Video courtesy of Howlround
PACTcon 2019
Keynote, Marcus Youssef
The Underlying Philosophy: a Work in Progress?


Morning. 9:15 am, best time for a keynote. Good thing everybody was in bed by 10. Sorry, just before I start, are there some kind of negotiations going on? My name is Marcus Youssef, I’m a playwright and Artistic Director of Vancouver’s Neworld Theatre, which I have led since 2005.

And I’m a little nervous. Just about a year ago Kevin Loring stood up here, well, not here, in Ottawa, in that swanky room with that awesome view, and spoke beautifully to the theme of last year’s conference, which was The Future of Storytelling. As most of us remember pretty well, it was an extraordinary speech, about the precise cultural moment we are in, a moment that Kevin and Lori put themselves so profoundly in service to as stewards of the National Arts Centre Indigenous Theatre Department. Kevin’s speech – the Future of Storytelling is Indigenous – was, as I know most of you already know, a reminder of how complex this current moment is. It was a deeply inspiring call to action, and a nuanced vision of how each of us might stand in the centre of the multiple histories that we all occupy, often through no desire of our own, and, through the work we all do, try imagine a future that is at least somewhat at least a little bit richer, fuller, more just, and better.

Sure sucks that they didn’t get their heritage funding, hey? Too soon? Sorry. But while I have the platform … I think the Heritage folks are here. Are they? Yo! Welcome! And to be clear this is me talking, not Kevin and Lori, but, honestly, what is up? I mean I know it’s not you guys and I know you know this already but can you get the minister to read Kevin’s speech? Seriously. It might make a difference. I’d also really appreciate it if the minister or one of his staff would get back to me about to my letter. I put a lot of time into it. Hm. That was meant to be a joke. And now I stop harassing you.

Now it’s my turn. Obviously this year’s theme isn’t the Future of Storytelling because we did that already. And so, as folks have been told numerous times, this year’s theme is …

A Work in Progress.

I’m sorry but it does kind of make me laugh. In part that’s because I got the call from Boomer asking me to do this keynote exactly 11 days ago. And Boomer, I’m sorry for saying that but it is the truth, and you know me already, so I figure you expected it. And seriously, Boomer and Mirette the whole PACT team folks, big round of applause for all the work its taken to make this happen.

Funny thing is, and this is on me, but it actually took another four or five days for me to fully understand that work in progress wasn’t just a way of saying Theme TBA on the website.

So I figured I didn’t really need to write a speech. I just thought I’d just start talking and see what happens. You know, riff. “Oh, no. Is he joking? How long is this keynote slot again?”

Beware any conference with the theme A Work in Progress.

Or, embrace it. Because that is kind of what we always do, right? Embracing things is what I believe all of us in this room do best. And what I would further argue we in our profession may actually have to offer the wider world: our ability, willingness and the professional necessity for us to embrace what occurs. It is the heart of our art form. It is, for me, the primary definition of “play.”

So, for real, A Work in Progress.

This conference, as we have already heard and will hopefully continue to hear, takes place on Treaty Six territory, home of the Cree and probably other peoples, which I did not know until I looked it up on the internet three days ago.

It is also not long after the Prime Minister of this country more or less fired this country’s first ever Indigenous Minister of Justice, Judy Wilson Rayboud, despite the fact that he made reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous peoples, along with electoral reform, a central component of his government’s mandate.

Indigenous reconciliation: a work in progress.

In my view the whole Liberal government debacle/meltdown happened in part because that first ever Indigenous Minister of Justice refused to do something which has more or less been considered business as usual: find a quiet way to help a big Canadian corporation avoid prosecution for bribing a murderous dictator in a region of the world my family is from, where western governments and corporations have been bribing murderous dictators in exchange for their resources for a very long time indeed.

And it all won’t be this political, I promise, but stay with me for a sec.

And I get its politics and for sure Jody Wilson Rayboud knows the game, but even from an optics perspective, it’s almost as if the Prime Minister and his people didn’t realize that if you invite folks who belong to groups who have been systematically excluded from the circles of majority power, they might actually how try to change how things get done. It almost could make you – or I should say it did make me – suspicious that the Prime Minister’s much vaunted dedication to reconciliation, not to mention feminism, might be as much about electability and image as they are about ethics and conviction.

