This one goes to Eleven: Cameron Mackenzie

Cameron’s Stage resume runs the gamut from set and props design to director to clown to actor to drag queen…and back to director. He is the Artistic Director of the newly inaugurated Zee Zee Theatre which just launched with Cameron’s passion project Whale Riding Weather at the PAL. After having seen the production myself all I can say is; welcome to the neighbourhood Zee Zee, please keep it coming.

The level of Cameron’s passion for Independent Stage is easy to detect…

me

1. In one word, describe your present condition.

Jittery.

2. In as many words as you care to use, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

Experimental, daring, growing, inclusive, co-operative.

3. What are you doing starting a theatre company in these harsh economic times?

I’ve asked myself that same question a few times already. First of all the “recession” hadn’t quite hit when I started the process of bringing one of my favourite scripts to the stage. Secondly the company came out of a desire to best facilitate Whale Riding Weather, although I have always wanted and knew I’d start my own company, I really didn’t start this process with that goal in mind. The other thing to remember is that as theatre artists we are always in “harsh economic times”. I produced WRW without any government assistance because I wanted to challenge myself to succeed without it – well, that and they didn’t give us any money!

4. What style(s) of production are you planning on developing with Zee Zee?

Definitely text based work.  A solid story is what draws me to any show. We are also following our loose mandate to give voice to the marginalized, but in a way that represents the universality of their stories.

5. What do you feel is the single greatest obstacle to producing indie theatre here?

Money or lack of it. Available rehearsal and performance space is a close second.

mewinter

6. What do you know now that you didn’t before directing Whale Riding Weather?

That I actually enjoy producing. That working on a guaranteed 30% average house is not low at all. That I could succeed. That if you ask someone for help chances are they will give it to you if you are serious and respectful.

7. How much of a responsibility does theatre hold in representing the diversity of its community?

Theatre’s responsibility is always to its audience and to bring to that audience a universal truth, something that connects them emotionally or intellectually to the work regardless of demographic. Of course it is an art form and we as artists must always be pushing our own boundaries and enhancing our personal practice but to say theatre is responsible in some way to its community is putting too great a restriction on the art form itself. My goal as an artist is to take my audience on a journey – not necessarily a comfortable, pleasant one, but one that elicits a reaction or emotion that is in some way connected to and informed by the work, not as something that is as a result of the work.

To be clearer, I don’t want my audience to feel anger or be taken out of the experience and world of the play because I have crafted a shoddy piece of art, if anger is present it must be because the art itself has elicited this reaction. Getting to the heart of this question; yes I am very much for casting roles regardless of race. But I do not think it is my responsibility as a theatre artist to follow some prescribed quota that matches the diversity make up of Vancouver. At this point in my career I see myself as a facilitator of the script, and it is up to me to bring that script to life as close to the playwright’s vision as possible. When I am in auditions I am looking for the person who can best capture the essence and truth of the role out of who I am fortunate enough to have come to my auditions.

Theatre’s responsibility is to bring a universal truth to its audience.

8. Who or what are the great influences on your work?

As cheesy as it sounds – life.  The greatest stories are ones that capture the complexity, beauty and brutality of it.  That and Peter Brook – who directed one the most brilliant Hamlets that I was lucky enough to see, starring British actor Adrian Lester who, incidentally is of Jamaican decent.

9. What is you fondest theatrical memory to date?

My partner bought us tickets for my birthday to see The Syringa Tree, one of my favourite scripts.  Actually a friend of mine loaned me the scripts for WRW and The Syringa Tree at the same time nearly six years ago and I remember thinking after I had read them both “This guy knows my taste”.  I actually still have his copy of WRW.  So we went to see it at the Playhouse starring Caroline Cave.  I grew up in South Africa and am always weary of North American ideas or interpretations of what South Africa is, but I very much wanted to see it.  I was blown away.  I remember after the show my entire body was vibrating.  I had wept through most of the show and mumbled something to Dave that I had to meet her.  I’m not big on going to the stage door after a show but Caroline’s portrayal was so honest and so textured I had to thank her.  She was able to capture so accurately the dichotomy of beauty and joy, with ugliness and suffering that is South Africa at the same time every minute.  Even the deep resonance of her voice captured the heart breaking way people speak as a defensive mechanism to hide the suffering, but at the same time is so beautiful to listen too.  When she came out I just said thank you and hugged her and wept some more.  I have to admit I was a bit of a basket case, but she was very gracious about it and we have subsequently become friends.

