Alt.ercations: alt.theatre’s Uphill Climb
By: Nikki Shaffeeullah
alt.ruisums | Good intentions
I always suspected that the fight for social equality for marginalized groups and the transformative power of the arts were somehow linked. However, even as an idealistic adolescent this seemed dubious: everything I witnessed about real-world productivity seemed to involve a division of labour conducive neither to social justice activism nor creative expression, let alone a conscious union of the two. However, the perfect mix of opportunity and audacity led me to experiment with things like anti-racist organizing and acting classes.
Some years ago, I finished my undergraduate degree and found myself moving around the country with dreams of saving the world through theatre. After shuffling from Montreal to Victoria, I encountered director and facilitator Lina de Guevara. I picked her brain about her work and methodology: How do you sustain a culturally diverse theatre company in a small city like Victoria? Are there other companies like yours? How do you sustain community-based theatre work anywhere? How do you devise an original show when there are barely enough resources to rehearse a pre-written script? How do immigrant artists establish themselves in the Canadian theatre? How can we invest ourselves in marginalized theatre practices when theatre itself is so often marginalized by the rest of society? At one point she kindly handed me a stack of alt.theatre back issues. I had come across alt.theatre once or twice during my four years at McGill University (home to alt’s associate editor, Denis Salter, whom I did not know at the time), but for whatever reason I had not taken the time to explore it closely. As I flipped through the stack, it opened my eyes to the legacy of discourse and practice that I had been unknowingly looking for.
alt.theatre introduced me to the work of innovative artists in different pockets of Canada and abroad, and articulated issues that I felt but had not been able to put into words. Reading alt empowered me as an emerging artist to experiment, collaborate, push the envelope, strive for artistic excellence, resist the urge to self-censor, and put myself into my practice. A few pieces in particular have leapt out at me throughout alt’s life so far, such as Rahul Varma’s guest editorial in issue 6.3, When Politics Gets Personal, in which he describes how deliberately conflating the personal and the political in art creates anxiety in socially privileged audience members, and Monique Mojica’s inspiring Stories from the Body: Blood Memory and Organic Texts in issue 4.2.
Perhaps what the discovery of alt most offered me was that “alternative” forms of theatre can actually probe society. Not just through community-based and socially intervening projects—although those, to be sure, bear wonderful fruits and open important conversations—but through the very performance of “difference,” whatever that may be. When performance space is taken up by diverse bodies and voices, the ensuing theatre has the power to change the popular imagination’s conceptions of what is “normal,” “good,” “interesting.” Dr. Catherine Frazee summarized this belief most succinctly in September of this year when speaking at Prismatic (a national, biennial festival dedicated to culturally diverse and Aboriginal arts): “We can work until we drop in the courts and through policy work, but we get nowhere until we’ve had an impact on culture. Everything we know about justice and being human, that’s where all those things happen.”
alt.ernatives | Why alt.theatre?
As I take the reins of “Canada’s only journal dedicated to the intersection of politics, cultural diversity, social activism and the stage,” even my longstanding enthusiasm for alt.theatre can’t stop me from asking myself what relevance the-little-theatre-journal-that-could holds today.
In his editorial for alt.theatre 6.4 in June 2009, Ted Little opened a related discussion with the query: Are we there yet? He described the uphill battle alt.theatre faces when it “question[s] prevailing ideologies; resist[s] pressures to link the arts to the commercial values of the market place; counterbalance[s] the individualistic profit motives of corporate forces; and nurture[s] a healthy, pluralistic democracy operating in the interests of a culturally inclusive ‘common good.’” In the face of national media’s Goliath—“largely preoccupied with battles over whose neoliberal dogma could piss farther”—alt.theatre’s David has unflinchingly offered an alternative avenue for critical discourse (5).
So are we there yet? Has alt.theatre completed its job?
This is, after all, twenty-twelve! If the world doesn’t meet its apocalyptic demise by the new year, those who take up activist causes can at least put their feet up with the knowledge that oppression has ended. Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism turned forty-one this year and America’s first Black president is about to lock down his second term. Our Minister of Immigration, Jason Kenney, kept busy in September writing a Guardian article assuring readers that “Canada has not become ugly and intolerant” and covertly collecting the email addresses of LGBTQ Canadians in order to send a mass message describing his party’s commitment to protecting gay and lesbian refugees. October marks the first International Day of the Girl Child, a sparkly initiative led by Canadian Minister for the Status of Women Rosa Ambrose. (Never mind that Kenny has over the years opposed same-sex marriage, appointed openly homophobic members to the Immigration and Refugee Board, and removed reference to LGBTQ rights from Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration guide. Or that just last month Ambrose voted in favour of Motion 312, which would have reopened the abortion debate and set back her titular “status of women” by decades.) Where is the need for alt.theatre in a society that fancies itself post-racial, post-homophobic, post-sexist, and perhaps even post-postal, as print journalism and snail mail flirt with obsolescence?
In 6.4, Ted answered his own query with, “Apparently not.” We weren’t yet there then, and we certainly haven’t yet arrived. A glance around the country reminds us that Alberta very nearly put the Wildrose Party in the provincial legislature this past spring, a cohort boasting candidates like Ron Leech (who publically explained how his whiteness rendered him a more accessible candidate than any Muslim or Sikh alternative) and Alan Hunsperger (whose blog espoused some of the most virulently homophobic remarks north of Westboro) (“Wildrose”). Pauline Marois’ recently elected Parti Quebecois—whose Francocentric prerogative necessarily precludes cultural pluralism—campaigned promising to prohibit civil servants from wearing non-Christian religious apparel (“Ban”). This past August, the Bank of Canada purged a design for a new $100-dollar bill that featured an Asian-looking woman, opting instead for a more “neutral [Caucasian] ethnicity” (Beeby).
alt.itudes | Where are we right now?
What heights have we reached? What is progress and are we making it? While I harbour an apprehensive disinclination to cry progress!, I have begun learning how to embrace signposts of social change. With regard to culturally diverse and Aboriginal theatre in Canada, there have been many such instances in recent years. The AD-HOC (Artists Driving Holisitic Organizational Change) Committee, a coalition of over forty theatre organizations in Canada working toward ethno-cultural equity in the industry, identified in their inaugural statement of values that not a single culturally diverse arts organization in Canada owned a performance space. This year, that barrier began to break with Native Earth Performing Arts announcing their 120-seat black box studio in the Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre. Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company artistic director Curtis Peeteetuce claims in his interview with Stuart Wright that the upcoming Cree translation of How the Chief Stole Christmas into Cree may very well make it the first-ever full-length play to be professionally produced in Canada wholly in a First Nations language. Peter Hinton, in his stated quest to diversify the stages of the National Arts Centre fulfilled a decades-old dream to mount an all-Aboriginal production of King Lear—although not without its problems, as Kathryn Prince discusses in Assimilating Shakespeare in the National Arts Centre’s Algonquin King Lear. These and other signposts of progress remind us that while we might not be there yet, the indicators on the journey are victorious destinations in themselves.
alt.ogether | Where do we go next?
How will existing systems of oppression impact performing artists and arts policy in the future when all live performance nowadays seems to be relegated to the shadows of media better suited to capitalistic enterprise? Will the digital age at last kill the stage arts? Will technology render human performance obsolete? Will all actors one day be replaced by machines and “doing the robot” become known simply as “dancing”?
As a neoliberal agenda continues to erode publically funded culture, artists and arts workers are being forced to spend increasingly larger amounts of their time lobbying and fundraising instead of nurturing their communities through creative processes and products. The need for strategic essentialism seems imperative if allies of the arts want to prove to their detractors and to policy makers that cultural investment begets social and economic benefit. But strategic essentialism, as is seen time and again, only serves to silence those marginalized by power structures within movements. The Occupy movement saw many women fall victim to sexual violence in the street camps, and provoked Indigenous communities to question the protests’ neocolonial nomenclature—both groups were repeatedly silenced in the name of supporting the greater cause. People of colour who contested the performance of blackface and other iterations of white privilege during the Quebec student strike were paid little attention by those at the centre of the organizing, who preferred to keep the question of tuition hikes as sole focus.
In her dispatch, Savannah Walling reflects on the widespread arts cuts and suggests, “To build healthy communities, all of us are needed. We contribute through art because we’re artists, guided by the ethic of reciprocity as we focus on creative projects tailored for and with our community.” As Canada’s arts industries continue to grapple with reduced resources and artistic censorship, alt.theatre will continue to situate the roots of the conversation at community. With an understanding that all art is born of communities, has political motivations (whether conscious or unconscious), and holds the potential for social change, alt.theatre will remain a venue to explore diverse and provocative works at both the centre and periphery of the (inter)national imagination.