And if the Liberal party loses the next election and the Conservatives win and then implement some of the more regressive social policies that I think many of us fear they might, I’ll be very curious to see what happens to the powerful surge of attention all of us in this room have paid to the idea of reconciliation over the last, honestly, not very many years.

Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the fifteen years I’ve been running a small, somewhat political indie producing company called Neworld Theatre it’s that systemic change is always a work in progress. And that we, all of us, are far more dependent on the winds blowing from those who control levels of power – ie where we get our money – than we, or I, ever really want to admit.

I believe the real test of our commitment to whatever it is that reconciliation might become in our sector will be when the government of the day is not using it in part as a relatively painless, occupy the moral high ground and consolidate the progressive vote. It will come when the government of the day drops reconciliation as part of its political agenda. It will come when the National Arts Centre Indigenous Theatre Department is denied funding for the second year in a row, by a government who has staked their moral and ethical claim to power on that very same reconciliation.

Oh hang on. That just happened. Sorry. This is the best theme! I just say whatever I want to say and it’s all good.

And, you know what, I actually want to go back. I kind of want to start again.

One of the great personal benefits I have received from our sector’s recent attention to reconciliation and the ideas and agendas of our indigenous colleagues is learning to speak about how each of us is fundamentally always a work in progress. I have learned that I really like, especially in formal contexts, when we introduce ourselves not just with our job titles, but with a bit of the story about where and who we come from, how we all find ourselves in this place, at this moment.

Vancouver-based indigenous playwright Kim Harvey, who made a kick-ass, hilarious first play called Kamloopa that played here at Persephone this season, tells me that theatre maker Lindsey Lachance calls this presencing yourself. As opposed to presenting. Sharing how the stories of your ancestors and you collide.

So while I unquestionably speak to you now as a playwright and artistic director. I also speak to you as a mixed-race son of an Egyptian immigrant father and middle class American mother, someone who grew up across suburban North American long before mixed-race was recognized as an actual thing.

I speak to you as one of globalization’s beneficiaries, for without globalization and it’s good pal capitalism, my father never would have gotten a foreign exchange scholarship to Berkeley and boarded that jet plane that, over the course of two days in 1960, flew him around the world to a brand new life in an utterly foreign culture, something that would have been close unimaginable for human beings to do just twenty or thirty years previous.

I speak to you as someone who met half his family, the Egyptian half, for the first time six years ago, at the age of 43, when I first traveled to my father’s home. Speaking of ancestors.

I speak to you as someone who inherited a lot of his creativity, sense of humour and commitment to shit-disturbing from his iconoclastic, rebellious, deeply unhappy mother. Who my partner Amanda and I cared for through 15 years of her early onset Alzheimer’s’, while we raised our own young children and I tried to build a career as an artist.

These glimpses of my and my family’s stories hopefully give you a clearer idea of, not who I am, but where I’ve come from. They are stories which I bet, though unique for sure, are also probably not really that much different than the stories each of you brings with them into this room. Because I think it is undeniable that all of us, very much including those Equity Staff members we’ve been bargaining with, are all works in progress; the product of rich, complicated, absurd, tragic, joyful and conflicting histories, that do and don’t make sense to us. This is something I always try to remember, particularly when I’m writing, and particularly when I find myself in the midst of conflict.

Our histories are important, because inevitably they will collide with other people’s very different stories and histories. I think that’s worth thinking about in relationship to the big ol’ shit-storm that is the current attempt to renegotiate the CTA. It’s a work in progress much like, I’d argue, the theatre ecology in this country, which might be in the midst of as much change as it ever has been, since the original decision by government through the Canada Council to establish a theatre culture in this country more than half a century ago.

The theatre institutions that were set up fifty or so years ago were mandated to serve communities which tended, like most majority groups of human beings – and some labour agreements – to be largely unaware that the shows they were making (or, to put it differently, the performance rituals that they enacted), and the values and organizational structures that defined them were not, in fact, universal. They were specific. They were not inevitable, but constructed, the products of a particular time and place. They were not natural or the norm, but simply an expression of culture; an entirely legitimate culture, and a single one; like any culture, one among many.

