Shared Narrative Report in Theatre
To the York Theatre Community,
Below you will find the Shared Narrative Report on Theatre at York from Ethical Associates. I requested this report as part of a larger response last fall to student concerns regarding racism in the Department of Theatre. Although there are many different perspectives represented in the following document, there is broad consensus that we need to confront these circumstances honestly with the recognition that change is needed. There is also a shared, if cautious, optimism for a restorative process that can help us move forward as the inclusive community that we aspire to be.
The challenges addressed here are not unique to York University, the School of AMPD nor the Department of Theatre. These are issues that many in the broader theatre and education communities are facing and we will need to continue to be both vigilant and accountable in our work to ensure a safe and inclusive learning environment for everyone. For this change to occur, we must first acknowledge clearly and honestly what has happened and how past actions have affected the various members in the Department, most especially our Indigenous, Black and racialized students and colleagues.
Publicly acknowledging what has occurred and listening to those most affected is one key step in an ongoing process toward greater equity in Theatre and across AMPD. Wellness sessions specifically for Indigenous, Black and racialized students will continue as well as the continued expansion of undergraduate student supports in the Office of Advising and Integrated Student Services (OAISS). Departmental processes and practices are currently under review and AMPD has contracted with the KOJO Institute to conduct a thorough assessment of equity and inclusion throughout AMPD. They will assist us with the development of an Equity Framework and training so that can build productively from the advocacy of Theatre students and others over the past year.
I am grateful to everyone who has participated in this process, and I would like to recognize and thank particularly the undergraduate Theatre students, who in the midst of this challenging year and their own continued artistic and academic work, have advocated on behalf of their peers in the Department and across AMPD. I look forward to working with you all as we confront systemic and institutional racism in our School and beyond, beginning with implementation of the recommendations noted at the end of the report.
With my warm wishes and thanks,
Sarah Bay-Cheng, PhD
School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design
The Department of Theatre (the Department) is a vibrant program of study and professional practice within the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design (AMPD) at York University. It has at its core students, faculty and staff who advance socially engaged theatre and performance education with a stated commitment to inclusive excellence. The Department has been experiencing several challenges for more than a year that reflect both internal conflicts specific to the Department and conditions faced by the wider international theatre community, both professionally and in theatre education throughout Canada and beyond. Some of these are connected to social upheavals resulting from a broader awareness of societal racism and a reckoning of equity issues in theatre schools across North America and the UK. Simultaneously, the global pandemic that began in March 2020 effectively shut down theatre work in its live forms. York University, like many universities across the globe, quickly pivoted to online remote learning in March 2020 and has, with a few exceptions, been operating online throughout the 2020-2021 academic year. This has created unique challenges for AMPD and the Department of Theatre that have made the ability to address the concerns inherently more difficult. Underlying all of this work is an ongoing desire and commitment to improve the experience for its students and for the transformation of the Department to live up to its aspirations as a place of belonging for everyone.
This report will address three questions:
- Where are we and how did we get here? – The Shared Narrative
- What do we do now? – The Recommendations
The goal of this report is to establish a common ground for a shared understanding of the recent conflict and to identify the roots of discord or the internal conflicts that have been identified by the participants in the Department of Theater. It is not an investigation and there are no findings of fact. Rather, when all the perspectives are taken together a shared narrative is created and what emerges are the common themes that participants can use going forward.  By listening to each other there is an opportunity to provide greater insight into the sentiments and perspectives of community members who are experiencing such tensions.
This review was commissioned by the Dean and received a high degree of support, as demonstrated by the participation of many students, staff, and faculty members in the Department. The expression of support is summarized below:
- Recognition that certain students were being harmed in the existing climate and that something had to be done
- Belief that longstanding issues were now being taken seriously
- Confidence in potential for a productive outcome and would not make things worse
That support does not come without divergent views summarized below:
- Skepticism that this process would lead to any meaningful change
- Any changes would be unreasonably slow and in the meantime things would get worse
- Concerns raised were blown out of proportion and a review was not necessary
A shared narrative does not require or presume that there will be a shared agreement on “the facts”. More commonly, participants will bring an understanding that reflects perspectives from their unique vantage point. For some, their narrative is filtered through their role in the Department, be that as a student, faculty or administrator. For others, their diverse lived experience and its intersections bring a richness to the shared narrative that will help to propel the next steps. These perspectives may identify commonalities or be fundamentally opposed to each other. It is not the task of this report to reconcile or align these differences, but to make the diversity of perspectives visible to the larger community.
This visibility can allow for a shared understanding of conflict and provide greater insight into the sentiments of community members who are experiencing such tensions. A shared narrative is not the solution nor a panacea to the challenges and conflicts that are both internal and external to the Department of Theatre.
A shared narrative finds value in perspective taking rather than adjudicating on “what really happened” or establishing “the truth” for one side over the other. This Report constitutes an outline of what we heard had happened. We have not undertaken to investigate the events, nor have we made definitive findings. We have simply tried to gain an understanding of the narratives that have formed peoples’ thinking and that are being circulated as competing perspectives of the conditions in the Department.