10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Whale Riding Weather by Bryden MacDonald – obviously.

Lilies by Michel Marc Bouchard

The Syringa Tree by Pamela Gien

11. What’s next?

I am currently assistant directing Jocasta at Studio 58.  It is play number four in the seven play cycle City of Wine, about Oedipus’ mother.  The seven scripts follow the history of Thebes including the Oedipus tragedy and are being produced at various theatre schools around Canada as part of their development.  Then in May all the schools are all being flown to Toronto to do the entire cycle. Very Bacchanalian.

For Zee Zee, my partner, Dave Deveau, has been developing a script that I’ve been anxious to direct for a few years.  It’s called Nelly Boy and is about a 15 year old biological male who doesn’t identify with either sex and about the journey this character has faced that has brought him/her to an interrogation room. In North American society we don’t work well with this idea of the third gender. We have very little understanding on the issue and no language around it. I’m very excited to work with Dave and this new script and to explore the world of Nelly.

9 thoughts on “This one goes to Eleven: Cameron Mackenzie

  1. I was saddened to see Cameron’s comments about his casting practices and it implications that casting an actor of color would be just fulfilling a mandate or quota. It also seem to imply casting actors of color is ‘charity’ work and that the actor of color may not be the best actor. Since I am a white guy I went to my dear friend Valerie an she gave me permission to share her thoughts.

    “Cameron’s assertion that “Theatre’s responsibility is to bring a universal truth to its audience”: what “universal” truth is he talking about? Who defines “universal” truth? As we all know from the history books and the media, it is the people in power who define the so-called “truth”. I’m pretty sure that Cameron’s “universal” truth is very different from mine. And he doesn’t address at all the other important responsibility of any art, which is relevance to one’s “audience”, which is really, in fact, one’s community. So another question is, how does he define his community? I put to him that he defines his community by his art. And if he chooses to present his art from a completely white perspective, then his community is white. And then there’s the ever-present insulting insinuation that artists of colour are somehow not as capable as white artists in achieving the full artistic potential of a work. But how is one to judge that when artists of colour are rarely given the opportunity to do major roles and/or major work? Why is it somehow less risky to cast a young untried white actor than a young untried actor of colour? We’ve all seen pretty mediocre if not downright bad performances by young white actors, but we don’t make sweeping statements that all young white actors aren’t capable. Yet time and time again, artists of colour must suffer under the misperception that if one young actor of colour wasn’t up to snuff, then we all aren’t up to snuff. And as Adrienne Wong once articulated at yet another diversity panel, we therefore carry this added burden of representing all artists of colour when we fail, not just our own personal failure. Wow. No white actor carries that kind of burden.

    And so it goes. There is no convincing or persuading those who don’t wish to be. Our best hope is to do as you have been doing, just pointing out the facts for people to see. People will either recognize the limitations of their own imaginations, like Morris Panych (did in his letter to Vancouver Plays), or at least begin the process of questioning their assumptions. Or they will defend their current practises, like Cameron. ”

    I am heartened that Max Reimer of the Vancouver Playhouse is taking the lead on this and going out of his way to find the very best actors to represent the Canadian Truth – that we are society that as of 2006 for 4 /10th non white. It is my hope that young directors like Cameron will begin to see that he lives in a world of colour and be inspired by the possibility rather than avoid them.

    Walk down the street – go to a mall – look out your window – then go to a Vancouver show. The difference is shocking.

    Thanks for your time.

    Here is a great video http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html

  2. Thanks for this David, I appreciate the input on this, it’s certainly become a surprisingly hot-button issue here in the friendly city of Vancouver. I have to say though, I’ve been reading Cameron’s above section on diversity over and over, and I believe the implications that you and Valerie have proscribed to it simply aren’t there.

