by Caleigh Crow

So, you’ve decided to go for it. You want to be a theatre practitioner. Maybe you discover you’re compelled to perform; to tell stories. Or maybe you’ve got a discerning eye for design and you’re great at building models. Maybe directing is your soul-food. You may have attended a post-secondary theatre training program and you’ve been learning about lighting plots. You step out into the theatre world, with all your training and techniques, take a look around for some easy opportunities and one question comes to mind: now what?

Having questions is one thing, getting answers is another. If you haven’t had the networking opportunities to make connections with people already working in the field, it’s hard to know who to ask. This is where mentorship programs can help bridge the gap between emerging artists and where they want to be in their professional careers. Black Theatre Workshop recognized the need for mentorship in the theatre community, and established the Artist Mentorship Program. The program prioritizes black artists and artists of color and is also geared towards pairing artists with mentors of color. As Warona Setshwaelo, Artist Mentorship Program Coordinator, tells me during our interview, “The fact that almost every racialized artist that has approached me about the program has said they never had an artist mentor of color is a reason off the bat to create a program like this.”

The Artist Mentorship Program is currently accepting applications from emerging actors, directors, stage managers, designers, and playwrights. After the submission deadline on May 26th, selected applicants will be invited to attend an interview at Black Theatre Workshop. From this group of interviewees, twelve are selected as participants. From October to the end of April, the chosen twelve are paired with a mentor in their field and attend workshops, hear guest speakers, see around 10-15 plays, and hold discussions – the perfect place to ask now what? The program is capped off with an Industry Showcase where participants display their skill sets for artistic directors, agents, and other industry professionals. This is a unique opportunity for some face time with some of the industry’s key players.

The program is tailored to the participant in every aspect. Emerging stage managers, directors, and designers take part in an apprenticeship on a professional show. Actors attend workshops on audition skills. Playwrights meet with dramaturgs and editors to support their writing. There’s a workshop on taxes for artists, on grant writing. Everything – even things that seem like details until you’re faced with them is covered by the program. “We’re not here to teach you one way of doing things,” Warona explains, “we’re here to support what’s happening and show you a bunch of different ways to do it, and you can piece something together out of that.” Given that artists are, shall we say, free-spirited, a one-size fits all approach does not work.

It also goes without saying that in arts, the professional and the personal are very close. The Artist Mentorship Program embraces this. “We deal with you as a person, you as an artist, you as a working artist, and what all that is,” Warona says. “We keep our work very close to our hearts and it all blends into the same thing.” The program not only answers professional now what questions, but also personal questions. A participant may not have the support of their family or friends. Now what? I don’t know when to say ‘no’ and when to say ‘yes’. Do I have to do everything? Now what? I’ve auditioned three times this week. Now what? As Warona says, “There’s a lot to talk about in this business, and there are lot of questions to be asked.”

There are even more questions if you are an artist of color. It’s important that the participants have a place to talk freely about being racialized in the arts. Warona specifically mentions being tokenised on a production. “If you’ve ever been tokenised you know how lonely and scary that can be,” Warona says. “Most of the time you don’t speak up because you don’t know what’s going to happen, especially if you’re emerging. It’s a strange place to be, and you’re going to have specific problems that people who aren’t marginalized aren’t going to have.”
One of these problems is the lack of representation among racialized groups in theatre generally, and especially in the off-stage realms of directing, stage management, and design. “People don’t enter a profession where it looks they aren’t considered. If you don’t see anything of you, especially when it’s an artistic job it can be extremely intimidating and like I said, nobody wants to be tokenized,” Warona says frankly.

The participants have a sensible and caring set of hands at the helm. When asked about this group of participants, her first as program coordinator, she turns very tender. “It’s my first group so I think there’s going to be some fondness,” she says with a laugh, “but they’re all so talented, generous, hardworking, and all of them are awesome members of the theatre community and the community at large.”

For Warona, one of the best things about coordinating the program is “being able to reach out to these racialized artists who felt like there might not be room for them.” Make no mistake – there is room for these artists, and Warona and Black Theatre Workshop are committed to doing their part to make sure everyone in the community is supported, and Warona’s pride in her work is palpable. “My belief is that you must create the programs that are going to show them that there is a place for them,” she says. “I’m not trying to convince people to do it, I’m trying to make the space that was already theirs, and show it to them.”

If you are interested in applying for Black Theatre Workshop’s Artist Mentorship Program please click here. The deadline is May 26th.

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