Time has come for BIPOC voices in theatre: Burnaby actor

Ali Watson will be front and centre when the Arts Club opens a new, small-scale fall season with Nilaja Sun's No Child..., starting Sept. 24

Up until the end of July, Ali Watson’s pandemic experience had been pretty low-key.

She’d picked up the ukulele again, played a lot of video games, learned to play Piano Man on the harmonica. She picked up a job at a clothing warehouse to “sort of pass the time” – since, like every other actor out there, her world had gone quiet with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

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Then the phone rang.

It was Ashlie Corcoran, artistic director of the Arts Club Theatre Company, and she had some news that was about to change Watson’s low-key life into a very busy one.

Arts Club, which had cancelled its season along with theatres across the country, was getting ready to embark on a new venture – a lineup of three small-scale, one-person shows that will be staged, with new COVID-19 protocols, this fall.

Watson is one of two actors, along with Celia Aloma, who will alternate in the starring role in No Child …, a one-woman play by Nilaja Sun that’s onstage starting Sept. 24 at the Newmont Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre.

“My first thought was, ‘This is so exciting. This is amazing. This is so exciting,’” Watson says. “Five minutes later I was like, ‘I feel nauseous. I feel panicked. I have a lot of work to do.’”

The Burnaby actor admits it was strange to shift gears from pandemic mode to working mode.

“Even though it’s only been five months, I sort of got into the whole mindset of monotony and not doing a whole lot,” she says.

But the opportunity being put in front of her was just too good to pass up.

To be front and centre for this new experiment in live theatre was exciting in and of itself. But to be front and centre in this particular play, at this particular moment in history, was more than she could have hoped for.

As a Black actor working in Vancouver, Watson knows how underrepresented the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) community has been in the theatre industry.

“It’s very rare to be doing a show with directors of colour, artists of colour,” she says. “The whole play is written and performed by a woman of colour, which is very, very special to me.”

The play is based on the playwright’s own experiences as a theatre teacher in the Bronx. Watson will portray Miss Sun and 15 other characters – students and a variety of other school staff inspired by people from Sun’s real-life teaching career.

“The whole play centres around the struggles of working with kids who are from low-income areas, kids who don’t have a lot, and they’re told by the world they’re going to do nothing but end up in jail, they’ll drop out,” Watson says – until they meet Miss Sun. “She’s there to say no … you can be better than that.”

It’s different than the “happy shiny musical theatre pieces” Watson is used to starring in – and now, she says, is the perfect time for this story.

“With the world the way it is right now, it’s forced people to listen. Since everything’s on pause, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has been pretty much impossible to ignore this time around,” she says. “I think it’s a really great show to be happening right now with what’s going in the world. I hope people are taking this time to learn how to be anti-racist, to learn how to be inclusive with their casting, and with their lives in general.”

For the opportunity to come from a high-profile company like Arts Club makes it just that much more meaningful.

“It means the world to me,” Watson says. “They have such a big platform. They have a huge following, too, so I think there’s no better place to start to enact change. So far, I’ve felt very, very supported by them, and I’m hoping this all continues, and people will be more aware of what inclusivity looks like and how it’s important to make sure people feel welcomed in the arts.”

Four years ago, Watson was in the pages of the Burnaby NOW for playing Mimi in the URP production of Rent. She was just 21 then, and in the four years since, she’s seen things slowly starting to change in the theatre industry.

“There were times, years ago, when I wouldn’t usually get to audition for lots of female leads and things like that. It’s nice to have much less limits to who I can audition for,” she says.

But change has been slow – too slow, she says, given how often she’s been able to go out to the theatre and see show after show performed by an all-white cast.

“I don’t want to see that in 2020. I want to see stages that reflect what humans look like,” she says. “That doesn’t stop at performers of colour. It’s also important to have different body shapes and types, more LGBTQIA+ representation on stage – it’s all of that that’s important to see more of. I have seen a lot more of that recently, but I think we can do more of that as well.”

With all of that in the back of her mind, Watson admits she feels a big responsibility in taking on this role.

“It’s a huge weight on my shoulders, but I accept it and I want to have that weight,” she says.

She admits she struggles with “impostor syndrome” and fights that inner voice telling her she wasn’t really qualified, that she shouldn’t have been picked for the role.

“Sometimes you have to tell that voice to shut up,” she says. “I’ve been training for this for years, so I think I’m more than qualified to do it. I just have to quiet that voice.”

She’s well into learning the lines for the part – “it’s about 30 pages or so of just me talking,” she says with a laugh – and she’s looking forward to the new theatre experience.

The reality of the COVID-19 world means much smaller shows than usual, with audiences capped at 50, and far fewer people involved in staging the show. No Child … is being staged with two completely separate crews, who will rehearse in separate halls to keep their “bubbles” separate.  Both are directed by Omari Newton.

Having the two groups is helpful, Watson points out, in that if one person falls ill, the other can pick up the performance. Plus, Watson notes, anyone who has any symptom – even just minor cold symptoms – has to stay home to avoid infecting anyone else.

“In theatre, it’s not usually like that at all. … If you have sniffles, you do the show. I’m very used to doing things no matter what,” she says. “It’s very, very strange, because we’re all super willing to make sacrifices to make sure the show always goes on. It’s against our nature to have to think that way.”

But she knows that’s the new reality of the world, and she’s ready to face it head on.

She hopes audiences will turn out to see No Child … and that they’ll be ready to be challenged by the experience. She points out the script, though mostly a comedy, includes a liberal dose of profanity and tackles a whole lot of tough topics.

“I know that some people might cringe a little bit at some of the subject matter,” she says, “but I think it’s really important to sit through things like that and learn about people’s lives other than where you come from. Just know that not everybody has it as good as others.

“It’s good to sit through the provocativeness, and you’ll probably learn a bunch of things.”




GET YOUR TICKETS

No Child … runs Sept. 24 to Nov. 8. It’s on at the Newmont Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre, 162 West First Ave., Vancouver. Tickets start at $39, and there’s also a livestreamed, real-time option for $29 or recorded options for $19. See www.artsclub.com or call 604-687-1644.

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