presented along side their own. What kinds of work would develop out of creative collaborations between traditional theatre artists (you know, people who self-identify as “actors” and “playwrights,” and come from euro-centric theatrical traditions or educational institutions), and other performing arts professionals? Imagine the individuals who might be drawn from diverse communities, with diverse artistic tastes, to form the audiences in the theatres.

In terms of theatre festivals, French theatre is also significantly underrepresented, so that might also be a population that sees more exposure through this initiative. Exploration and collaboration between elements of the distinct English and French theatrical traditions has already led to some exciting work in Ottawa, like Passants at GCTC earlier this season, or Fucking Carl from Theatre 4.669.

So, what Fresh Meat is undertaking, the seeking out of fresh, performances from underrepresented communities to host at their festival, and to build a community among emergent artistic practices is great step with huge potential.

As part of their fulfillment of their “ethno-cultural mandate” to serve underrepresented communities, Fresh Meat will be asking those who submit to voluntarily self-identify as members of these communities (without asking for specification as to which community). Those who don’t choose to identify themselves as members of these communities would be categorized as “did not disclose.” They will be judging the applications blind to the identity of the applicant, with some consideration paid to how many selected applications volunteer their belonging to underrepresented communities.

In Ottawa, hopefully this potential will manifest in a new generation of innovative theatrical practice that bend the generic divides between performing arts disciplines, and sees the creation of interesting and innovative new work. If Fresh Meat continues to focus on developing a community built around safe spaces for underrepresented or marginalized communities, it will certainly help herald such a future for our city.

For our part, NOC has opened our Community Voices platform, which we hope with further development will further serve underrepresented communities within the theatre community of Ottawa.

Applications for Fresh Meat 6, by the way, are open through June 23.

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