Weyni Mengesha: Recipient of the Gascon-Thomas 2019
Weyni Mengesha receiving her Gascon-Thomas for Innovation
I am so thrilled to be the recipient of this year’s award for Innovation. To be recognized in this way alongside such an incredible line of recipients is a true honour. I have always wanted to share stories with audiences. I have made a life of this because I believe that stories have the power to change lives. They can make us feel like we belong, connect us, teach us to love, to forgive, and to strive to be better. In theatre we are preserving one of our oldest human rituals. It feels like sacred work to me. It has the ability to frame how we see our past and, most importantly, how we envision our future. It can also act as a bridge. Being an only child of parents who came to this country as Ethiopian immigrants, I was a bit of a bridge. The stories my parents told me about our country were very different than the narrow portrayal of the country through the media.
I became a translator between my hybrid reality as an Ethiopian-Canadian girl. Theatre is my way of amplifying that work and doing it for a number of different voices. Multiple perspectives are integral to a healthy community. It helps build bridges in cities across culture, race, gender, and class. I think this is very important work—especially at a time when we can feel divided on so many key issues facing our world. I feel we, as artists, hold an important gift in this moment to ensure multiple narratives are heard, to get us off our devices and be in a dark room to face each
"When auditioning to get into theatre school, it was almost impossible to find a monologue that was specifically about me, an African Canadian girl"
I grew up in Scarborough with modest means. Nobody in my family was into theatre. I never went. I came to this work because I wanted to empower my friends and community members who I know didn’t see themselves positively in the media. So I wrote stories and put them on at my high school. Luckily, a teacher advised me to continue in University as an actor. When auditioning to get into theatre school, it was almost impossible to find a monologue that was specifically about me, an African Canadian girl. In my second year, I switched from the acting programme to the directing programme so I could learn more about how to help develop voices that I was not finding in our scripts and textbooks. But the method of learning these skills still came from a very Eurocentric cannon.
So, in my third year, I walked into the Chair of the Theatre department’s office and said, “Sir, in my final year, I would like to propose an independent study. I want to do a course called: ‘in search of the African Canadian theatre’ and I want to go across the country and interview people about our theatre history here and our traditions.” He thought about it. Then said. “Ok, that sounds good”. I met writers and actors from across the country and learned that we have had Black Canadian theatre that traces as far back as the early 19th century in places like Vancouver and Halifax. It led me to meet the mentors I still have today, to get my first job, and my first professional production. Today I get to experience my dream fulfilled when I hear people come in and audition for me with monologues from shows I helped create.
"Write what you know. Write the details of what makes you come alive; no one else in the whole world can do it"
To you who are now studying at NTS, I thank you for dedicating these years to your practice. I look forward to working with you as an artist and as an Artistic Director embracing you as brave and bold artists of the next generation. Keep pushing to keep empathy, curiosity and wonder alive in our cities. You might come across roadblocks or roads that are just too narrow to hold all that you are. Do not be afraid to build another path entirely. We need you to be expanding the world so you can stretch and share. Your unique voice ultimately gives us all more room to breathe. Your very specific and unique journey will always be more appealing to an audience then trying to convey a sense of universal Truth. Write what you know. Write the details of what makes you come alive; no one else in the whole world can do it.
Thank you to National Theatre School and the Gascon-Thomas Selection Committee for this incredible honour. Wish I could be there in person.
Have a great evening!
Artistic Director of the Soulpepper Theatre Company, Weyni Mengesha, on the day she receives her Gascon-Thomas award for Innovation.
Yousef Kadoura (Acting, 2017) interviewing Weyni Mengesha, recipient of the Gascon-Thomas award for Innovation.
The Artistic Director of the Soulpepper Theatre Company, Weyni Mengesha, receiving her Gascon-Thomas award for Innovation!