Cherissa Richards talks about acting and directing in an interview with Robin Breon

I recently interviewed Cherissa Richards who was heavily into her prep work prior to beginning rehearsals for Crow’s Theatre upcoming production of Red Velvet. She took time out to share some of her thoughts on acting, directing and making a living in Canadian theatre. Before turning to directing, Richards – a mid-career theatre professional who has appeared on main stages across Canada – had trained as an actor and for two decades did extensive work in theatre, television and film. A proud Winnipegger, she is a graduate of the U. of Winnipeg with a degree in theatre and film. She also studied at the National Theatre School and has an MFA (acting stream) from York University’s theatre department.

RB: Before turning to directing, you worked primarily as an actor for two decades. What turned your attention to directing?

CR: My focus changed from acting to directing in 2015 when I was asked to direct The Power of Harriet T, Michael Miller’s bio-play about Harriet Tubman, at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People. It was an opportunity and my first experience at using all of my training in theatre, and it really lit a fire that I wanted to pursue. After that show, I knew directing was in my future.

But I’m still a working actor. Last season I played Camae in Katori Hall’s fictional play, The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King, produced by the Manitoba Theatre Centre. But my main ambition now is to pursue more directorial assignments. 

RB: Where has this taken you?

CR: I was recently appointed 3rd year mentor in the acting program at the National Theatre School and I also completed an independent study in directing there in 2021. At Stratford and Shaw, I’ve had assistant director responsibilities and for Shaw was fortunate enough to participate in the Neil Munro Directing Project, where we mounted a double header with Lynn Nottage’s Poof and The Subjection of Kezia by Edith Ellis. This past summer, I directed Djanet Sears’ Harlem Duet, for Bard on the Beach, and next summer I’ll direct Julius Caesar there as well.

RB: Your current association with Crow’s Theatre comes as a result of winning the RBC Rising Star Emerging Director Prize which “encourages and celebrates outstanding early career directors” providing them the opportunity to develop work with Crow’s Theatre and receive ongoing mentorship. Is that how the Red Velvet project started?

CR: Yes, it was by way of this award that I developed a working relationship with Chris Abraham, Crow’s artistic director. He encouraged me to bring a project to him that interested me. About a year ago, we did a sit down reading of Lolita Chakrabarti’s play with a simply stellar cast that included some of Canada’s finest actors. I’m delighted to say that most of them were available when we cast this show.

RB: What was it in particular that drew you to the Red Velvet script? 

CR: Well, I had known about Ira Aldridge’s story as a theatre student and I just couldn’t let go of it. I was amazed at the bravery and accomplishments of this little known trailblazer of a Black actor. Why isn’t he in every history book? Also the larger theme of Black Shakespearean actors past and present is intriguing. 

You know, in Harlem Duet, there is a character named Othello. In one of the most affecting scenes in the play, we see the actor putting on makeup before he goes on stage while voicing lines from Othello the play. Just at the end of the scene, before he leaves the dressing room, we see that with one final flourish, the actor finishes off his makeup with the addition of white grease paint accenting a minstrel mouth. It’s not that he’s not a classical actor, it’s that he has to put on blackface and do minstrel shows in order to work – even though he’s a classical actor. It’s a very moving moment.

RB: In light of that, what’s your take on the debate around Eurocentric dead white men who continue to take so much oxygen out of the room when it comes to artistic and cultural production? 

CR: That’s really a great question. Personally, I believe, especially with regard to Shakespeare, that the material is rich and universal in its themes. Universal is such an overworked word but for the lack of a better one lets just say that it is how we present the classics that matters. How we adapt them to meet the urgent needs of the present. How can we adapt old stories and tell them in new ways? Let’s not throw away the baby with the bath water. Let’s take the opportunity to use the classics and explore the real world we are living in today. Red Velvet is a perfect example of this. A play about a Black actor who fought fiercely to make the classics – to make Shakespeare – speak to the times in which he lived.

Coda/ rb

As a longtime observer of the Toronto theatre scene, I’ve witnessed some remarkable changes with regard to racial and gender composition as it relates  to artistic leadership over the years.

Predominantly white theatre companies have been moved to hire non-white artists where for many years there had been none. In some cases, these changes have not come easily. Both Nina Lee Aquino and Weyni Mengesha took the helm of their respective theatre companies as artistic directors during particularly shambolic periods within the histories of their organizations. Both women replaced white men who had held long tenures in their roles as ADs and their successions did not come without some struggle and creative tension. 

Aquino recently concluded a fruitful ten year run as artistic director at Factory Theatre and Mengesha continues to thrive at Soulpepper. Majorie Chan also continues quite successfully as AD for Theatre Passe Muraille while Mike Payette’s hiring at Tarragon and Herbie Barnes appointment at Young People’s Theatre are also very encouraging signs that bode well.

Is this the way of the future? Or is there a danger that the current call for “equity, diversity and inclusion,” will soon become an empty rubric, a passing catch phrase that will allow predominantly white boards of directors, four or five years hence, when these AD contracts begin to expire, to backslide with the rationale, “well, we’ve been there and done that.” This is the continuing “problem of the color-line” to which W.E.B. Du Bois referred early on in the last century. 

No one has a crystal ball, but, for now, I prefer to remain optimistic. Many talented newcomers are gaining opportunities that were not available a generation ago. Let’s all just take a breath, relax and enjoy the moment while it lasts.

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