Heather REDFERN: Recipient of the 2023 Gascon-Thomas Award for Innovation
INTERVIEW with Heather Redfern, by Charlotte Baker (PDTA, 2023)
A graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, Heather Redfern (Set and Costume Design, 1984) is the Executive Director of The Vancouver East Cultural Centre (The Cultch), where she curates a program of live and digital presentations and an extensive community engagement program. Using the stage as a tool for challenging assumptions, creating dialogue, and making change, the performances at The Cultch, celebrate the rich and diverse communities that populate this country and the world.
Heather has dedicated her career to serving a diverse group of artists and audiences, she is particularly interested in the creation of new forms and in putting creative teams together that are working outside of their comfort zones. Working locally, nationally and internationally, she believes in the transformational powers of the arts.
Ms. Redfern previously worked as the Executive Director of the Greater Vancouver Alliance for Arts and Culture, the Artistic Producer for Catalyst Theatre in Edmonton and as a freelance theatre designer. She has been honored with the City of Edmonton, Business and the Arts Award for Excellence in Arts Management and the Mallory Gilbert Leadership Award for sustained, inspired, and creative leadership in Canadian Theatre.
In June of 2019 Heather Redfern and The Cultch were awarded the Vancouver Now Representation and Inclusion Award, at the Jessies, for “working to deliberately curate and program shows that present the city that we live in onstage while also continuously working towards the inclusion of and visibility of a spectrum of minority and marginalized communities.”
Here is Heather RedFern's speech at the Gascon-Thomas Award Ceremony on March 17th, 2023.
I am Heather Redfern, my family origins are Swedish and English and I am a sister, a mother and a grandmother. I reside on the unceded Indigenous land of the xwməϴkwəýəm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (TsleilWaututh) Nations. I am grateful today to be on the unceded Indigenous lands of the Kanien’kehá:ka/Mohawk Nation.
First of all, thank you for this honour and opportunity. I was lucky enough to attend this remarkable school in the early 80’s. The facilities were not nearly as fancy as they are today. In this building, the area where the bar is now, was a mish mash of disreputable furniture scavenged from props storage, overflowing ashtrays and paint-stained coveralls. It smelled of melting Styrofoam, acetone and slightly rotting latex paint. It was a busy stinky messy workshop and I loved it. All of it.
I went through the design program under the very watchful eye of Francois Barbeau, a man who said what he thought, very bluntly, especially when he was speaking in English. He was a perfectionist, and when you received an odd bit of praise, it made your year. I relished conversations with him, it always felt like he was pushing to make us better artists. He and many of the teachers I had here, changed me forever. They fed the fire inside me that was my passion for theatre, they gave me the tools I needed to make that passion something real and tangible, and they helped me to figure out how to use those tools to change the world, one performance at a time.
And then, there was living in Montreal. One of the greatest gifts this school gives to all of us is the opportunity to live in one of the best cities in the world. It took me awhile to figure that out though. I was so lost the first fall that I was here, I actually asked Francois to give me more work to do. He told me to walk the streets, to watch people and listen to the city, to go to the theatres in cafes and found spaces, and that even if I didn’t understand the language, I would learn something. Since that time, any time I travel, I do exactly that. I walk kilometres, I watch, listen, go to galleries and performances and I always learn something.
A lot of living has happened since then, and every step of the way, I have had my theatre family. The nature of the work we do in the theatre requires us to be vulnerable and open to each other. The work of creating collectively binds us like a family and those bonds become a part of us.
Throughout your careers you will grow your theatre family, The beginnings of that group are here in this room. You are not alone, you are part of a continuum, you are supported by peers, elders and mentors, by those who have come and gone before you. These are the people who will give you the courage to take risks in your work and when you go somewhere you have never been before, all of us here will be there and see how brave you’ve been, whether you succeed or fail.
It will be you – all of you - that invent the future of theatre in this country. We need only to walk the streets, look and listen to see that the way forward has inclusion at its centre.
For the past 16 years I have been the Executive Director of the Cultch in Vancouver. The Cultch holds a unique place in English Canada. It is a presenting, rather than a producing venue, and it is multidisciplinary. Part of our job is to support artists and their work by providing fees, technical support and marketing for their shows, but that is not the most important thing we do for artists. What we do is connect artists to audiences and communities to artists. This is our passion and it has driven us to try and figure out what different communities need to feel welcome and safe when they walk in our doors to see a show. That might seem like a simple idea but it’s one that is complex to realize. It is one that each one of you will have to work through at every step of your career, wherever it may take you.
You will need to walk, watch, listen and learn. If you do that artists and audiences will tell you what they need to come together and that is when the hard work will begin.
