Stafford Arima
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Q: Can you talk about kind of your artistic journey, your story, how you very first became involved in the arts and maybe how your upbringing, or identity or childhood influenced that or vice versa?

I was born in Toronto, Canada. My parents are also Canadian and were born in Canada. My mother was born in a province called Saskatchewan, which is kind of like the Midwest of Canada. And my father was born in Vancouver, in British Columbia. I was raised in Toronto, and at the ripe age of 11, I was taken by mom to see a musical in Los Angeles during spring break. My mom loved the theater. She was not a performer. She was not an artist. Although, I did find out years later that she studied opera but never really pursued it. Anyway, she dragged me to the Shubert Theatre to see Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita. We sat in the last row of the balcony because those were the only seats that we could get. It was a matinee performance. I sat there and was mesmerized by what looked like, to me, little ants scurrying around the stage. And it was at that moment that I was drawn into this world. And basically, after this experience, there was nothing else that I wanted to do. So, I kind of pursued acting because I think that's what we all do at some point, right. We see performance, we see the performer. I didn't know about direction, I didn't know about all the other jobs. And from that experience, jump to 1997 or 1998, I moved to New York City, where I was the associate resident director of the musical Ragtime on Broadway. I went from going to school in Toronto and kind of pursuing all of the extracurricular activities that a young artist would do, to moving to New York in 1998 and spending 20 years there as a freelancer. Then, three years ago I was asked if I'd be interested in exploring an artistic director route at a theatre company in Canada. I said “no” because one, I guess I never really had ambitions or desires to be an artistic director. But I thought, “why not go and talk to them.” So, I went through the process of interviewing and all of that, and then I was hired. Currently, the theatre company is on an adventure that I could have never expected. Not only because of the circumstances that we're in today, but being an artistic director has really given me a very interesting and exciting perspective on the arts. The role of the artist is not only what we do on a stage or behind the scenes, but also what is the role of an artist as a citizen. What is our role in the community that we live in? And that community extends outside of the city, but to the province of Alberta, to the country of Canada, and then inevitably, how does the art of Theatre Calgary resonate throughout the world, and outside of our Canadian borders? So, that's a little bit of the journey from an 11 year old in Los Angeles to now, the artistic director at Theatre Calgary.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what the performing arts has taught you and how you have applied that to your everyday life and how you engage with the world?

I think what the performing arts has awakened in me ever since, you know, I was a young person, was how connective it can be. How it's a form of connectivity. It's a form of exchange. Not just an exchange of entertainment, or absorbing an audience into some escapism, but we have a role as an artist to entertain, to educate, and to enlighten. And through explorations of the art, we're able to make a difference - to make a resounding effect on people. And sometimes that effect is very subconscious. I've had the pleasure of directing a couple of shows that had an impact on the audience. In 2012, I directed Carrie in New York - and it dealt with an outsider, an individual on the fringe. The show actually meant something to a lot of young people. It changed them. It made them realize that, like the character Carrie, they have a personal power inside of them. It might not be like Carrie’s, which was telekinesis, but they have a personal power that they could embrace and celebrate. So, I understand that everything that we do as artists has the potential to make a difference. We have a responsibility as artists to do everything that we can to move, touch, and inspire.

Q: How do you think the performing arts can be a platform for social justice issues?

The arts must be a platform. It must engage. It must provoke. It must agitate. And it must, most importantly, infuse a sense of conversation into the ecosystem of life. That's our role, in addition to escapism, and entertainment, and all of those wonderful things. I think you can entertain someone and make them laugh, but make them think as well. I'm all for, and I mean this with respect, mindless entertainment. I think it's totally cool. You know, I will come out of my closet and tell you that I watch “The Real Housewives” franchise. That’s an example of mindless entertainment. Mindless entertainment has its purpose. But I think that we, as artists across the globe, can use art in a way that creates conversation. That, to me, is the best kind of theater. The biggest crime is if we bore an audience. We should make the audience feel something. Even if we’re making them angry or upset. I remember when I directed the musical Allegiance on Broadway, it was the first time that a musical about the Japanese internment was ever put on a Broadway stage. And I remember one, being so impressed by that and disappointed because I thought, “You know, that's an important story. It's part of the fabric of not only the United States but Canada as well.” My father was interned during World War II because he and my family lived in Vancouver, so all of the West Coast was thrown into internment camps in Canada. But what was so wonderful about that production was that it made people think. George Takei, who was in the musical and also interned, wanted to be able to bring awareness to this subject. He once told me that there are so many people who still don't even know that this actually happened. So, by bringing the story of the internment to Broadway, he could help bring awareness to a historical fact. In an interesting way, I'm political privately. I stand for certain causes and I have certain beliefs, but I have never really thought of myself as a director or an artist who seeks out political stories. I admire the artists who use their platform as a means to share an agenda. But when I look back at my work, you know, over the last 25 years, it becomes apparent that there is a variation on a theme. To me, the theme is the way we look at the outsider. And as a person of color, I guess on some level maybe I subconsciously feel I am an outsider. I think using any form of art to be able to create conversation is potent and necessary for the survival of any art form.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected you and the communities that you're in regarding the arts and as an artistic director?

