July 7 | Open letter from Lisa Karen Cox to National Theatre School of Canada regarding their BLM statement
Dear Ms. Palmer, Mr. Dubois and Mr. Arthurs,
Further to my conversation with Ms. Palmer , and NTS’ acceptance of a student based (in part) on my recommendation, I am reaching out to you. Based on recent communications I have had with NTS students past and present, I am very concerned.
Amongst the students from underrepresented communities, I have heard a theme of repression, oppression and dismissal regarding their time at NTS. This is a stark contrast to the message written by the NTS leadership team that is posted on the NTS website. It is not enough to simply admit BIPOC students into your institution. NTS must create an environment in which these students, and all students, can thrive. This requires NTS to reexamine all facets of the institution; in particular its hidden or invisible curriculum.
As gatekeepers, it is important to ask yourselves:
1. Does our curriculum, methods and praxis support the cultural perspectives and values of our diverse student population and the students we seek to admit in the future?
2. In regards to the core belief of “treating students as professionals”:
a. Are all professionals within our industry treated appropriately? Systemically and personally? Should we mimic and/or acknowledge any disparity?
b. Have we supported all students as they transition from student to professional?
3. What do we want the professional theatre community to look like?
4. What do we want the professional theatrical ecology and culture to be?
In my opinion, educational institutions should not mimic the toxic and oppressive
environment of the professional theatre industry but serve as agents of change; fuelled by a vision of the near-future, where the next generation of artistic leaders is shaped. As such, this letter is not looking to tell the trauma stories of the past, but to help guide you toward the future. A not-so-distant future with an anti-racist len. Ultimately, systemic anti-oppression is not about compliance, but about organizational culture. Below are suggestions that NTS can implement immediately to shift its current model to an anti-oppressive culture.
STUDENTS FIRST MINDSET: Ideological and policy shifts that can be taken immediately
1. Recognize that White (eurocentric) is not neutral
Eurocentric models are equally as political as engaging in anti-racism and anti-oppression models. The current decision to maintain a Eurocentric lens does not support student experience nor is it innovative. All students will benefit from an anti-oppressive lens and learning environment.
a. The politics in French Canada are different from English Canada. How will NTS as an institution reconcile this difference?
b. How are the learning environments in each department supporting their Black, Brown & Indigenous students?
c. How is each department supporting students with diverse backgrounds (with a particular emphasis on Black, Indigenous and disabled students). This is particularly important in the design departments, as they interact with the Acting Department.
d. How can we alleviate the undue burden that falls on BIPOC students when having to advocate for more equitable learning environments?
- How can we as a permanent staff become more aware of our unconscious biases?
- Consider anti-oppression training for all permanent staff and contract educators with whom NTS has a long term relationship.
2. Engage all students in conversations related to race
a. Politically charged conversations (anything that deals with race, culture, gender and the like) should no longer happen one on one with students. The power dynamic is not balanced.
b. Dialogues that happened behind closed doors need to become public class-wide dialogues or with an arms-length facilitator such as a Director of Diversity & Inclusion.
c. Students should leave the institution with the ability to identify and discuss race, gender, ethnicity and culture from an artistic perspective.
- g. white supremacy and patriarchy in scripts and design, discussions with designers themselves, microaggressions and overt racism in the rehearsal hall
3. Introduce students to artists of colour
a. Students, faculty and guest instructors need to be prepared to work for and with members of the BIPOC community. All students benefit from this exposure.
b. This can take on a variety of forms including but not limited to faculty, playwrights, directors, movements, methodologies and praxis.
c. Actively and aggressively recruit artists of colour to work as instructors at NTS. They should be permitted to work on anything that is of interest to them (not only plays by people of colour).
d. Student and professional designers (costume, hair, makeup, lighting, sound and video and sets) should learn how to design for a diversity of stories and storytellers (without necessarily using students as examples). Knowledgeable experts should also be brought in to work with students and it should be at the expense of the school.
- HAIR: Designers need to be aware of different needs and timelines
required for different hair types.
4. Students need to be heard : Uncomfortable conversations encourage growth on
a. Teaching students how to be professionals requires there to be space for
conversations as students develop their voice and agency; and as instructors
reflect on their practice.
b. Students should not be afraid that they will be asked (or encouraged) to leave
the institution because they have shared negative feedback.
c. Admittance into the following year of the program should not be used as a
- Feedback does not mean the student does not belong. It means that their needs are not being met. This is an opportunity for the instructor and institution to reflect.
CULTURE SHIFT: Actions that can be taken Immediately that require a long-term
Further to the list above, below are long-term suggestions that can be implemented
immediately that would begin the required CULTURE SHIFT that would create brave spaces for students to become truly exceptional in their chosen craft.
1. Hire a Director of Diversity & Inclusion
As the leadership team is composed of white-presenting individuals, NTS should hire a person who is able to facilitate difficult dialogues and decisions related to race and culture. This person would be a key part of the required cultural shift, and would help steer this cultural shift. A Director of Diversity & Inclusion for NTS should be a BIPOC that is knowledgeable about theatre and education in addition to diversity and inclusion.
a. The person should act to amplify narratives and histories that have historically been ignored, unseen, or invisibilized by NTS and other institutions, so that students are not required to confront staff/instructors alone.
b. This person should be from outside the NTS community.
c. This position would change and grow as NTS begins a culture shift that encourages diversity, student voice, student empowerment and offers more scaffolding.
d. Any dialogue/communication related to race, ethnicity, religion, gender,
orientation should be facilitated by the Director of Diversity & Inclusion,
especially when challenges are reported by students or staff.
