A Conversation With .. Theresa Tova
Theresa Tova - Actress, activist, musician, singer, playwright, and the current president of the Toronto branch of ACTRA.
By Bill King
Theresa Tova - Actress, activist, musician, singer, playwright, and the current president of the Toronto branch of ACTRA.
Bill King: What have we learned about the workplace?
Theresa Tova: We’ve had a big light shone on bullying, harassment, violence and sexual harassment in the workplace, an issue that every woman that I know of, young and old, knew as just part of her everyday life. We had a big light shone on that, what was it, October 5th, 2017 when the Weinstein thing broke? It was a real wakeup call for those of us who've been in the industry for so long to ask, “Why have we been putting up with this for so long? Why have we not been speaking up and saying this has to stop?” There's so much misogynistic material in music, film and television. There's a lack of diversity of voices. For the most part, you don't find women leading the creative process. To solve that issue, we need to change the balance of power. We went full hog and within one month. We brought the industry together, the creative industries as a whole.
I'm president of ACTRA Toronto, our largest branch. I'm also one of the officers of the National Union. We've seen studies for years that point to a shortage of women directors, a dearth of women producers. We don't exist. We are 51 percent of the population and we might have three directors in hundreds and hundreds of projects. It's ridiculous. And in some types of projects, zero directors, people who can make a difference. We start in equal numbers to men in the industry, but we hit twenty-five as actors and all of a sudden at forty we get toasted because seventy-year-old men with starring projects have to have relationships with twenty-year-old girls.
That’s the reality out there. And there was the Bechdel test years ago - it was a feminist style test that inspired so many of us. It took a look at big major projects, creative projects, films out there, TV, but especially film. It asked three simple questions. Are there more than two women in the film who have names, not just woman number one or barkeep or stripper? The second test question is do they speak to each other? And third is, do they talk to each other about anything other than a man? Most films failed. In the most prominent films out there we are secondary characters. We are not respected but we are sexualized. So how do you fight this off-screen when that's what we're seeing on screen. How do you change that cultural dynamic?
You make sure that there are more women involved. We've been talking to our funding bodies and they've come on board. We have significant studies through CUES, the Canadian Unions for Equality onscreen, and we now know the metrics. It's been very shameful, the things we knew anecdotally. The guys are working. They give opportunities to young guys coming out of film school to direct. They don't give them to young women. When you look at the intersection of diverse women, it's even worse. It’s been tough for women. You’ve got women-led projects now like Frankie Drake, like Handmaid's Tale. And the stories of respect and the values on that set by having women as decision-makers and women in leading roles right through it are what we're fighting for. And that will change the dynamic.
B.K: I’ve been involved in a new musical called 88 Keys atSoulpepper Theatre. It's about the piano and its grand history. I get my contract and notice there are twenty-four pages addressing conduct in the workplace. Honestly, I've never thought about that. As I’m reading the contract it becomes evident it's a stringent binding contract and one based on history.
T.T: Necessity causes lots of wonderful things to happen. In the creative industries “code of conduct” and we're talking about agents, casting directors, broadcasters, producer associations, ad agencies, production companies, the whole music industry and more. There are now over 100 guilds, unions and organizations who've signed on to the industry “code of conduct” that we helped facilitate at ACTRA. It's not our code, it's the industry's code. What it lays out is a very simple umbrella of behavior of what we're committed to, which is increasing diversity in crew and increasing women's representation in decision making roles to eradicate this bad behaviour. And, that you have to develop policies and procedures for when things happen so that folks know who to complain to, know what to expect in the complaint process, know their rights, know how to appeal and can take it forward.
Many organizations have developed those policies and procedures. Training programs in schools and universities have also established that. Some for the first time. There's historically been a lot of abuse and we've known it...not just in our industry but in society at large. The whole “date rape” thing on campus, when the Liberal government created this whole speak up campaign - we're here to help and bullying has to stop. It made a difference on campuses. So this is us making a difference in our industry.
B.K: I never understand the mindset of men.
T.T: Well, you're a man. I can't help you.
B.K: As I was a kid, I always looked at women as something exceptional. Yet there are men who look at women as a conquest, an appendage or disposable objects - something they could manipulate at will.
T.T: I’ve talked to a Senator in Ottawa. I've spoken to a career woman in the armed forces. The fight that they have had, those two women, for twenty-five, thirty years and yes they’ve made some progress, but not enough - the harassment of women is a reality in every part of society. We don't have to look any further than down south and the leader of that country. I mean, that's brazenly done.
