d’bi.young anitafrika’s Watah theatre school at risk of closure

"From the audience’s perspective, they say, 'This kind of theatre moves me to look at my own life, at my own experiences and at what I want to do differently as a human being,'" artistic director says after launching GoFundMe campaign.



The Watah School, a branch of The Watah Theatre company headed by Jamaican-Canadian theatre artist and dub poet d’bi.young anitafrika, is facing closure due to lack of funding.

The barrier-free, Africentric institute – established in 2008 as anitafrika dub theatre, then reborn as Watah and incorporated as a non-profit in 2014 – offers programs like the Professional Artists Development Initiative (PADI), a residency through which artists help run the company in exchange for mentorship and training. 

Now, following several unsuccessful applications for operational funding and two years of financing the school out of pocket (anitafrika says she’s even started playing the lottery), there’s a new GoFundMe campaign to save the school from folding. 

An established performer and published playwright, anitafrika cut her teeth in the groundbreaking Fresh Arts training program in the ‘90s and came through nearly every Toronto theatre company.

“Soulpepper, Nightwood, b current, CanStage: they’ve all nurtured me,” she says, adding that for her it makes sense to put her own artist earnings into the community “by trying to have this black institution that creates professional theatre.”

NOW: Tell me about your commitment to mentoring opportunities in Canada.

d’bi.young anitafrika: Mentoring is integral to my creative process. It’s what my elders taught me. I spend about 60 per cent of my time mentoring, mostly through Watah, which runs tuition-free professional development residencies. Our [PADI program] selection process is extremely accessible. We don’t deny anyone. The point is to further diversify theatre in Toronto, which is already diverse, but to add resources to that diversification, as well as skills development.

Have you received any funding for The Watah School? 

We’ve applied 13 to 15 times to different grants and we’ve received three. [Two project grants from Toronto Arts Council and another from Ontario Arts Council.] We’ve had two trimesters covered as well as the PADI program covered partially for a year.

[However,] even with Toronto’s artistic community being very aware of what’s going on at Watah, even working with larger organizations (like Sketch), who get incredible support, even with publishing, and producing – with upwards of 100 artists already walking through these doors, and being really successful and vocalizing that success – we’ve still been unsuccessful [in securing sustained operational funding].

Where will the money go that you raise through your GoFundMe campaign?

One, to secure our home two, to secure operating funding and three, so we can turn this place into a black box theatre.

We’re not at a loss for artists in residence, for product. If you look at the artistic output we’ve generated in two years, anybody would think we are a moneyed company. What we need is security around where we house these ideas. None of [this] would be possible if we did not have a home. We need to have our home not jeopardized. Because when you have a home, it changes people’s emotional, psychological and spiritual relationship to creating art … it’s only because we have a home that we feel empowered to create.

The last two shows were extremely successful. We had no funding, no money, but we got a Dora Award and three nominations we’re rolling with the big-timers. We want to turn this space [in the Distillery District] into a performance venue. The ceiling is waiting for lights, the grid is already there… we want to put in our floor. It’s not a stretch.

What impact have you made with the school and what are your future goals?

[We’re] creating this unique, equitable, loving, self-actualizing space for black, queer, LGBT and People of Colour artists… to produce work that is impacting the Canadian cultural landscape.

From the audience’s perspective, they say, “This kind of theatre moves me to look at my own life, at my own experiences and at what I want to do differently as a human being.” Often our artist body is people who’ve come to the shows and then want to study at Watah.

People who came to see Esu Crossing the Middle Passage and She Mami Wata were like: “this is a new injection into theatre in this city.” Our project is having such a phenomenal emotional and ideological impact, because it’s grounded in love… it creates a room where all kinds of people can come in and say, “I feel safe here.”

Bleeders, directed by d’bi young anitafrika and produced by Watah Theatre, plays at Summerworks, August 4-14. Support the Watah School here. This interview has been condensed and edited.

website@nowtoronto.com | @JRtoque

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