In listening to one another a community can learn how the respective positions, values and judgements reflect the various understandings of events. From this place of a shared narrative, a group can build foundations of trust for the next step in the process. With that in mind, this review has been undertaken among a wide range of participants who have witnessed and have been impacted by the chain of events that has unfolded in the Department of Theatre. Everyone who participated in helping to create this shared narrative has done so within a very challenging environment.
The development of a shared narrative did not occur in a vacuum. The stark realities of societal and institutional racism were highlighted in the summer of 2020 after the broad political protests following the murder of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other members of Black or racialized groups in both the US and Canada, along with other tensions that arose in advance of the US election. During this time, there was an urgent global focus on institutional racism and an emergence of a highly charged discourse on the structural components of White supremacy. Through #BlackLivesMatter and other organizations, many communities became mobilized to identify and highlight the root causes of longstanding racism.
It is widely recognized and accepted that racism exists in our society and in our institutions at a systemic level. York University, like all universities, is no exception. The shared narrative highlights the emerging discussions within the Department at all levels (students, faculty, staff and administration) that instill a critical examination of course curriculum, the composition of the Faculty, and the apparent harms to BIPOC  students who encounter barriers to advancement in the institutional structures of which they are a part. This was juxtaposed against the steep learning curves of “well-meaning” individuals who may not have been aware of their own privilege and positions of power, and institutional resistance to change. What is not up for debate is that, in our society, racism is unlawful. What continues to be debated is whether certain behaviours fall within the definition of racism and the extent to which students, faculty and staff purposefully eschew it.
 The acronym “BIPOC” in this report refers to “Black, Indigenous and People of Colour”. While self-identification language is constantly shifting, this is the term that was reflected to us during the timeframe of this process.
In one way or another, all participants agreed that there were significant tensions that had emerged over the past year and that were exacerbated by current social, political and public health crises facing our society. By almost all accounts, the origin of the malaise in the Department was part of a widespread disagreement on how to tackle the self-perpetuating nature of institutional racism (and other systemic issues) given the real, lived experiences of students and instructors who encounter barriers to advancement, resistance to change, and outright hostility towards advocacy rooted in identity. In various ways, participants agreed with the notion that the tensions in the Department have not only contributed to a steady decline of collegiality and cohesion, but they have also resulted in heightened scrutiny around how the University addresses and ensures the wellbeing of its members.
What follows is a summary of the main incidents of concern that emerged from our discussions with students, staff, faculty, administration, and other entities (such as the York University Faculty Association, Human Resources, and the Centre for Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion, among others). Some of the incidents are broadly known, while others are not, or are subject to competing viewpoints as to how they unfolded. In other senses, there were divergent opinions and descriptions of how certain events happened. While we place no value judgments on which version is more accurate, it was clear to us that there were significant gaps in understanding the reasons for the discord in the Department. It is anticipated that this shared narrative exercise will shine a light on potential misunderstandings, or at the very least, allow others to understand that there are different perspectives. This recognition is intended to shift the internal conflict.
An originating incident that was repeatedly raised by participants occurred in November 2019, when a professor of the (then) third-year acting class invited a Shakespearean director to come and work with the class on scene material they were working on at the time. The guest director had been attending the third-year acting class for this Shakespearean module for about ten years. Although the director’s work with the students was itself without incident, the students subsequently learned from others that the director had recently been accused of using the N-word during a rehearsal in front of a predominantly Black cast at an off-campus theatre company. It is outside the scope of this shared narrative to provide a detailed description or facilitate perspectives as to what occurred between this director and the cast. However, the theatre company itself engaged in a process to review what happened and take appropriate actions.
What is clear is that the above incident did not occur at York, but in the rehearsal room of a professional theatre company with no connection to the University. What caused concern on campus is that the director came to work with the third-year acting class a week later and that this incident was not told to them, and in restrospect, potentially exposed them to the same thing that happened during the rehearsal. Although the students were seemingly unaware of the earlier incident at the time, someone in York’s administration answered a call for public response online, which alerted students to this situation after the fact. We heard that after the original event had been discussed openly during the last week of November, the Department administration tweeted an explanation to separate itself from the theatre company and affirm that they did not condone racism.
Regardless of how the message of the incident was communicated to students, and what consequences the director may have faced, the news about the director’s actions and his having been invited as a guest to the acting class had become troubling to students in the class. Students in the third-year acting group said they raised their concerns with the professor, but the issue did not come to be addressed until the last day of classes before the holiday break. Another description was that the guest director attended the class on November 19 and 21 (consistent with the acting area schedule set in advance) and that the issue was raised with the professor on November 26 and then discussed in class on November 27, which was the final day of scene showings.
We heard that during this final class, the professor seemed to be speaking largely in defense of the director, which seemed odd to some, and it was explained that the matter was still under review by the theatre company. We heard that the professor then mentioned to the class that the guest director was in fact the professor’s partner, and also a contract, part-time instructor in the Department. It was conveyed to us that the professor then ended the conversation and left the room before anything had been resolved, even though students had been impacted by the situation.
