Featured Member — Rita Shelton Deverell
**Each month we interview two member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspirations with the community. Earlier this year Rita Shelton Deverell received the 2018 ACTRA Woman of the Year Award for excelling in both her artistic and advocacy achievements. We wanted to explore her experience working with and being a part of groups of underrepresented voices in the arts and also take a look at her storied career.
Rita Shelton Deverell’s career in journalism has been one of pioneering innovation and creativity. With an unceasing drive for social justice, she is one of the first Black women in Canada to be a television host and a network executive.
A founder of Vision TV, the world’s first multi-faith network, she held several senior positions there as well as the network anchor job. Deverell was head of News and Current Affairs at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network while mentoring her Aboriginal successor. She was inducted into the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame, appointed to the Order of Canada, and became the first CanWest Global Fellow at the University of Western Ontario. She has written and performed two one-woman plays, Smoked Glass Ceiling (2005) and McCarthy and the Old Woman (2006).
Q. What motivated your 2005 return to theatre from broadcasting?
Acting is the only career target I’ve ever consciously held in my sights, from about age eight. All the rest is happenstance, evolution, opportunity. The decision to go for acting was made when I saw a production of Antigone at my local community Centre in Houston, circa 1953. The cast was all black, as was the audience, plus the staff of the community centre, and the lifetime outstanding Director Vernell Lillie. It seemed to me then, and continues to now in my 72nd year, that to be involved in the deep truths the Antigone production revealed was work worth doing.
My soul never left profound theatre, but theatre did sometimes abandon me. I followed up on the acting goal for about 20 years, until it became clear that my black Antigone vision was almost an impossibility in 1970s Canada. Then, by accident, I learned I could actually make things happen as a broadcaster. Since, I’ve made it a practice to walk through the doors that are open, if only a centimetre, instead of banging my head against locked doors!
2005 is when I retired from my last fulltime broadcasting job: Director of News and Current Affairs at APTN in Winnipeg, with the task of kick-starting a daily news show and mentoring my Aboriginal successor. I figured then, at age 60, if I was ever going to get back in theatre I’d better hurry. I asked myself, “Who is going to hire an old black lady who hasn’t been acting for 30 years?” My answer: “Nobody!” So, I’d better write my own material. Therefore, I’m not a born-again playwright. Writing was a strategy to re-unite me with theatre. (Note: I’ve repeatedly asked that stellar playwright Rex Deverell to write scripts just for me. No luck. On the other hand, we’ve been married for 50 years. Win some. Lose some.)
Q. What inspired you to develop a brand-new channel, and the first multi-faith one at that, Vision TV? What was your biggest challenge? What was your biggest triumph?
From the diversity perspective, I knew that if I wanted a place where people who looked like me (black, brown, red, yellow, women, different faiths, cultures, sexual orientations) could work, I’d have to build it. From the perspective of multi-faith concerns, what could be more needed in 1988 when we were licensed, and the current world of 2018 wars than a public space where all faiths could talk with each other peacefully?
Then there is my educational background: Still aiming for acting, I decided the theatre was a spiritual experience, so I would study philosophy (after leaving the Drama Department and my acting scholarship), then the History of Religions. Armed with an MA in Religions from Columbia/Union Theological Seminary, 1968 in New York City, a multi-faith TV network seemed like career destiny in 1988 Canada.
Biggest challenge? At the founding, the boundless energy needed to run a national network with 12 people and no money. As time went on, the challenge was increasing regulatory disdain (CRTC) for the mandate and for not-for-profit broadcasting.
Biggest triumph? Vision TV lasting as long as it did in its original mandate-driven, not-for-profit, state. When in 2000 we knew we were on our way out, that we would be sold as a publicly traded company, our team won the Gemini (not the big networks) for Best Lifestyle Information Series, with still about 12 people and little money.
Q. Had you always intended to work in theatre and broadcasting? Was there a defining moment when you knew either (or both!) industries were the right fit?
I’ve mentioned the defining theatre moment, Antigone 1953. The broadcasting moment was in 1973 when I knew that acting was impossible, especially impossible for a black actor, by accident was introduced to some other possibilities, and learned that I had other talents. That discovery, of other means to make my contributions to the health of the planet, I wrote about in my first one-woman vehicle Smoked Glass Ceiling.
