A Black-owned theatre company has increased its funding so it can expand a program aimed at getting more Black people involved in the film production industry.
Tara Taylor is the founder and chair of the Charles Taylor Theatre & Media Arts Association. Taylor and Fateh Ahmed, the former head of the film department at Centre for Arts and Technology in Halifax, created the program called Breaking Through the Screen for African Canadians.
“He has all the curriculum, and we went after the funding,” said Taylor in an interview with the Halifax Examiner. “In our first year we got $25,000 from Telefilm, and we had five people, five protégés, in the pilot program and they went to work for other productions.”
“There was one who went to Diggstown. She did costume design and learned how to do that on filmset. And the other people did lighting and all that stuff for a documentary called Working While Black.”
“Then, this year we got more funders.”
The Department of Communities Culture and Heritage and the province’s One Journey Initiative contributed a total of $205,000 to expand the program. This brings the total number of program participants up from five to 24.
Participants will train in the fields of acting, writing, directing, animation, television production, and music production.
‘You have to understand you’re there to work’
Taylor, who is from East Preston said she was always an artistic person growing up and has always worked to increase Black participation in theatre. Taylor was part of drama clubs in high school and university.
“I never really took arts in school,” Taylor said. “I always took other things like bachelor of science and civil engineering, I didn’t really know that there was education in what I wanted to do in the arts.”
“I knew early that that’s the industry I wanted to be in, but then being in Nova Scotia, where do you find an outlet that? Who do you ask these questions to? Should you be acting? Should you be filming? All those careers that go with it.”
In her 20s, she started working on professional sets as a background actor, earning up to $6,000 for four days of work. Despite there being a small talent pool for local Black actors, she said there was still a lack of roles and opportunities for Black actors. She said most productions “only cast according to a script.”
“If it didn’t call for any kind of race they wouldn’t put in Black when they could have,” she said. “And so I started getting success in the industry only because of the simplest thing: showing up on time. And not being a pain in the bum on set.”
“You don’t want people looking for celebrity autographs and all these kinds of things. Yeah, it’s great to get it, but you have to understand you’re there to work.”
‘Our stories, they have to be cultural’
Taylor said she then started shooting her own documentaries and music videos. In the mid-90s, she promoted and held a screening for several of the films at the East Preston Recreational Centre where a total of six people showed up, including Shelley Fashan, a Black community organizer and advocate from Cherry Brook.
“Shelley was the one who told me, ‘You’ve got a good thing here. You’ve got passion, you got drive, so I’m gonna help you learn how to do marketing and promotion.’ So, that’s when we created the Charles Taylor Theatre, and she became the vice chair.”
Fashan said Taylor then helped her with editing and producing a short documentary about Sarah Bundy, a matriarch from Cherry Brook, who was an entrepreneur and sold items at local markets for 40 years.
“That’s when we really connected,” Fashan said.
After they screened the documentary, Fashan said they were approached by Delvina Bernard, who was then the executive director of the Council on African Canadian Education (CACE).
“Delvina was very touched by it so she said, ‘We should talk about doing this in the community,’” said Fashan who said Taylor noted that she had already had experience doing so with her film festival.
“It was kind of a synchronicity sort of thing. We all kind of thought the same thought at the same time,” said Fashan.
Fashan said that Bernard provided them with funding for what would become the first annual Emerging Lens Cultural Film Festival, which took place at the Black Cultural Centre in 2010.
It featured short films from Taylor, Fahan, Reed Jones, and other local Black filmmakers.
“It went off really well and people were really happy to see stories from the community and about the community,” Taylor said.
The festival grew and they started adding on additional nights. They went from telling African Nova Scotian stories to including other films that told stories from African Canadians outside of the province, stories from Indigenous communities, LGTBQ stories, and stories from immigrant communities. That included a film by Fateh Ahmed.
“He was in this country for like two or three years but he could see the changes in Gottingen Street, and he did a documentary called Pushed Out on the gentrification of Gottingen Street. And maybe it was because he was from somewhere else that he could see it clearer.”
“Our stories, they have to be cultural, they have to be ethnic, they have to be stories from communities that aren’t reflected anywhere else. If you had an artist or filmmaker that was white, or from the mainstream, they had to be telling a cultural story.”
In addition to the Emerging Lens Cultural Film Festival, the Charles Taylor Theatre & Media Arts Association also produces live theatre. Taylor said they have launched a streaming station on the Roku app where they were able to stream to Emerging Lens Cultural Film Festival during the COVID lockdowns.
Though Emerging Lens films could not stay on the app due to copyright claims, Taylor said there are plans to populate the streaming service with on-demand content, including past Emerging Lens films, and with future live events and theatre performances put on by the Charles Taylor Theatre.
After past attempts to establish the Preston Arts Centre, both a physical theatre and soundstage in Preston, Taylor put those efforts on pause when she moved to Halifax and started working for an MLA.
It was then when she said she was approached to be the vice chair of what is now the Link Performing Arts Society.
“So all of my experience in wrangling for film and recruiting for film, as well as my own film experience, that is what they were looking for me to bring to the table,” said Taylor.
Though construction was delayed due to COVID, the Link Performing Arts Society is now housed at the Light House Arts Centre on Argyle Street in Halifax.
The Charles Taylor Theatre is currently a working partner with the Light House Arts Centre, Taylor said, “to bring Black folk into using the space and to experience the space.”
This past summer the Charles Taylor Theatre produced an all-Black musical called Hood Habits, which they performed on multiple nights at the Light House Arts Centre.
The Charles Taylor Theatre is now collaborating with Eastern Front Theatre to present the world premiere of love, peace, & hairgrease, The Musical, which is set to run from Oct. 21 to Oct. 30 at the Alderney Landing Theatre in Downtown Dartmouth.