According to the professor, it was widely known in the Department that the guest director was the professor’s partner and that this had been told to many students prior to the class discussion. Although it was acknowledged that students may not have known this, the professor said there was no attempt or intention to hide this. The professor also regretted leaving the class in the middle of the discussion with the students, but was already late for the end-of-term acting area faculty meeting where faculty gave their feedback on the students’ scene work. The professor expressed regret over leaving the discussion, and that, had the professor known the impact that leaving the discussion would have on students, the professor would have stayed and arrived later for the faculty area meeting. We heard from students involved that the timing of the conversation and the way it unfolded did not allow for students to have a sufficient voice or closure. We also heard that, once it was disclosed that the guest director was the professor’s partner, students felt they could not speak openly about the issue.
We were told that after the class discussion, students sought guidance from the Faculty administration and human resources on how to move forward. By invitation, the Centre for Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion facilitated two class discussions: one held in January 2020 and a follow-up or “check in” in March 2020. The (then) third-year actors and their core faculty were all reportedly present at both of these facilitated conversations. One perspective we heard was that these facilitated discussions were frustrating and that while some of the students were crying and upset, other students could not understand why their peers were bothered. We heard that Black students became de facto educators about racism, and that the same conversations were had over and over again, seemingly to no avail and without any movement toward resolution.
We also learned that during the first facilitation in January 2020 with the (then) third-year students, the professor apologized for any harm caused and had offered to step down. This offer was reportedly not taken up by the students, who wanted instead to continue their school year without further interruption. The students reportedly said that they wanted to continue as a class and spoke to the professor’s virtue as a teacher.
We heard from many participants that the issue concerning the guest director, and the subsequent facilitations, created a significant divide between students in the (then) third-year acting class. In addition to the guest director issue, a number of racialized students disclosed that they had experienced various microaggressions from their classmates over the past three years. A chasm developed between students on either side of the issue. While one side was upset about how the incident unfolded and the impact it had on them, the other side seemed to them to not understand why. This divide was said to have continued into what is now the fourth-year acting class.
We learned that the issue resurfaced a year later, in November 2020, as a result of a YouTube video (discussed below) that served to fuel the current internal strife. After members of the Department learned of the video, the core faculty of the third-year actors called a meeting with students to discuss it. The professor was said to have participated in the discussion with the students along with two other faculty members. Attendees were asked if they had any questions they wanted to ask about the video or the allegations, but no one spoke up. Later that day, the third-year acting students reportedly wrote a letter to the acting area faculty listing a number of issues. Many of the students claimed that the professor had offered to step down from the class during the meeting.
We also heard the countervailing perspective that the professor did not offer to step down but eventually made the choice to take a leave from teaching as there was an impasse in the class. Other faculty members lamented the departure of their colleague, noting that the professor had cared deeply for students, undertook work around accessibility and inclusion, and contributed positively to the Department. These discussions also seem to have impacted faculty, who reported being afraid to engage in discussions around racism for fear of saying the wrong thing and becoming targets of “cancel culture.” We heard that faculty were unsure about what to do and felt stunned and immobilized by the series of events, along with the professor’s decision to take a leave from teaching for the winter term. Many faculty felt that they could not or should not talk about the incident in the theatre company or the professor’s involvement for fear of breaching any privacy or employment rights.
Another issue that emerged in our interviews was the concern around course content and how curricula were developed. It was stated there was an emphasis on a Eurocentric canon, while others had made tokenistic efforts to diversity course syllabi. Course content was also identified by certain student groups as contributing to structural and systemic inequalities. Students suggested they should be more involved in contributing to the selection of readings or course content, while faculty insisted this was exclusively within their domain and part of academic freedom. Most faculty noted that they had made significant efforts to diversify their courses since, as one of the leading theatre schools in Canada, they were already quite advanced in anti-racist and anti-oppressive practices in course design. This remained a source of tension between groups of students and certain faculty members. The issues were described in greater detail in relation to the following.
We heard that this play, written for Asian characters, was mounted several years ago with White students. It was generally suggested that the casting of White students in roles written for BIPOC characters was insensitive and inappropriate. The issue of culturally appropriate casting is undoubtedly part of a larger debate in theatre, especially in educational settings.
365 Days/365 Plays is written by an African-American playwright for a diverse cast (although some plays do not have specific identities assigned to the characters). We heard that although there is a reading group comprised of students who choose plays for the year with faculty, one professor (reportedly with input from the acting area faculty and the three graduate directors) was said to have chosen the play 365 Days/365 Plays for the 2019-2020 academic year without consulting the reading group. In addition, it was suggested that the class chosen to perform this play was not sufficiently diverse to appropriately undertake the project.
