Sunday, May 21, 2006

The language of theatre

Today we have a guest blogger ... actress/playwright/spouse extraordinaire Leanna Brodie. Leanna was a panelist on Cahoots' roundtable discussion, Theatre Beyond Borders. We actually sat at two rectangular tables. But that's not really the point. It's a good thing Leanna's telling you about the panel and not me ...

• An internationally-touring physical theatre company comprised of a ballet-trained Hong Kong Chinese artist and a Lecoq-educated Scot.
• An HK artistic director of a well-established text-based theatre who wants, among many other things, to do a Cantonese stage adaptation of Crimson Tide.
• A Canadian playwright/radio writer/librettist/actor/director/associate artistic director working on a play in English about Tiananmen Square.
• A playwright and actor whose current piece deals with a schoolteacher in a one-room school in rural Canada circa 1938.

How on earth were we going to find anything to talk about for ninety minutes?

As it turns out, the challenge was to shut us up. Or maybe that was just me. (Note to self: Self, if you EVER get asked to do a panel again, remember to breathe; breathing results in oxygen to the brain, and automatically causes a pause to the talking, which in your case is a good thing.) Actually, we were all eager to share what we love about our own cultures and ways of working, as well as to discuss the problems we face. For example, Canadian artists understand the battle for workspace, and we in Toronto have lost three affordable theatres in almost as many months – but how do you compare that with the scramble for a tiny corner of some of the most expensive real estate in the world, where not only rehearsal but even performance space sometimes rents by the hour?

The discussion really had two segments: first Ko, Marjorie, Bonni, and Sean talked in turn about their processes of creation and production: then, when he got to me, Jovanni (as moderator) asked some questions about translation that launched a spirited discussion of how (and indeed, whether) the work that we do in our specific communities can travel to the outside world.

Marjorie brought up the tricky convention of people speaking onstage in one language when you know they would actually be speaking another (for example, in China Doll, English stands in for Mandarin). Bonni and Sean of Theatre du Pif talked about how their grounding in physical communication was a way of bridging the gaps of language not only between them and their various audiences, but also between themselves.

Ko spoke of his desire to bring together the various linguistic and cultural communities in Hong Kong itself: as the first Chinese-speaking artistic director of Chung Ying Theatre, he contends on a daily basis with the deep divisions between English-speaking “ex-pats”, Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong citizens, and growing numbers of Mandarin-speaking immigrants from mainland China, among others. (I find it fascinating, by the way, that Caucasians -- who may have lived and worked here for five months or fifty years -- are called “ex-pats”, while others are “immigrants”. One local journalist recently told me he was trying to get Westerners in Hong Kong to refer to themselves as “migrant workers”, but without much success.)

I found myself trying to communicate something about the relationship between English- and French-language drama in Canada, and of how, in Quebec, not only the language but the level of that language has political implications (like Michel Tremblay in 1968 causing a firestorm by writing in joual). I also related a conversation that Jovanni and I had with Vanessa Porteous of Alberta Theatre Projects, who commented that one problem ATP finds with bringing plays from other parts of the country is that Calgary these days is a “city of winners”, while Canadian theatre is in love with losers. Our audience brought many fascinating perspectives, too: like the impossibility of doing The Vagina Monologues or Love Letters for a local Cantonese audience without “acting stuff out” (I have real problems with the conventional Vagina Monologues, so I can sympathise with HK audiences: but that’s for another blog...)

Thanks to Cahoots and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, for an intimate and enlightening cultural encounter: and to Jovanni for presiding with style!

Aw gosh, you're making me blush. Thank you Leanna for being a wonderful guest panelist and blogger!

No comments: