On International Women’s Day, YouInc presents a four-part interview series with entrepreneurs from Newfoundland: they’re reinventing an economy built on 400 years of fisheries through the arts. From high-end hospitality on Fogo Island to award-winning film and theatre in St. John’s, these individuals believe in the power of art to transform communities and people. Our conversations unearth a bigger truth about Newfoundlanders: they have an innate ability to work hard and face failure, because as all four entrepreneurs tell us, they’re just getting started.
This is part one of a four-part interview series with entrepreneurs reinventing the economy in Newfoundland through the arts.
From opera singer to opera founder and appointee to the Canadian Council of the Arts, Cheryl Hickman knows one way forward: push the boundaries of what's possible for herself, women in the arts, and her community in St. John's, Newfoundland. Nearly 10 years after she co-founded Opera on the Avalon, she will see the Canadian premiere of a transgender opera--the first in the country.
In our conversation, she doesn't hold back about misconceptions of Newfoundlanders, confronts the hard historical conversations our society needs to have, and plots out the future of women in the world. "I want to see women in everything," she tells YouInc.
YouInc: You started Opera on the Avalon nearly 10 years ago. Did you think you'd make it this far?
Cheryl Hickman: No, I look back now, and I think, "Omg, if I knew now what I didn't know then." But that's the spirit to be from here where you say, "I'm just gonna do it, 'cause no one else is doing it." When I started the company, I was compelled to start because I saw such a lack of opportunity for people to see this art form, but also a lack of opportunity for women. There was sexism and ageism that I was sick of. I've been told "no" a lot of times and I think, "I'll go somewhere else."
Art is the cultural instigator for change. We have been shown wonderful examples like Donna Butt, who runs Rising Tide Theatre in Trinity, Newfoundland. Donna started a theatre company in the middle of nowhere, in what had been a very wealthy merchant fishing town. Now her company is renowned across Canada and it's a huge tourist draw. That part of the province has amazing restaurants, hotels, and breweries.
YI: Do you think the rest of Canada really sees and understands Newfoundland's creative potential?
CH: I always laugh when people say in a derogatory way, "oh, you're from Newfoundland." I always ask, "have you been?" If people have been, they love it and they understand what this place is about. The idea of living in Newfoundland is harsh. Our climate can be harsh, and it can be tough conditions economically. But, it's the people who are amazing and they make it work.
Art is the cultural instigator for change.
My experience in Newfoundland and Labrador is one the strongest creatively and artistically in the world. Because it's small and contained, people try things that I wouldn't see [happening] in major cities. So, because people think it's small they say, "oh you know, it can't compete." It's not that we're competing, we're different.
There's no fear in terms of artistic risk, because as a province we seem to embrace it. It's part of our strategic plan. Look at Zita Cobb doing Fogo Island Inn--I'm sure when she proposed the idea of a five-star inn on the island of Fogo, people must have thought it was insanity. Now it's world famous. It's things like that where Newfoundlanders think, "I'm just going to do it." Same with Opera on the Avalon. I thought, "well why can't we have an opera company here?"
YI: Is there a stronger sense of community because Newfoundland is small?
CH: I think most provinces have a sense of community. I think the ones that are thriving do. The older I've gotten, I've realized how attached and entrenched I am to the idea of changing the community through the medium of music and social change.
Our climate can be harsh, and it can be tough conditions economically. But, it's the people who are amazing and they make it work.
We're an opera company, and we're a community group. Most organizations in business have to be involved in their communities. This year we're doing the Canadian premiere of a transgender opera called As One, including an amazing exhibit of transgender people and aboriginals in our community. You may never see one of our shows, but you'll see the impact that we're having in the community. We ask, why are we doing this work? Is it impacting the community? Is it changing anything? We always try to do something in the season, where we're expanding conversations about what it means to be alive in this century, what needs to change, and sometimes bring light to issues that we need to examine. I can't imagine seeing a transgender opera when I was growing up--it wouldn't have existed.
YI: How do you know which issues your community wants to explore?
CH: We reach out to community leaders. As One is a piece about finding who you are in this world. That's what drew us to the piece. We have someone in this province who is going to tour with the production, and who has fought to have gender-neutral birth certificates. We're having these conversations, the same way 25 years ago we had the conversation about gays and lesbians in our communities. We thought they were different than us. They're us. So it's a reaching out for the benefit of everyone. Sometimes people are afraid of what they don't know.
YI: What is your hope for the arts in Newfoundland?
CH: As a company we want to continue on our path with more work that reflects our lived reality. This includes more commissions by female writers and female composers and more stories about this place.
We also want to give voice to writers and creative people and directors that for too long historically haven't had opportunities. We want to be an example of hiring people in non-traditional roles. In Dead Man Walking we hired somebody who was black to sing the role of Sister Helen, which is traditionally played by a white woman from Louisiana. We didn't think that necessary had to be so.
Our next opera is centred on the story of Shanawdithit, the last known living member of the Boethuk people in Newfoundland. It was a genocide. We hunted our indigenous population for sport until they were no more. How did we as a province commit genocide on a population? They're not easy topics to talk about, but they need to be brought to light.
Stage is a great equalizer. Once you get up there, you don't notice the colour of people's skin or that they're of a different background. Those days are long gone. We have to be culturally sensitive about what has to happen in our hiring practices, and move forward in a way that's respectful of everyone.
YI: How do you challenge what is enough for opera in Newfoundland?
CH: I don't think we have limits. We get thought of as an art form and a white-male dominated art form. We totally push against that. We're a gender-parity company. We tend to hire more women, because if you look at hiring numbers for directors and conductors across Canada, the numbers are really dismal. It's not that these men aren't champions of women, it's that there's an unconscious bias that exists. I had to confront my own.
When I first started, I hired mostly men, and I thought, "well, why did I do that?" Because that's who you know, or those are your friends. And you don't look at it and think, "why aren't there more women?" They often don't get opportunities.
Most of our arts institutions are primarily male, run by men, hired by men, and telling male stories. That has to change. It means some people lose power, so others can attain it. We have to address it as an industry, a country and across the world.
We're a company that's invested in giving women opportunity based on their potential, and we've yet to be let down for taking that chance. We are competent, capable, ambitious, and innovative as much as anyone else. I'd like to see, especially in the ats, that women are given more opportunity in mentoring and hired the same way men are--that only happens if boards start hiring women in positions of power.
When Hillary Clinton didn't get elected, I was in New York City auditioning singers for our next play. It was a feeling of a death for young women that work for me. When Hillary Clinton didn't get elected, it showed that it doesn't matter how good the woman is, it's not going to happen. Now we realize it won't occur, unless we make it occur. I feel that shift.
YI: How do you help women build their confidence?
CH: I find people get confidence by doing. I think we fear as women if we speak up or put ourselves out there, it's in contempt or we'll be laughed at. You have to face the fear but embrace it, and think, "I'm going to do it." You have to jump and know that they're other women who have made the same leap and will support you.
You learn as you go. Throw it at the wall and see if it sticks. Show up, apply, and take chances on jobs you never thought you'd get. If you know 70 per cent, you'll gain the other 30 per cent quickly. Resumes are resumes. I'll hire someone's energy, their outlook, their positivity, and their creativity. I got appointed to the Canada Council for the Arts. Someone said you should apply, and I said, "that's ridiculous, I'll never get it." I thought, well I've got nothing to lose.
One of our young conductors joined us when she was a resident pianist. She went on to be an assistant conductor. She did her first main stage show with us last year. Now she got offered to be the resident conductor with the Calgary Opera, a first for them.
I want to see women in everything: judges and doctors. Opera singers and opera administers. Presidents and prime ministers. I'm empowered to continue to fight for the next generation of women, who are coming from behind me, and to thank the generation of women who have come before me. Women need to help women in every way.