Another perspective we heard is that the reading group had not selected a play for the winter studio slot and that the professor was asked to engage the three MFA students in a discussion about what they wanted to direct. It was conveyed to us that students heard that the professor had been cautioned against selecting this play but chose it anyway. Nevertheless, the professor was said to have engaged with the MFA graduate directors about how to address the challenges that might come up in rehearsal. The professor reportedly reached out to a professional dramaturge in the rehearsal process to assist with issues of race and to ensure that the Black students in the class did not have to serve as experts on their lived experience. We also heard that the professor advised the class on the first day in September that they were all starting on a clean slate and that the professor did not want to know anything about the students from other faculty, preferring instead to get to know them individually. It was suggested to us that this contributed to the professor’s lack of understanding of how mounting a play like this would sit with the students.
We heard that the class was split into three groups for the play, and that as the play was written for a diverse cast, each of the Black students in the class was separated into different groups. One perspective we heard is that this placed a significant onus on the Black students to educate their peers, even after the class was provided with a dramaturge. This may not have been the intention of the professor but the result was an expressed feeling of additional pressure and burden to “educate” the White students in the class who sought out their Black peers for insight into the Black characters, even if the Black students did not have insight into them. They noted that there is no monolithic “Black experience” that applies to all situations and that it was harmful to have to explain this to White peers.
We were advised that in April 2020, the Department released a set of guiding principles according to which season casts were to be selected. There was an emphasis on promoting greater diversity through these principles, and although on the surface this was a positive move, we heard that it ended up creating discomfort in relation to a history of tokenism and empty gestures toward equity within the Department. For example, we were told that the guiding principles brought back memories of “themes” that the faculty in the Department had chosen in the recent past for its seasons, such as “Performing Indigeneity” and “Performing Gender.” Others resisted such characterizations with claims that “gender and heritage are not performances”.
We also heard that with the “Performing Indigeneity” and “Performing Gender” themed seasons, students spoke up about their concerns that the plays were tokenistic or otherwise problematic, and that similar concerns were inherent in the guiding principles. One perspective was that these concerns were met with responses like “we hear you” and “thank you for your courage”, but the process continued seemingly without regard to the opposition voiced by the students.
This play was raised as an example of how the Department’s guiding principles did not protect against mounting inappropriate plays (although others felt strongly that the play itself was not inappropriate). We heard that Age of Iron is a play written by an Indigenous playwright for an Indigenous cast. An Indigenous MFA student was interested in directing the play in fulfillment of their degree requirements, but other students countered that the class did not have sufficient Indigenous actors to mount the show appropriately. Another viewpoint was that for an unmounted play (that would have been closed to the public) the piece would have been an opportunity to showcase a work by an Indigenous artist and have non-Indigenous participants welcomed to perform in it.
We were advised that these concerns were raised in the play selection group. We heard that selecting this play had been a collective decision, but that it was discovered after the play was chosen that certain participants on the committee did not feel their voices had been heard in the discussion. With this perspective, there was an acknowledgement that the Department leadership needed to reflect on how the committee works. Contrarily, it was stated that until or unless students voiced their concerns, it was assumed that the performance of this show was acceptable. It was noted that the Indigenous playwright gave their go-ahead to have the show produced in an academic setting, but that perhaps faculty had not properly guided students or contextualized what was happening, which was recognized as a misstep.
Another perspective we heard was that during a reading group meeting about the Age of Iron, students stated they did not want to do the play, and that it was not their story to tell. Although the students took a principled stance in this regard, we also heard the perspective that the resistance to the play resembled uncritical “groupthink” and that it was important to have Indigenous stories told. Again, we heard that the Indigenous playwright gave permission for this show to be mounted at York despite that the cast would be mostly White. The Indigenous student who had chosen to direct the show had also made significant collaborative efforts to address the concerns being raised. Even so, we heard that faculty who had expressed concerns about mounting the play acknowledged that it felt to them like they were saying “no” to an Indigenous student. In the end, several participants said that there were no further attempts at subsequent dialogue and that difficult conversations were pushed aside and that the issues remained unresolved.
We also heard that various pedagogical questions were raised about whether it is ever acceptable to engage in cross-cultural casting when staging certain shows, even in an educational setting where open calls are not available, and especially when the plays themselves are intended as vehicles for promoting marginalized voices. Others claimed it was completely inappropriate to engage in such casting where (primarily) White actors are cast in roles intended for racialized characters. There were also concerns expressed about how the mounting of certain plays were only superficially diverse, or at worst, amounted to cultural appropriation. In contrast, we heard the perspective that declining to mount diverse material bars students from rich learning experiences and tends to prioritize plays written with predominantly White characters in mind.
We were also told of concerns raised about the play selection committee, and the sense that having this group read and select plays did not necessarily mean those plays would not cause controversy or discord once chosen. There was a recognition that the play selection system is imperfect and needs improvement. Greater input into selections by a broader audience was recommended as a solution.
