On performance and difference

Over the last few weeks I’ve re-blogged two performance reviews I wrote for Stratford Festival Reviews.com, each about a remarkable piece of work dealing with racial and cultural difference in a contemporary Canadian context. (Look here and here for more.) I wrote both of these reviews in the wake of having attended the engaging and provoking “Beyond Representation: Cultural Diversity as Theatrical Practice” symposium at Modern Times theatre company in Toronto, hosted by my friends and colleagues Natalie Alvarez and Ric Knowles.

What’s more, in the weeks since the event, and since my viewings and reviewings, I’ve noticed the word “diversity” and its cognates (“interculturalism”, “difference”, etc.) appearing with what seems like more than usual regularity in discussions about Toronto theatre, especially courtesy of the always compelling Intermission magazine.

Now, lest I seem to be suggesting anything else, let me be clear: diversity on stage has been part of our discussions about Canadian theatre and performance, its histories and its futures, for a good long time now. These discussions take a number of different forms – in, for example, recent issues of the industry cross-over publication Canadian Theatre Review (check out volume 165, “Equity in Theatre”) and the scholarly journal Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches théâtrales au Canada (last November’s issue is on performance and disability), in the ground-breaking “Beyond the Great White North” season at Factory Theatre, curated by A.D. Nina Lee Aquino, and in some of those aforementioned pieces (click here and here, for example) in Intermission, an online publication by and for artists first. My Canadian Drama class at Western has been focused on intercultural and multicultural performance practices since 2005; my inspiration for that class comes from Ric Knowles, who has pioneered new understandings of interculturalism in performance contexts around the world, let alone in Canada. His Theatre & Interculturalism is a primer in the field, and his work with artists of difference, and particularly Indigenous artists, as a dramaturg, mentor, and friend is well known and extremely well respected.

This stuff, in other words, ain’t new.

Which was the point precisely of the Modern Times event Natalie and Ric hosted, and which is the reason I wanted to share some of my reflections after having attended it. Because as Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, the larger-than-life artist / shit disturber who opened the symposium, has long since noted: diversity is A Good Thing, folks. Can we get over it now and do something freaking about it?

Well, yes and no: as Donna-Michelle, that cheeky trickster, herself well knows, recognizing the value of diversity is easy. PRACTICING diversity at the theatre, in a thoroughgoing and decolonizing way, is really fucking hard.

The former we seem to talk about endlessly (hence DM saying: shut up already!); the latter needs work. Cue the labour.

dm_by_denise_grant_1

Donna-Michelle St Bernard, in a photo by Denise Grant. DMSB is what I think about when I think about how awesome cultural difference actually is. I mean, the hair alone!

Nat and Ric’s symposium did some work indeed. It made me wonder about what I, as a white, female, normatively gendered scholar, can DO rather than SAY in order to ensure I’m acting toward a difference-oriented theatrical and scholarly practice in all the stuff I write and teach and talk about on the subway.  It made me think about my practice as a human being in a diverse workplace and a diverse classroom and a diverse city. It made me think outside of what I think about, usually, when I think about stuff to do with difference.

Herewith, then, just a few reflections from the symposium, linked up occasionally with reflections on the reviews I wrote in its wake. Warning: I’ll probably second guess myself a bit along the way. Not a bad thing.

***

If you were the centre of the universe, you could only see outward. All the way around. And someone would always be behind you. Who is that? You’d have to look. Constantly.

This was one of the moments with which Donna-Michelle began her symposium keynote (click the link above to watch the whole thing). I really love the spatial re-orientation it affects. Theatrical space is – yes, even with the advent of site-specific and post-dramatic work – often cartesian in its framing: there’s a centre, and there’s a periphery. Who is at the centre? For a while it was playwrights. Then artists. Then directors. Or some combination of these folks: The Creators. Then we decided audiences were, in fact, the most important artistic collaborators in the theatrical process. Cue a code switch: auditorium as centre of universe.

The trouble with all these things is that they assume the same relationship between centre and periphery: the latter looks at the former, while the former remains curiously “unmarked”, its authority assumed yet invisible. Donna-Michelle proposes something radical instead: the job of the centre is to look outward. Not because that’s the only way it can see itself (thanks, Jacques Lacan, but I’ve moved on), but because that is literally the only thing it can do. Its existence as central depends on an ethics of regard beyond itself. This has ALWAYS been true of the centre. It’s just that the centre rarely recognizes this about itself.

The really great thing about this formulation, for me, is that it applies to everybody, regardless of background, of colour. Of course, in an historically colonial nation like Canada it must apply more frequently to dominant culture subjects (typically white and non-disabled, among other markers), but at the end of the day it’s a formula for living a human life: just look behind you, already. Who’s there? What do you have to adjust – about your assumptions and the actions they precipitate – now that you see that person?

Quite apart from everything else, I find this a fantastic formula to offer students who might otherwise roll there eyes at discussions about race, gender, or ability difference in a class not dedicated explicitly to those issues. Our students aren’t assholes; they are just tired of certain kinds of discursive formulations (especially those that get too often mocked in the media). This formula lets us switch things up, while getting the same message across.

hindsight-rear-view-future-past-road-mirror

***

The performance of authenticity is more common than authenticity. … Representation is 90% projection.

