Christopher Deacon speaks at Walrus Talks event

A person stands at a podium
Christopher Deacon © Michel Aspirot, CBC/Radio-Canada
A group of people on a stage
Walrus Talks: Canada's Creative Power © Michel Aspirot, CBC/Radio-Canada

On June 5, 2024, NAC President and CEO Christopher Deacon had the honour of speaking at Canada’s Creative Power, a Walrus Talks event, alongside six other leaders of Canada’s federal arts and culture organizations. Taking place in the auditorium of the National Gallery of Canada, it was a wonderful event that reaffirmed the extraordinary talents and success of Canadian artists nationally and internationally; the importance of supporting diverse Canadian stories; and the critical role that arts and culture plays in our communities.

His fellow speakers included:
Michelle Chawla, Director and CEO, Canada Council for the Arts
Valerie Creighton, President and CEO, Canada Media Fund
Suzanne Guèvremont, Government Film Commissioner and Chairperson, National Film Board of Canada
Julie Roy, Executive Director and CEO, Telefilm Canada
Catherine Tait, President and CEO, CBC/Radio-Canada
Leslie Weir, Librarian and Archivist of Canada, Library and Archives Canada

Hosted by Nana aba Duncan, Carty Chair in Journalism, Diversity and Inclusion; Associate Professor, Carleton University’s School of Journalism

You can watch the full event or the individual speeches on YouTube

Below are Christopher Deacon’s remarks.

“How the performing arts connect us”

The single biggest challenge facing Canada’s performing arts organizations today is to be relevant and welcoming to the diverse communities they seek to serve.  This evening, I want to tackle the question: How can performing arts organizations be relevant to the lives of Canadians? 

The performing arts experience is story, dance and music shared in community. Stories on the stage can move us to laugh or cry. Stories invite us to learn about ourselves, each other, and our world. They engage us with the plight of the main characters. We join them on their journey, experience their trials and triumphs, feel their sorrows and joys. It’s empathy. 

Equally important: we feel that empathy — not alone in front of our televisions, or in the pages of a book — but together. Sitting in a theatre, our elbows sometimes bumping into our neighbour’s — someone we know, or someone we don’t.

The performing arts are the most social of the arts. Artists feed off the audience and vice versa. While we may come from different backgrounds, consume different media, live in different neighbourhoods: at the end of the show, we exit the hall, knowing we’ve all come through something together.

If the performing arts play that important role — surfacing our empathy, changing us, and bringing us together — how can we, as performing arts institutions, invite more Canadians to take part? 

Well, by recognizing that for many potential new audiences, their first question isn’t “Will I enjoy this show?”

It’s: “Is this a place where I feel I belong?

And so: how can Canadian performing arts organizations create that sense of belonging?

First, Canadians need to see the voices and stories of their communities on the stage. Programming should come from an authentic relationship between the leadership and a variety of communities.  Those communities must also be represented across all areas of the organization — box office, front-line staff, marketing, production crew. The people who work there must live and breathe the life of those communities.

Yet the workforce of many of our major arts organizations don’t match that description. The requirement for professional experience is a barrier.  Major arts organizations with the resources to do so should be investing in professional development. Doing that will not only create stronger ties with communities and enrich Canada’s arts scene. It will provide those organizations with a diverse and skilled talent pool. 

The most powerful way to reach new audiences lies in the creation of new works of art that express and embody what Canada is today, in our time. These are the stories that Canadians are craving — that the world is craving. Stories that, by their bold presence on the stage, lets new audiences know that yes: they do belong. 

A perfect example of stories that Canadians are craving — that the world is craving, that express and embody what Canada is today — is Mahabharata, by Toronto’s Why Not Theatre. It brings to life the 4,000 year-old Sanskrit tale and features a cast comprised entirely of performers from the South Asian diaspora. The National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund invested in this extraordinary production, which debuted at the Shaw Festival in the March of 2023. In October, it enjoyed a triumphant run at the Barbican Centre in London, England, won rave reviews, and attracted a highly diverse audience. It’s an ancient story, and a Canadian story, and I hope you will come see it on our stage next spring.

At the National Arts Centre, we are on a journey, working to engage with new audiences and inspire that sense of belonging.

We have recruited a brilliant artistic leadership team that is highly diverse. Next year we will celebrate the fifth season of NAC Indigenous Theatre, which elevates Indigenous voices, stories and languages on the national stage. Its leadership, and much of its team, are Indigenous. And our Strategic Plan, The Journey Ahead, places a strong emphasis on creating a sense of belonging, and creating pathways for artists and arts professionals from all cultures to build their careers.  We have much more work to do, and we’re learning and listening as we go.

I leave you with this.

A show comes to life only once the curtain rises, and an audience falls under its spell. That experience is aesthetic, emotional, even spiritual, but it is fundamentally social. For the seats to be filled, performing arts organizations, and the artists and producers with whom they work, must build authentic relationships with the communities they serve, so that those communities can feel that they truly belong. Only then can the performing arts have their full beneficial effect, and reflect who we, as Canadians, are becoming.

Join our email list for the latest updates!