    “It also seem to imply casting actors of color is ‘charity’ work and that the actor of color may not be the best actor.”

    “And then there’s the ever-present insulting insinuation that artists of colour are somehow not as capable as white artists in achieving the full artistic potential of a work.”

    There is no basis for these attributions anywhere in Cameron’s interview, and I’ve been over it with a fine tooth comb. It seems clear to me that he’s saying he simply chooses the actor best suited for the role from the people that show up and audition, and to throw charges of racism on top of that is dangerous territory.

    He doesn’t say that “casting an actor of color would be just fulfilling a mandate or quota”, he’s saying that if one existed he wouldn’t make casting choices based on it. Do you really think that artists should have the proportion of colour in their work on the basis of demographics dictated to them?

    I strongly believe that the diverse cultural mix in our communities be represented on our stages, and I see it happening all around me, in the work of Kevin Loring, Full Circle, VACT, Neworld, Urban Ink, Theatre Terrific, Berend Mckenzie, Denis Simpson, Shameless Hussy and many others, including Cameron’s own Zee Zee theatre, which to date has exclusively done work focusing on the hugely marginalized gay and non-gender specific communities. I “go to Vancouver shows” all the time, and they most certainly are not all white. Members of my own company are black, including our artistic director.

    It’s too important an issue, as a matter of fact, to be throwing unwarranted charges of bigotry at any artist who hasn’t mandated that 4/10s of his performances have to be non-white. We’re talking small, self-funded, independent companies here, not subscription-fueled civic theatres like the Playhouse. And we’re a relatively small community that’s growing in the face of all odds, the community, and it’s ethnic and cultural mix, will grow with it. What shape that will take, and how it will represent the city to itself and to the world, is up to the artists who are willing to speak out about the issues that touch them, and affect their lives.

  3. Gee, Simon. I’ve re-read my comments and David C. Jones’s with “a fine tooth comb”, and nowhere did I see the words “racism” or “bigotry”. In fact, the whole issue would actually be much easier to deal with if it WAS simple racism. But as Morris Panych noted in his letter to VancouverPlays.com, the prevailing attitude is more “innocuous, bland, generic”. To intentionally exclude people based on the colour of their skin is definitely racism; however, to UNintentionally not INclude people is much harder to define, let alone expose or remedy. And when brave people like David C. Jones try to draw attention to the inequitable reality, the knee-jerk reaction is to point out “all” the good things out there that supposedly demonstrate how “progressive” we really are, or worse, admonish us for making other people uncomfortable by speaking our truth. (Now people, can’t we all get along?)

    Please note that neither David or I think that Cameron is a bad person. We were merely challenging the assumptions in his remarks about diversity. Just as I’m challenging your assertions that things are not so bad as we suggest. Oh yes, the companies and the artists that you mentioned have been wonderfully successful and I have great admiration for them all; but they have been successful DESPITE the odds because of talent, tenaciousness and hard work, not because Vancouver is a nicer or more progressive place than anywhere else. (In fact, the United States, which Canadians generally smugly judge as being a more openly racist society, has a much better track record of inclusion in their performing arts.) But ask any of those artists and companies you’ve cited, and I doubt that any of them would agree that they work on a level playing field. And I don’t understand at all the logic of your argument that small indie companies somehow have less leeway to be more inclusive: do artists of colour cost more than white artists? I don’t think so; in fact, a survey by Equity found that while their members of colour who get work average a similar number of “work-weeks” as their white colleagues, their weekly income is lower. How is that possible when we work under the same agreements? Well, it may be because artists of colour are generally hired to workshop new plays that never see full productions and/or for smaller – certainly rarely lead – roles in the shows that are produced.

    Challenge your assumptions, Simon. Get hard evidence. Be like David C. Jones: start tracking the actual number of actors you see on stage, and note how many are white and how many are diverse. The numbers will speak for themselves. Oh, and please watch the YouTube video that David provided a link for: it speaks to the bigger picture of why diversity matters in such a positive way that I am hopeful it will take this tiresome subject to the next level.

