In the company of women Females have stage and leadership roles for the first time at Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
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For the first time in its 65-year history, women are playing a lead role in every executive position at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.
Camilla Holland became the company’s first female-identifying executive director in 2011, Kelly Thornton followed as the first woman to hold an artistic director position in 2018 and, although she isn’t the first in the role, Laurie Speers completed the all-female triumvirate when she was appointed board chair last year.
It’s a moment of historic happenstance that has been cause for celebration and reflection.
“To see two women leaders at the helm and a female chair is quite unusual,” says Speers, who has spent much of her career working to improve gender representation on corporate and not-for-profit boards. “It was definitely worth celebrating… we minuted it at our first board meeting where we had all three of us.”
For Holland, it’s a notable milestone made possible by the many women who have contributed to the theatre in various roles over the last six decades.
“We stand on the shoulders of some really great people,” Holland says, adding that she’s hopeful an all-female leadership team won’t be such an unusual thing in the future.
“It sets a really great bar for the organization.”
As in many industries, a glass ceiling exists in the Canadian theatre world. It’s a barrier with which Thornton is well-acquainted.
“We stand on the shoulders of some really great people.”–Camilla Holland
In her previous role as artistic director of Nightwood Theatre, a small feminist company in Toronto, she co-chaired a national study on the status of women in Canadian theatre. The report — which was published in 2006 and built upon a similar study in the 1980s — found that while women outnumber men in the industry overall, men hold the majority of key creative and decision-making positions. People of colour are also underrepresented in the upper echelon.
Change has been slow, but Thornton believes the industry is moving in the right direction.
“I think boards that are hiring leadership now are very cognizant of making progress in terms of who they want to lead the organizations,” she says. “And that includes more cultural representation, so it’s a big step forward.”
Though Speers, Holland and Thornton have arrived at RMTC through different avenues, their careers have come with similar challenges — namely juggling caregiving and family responsibilities with jobs that often require late nights and weekend work.
“Camilla and I talk candidly about it, that our jobs are in service to the greater community and that takes a toll on our personal lives and on our families. That’s a challenge for women across the industry, not just in these executive jobs, but in production departments as well,” Thornton says.
The same goes for board commitments.
“We want (members) to be ambassadors of the theatre and that takes time, it’s not only board meetings,” Speers says. “And women, depending on where they are in their life cycle, can’t always take on that additional responsibility.”
While mentorship can’t ease the burden of work-life balance, it can give women the confidence to see themselves in positions of power, Holland says.
“Behind every woman leader, there are seven other women who pushed them into taking the leadership role. Mentorship has been a huge part of my life, both in receiving mentorship and giving it,” she says.
That kind of push is exactly what prompted Thornton to apply for the artistic director role at RMTC.
“Be brave and know what you bring to the table.”–Laurie Speers
‘I never thought I’d run a great big regional theatre… but several of my colleagues said, ‘You’ve got to go for it, we need women in leadership,’” she says. “Mentorship is the key to propelling people.”
When asked what advice she had for women seeking executive roles in arts and culture organizations, Holland suggests being strategic and saying yes to opportunities that will be as rewarding as they are challenging.
“Following your values and your passion and your purpose will be energizing,” she says.
“Be brave and know what you bring to the table,” Speers adds.
Thornton advocates authenticity.
“Being in the gross minority, in a boardroom situation certainly, is hard. Don’t try to fit into the culture that you’re arriving into. Your presence in it changes the culture inherently, so be authentic,” she says.
March 8 is International Women’s Day. Also this month, RMTC is hosting two plays written and directed by women. Trouble in Mind, written by Alice Childress, is on the mainstage until March 11, and Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, written by Hannah Moscovitch, is at the Tom Hendry Warehouse until March 18.
“It was a completely subconscious choice,” Thornton says of the programming schedule. “But you know, part of the study I launched looked at how when female leaders are at the helm… there’s more representation in the theatre in terms of female voices. So that was completely subconscious, but I’m thrilled that it’s actually worked out that way.”
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Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Friday, March 3, 2023 9:38 AM CST: Corrects graph on International Women's Day