10 questions: Tyrone Benskin

1) What the fuck is going on?
Lots of stuff is happening right now. We are in preproduction for our Mainstage show, which has a Toronto connection: d’bi young’s blood.claat. It opens on the 26th of March. We also have our Fall and Spring Discovery readings, which are part of a new play reading initiative we’ve started.

We also have our YouthWorks Performance Training Program running during the winter into spring.

2) What do you like about being the Artistic Director of Black Theatre Workshop (BTW)?
Not sure if I’ve figured that out yet. It was something I really didn’t expect and quite frankly was unsure as to whether or not I could do this. So I’m just now getting over the fear factor and the “what the fuck am I doing” moments. I think it’s all kind of heady, especially with a company like BTW that sort of carries a heady mandate. So do I like it? I’ve learned to respect it and am growing into liking it . . . make sense?

3) Are there any overarching themes or ideas that are common to the work being presented in Black Theatre Workshop’s current season?
I try to wrap my season into a theme. This year it’s “reclamation.” Reclaiming of stories, history, identity; self. Our poetry jam was themed “Nap-turality” – that historical discussion surrounding Black hair and Black Identity. Our Fall Discovery reading was Cheryl Foggo’s Heaven, set in 1927 Amber Valley Sask., in the Black Settlements that had been there for the previous 20 years. blood.claat challenges the perception of women and womanhood from a Jamaican perspective. Come Good Rain – dignity and survival in the face of political and social self destruction.

4) How well are Black Canadians being served by and represented in contemporary Canadian theatre?
That’s a huge question? Should Canadians of African descent and their stories have to wait ’til Black History Month to be seen on Canadian stages? Should they only be seen in their theatres? Should any group that is considered diverse only be seen as a marginal entity?

Black Theatre Workshop, and myself by association, looks to making BTW and the work that we do as open and inclusive as we now see so-called ethnic food . . . another choice on a wide menu. This doesn’t mean that we filter or water down our content for accessibility. On the contrary, we go full tilt and invite anyone that wants to be challenged to come along.

Are we served? I would like to see more of us and our stories on the so-called mainstream stages. I would like to see other cultures coming to see our stories on our stages . . . lots is being done, but there is always more to be done.

5) As an Artistic Director, what does leadership mean to you?
This is a creative medium, even in its administration. I think a good leader allows those that work with them to shine. Add their creativity to the project. Of course there will always be a time to pull rank, but even then I think the reasons have a better chance of being understood and appreciated if it wasn’t preceded by a whole host of shut-downs.

Besides, if I can’t get my colleagues and staff on board with my ideas . . . who the hell else am I going to be able to convince?

6) How much of an audience is there in Montreal for English-language theatre?
This is a very common question from non-Montrealers. The English theatre scene here is remarkable, vibrant and kick-ass! We have more small theatre companies per capita than many other places in this country. This is my opinion, of course, but kids getting out of school, actors who want to work with other actors, absolute strangers don’t have an issue with getting together and forming a company to produce a play. Many of these companies go on for a number of years. We have a very supportive and encouraging community here. We go to each others’ shows, call each other for help – advice. Help each others’ producing efforts through co-productions, etc.

It sounds like a great big incestuous love-fest and in some ways it is. But it also challenges us to do good work, because the next guy is.

That said, we are grossly underfunded . . . but then what company isn’t. And we are all fighting for the same audience in many cases . . . but we share a belief that our presence and culture is important to the true nature of Quebec.

7) Do you have any unifying theories about theatre and its relationship to community?
Nothing as lofty as theatre can change the world . . . although it can, but I think English Canada can take a clear lesson from our Franco Brothers and Sisters. Driven to save/preserve their culture and eventually take it to the next level, art and the community joined together and virtually created its identity and its expression to a point where they have their media heroes who get butts in the seats that then make the money to create, produce and disseminate who they are or how they wish to be seen. Hell they created a why where they are simply seen.

For some reason the money behind the creatives have issue with creating a “star system.” Quebec has proven over and over again that this is the way to box office success.

On a purely community level (forgive the previous tirade!), I think theatre and the theatre players are the modern day village storytellers. We talk of the ills of community and the odd and humorous idiosyncrasies. We reflect the many relationships we experience through our lives and make us think. We make us feel pain, joy, vindication, shame, fear, guilt and all of the many feelings and emotions that can be generated. Hey! Community Therapy! I’ll have to remember that!

8) How much of your work is informed by a sense of anger?
Not so much anger but incredulousness, I guess. A common refrain in my office is, “How could people not know this?”

Just like how we shut down when someone is in our face screaming, anger just makes me do stupid things. I think the Black Experience and the “struggle” is different now, as different for the next generation as it was for me in comparison to my parents. Pretty Zen, huh?

9) Are there any emerging Canadian artists that you are particularly exciting about?
Oh Yes! Adrienne Irving, Peter Bailey, Tamara Brown (actors), Mike Payette (director). I’m also excited because I am seeing more than one or two young people in theatre schools.

But we can’t ignore the contributions of this current generation, such as Nigel Shawn Williams, the great Yanna Macintosh, Alison Sealy Smith, Djanet Sears, Andrew Moodie . . . myself!

And those who came before us: Walter Borden, Errol Slue, Anthony Sherwood, Winston Sutton.

There is a direct line that can be traced from them and earlier (Percy Rodriques) to those who are here now and those to come.

10) Why is spoken word an important part of the Canadian theatre landscape?
I think it reconnects us to the simple beauty of words . . . which I think is what excited Shakespeare. No trappings, no gimmicks – just words. I also believe that within the African Diaspora there is a sense memory of the power and import of the oratory. He carried the stories and thus the history of the tribe in his stories. The importance of the spoken word has always found expression in every era and generation from the preacher/orator at the pulpit – can I get an Amen – to the peacocking rhymes of the MCs and rappers, to the spoken word pundits. All of them, when hot, can get you to say, “Amen.”

Who knows, maybe this is the next theatre wave or at least the next source of the storyteller.

3 thoughts on “10 questions: Tyrone Benskin

  1. “Driven to save/preserve their culture and eventually take it to the next level, art and the community joined together and virtually created its identity…”

    This is really interesting to me, does art flourish when its community identity feels threatened? Can (should) theatre stand up and say “this is who we are, and we’re not moving”? The notion that Franco Canada declared its identity through its art is a compelling assertion for the value of theatre.

    What would your “identity play” be about?

  2. hey simon,

    there may be an issue of theatre as part of the activities of a specific culture here. i have no sources to back this up, but the following statistic was told to me in rehearsal yesterday:

    the average franco-canadian sees 3 plays a year, the average anglo-canadian 0.3 plays a year. however, the numbers are virtually inverted when it comes to reading literature.

    as a dominant art form in french canadian culture it makes perfect sense to use theatre as a vehicle to promote its identity… as anglos, we gotta major battle to fight in terms of making theatre a thing people do before it can do the same job.

  3. Hey Mike, I see what you’re saying, and I do agree, although if those figures are correct I don’t think I’d call theatre a dominant art form – unless it means that 3 per year is the average of all of French-Canada’s theatre intake. Then that’s actually pretty good.

    But, to the point – I think Mr. Benskin is saying that the fact that Quebecors feel that their identity is threatened by national absorption is in some way responsible for the popularity of their regional theatre. I don’t ever really see that being an issue for you and I (at least I hope to God that it never becomes an issue for us). I guess it’s a matter of identifying precisely who your community is that you market to, and make decisions on material for, and what it is that you all share on a very base level, before you can produce identity-building plays.

    Fortunately, we can go ahead and produce revolutionizing plays in the meantime. That’s something.

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