“Did my acting career take off like a super nova after winning that [acting] scholarship? Streaking across the thrust stages, the arenas, and the prosceniums of Canada?
No it did not.
In the early 70’s only 2 theatres caught me in their non-traditional casting embrace. I was cast in about a dozen plays.
Perhaps you saw me take my clothes off in Dionysus in 69 at the Studio Lab Theatre in Toronto? Or, I’m told my Lady Bracknell was damn good at Regina’s Globe Theatre in 1976.
There is no work, so I can’t be a worker or a drone. And being a Black actor is likely an added complication.
Being a starving actor is not the problem. I can do temp work to put food on the table with the best of them.
The problem is I was raised to be a Queen Bee: Productivity, creativity, and hard work are the expectations. I know I can face Mom tops twice after all that Royal Jelly and say
“I’m doing temp work while waiting for Stratford to hire me.”
Mom would say “you can’t free the slaves by doing temp work.” So I send out a ton of applications for work other than acting.
A few guys, who later turn out to be mentors, say Yes to a 4 month contract in television research. This is exciting! This is very unexpected Royal Jelly. I can put out some ideas, gather some people and money, add a lot of hard work — and Presto! — things happen.
Even actually helping to Found and Build a TV Network, Vision TV, the world’s first and only multicultural and multifaith national channel.
Q. How has your writing for television — affected your writing for theatre? Vice Versa?
Keeping in mind that I did not write for theatre until 2005, a number of useful skills came along from news and current affairs TV. My business on a daily basis had been writing, re-writing, reading scripts out loud, editing, being edited, and working in a team with scant time for attitude.
In the short 12 years that I’ve been writing essentially journalistic-drama for theatre, screen, and publication, I think my skills at realistic fictionalizing have increased.
Q. You have worked with numerous people of underrepresented voices in theatre (and the arts in general). Do you believe that conditions are improving for these voices? How do you think we, as an industry, can further aid these perspectives?
Improving yes, but are we are not living in a post-racial, post-sexist, post-whatever society at this time. Definitely not. Oddly enough as we improve representation, who we see on screen or stage, we’ve created very few real improvements in structures. In fact, structures may have gotten worse. Who owns? Who is in the key creative power positions? Who is on Boards of Directors?
Q. Having been named ACTRA Woman of the Year a few months ago, what is your vision for the future of the industry (both onstage and screen) in Canada? What would you change? What would you keep the same?
Most of the time, Canada is able to pride itself on thinking the arts are for everyone (like public schools and free libraries and medical care). But we backslide, and we’re doing that now. I would like to see us affirm that the arts, education, health care are for all. And we need to realize that real diversity only happens when we change who is in positions of power. We get The Breadwinner and The Color Purple when Angelina Jolie and Oprah are the rainmakers.
We have an Aboriginal Peoples TV Network, with all of the insight that that brings to us, when the regulatory system insures that APTN remains owned, controlled, and managed by Indigenous peoples.
Q. Do you have any productions or projects in the works you’d like to talk about?
A gazillion thanks, but I will limit myself to three. When you get older you have work fast.
— Homage to Joy Coghill, appearing in issue 174 of CTR. Joy’s being in the position of power, Artistic Director, in 1967 made possible the first productions of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. In spite of the many things wrong with the play that we can see now, its topic then was missing and murdered Aboriginal women, in a revolutionary style, and it was the only Canadian offering at our new National Arts Centre. Joy Coghill was Angelina and Oprah.
— Who you Callin Black eh?, a theatre script for five actors and many masks, developed at Toronto Cold Reads and the Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival 2017. This coming of age script about race, I wish many spectacular productions!
— My continuing fascination with Florence James, her story available in Fists Upon a Star: a Memoir of Love, Theatre, and Escape from McCarthyism, U. of Regina Press, 2015: I’m working on other projects that feature Florence’s understanding that to succeed you need two things, “talent and opportunity.” My activism in our industry is about opportunity, which has been rationed inequitably since time immemorial.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.