B.K: His actions have brought this to the surface.
T.T: It's extensive and legitimized it and what I don't understand is women saying, “but that's just boys being boys.” No, they're allowing that behaviour.
I think the change that we've had, though, Bill, through this concentrated work with a lot of resources and a lot of smart people doing this work is we've announced to our performers that we're not going to let this happen anymore. Whatever happened in the past that we didn't hear about - people were afraid and our performers were worried to come forward because we are independent contractors and that means you might work ten days a year. If you're on a show and you've got a guarantee, let's say, three episodes of a TV series and something happens to you, are you going to complain about it and lose the only income you're going to have that year? There was no guarantee against repercussions. We’re independent contractors. To build the trust of our community and say there is a place you can go to now and we will hear you, we will respect what you say, we will investigate with your OK, and with your involvement... and we will find recourse.
B.K: I was a member of ACTRA for a short while in the '90s owing to a few beer commercials I sang on. I cashed out and bought a couple of cameras and went head first into photography. I faced a crisis 14 years back with a level one heart condition and ACTRA was there for me – a month's rent and three months medication coverage. I’m a member of ACTRA Recording Artists’ Collecting Society – and honestly, it does a far better job collecting residuals for me than SOCAN.
T.T: We have for several years. It's the Performers’ Rights Society, which is the collection arm of ACTRA. We get paid for our day's work and then we get paid “use fees” for the broadcast or use of the performance. We have an ongoing participation like intellectual property – it’s our work. If it's successful, we get a little taste.
B.K: The times signed to a record label I rarely saw any money, but these days, through streaming and other sources of collection, there's always a little something coming monthly.
T.T: That division is called RACS, the Recording Artists Collecting Society and that's another arm of PRS. I'm also treasurer of that organization. On the acting side, we dispersed over twelve million to performers last year. I'm not sure what it was on the music side - I should know that. It's now global. We're collecting music royalties for our performers. Different than SOCAN. Not publishing, this is remuneration for performance participation. In our most significant actor contracts, we get three-point six-five percent of the licensing fees shared by all the people on the project.
They prorate it depending on how much participation you had - how many days on the project... so they will prorate it and there would be a cap. So for instance, in a film, just an example, I know we're talking music and but it's the same concept. If you were a star in a film, they would cap you at twenty points. If I do three days, I'll get three points of that percentage.
B.K: Where are your roots?
T.T: Oh, that's interesting, thanks for asking. I was born in Paris, France. I was born in the 4th arrondissement. My parents moved to Canada, immigrated to Calgary, Alberta, that's where I was raised. I came out here in the early ‘80s. So I've been here longer than I was out west.
B.K: What would a conversation centre on around the house with your parents?
T.T: Oh, that was a different conversation. They were immigrants. My dad spoke nine languages, my mother spoke seven. English was their worst and their last. My dad was a truck driver. He couldn't get a job. He didn't speak English. Somebody lent him a truck and he travelled through Alberta, picking up steel, rusty batteries - he was a junkman. He had a little cartoon on the side of his truck with a guy with a stogie in his mouth that said, “Harry, Your Friendly Junkie.”
My mum was mostly “stay at home,” but when she did work, because we needed money, we were not well-off - she was a chambermaid. She cleaned other people's dirt in hotel rooms. We had a work ethic.
B.K: There had to be a cross-current of opinions at the kitchen table and you must have been in the middle of it.
T.T: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Big Eastern European immigrant family, lots of cousins. On my mom's side, everybody was murdered in the Holocaust. My dad's side, miraculously, no one was. I had the benefit of a prominent Jewish family. And I'm very, very proud of it.
T.T: My uncles. ..My uncles used to get up very “rat packish.” They used to stand up at bar mitzvahs and weddings and sing. I remember things like I Left My Heart in San Francisco acapella. You know, that kind of thing. I went to a private school and I remember my first acting gig. I was in Grade 5 and we were doing a remembrance of the Holocaust event, believe it or not. This is crazy when I think what they forced a kid to do at the tender age of 10. But it was a little story of the Warsaw Ghetto where my mom came from and there was a woman that comes running into a room full of men who, because religion is all, you know, gender-based - men who are trying to get together a minyan to pray in the synagogue. And they don't have enough men because everybody's being killed by the Nazis. I come running in and I tear down the curtains of the Oren Koydesh, the ark where the Holy Bible is kept.
I have a monologue about just watching my baby be thrown up into the air and shot by the Nazis. I did that at the tender age of 10. And so, no surprise, by the time I got to public school, which is grade seven, I joined the drama department and it just took off from there.