We learned that there is a willingness and a need to engage in further discussions about representation, casting, diversity, and cultural appropriation. This is certainly reflective of an ongoing debate within many theatre schools over what type of casting is appropriate and how to authentically mount diverse, culturally-appropriate and respectful theatre productions. We also heard that there is movement among faculty in the Department towards enhancing diversity and inclusion in a non-appropriative way. For example, we heard that a dialect coach was recently brought in to teach Black students a Jamaican accent and AAVE (African American Vernacular English) with a regional Southern accent.
Lastly on this point, there was a series of significant disputes or discussions around the content of curricula and whether it was being responsive to the calls for decolonization and the dismantling of systemic racism and discrimination in the academe. Several faculty members said they had taken great pains to revise their course syllabi and content to include diverse perspectives and underrepresented/marginalized voices so as to shift the canon and teach a fuller range of material. This was heralded by many participants as a positive shift and a measure of how change was possible over time. On the other hand, many of the students expressed that the institutional nature of the University meant that the curriculum was still rooted in majoritarian perspectives and that any references to Truth and Reconciliation among Indigenous peoples, or the need to dismantle anti-Black racism at a societal level, were simply tokenistic and only served to reinforce dominant power structures. A clear impasse emerged within the learning environment that threatened to derail the learning objectives of certain courses. These issues remain at an impasse, although efforts have been made to address them.
One of the most significant flashpoints this year, as told to us by participants, was the impact of discussions around the Ubu BIPOC Community Agreement. Briefly stated, the proposed Agreement was created during the production of Ubu Roi after much deliberation and uncompensated labour by racialized students in response to the difficult issues of racism in which the Department had been embroiled for some time. The stated purpose of the document was to recognize ongoing and historic oppression and discrimination of racialized and marginalized bodies and, more specifically, to keep BIPOC students safe. It included several “Guiding Promises and Principles” as well as a list of “Commitments” that members of the production were expected to make to one another. The document was forthright in its intent, with the stated goal of its signatories being the creation of a stronger collective by recognizing the disproportionate harm that flows to BIPOC students when power imbalances are vastly skewed against them. The Agreement called upon supporters to stand in solidarity with the BIPOC community and to enforce the commitments of the document. The Agreement also noted that it could be potentially revised in the future and that signing would be a condition for participating in the production, a requirement for several program degree requirements.
It was described to us that drafting this Agreement took months of effort. We heard that the students not only worked amongst themselves, but also met with other theatre companies and activists to gain a sense of what other institutions were doing to keep their BIPOC communities safe. We were advised that even before the Ubu BIPOC Agreement was issued and circulated, different productions within the Department were creating their own community agreements and taking various steps to respond to student concerns. We heard that these efforts were not necessarily coordinated or transparent and that as such, while students felt that nothing was being done, faculty felt they were trying. We also heard that in mid-June 2020 a member of the Ubu Roi production team approached Departmental leadership to ask how they would respond to the BIPOC students’ concerns. One perspective we heard was that the response was lacklustre. The BIPOC students who were working on Ubu Roi then began working to draft the agreement.
Another perspective was that faculty and the Department Chair were aware that the agreement was in progress and were being supportive of the students, including regular consultations with the director of the show and offers of additional support to assist with the drafting. We heard that the students and the Chair worked to amend the document, but that ultimately the students issued the document before all of the proposed amendments were completed because the production was underway and they wanted to feel safe in that environment. We also heard that students were tired by that point, and in part did not move forward with working to amend the document any further because they were not being compensated for the time and energy they were expending in attempting to satisfy faculty concerns.
When the document was released in mid-October 2020, the Dean was said to have replied to its content to express that while everyone could be encouraged to sign the document, efforts to exclude any students from participating in required learning outcomes was not something that the Faculty could enforce. She stated that there were already certain protections in place for students who encountered discrimination or harassment, such as through York’s Human Rights Policies or the Student Code of Conduct, and that parallel efforts were underway to develop community agreements that could apply throughout the Faculty. The Dean expressed her commitment to addressing systemic racism and was already undertaking a Faculty-wide review of the climate in AMPD, along with the structures and processes that contributed to the sense of exclusion the students were raising. One viewpoint was that this response felt dismissive of the efforts of students who had worked to develop the Agreement. It seemed there was a lack of recognition at the institutional level of the value of the document, or the work the students had put into it. We also heard that while the students had only circulated the document among their peers working on the Ubu Roi production, the Dean’s response to it had been sent to a much broader audience. The intent may have been to include those who may have been affected by its implementation, but it was not well received by its authors.
Although the Ubu Roi students ultimately discussed the Agreement with the Chair, it is not widely or definitively known who shared the Agreement with the Dean. There was a question about whether a student did so and, if so, why. We heard certain comments about why students may have been uncomfortable having to sign onto the Agreement. We also learned that for a period of time, the Ubu BIPOC Agreement sat unaddressed and that the students felt they had been left in the dark about what was happening. The class was said to have been unable to work well together without addressing the harms of the environment.