    Best, Valerie

  4. Well Valerie, first of all you don’t actually have to type the words “racist” or “bigot” to accuse someone of being one of those things. You can write something like “And then there’s the ever-present insulting insinuation that artists of colour are somehow not as capable as white artists in achieving the full artistic potential of a work” which inarguably points a accusatory finger at the subject, and labels them, by definition, a racist. And from the interview in question there is simply no evidence to support this. So you can’t print such things and then dissipate them by later declaring that you don’t think he’s a bad person. Sorry.

    You say that theatre here, and Cameron Mackenzie in particular, unintentionally excludes actors of colour from their work. So are you saying that companies have an inherent responsibility to cast a certain percentage of non-white (or non-straight or non-catholic…what’s the divisor of community?) actors in their plays that reflect the percentage of minorities that inhabit the city? Isn’t that tokenism? Is that really what you’re advocating? I honestly want to understand what your position is.

    If a group of actors show up for an audition call and the best read is given by an actor of colour, but they’re not offered the job because of that colour, then that certainly is bigotry, and that company should be ridden out of town on a rail. As is hiring an inferior actor for a part based on his or her colour to fulfill an arbitrary quota. And if you have hard evidence that this is happening in Vancouver I will do everything in my power to fight against that kind of racial injustice. But what we’re talking about in this particular instance is specious accusations against one Artistic Director who doesn’t take into account your opinion on casting based on race percentages in the city that he’s putting the play up.

    Racial (and sexual orientation, and religious) intolerance and imbalance exists everywhere, and certainly in Vancouver. These are serious issues, and it is the responsibility of we the artists to address them in our work, and keep them in the public consciousness. But not by putting words into the mouth of another artist. That doesn’t fall in the category of “speaking our truth”, it’s simply inflammatory.

    Let’s keep talking about this. Let’s make sure every theatre company in Vancouver knows they have casting options that may not at first occur to them. Let’s encourage even more diversity in the talent pool by offering opportunities and leading by example. Let’s fight inequality and injustice at every turn. But we’re not going to get anywhere by mudslinging. We’re not politicians looking to further a selfish agenda, we’re artists trying to entertain and broaden minds.

  5. I apologize if I was the one mud slinging. That was not the intent.

    When I was an advisory member for Equity one of my tasks was to explore IF there was a lack of diversity in Vancouver Theatre. I went into it with a curious mind and no vested interest, I took on the job as a elected representative.

    My committee reviewed the casting practices of six theatre’s over a ten year period. We counted the number of actors of colour vs. the number of white actors. Then, as suggested by a member of colour – we subtracted thieves, whores, servants and magical characters (apparently many theatre companies cast exotic characters particularly in Shakespeare plays – with non-white actors for some reason). Then we subtracted parts written for people of colour (ie: Dry Lips Ought To Move to Kapakasing a native play with an all aborginal cast). I was shocked at how low the number was and then how dramatically the number dropped further once we did the first adjustment and then again another drop after the second adjustment. Case in point – one example – in that survey – no one ever engaged the services of aborginal actor unless the part scientifically called for an aborginal actor because it was written for an aborginal person. So the implication was if you were an aboriginal actor you better hope a sequel to Dry Lips was going to be written because you weren’t getting cast otherwise.

    Then I hosted a large panel discussion for CAEA and we had artistic directors and theater schools directors answer questions and discuss casting practices. Again it was really eye opening.

    One school administrator said they had very few actors of colour come and audition and that was countered with an audience member responding why would a person of colour think about going to school since it would appear as acting was not a career option – because most times when you see a show – it was an all white cast and therefore the implication that there were no opportunity. I want to quickly and thoroughly point out this is what people at the forum said although I am likely paraphrasing a bit.