And lest anyone think that I’m now going to starting taking a big dump – wow, I can’t believe I wrote that – on poor old William Shakespeare and big musicals and the hundreds of thousands of majority white Canadian theatre-goers who love our Shakespeare festivals and The Sound of Music at Christmas, let me assure you I am not. I went to high school in London, England. I became a theatre artist because of the years I spent at the Stratford Youth Festival doing workshops with 100’s of other young people, led by Kenneth Branagh, and Cicely Barry and Trevor Nunn. I’m writing a Christmas musical right now, for the Arts Club. In fact I’m actually writing two Christmas musicals. I’m no dummy. I love them both. Unreservedly. And 90-95% of the 30 to 40,000 people who will see those musicals will be white.

But it’s also kind of weird how I always get sweaty and a bit nervous when I use the word white in the presence of a group of white people, in a way that I don’t feel nervous when I say Asian or black or brown when speaking to a group of folks who identify that way. If anybody can explain why that is, I’m around until Friday morning. Because white is a thing, right? It exists. It’s not bad, not at all. In fact, as those who know me know, and as someone who grew up as the only brown kid for miles, I’m very into white people. Like so into them. I’m just saying let’s not be afraid to say the word.

It’s like if I tell you, “I was sent to elite private schools in the UK and didn’t have to go into debt for university.” Or, “My successful, wealthy dad helped us buy a house in Vancouver. In 2005.” Those are not my only identities. But they’re real. And they matter.

And things are changing. PACT has for a while now been led by theatre-makers who learned our trade outside of those older, originally mandated institutions with majority white audiences. As everyone is very aware its current President, Nina, is a Filipino Canadian. It’s vice president, Mike Payette is black. Ish. Just kidding, Mike! See, I can do that. Oh, the jokes we brown people get to make! With no fear of retribution! It’s a perk.

But it matters. Because I think the CTA negotiations taking place, and my hope that we will radically rethink the rules which govern how we make theatre in this country, is a work in progress that is attempting to reflect many of the profound changes that have been taking place not in our sector, but in our society, over the last generation. When I was kid in the 1970’s, mixed-race was not understood to be an actual thing. In the 1970’s the idea of reconciliation was 40 years from entering public consciousness. In the 1970’s the idea of a person in a wheelchair onstage was unimaginable.

So it’s about time. And it’s really hard work. And again, in recognition of that hard work, I ask for another round of applause for all of our extraordinary friends on the PACT negotiating team. Plus a round for all the folks doing them on behalf of Equity. Please. Let’s remember what Mallory said, that Andy so eloquently recounted last night. We’re all people. Inside of institutional structures, yes. But surely the people part is what actually matters.

One of the reasons I think this process may be so challenging might echo something I heard Ivan Habel said to you yesterday, which is ok, because Ivan isn’t a bad guy to echo. He designed the collaborative protocols that have guided ten years of our work at Progress Lab 1422, a four-company administrative and production studio that has been a centre for the Vancouver indie theatre community for a decade.

I believe the negotiation process might be so challenging in part because the rituals and protocols that define the process you all have been busting your butts on for the last THREE YEARS comes to us directly from the history of industrial relations. It is a model born out of the brutal exploitation of factory workers in the 19th century, and the subsequent organization of those workers into collective bargaining units, an act of underclass solidarity that was treated as a criminal act, met by 19th and early 20th century industrial capitalist, governments and state security forces with brutal violence and repression.

It is the noble history of hard won right to collective bargaining in this country, fought and paid for in blood by workers resisting the oppressive exploitation of close to every waking moment of their lives on this earth. They should have tried a 10 out of 12. Sorry, that’s bad. Work in progress.

But it is thinking about this history that helps me understand why, when I open the Canadian Theatre Agreement, I feel like I’m reading a list of every single shitty thing that’s happened in Canadian theatre for the last fourty years. It’s like a shitty thing happens somewhere and there’s twenty-six emails and seven committee meetings and a clause is added that is basically a translation of whatever real transgression took place into legalese in an attempt to guarantee that this single shitty thing that happened one time in one place is never repeated by thousands of other people, many of whom know each other very well and have absolutely no relationship to that single shitty thing whatsoever.

