Feminist Men – Michael Toppings

Blog Post by Erin Lindsay, Sept. 28, 2018

All of the interviews in our Feminist Men Blog series are uncensored and unedited. We did not impose a structure and allowed the conversations to take natural turns. In some cases, interviews ran long and contained too many questions to include in the post. Therefore, the only curating that took place was in the interest of the length of the article. Enjoy!

E: The 18/19 season of the MAI is centered around love, asking the question, how deep is your love?  Taking this subject into consideration, how important do you think a love ethic is to social justice and equality?

M: “…it is, well, less about love and more about commitment. And for me, because we’ve been having a dialogue about equity practices and representation for many many many years… I mean for me personally it goes back to the late 80s when these subjects became a part of my consciousness.. my cultural consciousness. But because these conversations continue and they often chase their own tails, the whole notion about commitment, about love, was well, “ok if you say you’re on board, what are you going to do about it?”
It’s almost .. not an imperative.. but a questioning-about talking the talk and then going further than that. It’s aimed at the public. What presentations are they going to choose during the course of the year? It’s a bit of a challenge, I think, but it goes further than that though. The people you employ. The individuals that are on your boards. I mean, change has to come in increments but it also has to go deep. How deep is your love? is also a message of peace..of softness in an extremely tumultuous time.

E: I like that idea of… I think about that a lot… The idea of a radical softness.

M: I think it’s about trying to bring positivity to something that isn’t always positive. For example, the MAI is doing a visibility platform in October. The idea is to bring underrepresented artists to the forefront. We were thinking of doing a conference and one of the ideas that came up was the notion of invisibility and then we just went, “No.” It has such a negativity to it and it’s what we always talk about when it comes to diversity. So we kind of inverted it so that it would talk more about the Importance of visibility and how to achieve that. There’s enough negativity in the world right now. Everything we’re trying to do is to try to counterspin it so that there is the potential for resolution as opposed to just the potential for argument.. or… what’s the word.. the opposite of resolution is…

E: Division.

M: Hostility…keeping things on a positive level as opposed to always going back to “these are the problems. I think we can talk about the solutions to the problems instead of just the problems.

E: Yup.

M: Yes.

E: K. So, in terms of the MAI’s programming, there is exciting programming this year and a lot of programming by women of color. I wanted to let our public know, what would be some great pieces to check? Works you’re excited about…

M: The one thing I am going to start with is that the entirety of The visual arts programming this year is by women.

E: That’s amazing!

M: There are 5 exhibitions. One a group exhibition curated by Zoe Chan who used to work at the MAI. There’s Khadija Baker, Naghmeh Sharifi, Marigold Santos and Hea r. Kim. The latter four from Montreal. All women of colour. All with stories to tell that are linked to their cultural heritage. The exhibitions in particular I am excessively proud of. We have these strong women that are recounting stories about their immigration process or mythologies specific to their cultural heritage. With dance we have Angie Cheng who has been very vocal about the cultural appropriation conversation, Donna- Michelle St. Bernard, a co-presentation with Black Theatre Workshop… Sophie Gee.

E: Yeah!

M: A new work, in French.

E: I’m excited to come and check it out.

M: We also have Ülfet Sevdi with Numbers Increase as We Count. Also Kapwani Kiwanga, an extremely important artist to have in Montreal who is part of Black Art Empowerment: I speak, I see, I am movement… there are many more.

E: Another question for you, how does feminism factor into your practice and programming if it does?

M: As a human being and as a director, what I try and do is to counter what it is that I am,  that I can’t change and that is white and male and therefore privileged. This has a profound effect on the work that I do. It’s essential that the programming at MAI reflect the society that we live in. We all know that there’s an incredible imbalance in terms of representation in Quebec and across Canada. Recently there was a survey done in Montreal to look at the theatre communities in terms of the male, female ratio. (check out this nifty document Imago made about the lack of female representation in Quebec theatre) Looking at directors, writers, actors. again it was…

E: Appalling.

M: Hugely in favor of the patriarchy.

M: The other thing is… when you talk about feminism we have to look at the larger picture. We might ask, well whose feminism?

E: Yeah. It has not been many people’s.

“Many individuals who are scraping for a space of their own are identified as militants. I see this. How the term militant is hurled at people to dismiss them..to categorize them as dangerous. I’ll hear, whatever happened to so and so they have become so angry? Not realizing that they’re often angry as a result of the wall.. the walls.”

M: We have to arrive at some definition that is all inclusive to make sure it is not just white feminism. We have to look at all of the diasporas that are involved. The trans and queer diasporas for example. Economic diasporas. I get nervous when I am asked to talk about feminism because I don’t think I know enough about how it can be defined today in 2018 for me to be able to speak to it in a coherent or articulate manner.

E: Sometimes I feel that way too.

M: But ultimately I think it’s about the storytelling. Who is telling the story… and the importance of the story.

E: Another question is, do you think that stories can be healing and that they can change perspectives?

M: I think, yes… stories do have a healing potential. For me, I’m an avid believer that that’s why stories are told. I think that even some of the most political, controversial, intense and difficult stories have healing built into the process. I think it’s easy to discern something that is gratuitous and that is done to shock as opposed to a story that is wanting to lead to some sort of healing, resolution or understanding. I think there is a lot of work created for shock. They are the ones where you normally leave the theatre feeling empty.

E: …or led astray and manipulated in some way.

M: Manipulated is a good term, yeah. Sometimes I fear we are headed too much in that direction so I think we have to be… the ear has to be on the ground for authenticity, integrity and honesty. Whether that be manifested through politics, poetry… something I have learned from feminism is the notion of the personal as political. Those are the stories that interest me. Where it’s based on personal experience but it’s work that can have tremendous ramifications for different types of communities.

E: Do you think love and commitment can lead to change through a softening and an understanding?

M: Through an understanding. Change won’t happen without some kind of broader understanding of what the issues are… the whole world is based on protecting with this fear of, “What’s it going to be like if we don’t have power?” It’s all about the fear of losing something that they had or that they think they’ll have. There’s always the haves and the have-nots and when you look at history… it’s always the same haves.

E: Maybe stories have a role in subverting that?

M: Yes but there is a danger in preaching to the converted…with the MAI what is paramount is growing the audience so that it’s not just a place where the woke come but it’s a place where awakeness might happen. If the effect rests within a small circle then the change has already happened for that public.

E: An echo chamber.

M: Yes…and hopefully every year when the programming comes out it is going to attract a portion of individuals that would not necessarily have come before but are wanting to take that step. To go off the beaten track of the same theatres-the same old, same old- to try something new.

Erin interviewed Michael Toppings, an artist, director and Artistic Director of the Montreal Arts Interculturels (MAI). The MAI is an inclusionary, pluricultural, pluridisiciplinary presenter… promoting community and intercultural exchange along lines of gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, age, language or other such sectarian axes of identity, marked and unmarked. In other words, the MAI is a space where dualities and pluralities are bridged.