This is another nugget from Donna-Michelle’s keynote (hey, I’m a fangirl; get over it). But it also sums up one of the anxieties the name of this symposium tossed up. “Beyond Representation” seems, at first, a dick move: bare “representation” is nowhere near good enough on its own – see above, re diversity as Good Thing – so how do we even begin to get “beyond” it?

This is, for me, one of the hardest questions we face in Canadian theatre and performance right now, because it presses at the core of what the officially multicultural nation state has taught us to believe about who we are as a group of people with supposedly shared values and ideals. Canada as imagined community is based on the “Good Thing” premise; that means that to “represent” minority communities in Canada means to stage comfortable caricature more often than not. But as Donna-Michelle noted in conjunction with the above comments, for minority-identified actors, “to perform authenticity is to step into the role of the expected. And it is crushing.”

The move past staging the expected is very difficult indeed. In my review of her Little Pretty and the Exceptional, I argued that Anusree Roy missed the mark precisely because she gave into that expectation while also trying to tell a much more complex story about cultural identity, national identity, and cognitive difference, resulting in a piece of work that felt oddly split (and that provoked my theatre companion, who shares Roy’s cultural background, to proclaim the work stereotypical and dull).

Honestly, I fretted about that review for some time. I recognized that I was doing something that maybe wasn’t totally kosher: calling Roy out for not doing something that is actually near impossible in this cultural climate. My critique of her work might have merit – I’m not saying it doesn’t – but thinking back on it, I still fear that critique is in some measure unfair. It points out a problem with our system, not a problem with Roy’s work. But in a review of her play, Roy needs to take the hit.

I didn’t want her to. I wanted the system to take the hit.

But how do you review a system?

sugith-varughese-and-farah-merani-2-in-little-pretty-and-the-exceptional-joseph-michael-photography

Sugith Varughese & Farah Merani in Little Pretty and The Exceptional, by Anusree Roy. Photo by Joseph Michael

***

How do we use the “fact” of diversity to transform critical practice?

These words are Ric Knowles’, and they come from the symposium’s reviewing panel, which included Ric as well as representatives from Now (Glenn Sumi), the Toronto Star (Carly Maga), and the Globe and Mail (Kelly Nestruck). During that discussion, we debated a variety of ways we might better engage critically with work that happens across difference and via cultural clash and encounter, in the rehearsal room and studio as well as in the auditorium once the show is up. We came to no consensus, though for me two crucial, potential practices emerged.

First, stronger and better contextual awareness. As Ric noted, reviewers simply need to take the time to learn more about what they are seeing and why they are seeing it, especially when something happens on stage that seems not to “make sense” to a reviewer whose “sense” is so-called “common sense”.

Research, people. Ask questions.  Assume less; look behind you more. (Karen Fricker, Maga’s colleague at the Star‘s reviewing desk, has been working toward what she calls embedded criticism for that very reason, though of course that practice, like all embedding practices, comes with both strengths and limitations.)

It seems entirely easy enough. Except, of course, when: deadline.

So again, the system needs shifting more than any individual: asking reviewers to see a show and write the review *immediately afterward* is ridiculously counterproductive for the show, and for the reviewer, especially in an intercultural context where we just cannot, should not, assume intimate and immediate knowledge of one another’s contexts.

But what’s the alternative, at least until the blogosphere fully usurps the cred of the dailies and their digital downloads?

Honestly: I think more artists and academics should be writing reviews, and on a regular basis, and for a wide variety of venues, especially popular ones.

I say this not just because I *obviously* believe myself to be a flawless and amazing reviewer (see above: duh!); I say this because, people, we have the knowledge! And the salaries! And the access! We do the reading. We have the discussions. We know the folks who know the answers to why that thing happened on stage that made no sense at all to most of the straight, white, non-disabled folks in the audience. We get that maybe the show is not for us – and that probably that is actually A Very Good Thing.

When I went to see For Colored Girls… at Soulpepper Theatre, directed by the award-winning goddess Djanet Sears, I took my friend and colleague Naila Keleta Mae along with me. Naila had already seen the show and sat in on rehearsals; she has worked with a number of the artists on the production, and she had insights to share with me that I could not otherwise have learned.

She had also secured a review commission for the show, as I had, which meant that not only would we support each other’s reviewing labour in our shared discussion of the show over drinks afterward, but that we’d have the opportunity to present two different, differently informed, perspectives of the show in two different publication venues – perspectives that could then dialogue with each other in the public sphere, forming part of the production’s critical afterlife.

THIS is a reviewing practice I can get behind.

The ass-kicking cast of For Colored Girls… at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto; the always and infinitely fierce Djanet Sears.

And yes, I know that we are all crazy busy as academics, and that we sometimes impose our own “learned” assumptions and expectations on the work we see, even and especially where “difference” is concerned. (Hey, you know what? We know better, and we should stop doing that already. LOOK. BEHIND. YOU.)

But we also, as Donna-Michelle pointed out emphatically at the end of her symposium keynote,

“have no idea how much more power [we] have than [we] are exercising.”

So, friends and colleagues: let’s read that line again, for good measure. Look behind us, already. And get writing.

Kim

 

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