4 Questions: Diane Roberts
This article is part of our series 50 Years of Disruption, in celebration of the Department of Theatre’s 50th Anniversary. In it, we’ll ask each participant four questions about themselves and their time at York.
1. Who are you?
My name is Diane Roberts (MFA Playmaking 1998, BA Theatre 1988) former co-Artistic Director of Nightwood Theatre (1992-94), former Artistic Director of Urban Ink Productions (2007-14) and current founder of The Arrivals Legacy Project and Co-Founder & Artistic Director with Omari Newton of Boldskool Productions, a hip hop theatre company.
I define myself as an interdisciplinary Theatre artist—or perhaps a transdisciplinary theatre artist. I wonder if that’s a contradiction: naming a discipline but calling it interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary? It feels like an accurate contradiction—one I’m comfortable embodying.
Over the years, through practice and teaching, I’ve developed my voice as a cultural leader—one who would cultivate and promote a vision for theatre that encourages indigenous ways of knowing. This ‘knowing’ privileges what we learn from our relationship to land(s)—ancestral and current homeland. The process draws on indigenous ways of knowing as a stepping stone to authentic creative expression. This vision is bolstered by the creation of innovative projects inspiring trans-disciplinary and trans-cultural collaboration.
I am the founder of the Arrivals Legacy Project and have been the lead workshop facilitator for the past 15 years. There are two expressions that best describe my artistic vision: cultural intersections and artistic collisions. The roots of storytelling and cross-disciplinary art forms (mixing of ritual song, dance, storytelling, live art and theatre) drive my arts practice and this is best demonstrated in my ability to seek out for development and production, projects that push traditional boundaries and explode cultural barriers. My intuitive style of facilitation draws on specifically crafted creative engagement tools that inspire participants from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds to unearth their authentic creative impulses. My working methodology draws out and establishes a common vocabulary amongst diverse ‘Afri-sporic’, Indigenous and intercultural artists, our ways of working and our sense of ourselves as artists in a global society. I have, over the years, developed a signature aesthetic in my directorial work— using a rooted creation process that builds on extensive ensemble work and seamless character development. My process strives to elicit naturalized character rhythms and gestures and connects them to character motivation, intentions and actions.
I have witnessed how an expanding knowledge of cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary theatre practice has shaped my life and work. Working primarily in the development of new works, I embrace the knowledge that each new work embodies the artists’ individual, cultural and environmental perspective. As an artist/woman of colour I am well aware of some of the external and internalized barriers that inhibit freedom of expression and have strived to create consciously decolonized environments that nurture authentic and embodied modes of expression.”
The Arrivals Legacy Project, developed as a character-building exercise during an artisticresidency at Concordia University, has grown into a unique tool for developing multi-media and theatrical works that expose questions of shifting identity during transmigration. I realize now that I have only tapped into a fraction of this works potential as a means of a) reinforcing national identity b) encouraging intergenerational exchange and c) exploring trans-national links in both domestic and international arenas.
My focused attention to the African aesthetic in theatre springs from my continuing exploration of intersecting cultural practices among artists from Canada, the U.S., West and Central Africa, The Caribbean and more recently Central America.
I am currently pursuing an Interdisciplinary PhD at Concordia University to consolidate over 30 years (gulp!) of practice and research.
2. What was your favourite moment during your time in the Theatre Department, and why?
My favourite moment was directing Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf (Simon & Schuster, 1975) as my undergrad thesis project for directing class. Because of the demographics at York (namely, no black acting students nor acting students of colour in the program, circa 1988) I cast 5 white women in the roles. The play is a choreopoem and that form hadn’t yet been established in western theatre. It was written in an ‘eye dialect’, written as the characters spoke to indicate authentic regional speech. I treated the play as I would have a Shakespearean text. We had to take the time to decipher Shange’s unique language structure, which was also written using unconventional punctuation and syntax to bring out the inherent rhythms. Through hyperbole Shange references in (sometimes) obtuse ways; black and latinx jazz and blues musicians, visual artists and creative and political movements in black America. I found myself as an African Caribbean Canadian woman challenged in interesting ways. I was meant to be a leading expert as director of the project AND as the only black woman in the room. However, I had to find the language, the rhythms and decipher the contextual references in the same way my actors had to. I had to work from embodied instinct to try to find the truth below the surface—to avoid having my white actors try to play black women. It was an exercise in patience and humility. The result was a stunning rendition of the play that brought audience members to tears.
3. What comment, quotation, statement, or action that a professor—or classmate—offered had the greatest impact on you?
I have to start with something that I hope you choose to publish because I feel it’s important. It was not inspirational and, though it left its lasting damage, I have to say it helped to shape my current practice passions and interests. In my undergrad program, I, the only black student in the class, was told by my white acting professor that I should go into stage management because there were very few roles for black actors in Canada. This fueled my determination to change the status quo. As a salve for this unpleasant experience, I remember meeting with Professor Jeff Henry (co-founder of Black Theatre Workshop in Montreal and Founder of Theatre Fountainhead in Toronto). During that difficult time, he was my proof that there was a future for black artists in Canada. He completely debunked what the professor told me and reminded me that I didn’t have to accept that as truth. He also told me that I didn’t have to laugh at racist jokes in the classroom just to be polite. It was so important for me to have someone like Jeff Henry (a black professor of his stature and experience) in the department. He was the reason I came to study in the theatre department at York and the reason I stayed.
On the positive side, in my graduate program I felt my authentic voice as an Afri-Caribbean artist under the generous and open tutelage of Professor Judith Rudakoff. From the moment on the train in Denmark (during the 1996 meeting of Eugenio Barba’s International School of Theatre Anthropology) when Dr. Rudakoff invited me to come to York to do my Masters training in playmaking to the defense of my thesis in 1998, I felt an unwavering support and the permission I needed to step into the unknown.
4. Is there a way you incorporate a particular aspect of your theatre training in your current work?
I most definitely incorporate many aspects of my theatre training into my work. I draw on many of the visions and techniques I uncovered in my studies at York as a director dramaturge and cultural animator. I continue to work with and collaborate with Professor David Smukler who helped me to ground my newly found voice. I recently reached out to my directing professors Ines Buchli and David Rotenberg when I was teaching my first directing course last year. They were both tremendously generous about sharing their curriculum materials and time with me. I feel blessed to say that I have lasting relationships with many of my professor/mentors and have enjoyed the opportunities to exchange with them as colleagues.