I had my first professional gig when I was 17 years old when I was paid to perform in a restricted club in Calgary, Alberta, that didn't allow Jews. I had five job offers to do professional shows that year and gave them up to go and train because I didn't want my luck - my intuitive instinct on this acting thing to run out and I went and trained in the BFA, University of Alberta acting program. I had a great career in theatre, came out to Toronto in the early ‘80s, as I say, my first gig in a film was on King of Kensington, where I met Al Waxman. I've had a very, very varied career.
B.K: What kind of impact did the diary of Anne Frank have on you?
T.T: That's interesting. I didn't read it until I played in it. I was asked to do it twice. My first nomination for a Dora Award was playing Mrs. Van Daan at YPT – a fantastic production of it. Then I happily did it again in Hamilton at Theatre Aquarius.
My daughter read it when she was very young. I visited the Anne Frank House in Holland. Let's say I was immersed because of my mother in all of those documentaries and one of the biggest successes in my career was taking the stories that were personal to me like the story of my mother and translating that into a musical that I wrote years ago that was nominated for a Governor General's Award about my mother's experiences as a 14-year-old like Anne Frank. My mother spent five years in the woods, wasn't in the camps, but STN spoke of the horrendous and heroic adventures of a woman in war. That’s been a niche for me. I think besides my regular career; Stratford, Shaw or big television projects, Broadway shows, I've also migrated towards my cultural roots and telling the stories that are personal to me in my history.
B.K: You are so wonderful at this. How do you communicate with young kids who have no attachment to this, no memory of this? Even the great grandparents are all gone. It's very, very difficult to keep that thread and families alive and the stories alive.
T.T: When I did my musical Still the Night, we toured eight cities across this country and we sold out everywhere and people were coming back and seeing it four and five times and they were older generation people coming and bringing their grandchildren. Because we reflected a narrative about young girls - the story of young girls in war, there are so many ways to hook in. We would get people from Rwanda and people from other war-torn areas that would stop you after the show and talk to you and say, “This is my story.” This is what I went through. The more specific you become, the more specific you grow as a creator, the more universal you are. It’s about the details.. I know that reality you're speaking. I see myself in your work.
B.K: You see Steven Miller, who is the conscience of Donald Trump. You don’t have to go that far back in time – in fact the present day sees the vilifying of immigrants.
T.T: And we have not learned. In the Jewish culture, we say, “Let's not forget, not just for us, but for everyone. We must learn from these mistakes.” We know what people are.
B.K : We know what they are capable of. Social media plays a role in connecting hate groups.
T.T: It’s so easy on this new form of communication. It's very tricky to maneuver social media and I wish that we would have more faith in our trusted journalists and dig more into our sources of information because it's scary out there.
B.K: Let’s talk about how we make a living.
T.T: The cultural industries, provide almost well, it's nearly nine billion dollars to the economy. And we talk about return on investment: twelve billion dollars to the GDP of this country. It's huge. I want members of the audience out there to understand when you're looking at who to vote for - people who have an artistic cultural policy that supports artists because we give so much to this country. We pray that it's stable and we create something for the arts, for gosh sakes, because what we contribute is enormous. It's a green, clean economy, exportable across the globe. The problem is, besides all the money that we can make from it, the artists working in it, are starving.
We just did a census supported by Ontario Creates which looks at numbers in Ontario. Anecdotally, what we knew, we now have the metrics. Artists on average make fifteen thousand dollars a year or less. I'm talking performers. That's less than the average of the regular artists because artists can be, you know, the camera operators or other crew members on a film and they're working ten months a year. But as I said, we on average can work, what, ten days? I mean, I was lucky enough to have a TV series for five years, but even then, I was guaranteed, what, one day a week for 20 episodes? Not enough. And that's winning the lottery.
There are studies on how much governments invest in their artistic communities. In France, of course, it's high up there. Canada's pretty lame. We're not investing. Quebec is. Boy, could we learn a lot. The return on investment is impressive.
I’m very proud of our funding bodies like Telefilm and CMF, they've come a long way in trying to support indigenous artists and women of colour and trying to make more female-led content and changing the culture by knowing all of our stories are important. We are not a fifty-first state in the United States. We need to have Canadian content, Canadian creators, our own stories and again, these initiatives, these industries give us such a huge return. They need to be supported. And thankfully they are right now. But we need more infrastructure. These are not low paying - I'm sorry, Wal-Mart jobs. These are good jobs where the artists in the film and television world can pay taxes.