Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Authentic Canadian Theatre ... Continued

In Cahoots' January 2008 Newsletter, Jovanni shared his recent thoughts on cultural diversity and the Canadian soul, initiating a flurry of thoughts, opinions and new ideas from the community of friends it reached! Below please find Jovanni's initial message, this follow-up message, as well as a message from Beverly Yhap, Cahoots' founder.

Please join-in in this discussion by adding comments below! We'd love to hear and talk about what you think!

From Cahoots' Newsletter, April 2008
By Jovanni Sy

In January, I wrote an article for our newsletter that suggested the phrase ‘culturally diverse theatre’ had become more limiting than empowering. Much to my surprise, the essay struck a chord with many of you; we received close to two dozen responses. First, thanks to all of you who took the time to respond. Your comments are very much appreciated.

The majority of the responses were short supportive notes. There were others, however, who disagreed with my thesis and explained why in well-reasoned terms. One of them was Beverly Yhap, the Founding Artistic Director of Cahoots. Bev kindly agreed to write a response for this newsletter which you’ll find here.

Words of support are always great; respectful dissent, even better. But there were a few responses I found disturbing. These letters of ‘support’ seemed to miss the point of what I saying and went something like this: “It’s great that Cahoots is finally getting past the whole diversity thing. After all, theatre is theatre.” Well, no, it isn’t.

Let me clarify something right off the top: Cahoots is by no means altering its artistic mission of creating theatre that reflects the rich diversity of our country. (So please don’t expect our next season to include a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical and some play with four middle-aged white people in a cottage in the Muskokas.) I was not suggesting that Cahoots’ mandate was becoming somehow irrelevant—the scope of my argument was limited to the language used to describe that mandate.

The point I was raising was that if the art Cahoots produces is consistent with one of Canada’s core values—namely, multiculturalism—why do we insist on qualifying what we do with nomenclature that sets us apart? In other words, if we are part of the mainstream, shouldn’t we act accordingly? And shouldn’t this transition begin with the way we describe ourselves?

The use of the term ‘culturally diverse’ began as much-needed celebratory language—a cool oasis in a desert of Eurocentric theatre. But as the work of Cahoots and our sister companies proliferates, has the term become a millstone? Has it become more marginalizing than celebratory?

In my January article, I used the example of the term ‘lady doctor’ as an illustration of how inclusive language can, with changes of time and circumstance, become exclusive. This time, I’d like to offer a more concrete example of how words confer or remove power.

In February 2007, Cahoots (with Modern Times and Theatre Passe Muraille) produced Bobby Theodore’s translation of Ahmed Ghazali’s The Sheep and the Whale, an epic drama mounted with seventeen performers. In keeping with the play’s themes, our cast’s ethnic origins spanned all parts of the globe. I found it quite thrilling to see them fanned out taking their curtain call at the end of each performance. Obviously I wasn’t alone. Three separate reviews pointed out how exceptional it was to see a show that looked like modern-day Canada.

At the same time The Sheep and the Whale was running, Tarragon mounted their outstanding production of Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched (translated by Linda Gaboriau). Much of the play’s action takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country engulfed in civil war. To the best of my knowledge, the cast of ten had no actors of Middle Eastern descent.

Scorched was easily one of the best shows in Toronto’s 2006/2007 season and I’m delighted that Tarragon is remounting it. But while we were being praised for reflecting Canada’s pluralism, I never read a single word pointing out that Scorched, as excellent as it was, represented a bold experiment in cross-cultural casting. In other words, a predominantly ‘white’ cast portraying Arabs was so ‘normal’ that it didn’t even merit comment. Personally, I find nothing offensive in casting Caucasians as Arabs because, ultimately, I think theatre must be driven by imagination.

What I do find offensive, however, is that artists from visible minorities are held to a different standard. If I were to produce, for example, a Martin McDonagh play with African- , Native- , and Asian-Canadians, there would inevitably be some reviewer asking, “They’re clearly not Irish. What did they mean by this? What kind of political statement were they trying to make?” And, of course, the answer would be that I’m making the same political statement as with Tarragon’s casting of Scorched: none whatsoever. And yet I constantly get asked this question while other producers do not.

I point this out not as an indictment of any particular theatre company. Scorched is a good illustration simply because it was running simultaneously with The Sheep the Whale. There are dozens of other examples I could have chosen. The fault lies not with those exercising their free artistic expression, but with our own willingness to accept what is ‘normal’ and what is an exception to the norm.

Which brings me back to the point of language and how it defines what the default culture is. Often, it’s the absence of language that confers the dominant status. Even more ironic is the ability of language we think of as positive to effectively place an asterisk on something of worth. To diminish when it intends to augment.

As lovely as it was to be publicly praised for the United Colours of Benetton feel of The Sheep and the Whale, I would gladly trade places so that our show’s multiculturalism went unnoticed while Scorched got praise for its edgy and daring use of non-traditional casting.

One of the main principles of chess is that whoever controls the middle of the board controls the game. Culture is no different. And language has the insidious ability to define who controls the centre. The praise for The Sheep and the Whale was hollow insomuch as it complimented us for doing what everyone should be doing: representing the world as it is in 2008. How perverse is that? It’s like praising your dinner guest for not stealing your silverware.

My fervent hope is that we reject language that labels ourselves as ‘the other’. Let’s stop ceding the middle of the board. And, while we’re at it, let’s politely point out when other guests are pinching the silverware. Because our silence makes it acceptable.

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