Our understanding is that the Department Chair ultimately signed the document, acknowledging that her support as a signatory was a necessary step in resolving the impasse and in advancing the dialogue on BIPOC issues. While participants suggested that the Chair’s gesture of support was “too little, too late”, others claimed a symbolic victory in gaining the Chair’s approval of the content of the Agreement, even if only in principle. Another perspective we heard was that although the timing may not have been perfect, it was important that the Chair ultimately did sign the Agreement as a way of acknowledging the real pain that BIPOC students were experiencing. It was also comforting for participants to know that faculty were willing to support the Agreement’s implementation as part of a Faculty-wide or “shared values” initiative.
Ultimately, the director of the Ubu Roi production was given the option of withdrawing the show as a thesis requirement, due to the challenges involved in mounting such a production amid the pandemic and online. However, some believed that various other factors had contributed to the show’s demise, including that the Ubu BIPOC Agreement had not been fully accepted and that this rift would inevitably continue to cause harm to BIPOC students. We heard that others were hopeful that the “shared values” initiative would adopt the substance of the Agreement and be implemented more broadly. In this sense, participants felt hopeful that their efforts on the Agreement would not be going to waste.
Participants suggested that the BIPOC agreement should have been a no-brainer and that it was an opportunity to finally acknowledge the needs of BIPOC students in light of the controversies that had emerged among members of the Department over the past year. It was suggested that the Agreement’s basic requirement that signatories act thoughtfully to prevent racism and avoid harm should have been an uncontested term of acceptance among peers. Technically though, others noted that some aspects of the agreement seemed to be in direct contradiction of existing University student policies. It was also noted that a prevailing best practice for these kinds of community agreements is for them to be created with all participants present in the room when drafting, but that this may not have been the practice here.
The students behind the Agreement noted that they laid out their concerns for their peers and that all they needed to do was sign. We heard frustration over the fact that although the students clearly outlined what they needed for safety, rehearsals were cancelled to give people time to reflect. We heard questions along the lines of “what is it exactly that required reflection?”
A repeated criticism we heard was that resistance to the Agreement seemed like an acknowledgement that the safety of BIPOC students was less urgent than ensuring access to education for the majority. The BIPOC students were frustrated and outraged that others could not seem to come to a unanimous agreement that racism should not be tolerated. It should be noted, however, that we heard widespread support for the BIPOC students and broad acknowledgment of the need to implement an agreement of this sort. The specific concern was that the phrasing of the agreement itself presented an insurmountable hurdle to its applicability and enforceability. To the BIPOC students, this seemed like yet another way of denying anti-racist efforts when they are proposed by those who are most impacted by racism.
`Another perspective we heard was an acknowledgement that the initial faculty reaction to the BIPOC Agreement was one of confusion but that, at least for faculty, they have come around to the point where they have signed the Agreement and believe its substance should be used in future productions. There was also support from students for the principles in the Agreement to be broadly implemented in the form of the proposed “shared values” initiative that would apply to all productions throughout the Faculty. Some remain skeptical about this process with the belief that students’ work will be erased or that Indigenous knowledge and practice will be overlooked.
We heard that in November 2020, a third-year Production and Dramaturgy student reportedly released a video on YouTube in which three students and two faculty members were “called out” for being racists. After some pushback, the video was promptly taken down by the student who released it. However, recordings had already been made and continued to circulate. We heard that the pushback over the video was in relation to the student speaking about others’ experiences of racism without their consent.
The fallout from the video resulted in further discord among members of the Department since it came at a time when the Ubu BIPOC Agreement was under scrutiny by the administration and tensions were already boiling over in classroom environments. Given these tensions, students had threatened to boycott classes for the remainder of the term until the Faculty administration intervened to address the prevailing issues around racism. As noted above, we heard that in one class setting, one of the professors named in the video offered to step down from teaching one of the classes, although the professor denied doing so, preferring instead to continue teaching and restore relationships with students.
Several other concerns were expressed about the release of the video. It was described as an inciting incident and as a violation of the privacy agreement that was reached during the two facilitated discussions coordinated by the Centre for Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion in January and March 2020. We also heard that the administration did not react to the video quickly enough and that the video’s creator should have been invited to a discussion about the concerns. The contents of the video were labelled as inaccurate and those named in it were said to have not been given a chance to engage in a discussion about their own experiences. Participants claimed that although certain faculty members checked in on the three White students named in the video, they did not do so for the Black students whose experiences with racism formed the basis of the video. Even after faculty reportedly said they did check in with the Black students, there were claims that this was not accurate. There is still the sentiment that the Black students were specifically excluded and that no one came to check on them after this video came out, whereas White students were offered support.
The foregoing incidents demonstrate that the past year in the Department of Theatre has been tumultuous for its members, made increasingly challenging in the midst of a pandemic and with the backdrop of a growing social reckoning on anti-Black racism and systemic discrimination. There are notable divergences of opinion on the details of how these events unfolded, but the common thread is that the shared understanding of these incidents contributed to a climate of discord that required immediate intervention. This was a crisis situation for the Department and it was apparent to many that the underlying tensions had been present for quite some time.