    At the Making A Scene conference that same year a speaker from New York spoke passionately about theatre being reflective of society in order to be relevant to society. He touched on many ways to do this and eventually touched on race. He pointed out that as the percentage of ‘non-white’ students grow in North American interracial dating is becoming the norm and while older generations noticed a person of colour – younger generations who are so immersed in it are beginning to notice an absence of colour. Therefore if we want to keep younger generations of theatre goers, going to theatre , we better take care to make sure we don’t alienate them by presenting an unreal world.

    We have seen this shift on TV shows and especially on Reality TV shows. Companies like NBC & CBS even had a visible Diversity Policy posted on their sites. They recognized the changing market and the need t change with it. (FYI: I just checked NBC has it listed deeper in their site now under DiversCity).

    I love theatre – I see a lot of it. I hated the thought of younger generations losing the allure of it.

    These incidents happened about four or five years ago. There was a shift in some places in the city of Vancouver notably at some theatre schools and how they cast actors of colour.

    Then about a year ago I notice although there was a small shift, I did another program count over a five month period. The number was again super low. That prompted my letter to Vancouver Plays and I was surprized and excited by the ensuing discussion.

    Then in the month of September I saw 15 shows (7 were Fringe plays). 84 different actors. I decided to again remove the one play that was written for an actor of colour from the list (NGGRFG by Berrand McKenzie – it would be hard to do that play without a black actor playing the part – for that matter it would be hard to do that play without Berrand playing the part). That left 14 plays 83 actors = 74 white 9 non-white. Number of plays that featured non-white actors in parts not written specifically for a person of colour – 1. Yep, all 9 of those actors were in one play that did one performance. The other 13 plays engaged the services of 74 white actors.

    The panel discussion pointed out – actors of colour don’t want shows about people of colour so much as they want to see their faces among all the stories. I coined the term a ‘skytrain show’ – the sea of colours I see on a skytrain I want to see on stage like I am starting to see on my TV. I don’t want to have to go the ‘Chinese play’ to see a Chinese face. I don’t want to have to go to a Aboriginal play to see an Aboriginal face. I have friends of ever colour and shape and ability and I see them as friends. Not just their uniqueness. Why must I only see them in unique shows.

    Do I think Vancouver theatre producers are racists? No – I never used the word although your defense implies I don’t have to – talk about putting words in someone’s mouth. Do I think Cameron is bad person – No – hell I volunteered to take tickets at the door of his theatre when his FOH person was overwhelmed. I don’t really know him personally though.

    Do I think there is inequity in casting practices in Vancouver. Yes. Not because people are trying to be exclusionary but people are not being aggressively proactive in their casting options. We don’t encourage full participation because we more often than not we repeatedly demonstrate on our theatre stages there is no other vision possible.

    Do I think that this is done deliberately – no. Do I think that directors go out of their way to avoid actors of color – no. I think more often than not they don’t think about colour at all. That – I think – is a problem. That was what I responded to in Cameron’s interview.

    Do I believe in quotas – not really – but when 13 show in one month engage the services of 74 white actors – I think it’s a good time to just point it out so directors can take into consideration once again the old adage that if theatre and the arts are suppose to hold a mirror up to society and say ‘this is us’ it might be time to look in the mirror again.

    It is not a matter of what we say or not say – it is a matter of what we demonstrate on stage and what that implies and then the consequences of that unspoken but demonstrated implication. If someone (to be clear – not you Simon or you Cameron, an imaginary someone) produces a season of shows with all white casts – what are they implying to their audiences, what assumptions will the person of colour take away from the experience, what will the white person think. Often an Artistic Director will put in a Dry Lips or Driving Miss Daisy or an Ain’t Misbehaving into a season. But what does that imply when the actors of colour are regulated to these shows only. When highschool students are brought in on a field trip what impressions are they leaving with about about how our theatre community feels about the people they go to school with – they people they play with – the people they date – that they ride the skytrain with.

    We as a community – program a season of theatre.

    Cameron – I do not think you are racist. I am pretty sure Valerie doesn’t either. I do not think I have ever met any one in the theatre community in Vancouver who was racist.

    But I think about these things all the time when I go watch the power of theatre and how it is not just the words that touch and effect the people but it is the images just as equally and just as powerfully.

