In April 2018, the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts (TAPA) announced that the Dora Mavor Moore Awards will remove all binary gender designations from their award categories. The shift will go into effect for the June 2019 awards.
A few artists in particular contributed to the acceleration of gender inclusivity at the awards including Sze-Yang Ade-Lam, kumari giles, Alec Butler and Gein Wong.
When registering for the awards previously, Ade-Lam was faced with the option of selecting strictly “male” or “female,” or withdrawing altogether. With neither ringing true to their gender identity, Ade-Lam began a dialogue with TAPA regarding access for trans, non-binary, two-spirit and BIPOC communities. As a result, Ade-Lam was granted a one-time unprecedented exception to register in both categories, which they accepted. However, the discussion surrounding gender binaries, awards and access continues.
While on the surface the shift appears swift and celebratory, the process was challenging. “It was initially hard and hurtful to have to deal with and to see in writing, ‘We respect you, but choose something that doesn’t fit or withdraw,’” Ade-Lam explains. “It’s something that most other artists aren’t having to contend with — justifying their existence. They just get to make art.”
Another hurdle occurred when Ade-Lam, giles and artists who worked for the change were not acknowledged during TAPA’s press conference announcing the shift for gender inclusivity. Ade-Lam reflects on how the incident brought up the long-standing history of erasure regarding QTBIPOC voices, from the corporatization of Pride to the whitewashing of the Stonewall riots. The occurrence has since been rectified, and Ade-Lam was invited to speak at the nominations announcement about the importance of the shift for trans, non-binary, two-spirit and extended BIPOC communities.
When asked for comment, giles mentioned being “thankful that the conversations led to a community consultation and the restructuring of that gathering,” continuing, “Changemaking has the greatest impact on those who have to push for our existence to be valued and recognized, often at the expense of ourselves.”
The 2019 edition marks the fortieth anniversary of the Dora Awards, which honour excellence in Toronto theatre through five major divisions: Dance, Opera, General Theatre, Independent Theatre and Theatre for Young Audiences. Open to theatre professionals who are members of TAPA, the awards are known as recognizing performance through the binary gender categories (male/female) and ensemble category distinctions, each with five nominees. The new shift will allow for eight nominees in each performance category.
While the awards are calculated through volunteer juror panels that strive to maintain a balance of age, experience, ethnicity and gender, jurors will also receive bias awareness training beginning in the 2019 season. The mandatory training will occur through a partnership with Egale Canada Human Rights Trust. “We are working to undo as much as we can the unconscious bias that exists, that we all have,” the executive director of TAPA, Jacoba Knaapen, states.
giles is sitting on the Dora dance jury for the 2018/19 year (all jurors are publicly known) and looks forward to the training that will be tailored to the jury experience.
“I think the range of experiences on Dora juries means that some folks have never had to think about their own biases/advantages under the guise of ‘good art’ while others are thinking about how sexism, racism, transphobia, classism and ableism affect how we view and value art all the time,” says giles. “It will be important for all of us to find some points of unity and be able to learn and grow.”
Knaapen also speaks to the responsibility of the artistic community, TAPA members and of theatre, dance and opera companies to contribute to making this change. Shawn Daudlin, general manager at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, TAPA board member and chair of the Dora selection committee, furthers Knaapen’s nod to the responsibility of Toronto artists. “The work starts at home within each of our institutions,” Daudlin says. “It is the responsibility of all of the membership of TAPA and the theatre community to be taking a look at their practice and what are their policies regarding inclusivity and who are they casting and who are they hiring as directors. It is up to the institutions to acknowledge that and to open the door.”
With awards taking place after the creative process, Scott Dermody, Dora Awards and outreach manager, hopes that this awareness will trickle into the beginning of a production. “TAPA is hoping to be able to provide resources for companies to learn more about the equity surrounding gender-neutral strategies and opening up the field so that casting choices can be more inclusive.”
While this change toward gender inclusivity is necessary for acknowledging the false binary and gender spectrum, Knaapen expresses concern for women being “put to the back of the line and losing their status that has been so hard fought for.”
The binary gender categories were first created due to the gender disparity between men and women. For giles, this speaks to the need for more work to be done within institutions, organizations and individually toward creating more roles, more work opportunities and safer spaces for trans, non-binary, two-spirit folks and women.
The Dora Awards are the largest dance, opera and theatre awards in Canada, and this ripple of change has already materialized at Theatre Bay Area in San Francisco, Philadelphia’s Barrymore Awards and the MTV Movie and TV Awards, which have all opted for gender-inclusive categories.
“Commitment to creating accessibility and equitable awards is ever-changing and constantly growing,” says Ade-Lam. “If we become complacent, that’s dangerous. We have to continue to strive for more and continue to challenge and re-evaluate, grow and do better.”
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