It’s a history that helps me understand why at the Magnetic North Festival about ten years ago I was asked to attend a meeting with Equity folks in which the agreed-on protocol was “impunity”. Ie, we could tell the truth about the ways in which we had done end-arounds on the agreement that we felt were unavoidable, given CTA and ITA protocols that were so labour intensive that it was patently unreasonable to ask any artist or organization that isn’t structured like a corporation to comply with them.

Kim Harvey says: it’s when one bad practice is universalized and turned into bad policy. It is when the specific and individual is assumed to be universal.

The meeting at Mag North was a good thing, a helpful step, a sign of flexible, responsive leadership, and I was grateful for the opportunity. But we had to create a one-time only special protocol in order to be honest. Not a good sign.

A not-good sign of a system born out of pain, struggle and fear. A model that assumes that exploitation is the fundamental value in our relationships to each other. It is also cultural. It is a model that emerges from a history and culture that is singular, not universal; constructed not inevitable; one among many, not the norm.

And so a new generation of artists and theatre-makers comes along, artists and theatre-makers from different cultures, generations and aesthetics. Artists who work with non-professionals. BIPOC artists. Artists whose is work part performance, part activism. Artists with disabilities. And artists whose work sometimes but not always centres the lives and experiences of those with a histories and experiences often but not always at the lower end of hierarchies of power and access. A range of histories and experiences that also more accurately reflects the multiple cultures that populate the country we live in.

Many in this new generation are people whose histories and experiences have limited connection to – but certainly don’t negate – those of regional theatre managing directors and props makers, or the workers of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919. But the model they are asked work within suggests, not deliberately, but implicitly, that the way they like to make work either threatens the livelihoods of their fellow, more traditional artists, or is somehow inherently exploitive of the very marginalized voices, stories and people their work is designed to amplify and empower.

This was the AdHoc Assembly’s response to a request that they “enumerate clause-based concerns” with the proposed agreement in-progress. “While we appreciate that clause-based specificity is more tangible, the labour of enumerating them has, thus far, not borne fruit. We do not believe the answer lies in adding more clauses to a document that is already 200+ pages. We believe that the necessary shift is better located in the agreement’s underlying philosophy.”

The necessary shift is better located in the agreement’s underlying philosophy.

Before I realized that work in progress was the actual theme for this conference, I came up with a very long title for this keynote: I think it’s Probably Good that Everyone’s So Pissed Off or Freaked Out but Are We Really Sure This is the House We Want the Keys To?

As someone who runs an organization, I also know how fucking irritating the burn down the house argument is. I actually don’t think, or I think I don’t think, that the house should be burnt down. All these histories are real, on all sides, and they’re the house we are inside, whether we like it or not, and the circumstances of my life have meant that I am often straddling multiple, contradictory histories, feeling like I’m neither one nor the other, that I’m both inside and outside – it’s the mixed-race experience that’s now an actual thing. It’s a very work in progress place to be, both precarious and full of possibility, like all good art-making.

A couple of years ago Kevin Loring and I were on a retreat for BC artists of colour at Harrison Hot Springs (I’m just going to keep saying Kevin’s name over and over again, and I’ll be fine). In what was I think our first lengthy conversation with each other, we smoked a joint by Harrison Lake and talked about family. He tried to explain to me what it meant to come from a single place, one spot that your ancestors have been for hundreds or thousands of years. And I tried to explain to him what it meant to have grown up moving every eighteen months, be the son of father whose culture is completely different than the one you were raised in, and having only met your family for the first time when you were 43 years old. 
Very different histories colliding. There was no conflict or labour negotiation in that talk. Just a joint and, later, a performance by Kevin, of something I think he called Indigenous Agency. It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen in my life. But I was also very high.

The necessary shift is better located in the underlying philosophy.