    I hope knowing my history with this subject has been helpful in illuminating why I am so passionate. I am not angry or hateful I am worried about the implications were are giving without even meaning to. Without giving it a thought.

    Thanks.

    David C. Jones

  6. Thanks David, I appreciate what you’re saying, and I appreciate your passion on the subject. I get it, I really do, and I still agree with your position – we need to foster a welcoming environment in our arts community to all artists regardless of race, creed or colour. None of this is in question here, but I think it’s great that you’ve laid out some numbers here, those stats are great to know.

    I am confident the change you are after will happen, and sooner the more we talk about it. My only problem here – to make it perfectly clear – is that it is unfair and counterproductive to denigrate an artist over claims that he didn’t make, and to attach spurious implications to his opinions that don’t actually contradict yours. There is no mention in Cameron’s interview that casting an actor of colour would be charity work, nor that he thinks casting an actor of colour would not be the best choice, which is how you started your initial comment.

    No one is under a mandate to pay anyone that they feel is not the right person for the job, nor should they be. But they should certainly consider every actor that applies for that role based on their comparative talent. That’s a good place to start, no? And I hear a lot of agreement with that position. The next step is to encourage diversity in the talent pool by making all prospective actors feel welcome in it. There’s lots of room in it.

  7. I guess for me then had the response been “I wish there were more actors to choose from” or “I always keep that in mind when casting” or “I went and actively put out the call for a diverse cross section of actors” I would have felt fine and not concerned.

    One of the panelists (back then) said “I won’t do charity casting” and the brought out a response from the group of that attitude is what part of the problem is. Not that he should do ‘charity casting’ but that by saying it implies casting someone of colour IS charity casting.

    Look – I personally know how hard it is to cast diverse – I have for the past 5 years actively done it. But getting the best people out to the audition is not easy. I had to really work at it.

    For years and years comments like “Oh, they are all busy working in film” “Their families don’t want them to do theatre – you know, tradition” and “I just cast the best person for the job” or my favorite “Their voices don’t have the right consonant work for this text” stack the deck against anyone even trying to audition. They can be seen as dismissive and can also be seen as condescending and the also can be seen as excuses.

    Again it is about language and actions and what do the imply to the audience and the community. When an artistic director says “I am looking for the person who can best capture the essence and truth of the role” and they cast two shows back to back with all white casts – are they implying anything? I am not saying they are deliberately doing something, I am saying consider what message is being received as oppose to what is the message being sent.

    Please note how often I say “implication” “perception” and “can be seen as”. This was language I picked up at these forums.

    I sent out emails and made calls and begged people to tell people to audition for my shows. For example; for Stop Kiss I was fortunate and got the amazing Nelson Wong, Marci T House and Hamza Adams out to the audition. But I had dozens to choose from. But I actively sought out the best of the best. I actually remember one of them saying “So you’re the guy who wrote the letter?” (FYI – I had three Caucasian actors in the show as well – the equally amazing Joey Bothwell, Michael Denis and Missy Cross).

    Please don’t take the above example of aggrandizing – the only reason I mention this is to say that I know first hand how hard it is to get people out. When I did “It’s Superman…” I ended up with all Caucasian leads as no strong singer / actors of colour tried out and I wasn’t just throwing anyone in the roles. To cast diverse in this city means you have to aggressively put the call out – just a Max Reimer is doing at the Playhouse.

    It is not easy to get people out to audition but I think it is very very vital and I also think we have to watch what we say and what it implies. I also say we as a community have to passionately encourage participation and not accidentally discourage it with language that encourages the standard that has been set for so many years.

    I wish the quote had been “I always try to make my shows reflect my community” but it wasn’t.

    That is what I wrote about and have tried to articulate.

    We have to be the change we need as a community to remain relevant to our audiences.

    dcj

  8. Pingback: DIVERSITY IN CASTING | Playhouse Theatre Company Blog

  9. Pingback: This One Goes to Eleven: Dave Deveau « The Next Stage

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