As noted earlier, the Department was in crisis late in the fall of 2020. Students had threatened to boycott classes until the end of the semester and were disengaging from the curriculum unless or until several issues were addressed by the administration. With the assistance of the Centre for Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion, the Dean retained an external firm, Ethical Associates, to conduct onsite interventions to address the impasse. We were asked to employ several dispute resolution techniques for group conflict situations and to implement interventions that would begin to identify the Department-wide issues that were being raised.
Throughout the remainder of the fall term and into the new year, the consultants engaged in several efforts to address the situation and bring clarity around the issues that required resolution. In certain cases, the consultants relied on the assistance of the Faculty Association, while in others, the Chair and the Dean became involved as part of the administration’s commitment and support of these efforts. The consultants engaged in trust building initiatives among those who were most impacted by the crisis and sought to move the Department toward a direction of tangible interventions and outcomes. The efforts below outline the processes that were attempted, with varying degrees of success, in order to foster engagement on the more volatile issues among students, staff and faculty.
At the outset of the project, it became clear that the Department required immediate intervention since students in some classes were refusing to attend class until tangible steps were taken to respond to student concerns around racism. Faculty members also began feeling uncomfortable by the scrutiny from their students. It is clear that a number of factors had been present for some time and that tensions culminated in November 2020. As consultants, we were retained to conduct several facilitations in order to attempt resolution among students and faculty. Traditional methods of mediation between individuals are usually complex enough, but facilitating several group dialogues at the same time became even more challenging. Individuals were expressing their discontentment with pervasive systemic and institutional racism in the classroom setting, while others were demanding a complete overhaul of current teaching and evaluation arrangements due to what had cumulatively emerged as conflicting viewpoints on incidents that had occurred in the Department. This was the Department’s moment of reckoning on these issues and many of the students were interested in engaging their professors on these matters.
As mentioned, some of these efforts were more successful than others. In certain cases, students were able to express themselves freely and articulate the specific instances of racism they had either encountered or witnessed. Some faculty were keen to have open dialogues with their students and were invested in working through their relationships with the students. Other interventions included a “shuttling” exercise between students and faculty in order to encourage dialogue and as a means to convey concerns through the use of intermediaries. This was less successful. A number of faculty were skeptical of this approach, and some claimed it was not helpful in restoring relationships. Students also felt that the intervention wasn’t going anywhere, only to discover that a faculty member had withdrawn from the facilitation process in order to attempt reconciliation with students directly. What seemed clear is that various groups found value in expressing difficult emotions and in the opportunity to challenge the prevailing structures of the University. In the end, there was progress made in returning students and faculty to class and finding ways to fulfill learning objectives while other interventions were continuing.
At the commencement of the review, the consultants proposed that the Department convene two separate Town Halls: one for students and another for faculty. These Town Halls were designed to elicit the sentiments of participants and generate recommendations for moving forward. The Town Halls served as open forums for a range of discussion on the issues that led to the Departmental impasse and proposals around the expectations that each group had of the other. While it was noted that this was the first time these two constituencies were able to meet and discuss issues communally, others found the format to be limiting since they were not able to engage with the other group directly. While there were those who suggested that there should be another Town Hall to include all viewpoints and participants, others felt this would only contribute to the sense of unease and that the shuttling method was useful in channelling issues between groups. At the conclusion of the Town Halls, it was proposed that a “shared narrative” exercise be initiated to gather information and identify the sources of the discord and the main issues being described. All groups signalled their agreement to such a process, in addition to ongoing interventions to address the more pressing issues within the Department.
It seems that students, staff and faculty are keen to engage with one another, although to do so successfully requires preparation and a focused agenda to ensure that all voices are heard. It may be more effective for administration to host a series of “Community Consultations” that will allow the open dialogue to occur, while maintaining a focus on resolving the issues that led to the impasse in the first place. What became apparent throughout the process is that members of the Department were keen to receive updates and communication on the progress of any intervention efforts. Due to the challenges of the pandemic, these have been slower than some may have expected or hoped. However, information has been shared with the Department, either directly or via the Dean’s Office, as soon as it became available.
As efforts during the fall term progressed, there was a recognition that the ongoing interventions continued to have an impact on IBPOC  students and that trauma-informed supports should be in place to allow for the creation of “safe spaces”. In these spaces, students would be able to share experiences and engage one another on healing strategies. It was important to host these sessions, which occurred immediately before and after the December holidays. The sessions were hosted by representatives from the Indigenous Students Centre and the Student Wellness Centre, along with a community facilitator from the consultant group. These sessions will continue to be sponsored by the administration in an ongoing effort to create safe spaces for dialogues among IBPOC students.
 By the time these Wellness Sessions were held, the acronym “BIPOC” had shifted to “IBPOC” as a way to prioritize the experiences of Indigenous peoples, in the spirit of Truth and Reconciliation. Both terms seem to continue to be used.