It’s the easiest thing to forget, when you’re overworked and underpaid, when you’ve devoted endless hours to an underappreciated, undercompensate labour of love, as everyone in this room does or has. It is so easy to forget that it is not about the remittance or whether the grant went in or what somebody said about what somebody else said. The only thing that gives us any real perspective or agency in the maelstrom of details and unpredictably and emails coming at us 24/7, whether we’re in a board room or a rehearsal hall, is the underlying philosophy.

I think it is currently our most important, maybe our only truly important, work in progress. And the good news is, this shift in underlying philosophy is already happening, in so many places. I only know about a few of them.

In the 1990’s in Vancouver a bunch of us were part of starting companies: Boca del Lupo, Conspiracy, Urban Ink, Electric Company, Neworld, Ruby Slippers, to some extent Pi and Rumble, who were a bit older. We did so because there was no room for us. Things were pretty quiet in Vancouver and the bigger organizations felt impenetrable, maybe like they do to all young artists. But they didn’t just feel impenetrable, they felt like secrets. Like the folks running them at the time wouldn’t tell us – or maybe just me – how things actually worked. They played their cards very close to their chests. They behaved like corporations, polite on the outside but also like they had control over resources they were afraid someone would take away from them if they were transparent about how they got them, and what their underlying philosophy was.

As our little companies grew, we started choosing to spend more and more time together. We were led by Kim Collier and inspired by Blake Brooker and One Yellow Rabbit (with apologies to those who’ve heard this a million times). We formed a loose network of a dozen or so artist-run companies called Progress Lab, who met regularly for drinks and conversations. What I experienced in this group of like-minded artists was that my feelings of loneliness and isolation lessened and my confidence in what might be possible for me and all of us grew.

We started making things together and organizing and driving it all was a conscious decision to change our underlying philosophy. In the fraught environment of a bunch of independent artists who’d barely kept it going into their early-mid 30’s, we made an explicit decision to treat each other not as competitors, but as collaborators. When one of us got a gig in Timbuktu, or something great happened to Jonathon Young (again!), we chose to take a deep breath, and forgive ourselves for feeling jealous (because jealousy is a normal human emotion) and trust that if something good happening to them would in some way or another be good the rest of us.

Because we were an invisible, little not-yet scene on the far flung edge of continent thousands of miles from Toronto, in a small city whose identity wasn’t and will never be defined by its theatre. What was the option? To try to eat each other alive?

In my view this shift in underlying philosophy led to one of our little’s scenes most significant contributions to the sector as a whole: concrete evidence of the benefits of transparency and collaboration. It also led to growth and success. Not evenly shared of course, but as a whole.

Which also makes me think of those larger institutions that felt so impenetrable to us twenty-five or thirty years ago, institutions that are only now seeing a generational change in leadership. How many new Artistic Directors of larger theatre institutions over the last few years? On behalf of Gen-X, thanks a lot Baby Boomers. Oh, well. Guess it’s the Millenials’ turn! No, please, go right ahead!

The potential impact of this generational change in our larger institutions first became clear to me last year, when I received an invitation from the very same playwright and producer Kim Harvey, to come down to the BMO Theatre Centre at 8:30 on a weekday morning. I and others were to be “community witnesses” to a treaty Kim was going to sign, supported by her indigenous treaty signatory witness Lori Marchand, with Ashlie Corcoran and Peter Cathie-White from the Arts Club and Daryl Cloran and maybe someone else from the Citadel.

The Citadel and Arts Club had commissioned a new work from Kim and, to formalize this commission, Kim had negotiated the signing of a treaty, instead of a PGC contract. I know at least some of you know Kim and her ferocious writing, and her equally ferocious commitment to remaking and indigenizing the protocols and processes by which we make our work.

It was a hell of a morning. Musqueam actor/writer Quelemia Sparrow began with a welcome to the fourty or so of us from the theatre community who had gathered to be witnesses. She then began to speak in absolutely direct, unqualified terms – without I might add, being blamey or mean at all – about the long history of exclusion that she and other indigenous artists had experienced at both the Citadel and Arts Club.

I could not believe these things were being said publicly, in the Arts Club itself, in the presence of the Arts Club leadership. I was emotional and moved. I also felt jealous. Kim’s thirty years old. She had the guts to take something I’ve talked about doing for decades – shifting the underlying philosophy, speaking publicly and directly about some of the challenges we’ve experienced dealing with our larger, historically mandated institutions – and actually did it.

