Featured Member — Valerie Sing Turner
**Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Valerie Sing Turner, the founding Artistic Producer of Visceral Visions, founder|Creative Director of CultureBrew.Art, and an acknowledged leader on issues of diversity and decolonization in the Canadian arts sector. A multidisciplinary artist who performs, writes, directs, dramaturges, and produces, Valerie has 20+ years’ experience performing onstage and onscreen, and as a voiceover artist in animation, new media, and CBC radio dramas and short-story narrations. She is the recipient of the Enbridge playRites Award for Emerging Canadian Playwright and the John Moffat + Larry Lillo Prize, and was artist-in-residence with National Arts Centre for the development of In the Shadow of the Mountains, which centres three generations of an interracial family: Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) Nation, Chinese-Canadian, and Japanese-Canadian. A former artist-in-residence with the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts and associate artist with Urban Ink Productions, her writings have appeared in Canadian Theatre Review, alt.theatre, various online publications, and operatic libretti.
A member of Canadian Actors’ Equity, UBCP/ACTRA, Playwrights Guild of Canada, and Banff’s Cultural Leadership 2018–19 cohort, Valerie was honoured with UBCP/ACTRA’s 2019 International Women’s Day Award in recognition of her “outstanding contributions to the Union, the industry, and causes of social justice”.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got your start writing plays.
Born and raised in Victoria, BC. Majored on flute and piccolo for my bachelor of music degree, with a side of musical theatre performance. Further flute studies in London, UK — where I once saw a long-haired , sweaty, and bored-looking but utterly magnetic Mikhail Baryshnikov wrap up his ballet work-out just before my jazz dance class. Eventually ended up in Toronto, where I continued to pursue a music career, but also renewed my love of acting with the city’s dynamic theatre scene. By 2000, with my marriage falling apart, I decided to check out the Vancouver scene, and somehow never left.
As for how I got my start writing plays, it’s a bit of a long story. My parents read us bedtime stories and taught us to read before we started school. (I now realize that this was just one of the many ways my parents sought to ensure we might fit in, as my siblings and I were almost always the only kids of colour in our respective classes throughout our school years.) So as an early lover of words and stories, I’ve expressed myself through writing for as long as I can remember. But other than adapting a Lucy Maud Montgomery story into a play format for a Grade 8 assignment, I didn’t feel like I had something to say in the theatrical form, despite all the exhortations at various Toronto events that if actors of colour wanted more work, we needed to write it ourselves.
In 2004, I was a participant in the life-changing five-week program of Canada’s National Voice Intensive, six months after a completely demoralizing experience in an acting workshop that left me feeling like I had zero talent, and was wasting my life pursuing a dead-end dream. I had promised myself that if I wasn’t accepted into the Voice Intensive program, I would give up acting and do, well, what exactly, I had absolutely no idea! But thanks to David Smukler and the rest of the Voice Intensive faculty, I literally found my voice. At the final day’s wrap party, participants were cutting loose on the dance floor when dancer/choreographer Gerry Trentham — a VI faculty member with whom I had had little connection until this moment — began to match my movements from across the Freddie Wood stage, and we found ourselves easing into a totally improvised and impromptu Fred-Astaire-and-Ginger-Rogers dance routine complete with spins and lifts, inspired by a swinging soundtrack sung by Frank Sinatra. It was an incredible experience that has since solidified into a wonderful friendship.
Some months later, I received an email that Gerry was going to be back in Vancouver to offer a solo creation workshop. I immediately signed up: while I had choreographed a number of projects by then, I was excited to get another opportunity to dance with Gerry — so you might well imagine the amount of pouting Gerry had to endure when I showed up to find it was actually a monologue creation workshop! But with Gerry’s patience and encouragement, I ended up writing a paragraph from the perspective of a middle-aged woman who had unexpectedly found herself falling in love with a married man. At dinner before I dropped him at the airport to return to Buffalo, Gerry told me that he thought the character I had created had a unique voice, and that I should consider expanding the piece to include dance. I burst out, “How am I supposed to do that?!” Having nefariously planted the seed, Gerry just peered at me over the rim of his wine glass and nonchalantly shrugged his shoulders.
Well…that paragraph became a five-page submission that was selected for a workshop and public reading through the Solo Collective Writers Competition, and voted the CBC Radio Listener’s Choice out of the five showcased pieces. The piece premiered in 2012 as a two-act three-hander interdisciplinary work, Confessions of the Other Woman, co-produced by Urban Ink Productions, Visceral Visions, and the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company (which lamentably closed its doors in the middle of our run), and featured interactive projection, contemporary movement with text — and several dance numbers reminiscent of classic American musicals. Along the way, there were two residencies, three development workshops, and invaluable guidance and support from Diane Roberts, who, at the time, was Artistic Director of Urban Ink, and who co-directed the premiere with Gerry.
So…basically it was a misunderstanding that got me started writing plays! And the belief of more established artists when I had no such belief in myself.
What attracted you about theatre?
While classical music has a way of directly feeding my soul, I love how theatre allows us to explore, experience, and embody new ideas and perspectives. The pandemic has only re-affirmed for me that nothing digital could ever replace the communal experience of sharing breath and physical space with fellow human beings, allowing our thoughts, our actions, and our very selves to be provoked and shaped by the stories that connect us with one another across colour, gender, age, ability, and sexual orientation, honing our sense of compassion in spite of ourselves.
What does inclusion in theatre mean to you? What does it look like?
Wow. Okay…my first thought is, JFC, to fully answer these questions would take an essay that would take over my entire day, if not my week. My second thought is: Would these questions even be asked if I weren’t a playwright of colour?