The situation that every artistic director is going through is sobering, exhilarating, debilitating, scary and thought provoking. Those polarized answers really come from a place of knowing we have entered into an unknown situation. Obviously, you know, it's affected all theaters, performing arts venues, and artists in catastrophic ways. You just look at what's happening on Broadway, or actually what's not happening on Broadway, and there is no certainty when Broadway will come back. The hope is 2021. I pray that is true. What happens to all of the theaters, the regional theaters, the not-for-profits across North America? Theatre Calgary shut their doors and is trying to figure out when it can reopen. Obviously we all want to reopen as soon as we can, but we also have to take into consideration the ramifications of the fear, with regards to audiences, as well as safety - which is paramount. Will audiences want to come back to a gathering space? Will audiences be able to afford to come back to a gathering space after being laid off or many of the other things that have happened? So, I say that it's catastrophic. I say that it's debilitating. I say that it's thought-provoking because I think, as artists, the only way that we know how to survive is to stay fluid and stay in the moment. It goes right back to an actor who's on a stage and walks towards the fridge and is supposed to open the door to bring out the can of coke or something. And if it's not in there, what do you do? Well, you improvise. You figure out a way. And that's where I think a lot of us are right now. We're in this improvisational mode because, again, we don't have a script to follow. We don't have a playbook that states, “This is what you do during a pandemic.” So, we have that improvisational kind of energy that will help us find answers and possible solutions. As a young person, I hated improv. I hated it. But on some level, it keeps you in the moment and it keeps you alive. The theater or performing arts in general have been around the longest, I mean, even before anything else. Ritual was part of everything. So, we're going to survive this. We're going to come back. We're going to come back in a new way and we're going to evolve as an art form. I don't think that there's anything bad about that. What's bad about what we're in is obviously that people are dying. And people are losing jobs. So, that part is catastrophic and debilitating. It's not just about opening our theaters tomorrow, it's about staying healthy because that is what's most important. And the other stuff, how do we rebuild? How do we reopen our doors? What are we going to do in the meantime? The creative minds are exploding. I'm sure every single theater and performing arts institution has a hive of creativity that's happening because one has to think outside the box.

Q:  What would you like to see after this pandemic that is what you said is really evolving and changing, and may come out of this?

I think that my dream is a greater awareness of the importance of the arts. What we're realizing worldwide, and maybe not so much in Europe, but specifically in North America is how governments see the arts, their role in society, and the importance of it. So, I really hope that a different lens shines upon how the government supports the arts and how important the arts are to society. I also want the arts to be more accessible, and I want to  break down all kinds of barriers for people. And I say people because that's what we are. It doesn't matter where you're from, how old you are, who you like, who you don't like, what color your skin is, what gender you identify as, we’re people. We're going to have to rethink a lot of our preconceived ideas of how things work, who comes to the theater, and who can afford the theater. There's always going to be that 1%, and that 1% will always be around, but we need to think about the 99%. Our industry must look at BIPOC artists and ensure that there is room at all tables. That cannot be overlooked.  A lot of people are going to be scared to gather in spaces again. A lot of people are going to have to figure out how to live with a different income than they had a year ago. We're going to have to open our doors in different ways and make sure that we are communicating to the entire community at large. Not just the 1%, not just subscribers, and not just people who know theater, but to all, to remind people about the healing aspect of performative experience and what it can offer. So, I think, the government's understanding of the arts is crucial. And second,I think, is all companies allowing us to just open those doors even wider. And we can't go back to the way things were before. Many might be thinking, “Well, hopefully in January we'll just go back to the way it was. We'll just open Broadway and everyone will come.” It won't happen. I think about the lobby space in these theaters. There is no lobby. Thinking of the restrooms, they’re maybe six inches apart. So, there is so much we're going to have to do to find a way to be more accessible. To break down all barriers and allow every person to be able to come to a gathering space with a sense of safety, with a sense of inclusiveness, and a sense of unity.

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