There is no manual on how to do this, the work is a product of a willingness to listen, a drive to do better. At the Cultch, we are working to decolonize a creation space that has both Indigenous and non-indigenous artists working together. One that is reaching out to a diverse audience. This requires everyone to be involved: Box office staff, volunteers, technicians, artists, marketing and development people. For the organization to be successful, each individual needs to look at their bias and prejudices and acknowledge them as a starting point. There has to be enough trust that people can be honest with each other and respectful of boundaries. Everything that happens in the process has to be genuine. Because many of our preconceptions, the things we learned in school about how to make theatre, and bring an audience to it, were and continue to be, harmful.
If we are going to embrace a diversity of worldviews, of ways of art-making and art-sharing, we need to be willing to challenge everything we believe about how art can and should be done.
This effort at decolonization. At mutually respectful and beneficial artistic exchange is an ongoing project for us. This is hard. It creates friction and discomfort. We make mistakes. Working together is complicated and it takes time, but it is worth it.
One of my favourite ways of nerding out about what it takes to be genuinely inclusive is to obsess about bathrooms. As trans and gender fluid people have become increasingly out, proud and visible in much of in much of our society. Bathrooms became the battlefield.
Our priority at the Cultch was making sure the trans and non-binary people on our staff and in our audiences felt safe, so the first thing we did was cover our gendered washroom signs with Universal Washroom signs. This did not work. Femme patrons did not always feel safe walking out of a stall to find a cis-man standing outside it. And I can’t tell you the number of cis-women who walked into the washroom with urinals and turned around and walked right back out again. Our goal of making everyone feel welcome and safe was not achieved for all the good intentions.
So instead, we put up a sign on each gendered washroom door indicating explicitly that trans and gender fluid people were welcome. This was not enough. It solved the problem of cis- discomfort, but did not feel truly inclusive.
So we listened to each of these groups about what they needed to feel safe, and they gave the same answer, a real universal washroom, with private stalls. One where the doors go from the floor to the ceiling and sinks that were in a genuinely public space.
It’s a simple solution. But it took a lot of planning, it was expensive. It took a long time. We faced barriers we weren’t expecting around all kinds of things that I won’t bore you with, but I obsess over, like ventilation, fire suppression systems and city permitting.
It feels like a lot for something as simple as going to the bathroom. But it’s not, because thousands of different people will use that bathroom now that it’s built and they will feel safe in a gender-neutral bathroom for the first time, and a second time and a third time and the fourth time until they won’t even think about it.
This is what the team accomplished! We created the conditions for everyone to feel safe and stopped the bathroom wars.
It feels simple, but it’s not. It wasn’t. It required us to set aside our assumptions, build relationships and listen to the needs of the people we were trying to serve and overcome systemic barriers, ones we knew were there and ones that were invisible until we ran up against them.
And as you move forward in your career, a generation of artists driven to do better, this is the pattern you will follow whether you are decolonizing your practice, developing inclusive spaces or radically rethinking how you make work.
I am sure you have heard a million times how hard it is to make a living and have a good life working in this business. Those things are true, but the main reason it is so hard is because we all love it so much. We see the power it has; we know how it makes us and others feel to be in a room together having a shared emotional experience. We know that we could be changing someone’s life and never know about it.
You’ve spent your time here learning a very specific set of skills for a specific role in the theatre. My training here was in design. And at a point in my life, I had to make the decision to put my career as a theatre designer and scenic painter aside and take on a role in the arts that was about supporting the work of other artists.
It wasn’t actually a hard choice. I found the best way I could express my love for this work and its power to heal was to provide artists seeking an audience tools - and hope.
Each of you has a super power. Collectively you tell stories. You invite people into these stories in a way that activates their psyches as memories that trigger their own stories and emotions. This is the ultimate exercise in empathy and community building.
This is why what we do will always exist and will always be relevant. All of the people teaching you right now understand how important you are to the future of live performance. As theatre makers, we live on an edge and they are giving you the tools you need to thrive there. This school produces artists yes; it also produces creative leaders.
You have an important job to do. You will decide what comes next in our profession. You will take the lessons I am learning now and decide whether we can work better. Kindlier, more inclusively, more sustainably.
Take risks, be honest, acknowledge yourself, give yourself a break, and love and care for one another. You will keep track of the people in this room, your classmates, all of your life. You may not see each other for a long time but you will keep tabs on each other and many of you will work together and make incredible performance.
And some of you will make the choice I did, you will raise the money and run the building and, most importantly, create the culture that supports those performances. And you will use the tools that you learned here at NTS to do that. You have been trained to be open and to work together. I challenge you to create the future of theatre with passion, honesty, trust, risk, fierce love and hard work.
One last thing, do me a favour, we are terrible to our elders in this profession, so find them and listen to their stories. You might not agree with their ideas but they have stories to tell, with lessons that are worth taking to heart. I appreciate you listening to mine.