- How can staff and students report oppressive behaviour in a psychologically safe manner?
- What consequences will be put into place for staff (educators, instructors and anyone working with NTS, whether on contract or permanently) when oppressive behaviour is reported and confirmed? Below are examples of oppressive behaviour that can be found within codes of conduct.
Students should be permitted to wear any attire (including headdress and hair) that does not impede the work. If clothing restrictions are being considered, it should be discussed with the leadership team (and a Director of Diversity & Inclusion) in advance of the restriction being put into place. The following questions should be considered:
i. Does this item of clothing have cultural or religious significance?
ii. Is the item of clothing restricting the students movement and/or body in a way that impedes the
iii. Is the student themselves uncomfortable? Or is the staff
- Tone Policing : Voice volume, laughter, hair etc. are all cultural
markers and should not be policed by NTS staff without consultation with a Director of Diversity & Inclusion.
e. Should NTS decide not to have a Director of Diversity & Inclusion: What is the mechanism that will be put in place that allows and encourages students to report instances of oppression and racialized violence (large and small) that doesn’t involve talking directly to staff members that may or may not be involved?
2. SCAFFOLDING as a part of a students first mindset
a. NTS is not the professional environment. It is a school. This is a good thing that
should be embraced.
- What are the learning goals for each year of study and how does each class build into the successive year?
- Students should be given an opportunity to develop their skills of discomfort discernment, not simply told to push through without investigation of the cause, as this can cause and deepen trauma.
3. INSTRUCTORS AS FACILITATORS
a. Realize that NTS is not the same as the standard professional theatre environment, where actors change projects every six weeks. Each class at NTS is an ensemble with a delicate ecosystem.
b. While instructors remain experts in their methodology, this shift means that instructors become facilitators instead of engaging in top down education. Instructors are expected to also learn from students in a mutually respectful and symbiotic relationship, as modelled by the instructors . This leads to students being accountable for their learning,
c. Instructors need to model empathy, care and anti-oppression language, methods and curriculum in order to encourage students to do the same, creating a brave space for learning, and resilient artists.
4. DIVERSITY IN THE TEACHING STAFF
a. This will require a shift in the hiring and recruitment practices.
b. This will require recognizing the singular, exclusionary and nepotistic hiring practices that are present in institutions and reassessing discriminatory values used to reconcile those hiring decisions.
c. Diversity amongst the guest artists is also important, but is not as impactful as diversity amongst the staff. Furthermore, NTS needs to be extremely mindful about who is invited to speak to the students. When controversial guests are invited, the conversation should be moderated and wrestle with the controversy instead of ignoring it. The moderator needs to be well versed and able to tackle the topic respectfully, modelling to the students how to engage in difficult conversations.
5. Reframe STUDENT VOICE as positive
a. Student attempts to protest and voice their concerns is positive. It is the students recognizing that something is amiss and their attempt to rectify it. This should be encouraged, especially from students from underrepresented groups.
- Students should not be asked to fix the problem themselves, but can be encouraged (from second year forward) to be a part of the solution.
- Educators need to stop centering themselves when receiving feedback, and begin to:
- Unravel the truth of what the student body is presenting, leading with the following understanding of empathy: “In order to empathize with someone else’s experience you must be willing to believe them as they see it and not how you imagine their experience to be.” - Brené Brown
- Receive suggestions for solutions from students
- Determine if it is possible to enact those solutions and propose additional solutions
- As an ensemble, determine next steps and solutions
In closing, I have read your BLM Opinions letter on NTS’ website and I am disappointed that there was no acknowledgement of NTS’ misconduct. There are also no actionable items. I caution NTS and its staff against claims of “ongoing solidarity” and continuing support until it has confirmed with the underrepresented communities that they indeed feel supported. Only members of the communities can claim you as an ally or better yet, as a co-conspirator. You can not make that claim on your own. Furthermore, it has made
apparent to me in the past two weeks that not only are these claims of allyship false, but that the many members of NTS’ BIPOC community feel dismissed, disregarded and
disrespected by the institution. I would strongly encourage NTS and its leadership team to invite all students (beginning with all of the Black and Indigenous students) to the
conversation, so the students have an opportunity to share their perspectives (with the
option of anonymity) and that the dialogue is mediated by a diversity, inclusion and equity professional.
"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."
- Maya Angelou
It is my sincere hope that NTS begins to do better, as it is irrefutable that it has been made aware that there is a problem. This is a problem that the leadership team will not be able to overcome on its own. As outlined above, it requires a conscious culture shift that must begin now. Now is the time.
Please post a public response by July 20, 2020 acknowledging personal and institutional
accountability, and specifying when a meeting to discuss next steps (with student
representatives and an intermediary) will take place.
Lisa Karen Cox, O.C.T., M. Sc. Ed.,
Practicing Theatre Artist and Artist Educator
With support from over 250 members of the National Theatre School Community.