Welcome to the first post in the Conversations in Cahoots series. This year, I’ll touch base with former Artistic Directors and leaders of Cahoots Theatre, as we celebrate our 30th anniversary.
First up, a conversation with Jovanni Sy, who led this organization as Artistic Director from 2003 – 2009. In 2008, in response to creating a more ‘Authentically Canadian Theatre’ Jovanni articulated Cahoots’ prime directive as follows:
Canadian Theatre systemically discriminates against many worthy artists from diverse backgrounds and it is the duty of all artists to correct this historical imbalance. Theatre is bigger than any one of us and no one has the right to stifle its fundamentally inclusive nature. Making our Theatre more inclusive is not only morally correct, it is vital to the survival of the art form we love.
(You can read the rest of Jovanni’s blog post here.)
Originally, when I was beginning this blog series, I struggled with what order should the interviews be posted, from beginning to end, or vice versa. In the end, as it happens, we’re starting with the artistic director, whom I consider my mentor, and who has had the most impact on me, and thus, his tenure continues to resonate today at our company. Cahoots, under Jovanni, was the first theatre company to offer me a writing residency, and then an internship (through the Metcalf Foundation). I remained Jovanni’s associate until he departed in 2009.
For Jovanni, he began his association with Cahoots in 1992, performing at a cabaret series, Kulchabash. (Jovanni points out that it is spelled like the Indian flatbread. Spend any significant time around Jovanni, and a food reference will invariably come up!) He recalls, “[I] did one at the old Equity Showcase at Dufferin and King. I sang a song, I don’t quite remember what I did, but it was my first introduction to Cahoots, [during] Lynda [Hill] and Jean [Yoon]’s time there. Jean was also at Theatre Ontario at that time, so any performer of colour found Jean right away. And Jean was kinda great at welcoming people…so I’m really grateful to her. Jean made me feel part of a community.” Jovanni, then continued to become playwright-in-residence under artistic director, David Oiye (1997 – 1998) which led to becoming Associate Artistic Director under Guillermo Verdecchia (1998 – 2003), and eventually, appointed Artistic Director in 2003.
Myself, General Manager Kendra Fry and Jovanni in 2006
From 2003 – 2009, Jovanni curated a dazzling array of plays and new works, growing the development portion of Cahoots, and producing several productions a year. It was a period of growth, both onstage and off, marked by such successes BOMBAY BLACK, THE SHEEP AND THE WHALE and LIFT OFF! HONG KONG. At one point, there were 4 shows in the season, and 5-6 staff members squished into our tiny office on Spadina. Jovanni has said that he “loved the office at Spadina and Queen!” Why? “ Because there are so many places to eat!”
And indeed, I remember fondly, planting ourselves and our laptops at a local cha-chaang-teng (a Hong-Kong style diner), where we would remain all day, ordering more noodles and tackling operating grants. When we didn’t de-camp from the office to write the grants, we were often motivated in an unusual way by then-general manager Kendra Fry. She would create a chart with all the granting sections that needed attention, and alongside each section, was a cookie from nearby patisserie, Le Gourmand. Jovanni recalls,
“We called them ‘crack cookies’, double-chocolate cookies with icing sugar on the outside, and the inside was molten lava.” Whoever finished writing a particular section, could eat one of the crack cookies. The competition was fierce. The cookies were that good. The grant was written in no time. Many, many years later, I would receive an email from Jovanni with the subject, “Very Important Announcement.” In the body of the email, Jovanni announced that he finally perfected and cracked the recipe for those infamous cookies, and would share its secrets, including this important one, “The key is to use mini-chips. Or regular chips, but pulse them in the food processor, to break them down.” The details were always important to him!
Beyond cookies (which I can report, are still incredibly vital to our grant-writing process at Cahoots), when asked about a defining moment at the company, Jovanni had this to say, “I loved Ali & Ali [and the Axes of Evil], but I inherited it from Guillermo. I loved all the shows, but the one I am probably proudest of, is THE SHEEP AND THE WHALE, because it was such a massive accomplishment for a tiny company like ours to put up a 17 – hander onstage [in partnership with Modern Times Stage Company and Theatre Passe Muraille]. THE SHEEP AND THE WHALE, that was a coup to get that on.”
Indeed, it is a project that I continue to speak about, and reference. Directed masterfully by Soheil Parsa, and with Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace utterly transformed by designer Camellia Koo with shipping containers, this script from Ahmed Ghazali in its premiere English translation by Bobby Theodore told the story of transmigration and refugees caught between worlds. Ten years later, its themes still resonant and its tale seemingly ripped from headlines. And further, part of its significance was that, “It was a show where we gave thought on how to integrate community,” and when we began our celebrated outreach program, CROSSING GIBRALTAR, now celebrating its own 10th anniversary and a critical part of Cahoots’ success.
We finish with Jovanni’s thoughts of the current state of the industry, and in particular, how he feels things have changed in regards to culturally diversity onstage.
“It feels like deju vu. In Vancouver, I feel we’re having conversations now, that we had in the ‘90s. I haven’t been in Toronto for 5 years and while there is still work to be done, it feels…well, Stratford looks radically different than when I started 25 years ago. The NAC [National Arts Centre] looks radically different than 25 years ago. So, I’m heartened that some larger institution seem to be aware, and to have some responsibility [for representation]. Now [because of Canada Council] diversity is entrenched across the board. But now everybody is worried it will become a tick-box and you run the risk of tokenism and cultural-appropriation.
Diversity discussions never go away. Diversity, by its very definition is always about who is on the margins and the periphery. And there is always someone. There is always someone not present at the table that should be at the table. You don’t notice those people on the periphery until they organize, politicize and demand a voice and place at the table. We can’t foresee who will be on the margins, 10 years from now, who is going to demand their place at the table.”
It is Cahoots’ continuing mission to create as welcoming a table as possible and invite people to participate and partake. Join us for our 30th anniversary and beyond.
Jovanni is currently the Artistic Director of Gateway Theatre in Richmond, BC, where he has led Chinese-language programming called, The Pacific Series.