Editorial: The Stories We Tell
by Michelle MacArthur
It felt like not a day went by this summer when Robert Lepage wasn’t making headline news. In June, the initial excitement surrounding his directorial debut at the Stratford Festival with his production of Coriolanus was swiftly drowned out by protests around another Lepage premiere, his show SLĀV at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Billed as “a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs” and featuring white singer Betty Bonifassi as the lead performer, SLĀV quickly garnered criticism for, in Montreal Gazette reviewer’s T’Cha Donlevy’s frank assessment, “its flawed premise: that white people are altogether, ahem, entitled to put on a musical theatre revue about black slavery.” The outrage over SLĀV, which led the Jazz Fest to eventually cancel the show before the end of its run, foregrounded decades-old criticisms of Lepage’s work and his proclivity for cultural appropriation. These concerns were only amplified when, hot on the tails of the SLĀV cancellation, attention shifted to Lepage’s plans to co-produce a show about Canada’s Indigenous history in collaboration with French director Ariane Mnouchkine and her company Théâtre du Soleil. Exploring issues such as residential schools and missing and murdered women, Kanata featured no Indigenous performers and engaged in minimal consultation with Indigenous groups during the creative process. After much public protest and failed talks between Lepage and Mnouchkine and Indigenous activists, some of Kanata’s North American co-producers pulled out, leading the creative team to halt work on the production, citing inadequate financial support.
The outcry in reaction to both Kanata and SLĀV was far and wide, with many critics drawing attention to the politics of storytelling and representation. In response to Kanata, several Indigenous activists and arts and culture workers and their allies penned an open letter in Le Devoir on July 14th challenging the production and prompting the meeting with Lepage and Mnouchkine two days later. “Elle [Mnouchkine] aime nos histoires, mais n’aime pas nos voix. Il nous semble que c’est une répétition de l’histoire et de tels agissements nous laissent un certain sentiment de déjà-vu,” the collective wrote. Aly Ndiaye, an historian and hiphop artist also known as Webster, was called in as a consultant on SLĀV to share his knowledge of slavery in Quebec. Though initially hopeful about the production’s intentions, he was ultimately disappointed by the lack of black performers hired in the project: “Now that a piece about a traumatic experience lived by blacks in America is taking centre stage, what are whites doing in most of the roles? . . . Therein lies the entire problem: a blatant lack of sensitivity and, because they have the power to do it, the appropriation of the narrative of a community—the telling of our story as they see fit.” Kelann Currie-Williams, our eloquent summer intern, expressed similar objections to SLĀV in a public statement she wrote on behalf of alt.theatre in July:
When creating work that showcases a heterogeneous culture and history other than their own, artists must collaborate with peoples from those cultures, and the people represented must be the focus on stage. Otherwise, there is nothing preventing artists from profiting from the stories, histories, music, and hardships of people of colour and Black people more specifically. This kind of appropriation sustains the racialized power dynamics depicted in SLĀV through the suppression of Black voices.
The summer of Lepage headlines has had a sustained impact on our editorial and administrative team as we reflect upon alt.theatre’s role in these conversations and where our founding principle of activism comes into play. While it was important to us to take advantage of the immediacy of digital communication to share our response to SLĀV on our website and social media platforms, as a print publication we also have the opportunity to produce more in-depth meditations on these issues in order to move the conversation beyond the headlines. Moreover, our administrative office’s location in Lepage’s home province of Quebec gives us perspective on the unique cultural contexts that inform his work. Some media reports got there as well—Webster’s op-ed for CBC is one example that foregrounds “the great lack of diversity in Quebec’s media and cultural space.” This issue has also been highlighted in alt.theatre’s pages. In 11.4, for example, my predecessor Nikki Shaffeeullah wrote a nuanced editorial about a recent instance of blackface on the Quebec stage, elucidating the cultural context while arguing that rather than immediately jumping to judgement, English Canadians should instead prioritize engaging “in anti-racist criticism that may also implicate ourselves and our own actions.” In the coming months, as we continue to interrogate the questions emerging from Lepage’s work, these broader contexts need further consideration—as do the voices that are participating in the conversation in the first place.
Indeed, the question of storytelling, a central component of our art, is complex, especially for those of us committed to diversity, equity, and social justice. Who has the right to tell or retell a story? In a world structured by inequalities, is storytelling not only a right but also a privilege, one enjoyed by those who, like Lepage, have the resources, networks, and celebrity to produce spectacles and reach wide audiences? What does allyship look like when it comes to storytelling?
This last question has been top of mind since I joined alt.theatre in 2016. Then and now I have been conscious of the power and privilege afforded to me by aspects of my identity and have tried to use the concept of allyship to guide my role as editor-in-chief. I have learned that allyship as editorship can take different forms, such as prioritizing listening and learning over speaking (as that translates to the editorial and writing process) and finding ways to use the power afforded by the role to support others with less power. Allyship as editorship is a work in progress for me, equal parts challenging and gratifying, developed through both missteps and successes. Through this learning process, I have been fortunate to collaborate with a stellar editorial and administrative team, as well as artists and writers from across the country whose work I deeply admire.
While I have come to the difficult decision that it is time for me to move on from this position, I am excited to continue working with alt.theatre as an editorial board member, and I am even more excited to pass the torch along to our new team: editor-in-chief Aaron Franks, who has been an associate editor over the past two years and whose approach to his work is informed by the multiple roles he juggles as artist, academic, policy advisor, and activist, and associate editor Katherine Zien, an associate professor at McGill University whose research and teaching focus on theatre and performance in the Americas and particularly race, colonialism, and gender therein. I know I am leaving alt.theatre in very capable hands and I can’t wait to read their first issue. Thank you, readers, for allowing me the privilege to curate this space for two-and-a-half years and for believing in alt.theatre’s mission to provide a forum for artists, activists, academics, and others interested in furthering Canadian discourse around cultural diversity and the arts.
Brodeur, Sébastien, et al. “Encore une fois, l’aventure se passera sans nous, les Autochtones?” Le Devoir. 14 July 2018. Web.
Donlevy, T’Cha. “Jazz fest review: SLĀV misses the mark, and precious opportunity.” Montreal Gazette. 4 July 2018. Web.
Ndiaye, Aly. “Opinion: The problem with SLĀV: why black people aren’t applauding a tribute to slave songs.” CBC.ca, 28 June 2018. Web.
Shaffeeullah, Nikki. “Biculturalism and Blackface.” alt.theatre: cultural diversity and the stage 11.4 (2015). Web.
 See, for example, Jen Harvie’s “Transnationalism, Orientalism, and Cultural Tourism” in Theatre sans frontiers: Essays on the Dramatic Universe of Robert Lepage, edited by Joe Donohoe and Jane Koustas (Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2000), 109–27. Emer O’Toole’s Guardian op-ed, published on 30 July 2018 does an excellent job of concisely explaining the broader context of intercultural theatre in which Lepage’s work is situated .
 Since the completion of this editorial, the Théâtre du Soleil has subsequently announced plans to stage Kanata after all, under the title of Kanata–Épisode I—La Controverse. With Lepage set to direct but without remuneration, the play will run in Paris from December 2018 to February 2019.