Over the summer and fall of 2020, a group of undergraduate students created the IBPOC Artists Association as a student association for students across AMPD. This group has been formally recognized as a student association and continues to meet regularly. Representatives from the IBPOC AA and other undergraduate student groups across AMPD and Winters College now meet monthly as part of a newly formed Dean’s Student Advisory Committee. This committee brings concerns and recommendations directly to the Dean’s Office as part of collaborative discussion and planning and to ensure that student perspectives are foregrounded in decisions affecting the Faculty.
The York Theatre Survey (or the “Speaking Out” Survey as it was called) was part of the broader interventions to engage, understand and reflect upon the challenges experienced by racialized or underrepresented community members within the Department. On January 14, 2021, students, faculty and staff were invited to participate in a Department-wide survey being launched at that time. An invitation was also extended to part-time instructors. Participants provided anonymized survey responses to allow for a better understanding of equity-related issues within the Department and points of discord. The mandate was to conduct a survey of community members in the Department including current students, staff and faculty, to provide an opportunity for individuals to reflect on their experiences and to identify specific equity challenges.
At its core, the survey data revealed that the way an individual self-identifies (e.g. based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability) affects their personal experience of belonging within the Department and may be drastically different than someone who does not identify as being part of an underrepresented group. When combined with structures of power and privilege, these dynamics presented barriers for racialized or underrepresented groups. In addition to an individual’s sense of belonging within the Department, another significant observation arising from the survey data was the disproportionate number of barriers encountered by survey participants who identified as BIPOC, as compared to survey participants who identified as White. Barriers were also disproportionately greater for persons who identified as women, trans, gender non-conforming, non-binary, 2SLGBTQ+ or persons with disabilities.
The survey data also revealed issues around anti-Black racism, other forms of racism, microaggressions and stereotypes. At the same time, there were survey participants who acknowledged their own positions of privilege and “complicity” and who openly embraced change, while others expressed that they felt they were being “targeted” or not able to express challenging viewpoints. Survey participants spoke about the climate of “calling out” or the “cancel culture,” arguing that this has made navigating conversations on race all the more challenging. Others identified that there is a real “fear” about saying the “wrong thing”. Other issues included concerns about the underrepresentation of diverse voices and the dearth of faculty who reflect the diversity of the student body at York. Several participants commented on the need for greater diversity and inclusion to be reflected in the curriculum. An analysis of the survey data also provided a glimpse into intersecting identities and how this might have an impact on an individual’s experience in the Department.
The survey was one component of the ongoing initiatives taking place in the Department, which may help inform and guide AMPD’s considerations as it moves forward. It will be folded into the next phase of the Equity Assessment underway at the Faculty level.
This review has identified that there are serious elements of discord in the Department of Theatre that require ongoing attention. The shared narrative points to a series of incidents that have impacted members of the Department for the past couple of years and that require specific intervention in order to improve the work and learning environment for all members of the theatre community at York. There is a stated willingness among participants to learn and modify institutional practices to ensure that entrenched issues are addressed and so that BIPOC students feel welcomed and safe in their learning environment. There is also broad acknowledgment that the Ubu BIPOC Agreement was a turning point on discussions around racism in the Department and that there is an opportunity to bring the substance of the Agreement into a “shared values” exercise that all members of AMPD may embrace.
The future is not without its challenges, but the participants overwhelmingly indicated their willingness to engage and participate in meaningful initiatives that will have a tangible impact on theatre work, towards creating a respectful, authentic and anti-racist space so that BIPOC students, and students from other identity backgrounds, feel welcomed, safe and included. This was cited as a precondition to full engagement among members of the theatre community at York. There are also significant steps being taken to diversify the faculty and staff complement to be more reflective of the student population and society at large. The diversification of the curriculum continues and there is a recognition by faculty of their role in advancing anti-racist/anti-oppressive practices through a lens of Truth and Reconciliation.
While most theatre schools in North America are experiencing foundational dialogues and debates about theatre studies and production, it is apparent at York that the discussion is continuing and that there is fertile ground to shape the future of theatre in Canada. The following recommendations are intended to assist the Department in achieving these goals.
- Implement the substance of the Ubu BIPOC Agreement within a “shared values” initiative or charter to be adopted throughout AMPD.
- Continue to engage in Faculty-wide training on anti-racist/anti-oppressive practices through a lens of Truth and Reconciliation.
- Recruit, attract, support and promote BIPOC faculty and staff and ensure that any barriers to admission and advancement are continually dismantled through communal and collaborative means.
- Engage faculty in meaningful transformation of the Department of Theatre, of which they form an integral part, by serving as thought leaders and change agents on equity and inclusion.
- Collaborate and consult with students as part of curricular review and revisions, and other Departmental processes, such as play selection, etc.
- Proceed with other interventions that will provide a broader equity assessment and targeted strategies for identifying and dismantling systemic processes that promote and perpetuate racism (especially anti-Black racism), colonization and other barriers in the academic environment.
EMpower Strategy Group
Pan-Canadian Adjudicators & Mediators Inc.
Ethical Associates Inc.
Ethical Associates Inc.