It’s amazing how powerful that jealousy thing can be. I’ve gotten a lot of validation last two years. As much or more than any one person in this business should reasonably except, given how constrained things are. And yet, there I was, feeling it about someone I love.

So I took a breath. And told myself, what’s good for one of us, is going to be good for all of us. And it was incredible to me, how it turned a bureaucratic business ritual – signing a contract – into a what we do. A piece of theatre. A ritual, a kind of community performance. Equally important is the role Ashlie, Peter and Daryl played in that ritual. They were consciously and generously choosing to be present and presence the experiences of those who are critical of that institution and its history.

It’s happening a lot of places now, as generational transition takes place, as the leadership of our larger organizations is being assumed by folks who learned their trade outside of cultures of large institutions, in a milieu that was perhaps slightly more aware that the way one set of people does things is never universal, but specific; not inevitable, but constructed; not the norm, but simply one way.

For me, Ashlie and Peter and Daryl were and modeling a way to be in charge of a historically determined structure without feeling forced to take personal responsibility for every single shitty that has happened there, or every resentment, whether justified or not, that people in their communities might have. By not taking it personally and feeling like they needed to protect or defend, they were making it more likely for those who have come from different histories and experiences to feel like it might be possible for them to have some agency within those institutions as well.

I think it’s exactly what’s happening right now, with the CTA. But I don’t believe it’s only Equity staff who bear responsibility for getting the CTA some of us, and I, am very much hoping for. I think we bear an equal number of very important responsibilities. Because if we want to move to a more collaborative, more responsive, more generous system, one that allows us all to be more human in our work, then I believe it is also our responsibility to do exactly that: to be more human.

To not hide behind rules and regulations and minimum fees; to provide supportive work environments that might make it easier for employees and contractees to have children and be good parents; to listen to artists when they say what they think they need in terms of process; to always presence and prioritize the human needs of the artists and technicians and administrators we hire.

If we want to convince a not-quite-union run by folks steeped in the culture of adversarial labour relations that another way of doing things is possible, then we who control the dollars and the work hours and the work-life balance of those we hire must attempt to make generosity, flexibility and transparency the engine of everything we do.

What some of us on the smaller end of the sector have learned over the years is that however small the resource we control is, it’s always more than the most of the individual artists contractees we work with. And so, whatever our revenue pressures, it is critical that we shift the underlying philosophy and not behave like profit-driven corporations, with secrets, like Smaug guarding his pile of treasure underneath Lonely Mountain (yeah, that’s maybe a bit much. I wrote that quite late).

The benefit? The sum total of all the work we make is much more likely to reflect the actual society that we live in, which, if you’re in a big city, is barely majority white and definitely includes folks with disabilities and indigenous people, too. Nobody’s saying we should stop doing musicals and Shakespeare and working with TRG. We are saying we all need to figure out a way to enable and prioritize the other work as well. If we have the courage do so in a way that is both ethically and fiscally responsible, my experience tells me that the whole thing will get better, and we as a sector will, in fact, gain influence and grow.

Another, more granular action I think we might be able take is something I just heard about yesterday. Kevin told me that one of the few areas of current agreement with Equity is around community engagement protocols. Kevin and Chelsea wrote those protocols. Their protocols became, as I understand it, the basis for the agreement about how we can work with non-professionals, one of the most interesting and exciting aesthetic developments in our form over the last generation. A guide – I’d imagine – based on how they work with people in Kevin’s ancestral community.

It’s how good policy is written: people who know about something write plainly and clearly about how they do it. And there’s no way that the good folks at Equity could ever be expected to know how to do what Kevin and Chelsea did. And the thing is, if we don’t end up getting an agreement, we’re going to have to it anyway.

Either way, I feel absolutely confident that we’re going to shift the underlying philosophy. Because, it’s already happened. Right now I think a lot what we’re actually doing is figuring out how to help our administrative systems catch up.

Not a super rousing finish, but it’s what I got. Always end with administrative systems! Work in progress. Thanks so much everybody.