Coincidentally, as I ponder this, it’s the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. Here in Vancouver, over the course of the pandemic, anti-Asian hate crimes have exploded exponentially by 700% — and those are just the ones that were reported to police. Following the incident of a Black retired judge being handcuffed by white police officers in pursuit of a “dark-skinned” suspect four decades younger, the Chief of Police still insisted there is no systemic racism in Vancouver’s police force. Palestinians continue to suffer under a regime of colonial apartheid that denies them basic human rights. And the needle on the dial of colonialism for Indigenous folx continues to barely move. I am just so damn tired of all the systemic ways people of colour are marginalized, dismissed, erased, excluded. People are dying, for christsake!
Look: Indigenous and racialized artists are not responsible for the rampant exclusion in theatre, and largely lack the power and resources to make the systemic changes necessary for radical inclusion. And yet, not only does the burden of finding solutions and making them happen fall on our shoulders again and again, it is expected that we should do this work on top of the myriad financial, emotional, psychological, and physical impacts that are a direct result of systematic exclusion. This is how the patriarchy maintains itself when it demands that women fix the inequality not of our own making. This is how white supremacy maintains its dominance over people of colour.
We would progress more quickly on the equity front if these questions were demanded of every white artist in every interview, along with these questions: “What are you personally doing to make meaningful difference on the issue of inclusion in theatre? Provide at least one concrete example of what you’ve done in the past year to forward this change, and tell us how much time or how many dollars you spent on these efforts.” Most racialized artists I know spend more than half their careers doing this work, with little acknowledgement, thanks, or compensation. Imagine the monumental change that could happen if white artists took on their rightful share of responsibility, and spent a similar amount of time and resources working with us to dismantle white power structures. Just imagine! After all, as artists, the very act of imagination is our job. And as citizens of the world, it is our collective responsibility to embody those acts of imagination and make them reality.
What are you working on now?
I’m having a blast writing the libretto for a comic chamber operetta, co-commissioned by re:Naissance Opera and Visceral Visions, with the working title of Did I Just Say That? The composer is the wonderful Katerina Gimon, who was just nominated as Classical Composer of the Year for the Western Canadian Music Awards! Kat and I met five years ago, when re:Naissance paired three composers and three writers to create three opera pieces over three days with a different partner each day. I was absolutely terrified when I was invited to be one of the writers — so of course I said yes! Something about the collaboration with Kat just clicked, and we finally got funding to work on a project together. We managed a one-week creation residency on the Sunshine Coast last fall before BC locked down for the second COVID wave, and it’s looking like we’ll be able to offer an in-person work-in-progress presentation as part of our residency with Vancouver Opera this summer in August — fingers crossed! I’m also looking forward to starting work on the third draft of my 10-actor play, In the Shadow of the Mountains, which was recently selected for a staged reading at Ruby Slippers’ Advance Theatre Festival that has now been postponed to early 2022.
On the non-writing side of the work equation, as Artistic Producer of my company, Visceral Visions, I’ve been developing a digital platform called CultureBrew.Art, which features a national searchable database of Indigenous and racialized artists who work in the performing, literary, and media arts. The Artist Portal prototype launched in 2019, and we recently released the Opportunity feature prototype, which currently allows anyone to post an opportunity for BIPOC artists for a small donation (suggested amount $25). What’s super exciting is that we’re in the midst of the final testing phase for the Engager Portal prototype — which I hope will launch this month — and last week, we had our first meeting to begin development of a prototype for a CultureBrew.Art mobile app, having been selected as this year’s Industry Project Partner by the Centre for Digital Media after a highly competitive process. The mobile app is envisioned to be equipped with a geolocator, with the goal of increasing accessibility and connectivity for artists who live in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities — a kind of Tinder for BIPOC artists! Conceived as a systemic disruptor, CultureBrew.Art will be a resource for anyone wishing to practice radical inclusion, representation, and equity while making tremendously relevant and meaningful art through connection and collaboration with artists of colour. Check out the FAQs for more details!
What is your favourite Canadian play?
Omigosh, there are so many, it’s too hard to pick just one. So in no particular order, with the caveat that the stress of the pandemic has made swiss-cheese of my memory:
- The Yoko Ono Project by Jean Yoon, a piece ahead of its time for exploring the intersections of anti-Asian racism and misogyny through its whimsical multimedia expression of the fabulous conceptual art and music of Yoko Ono, an artist who remains controversial and under-rated to this day.
- Kim Harvey’s Kamloopa, which offered so much joy and laughter throughout the wacky journey of three young women trying to understand what it means to be Indigenous today in the wake of Canada’s brutal history and ongoing colonialism. I felt privileged to be privy to the characters’ vulnerability, desperation, and longing to belong, feelings that strongly resonate with my experiences of alienation in this country as a woman of East Asian heritage.
- Nine Dragons, by Jovanni Sy, is a super-smart noir mystery that sharply and cleverly skewers British colonialism in 1920s Hong Kong. For me, the split scene in Act II was a masterclass of our craft.
- I loved how Carmen Aguirre’s Anywhere But Here revelled in its gloriously bold vision and magic realism. And Lesley Ewen’s Camera Obscura (hungry ghosts) was simply brilliant.
What all these plays have in common is their ability to transport me to a world that is utterly specific in its cultural context, time, and place, combined with a deep intelligence, compassionate curiosity, heart, and humour. I particularly admire the artistic risks each of these writers took in pushing the boundaries of storytelling.
BTW, with no live theatre for more than a year, my primary solace and entertainment has been streaming Korean shows on Netflix. The way they mash up genres with original storytelling is wonderfully unpredictable, emotionally satisfying, and truly delightful!
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.