(Remarks delivered by Laura Caswell on Chris O’Neill’s behalf when Chris won the Mallory Gilbert Leadership Award in 2023.)

Thank you so much for your nomination and this award. It means a lot, way out here in Mi’kmaqi, where we live under the treaties of Peace and Friendship.

I will end there…

If I were in person with you all, then I would do a little turn as if to leave and then do an intake of breath which I have just learned in my 52nd year means a thought has come across my brain and I can’t wait to express it, no matter what else is happening,  and I would turn back and say oh, just one more thing!  

For those who know me, you will have known you wouldn’t get away that easy. 

First, I am seriously honoured. I got to meet Mallory Gilbert a few times through PACT and she was formidable and so so so smart, with a laser look it seemed to me, that cut through pretension and bullshit but in all my interactions, she was also kind and welcoming. I am also thrilled to be in the company of people who have and continue to make a difference in Canadian Theatre, and therefore to all of us. 

Second, I miss you. I learned so much through PACT when we were starting Two Planks and a Passion Theatre, and the people who make up this organisation both as staff and as colleagues are extraordinary in what you all do. I will also really miss Boomer and have loved the warmth and caring he has brought to PACT, embracing us all through these hard few years. I wish we were able to be there, and we would love to come back – in early May

FInally I want to reflect for just a moment on what I think is vital about us and moving forward. I know you all know this, but I don’t get a chance to speak to a whole room of colleagues very often, so I want to take this moment now and reflect on a few things I am thinking about and what I imagine are some shared experiences.  

The COVID pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, the terrible discoveries at the Residential Schools  and the climate crisis have made some things so much clearer for me. 

Things that we knew and were slowly chipping away at in our work but hadn’t sometimes pushed to the forefront, needing to examine the fundamental disconnect between how we were trying to make work and programming, and for example,  how our board would function, and how we needed to restructure our rehearsals, restructure our staffing, our organizational chart so that it reflected the culture we were trying to create instead of replicating corporate ideas of hierarchy. We have been able to finally, through outside influences, delve into deeper existential conversations  about how we operate and are in the world as an organisation. 

Along with all of you, I have been thinking a lot about privilege and responsibility and governance and change. Mostly, I bang on about community. How we create new communities every time a new staff member, or a new production comes into a hall together, or our workshops come together, but beyond that, this moment has made it so clear how important it is that we all outline how we are part of the wider community. 

At our organization during COVID we made new collaborations with the Public library system to reach out to people who were already living in isolation and created an interdisciplinary art show with them. Within two weeks of the lockdown we had created our first ever digital programming and executed over thirty programs that were not just observed content but interactive and live with participants from 4 years old to 80 making art together and finding comfort and solace in each other. We ran isolation residencies for artists trying to get home who had a 14 day quarantine and nowhere to do it. They stayed in our cabins and had a studio and meals provided so they could be supported and walk the grounds and make work if they wanted, safely. 

And we started feeding our local community. From the local transition house to families where the sole access to food they had at school was cut off in lockdowns to others, we gleaned from local farms and worked with food banks to make healthy meals that reduced food waste and increased food access in extremely difficult times. We used our kitchens over the past three years to make and distribute over 8500 meals and we will be continuing that program in our new facility which was wholly donated to our specifications to house a community radio, community kitchens and gardens, recording studio and performance space. 

I know and am honoured to be speaking to you because I know that so many organizations here stepped up in similar ways to support your communities. The reason that I mention all of this is because it brought into razor sharp focus things that I had only mumbled about before,  and which I had to explain to our board members. Yes our mission is to give voice through arts and culture, but we have to do that as citizens and neighbours. In a context of equity at all levels, of climate action as we can (in our case we have focussed on food security and reduction of food waste as our primary focus), and governance change so that our board is connected to and preaches the essentiality of a kind of governance where meaning is forefronted instead of only financials – where the way we work is as important as the work itself. 

We need to be the heart of our communities, so that no one can imagine life without us. To take this opportunity as we can to spread the change-making happening inside our rehearsal halls and spread that out and welcome more people in. We need to be clear that no matter what our missions, we have to be good neighbours, which means EDI, which means climate action, which means economic access. And in a moment where women’s reproductive rights are under fire around the world, where New Brunswick just diminished the rights of Trans and Nonbinary youth, where our world is on fire, it has never been more important. We are already leaders in our work, and need to ensure we are voices in all the conversations. 

And which all means advocacy both so we can do our work, but so we can do this work.  We made change in Nova Scotia by being good neighbours with our communities and colleagues not just in other theatres but in dance, in visual arts, in music. We need to re-establish those connections nationally and take our place as not just cultural leaders but as community leaders, with a passionate, strong, and disciplined voice to ensure that our knowledge and work for our individual organizations, our individual geographic and cultural communities is repeated across the country, that we learn from each other and we make the change we all care so deeply about. 

It can’t be back to business after COVID – it’s a chance to remake the world. 

I look forward to doing it with you. 

I am also thrilled to have worked throughout this period with two individuals that I am delighted to name as proteges although I learn as much from them and they might learn from me. Logan Robins is the artistic director of the Unnatural Disaster theatre company, working to make entertaining artistic productions in unusual spaces that focus on the climate crisis. He is an astoundingly multitalented and optimistic young cultural leader and I look forward to seeing how he continues to push us all to centre change in our work. 

Marcus Wong is the Administrator of Theatre Nova Scotia, the umbrella organisation in NS of which I have been Co-Chair throughout the pandemic. Marcus is a theatre maker both in his home of Hong Kong and in his adopted home of Nova Scotia and is a stellar administrator who cares for us all so deeply in the NS community and has navigated through leadership change at TNS and been our rock throughout these past three years. He is exactly the next generation leader we all need. 

Once again, thank you so much for this honour and your work. We are truly all in this together. With so much love, Chris.