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Diversity: Its Promise and its Potential

June 1998, Vol. 1.1

Rahul Varma

Diversity; diverse artists; artists of colour; multi-, inter­ and cross-cultural… these are just some of the terms that have become commonplace in Canada in the past two decades. While respecting the distinct meanings of each, for the purpose of this discussion I have grouped them under the umbrella term “diversity.” Diversity, as I am sure readers will guess, encompasses artists of non­ dominant cultures and the wide range of their artistic practice.

That diversity is being discussed by art critics and artists may well be indicative of a new emerging cultural consciousness; one which acknowledges heterogeneity and thereby embraces the full spectrum of our cultural mosaic. This is the least that can be expected from a country that prides itself on being heterogeneous and, more specifically, multicultural. Accompanying this new consciousness is a growing recognition of diverse art forms and artists. I believe this suggests a new artistic sensibility among the artists and arts organizations and I would go so far as to argue that a new cultural politics is in the making in Canada.

This emerging new cultural politics, which results from and is responsible for the developments described above, is redefining the concept of heterogeneity. This redefinition represents a shift from monoculturalism, biculturalism and xenophobia, and towards diversity, multiplicity and multiculturalism.

Once a society begins to act on the basis of this defi­nition of heterogeneity, it is faced with some important questions. The most important of these are the ones relating to ethical and political considerations. For some artists and academics, the central concerns are authen­ticity and representation. Their constant preoccupation is with the question of who speaks for whom and in what capacity. Often, the result resembles a turf war. For oth­ers, staking out territory is irrelevant; what matters is artistic innovation. These people give greater weight to new artistic approaches and their relationship to existing ones.

This new and, I believe, more accurate view of het­erogeneity is immensely important if the depth and breadth of Canadian art and culture is to be appreciated. As a practising diverse artist and play­wright, I hope to draw on my expe­rience and, to the best of my abili­ties, discuss the importance and role of diversity in Canadian theatre. I will also attempt to address the challenges it presents for the future.

Diversity, of course, is the outcome of visible changes in Canada’s cultural make-up. As new panels have joined the demographic quilt, there has been increased artistic activity and political lobbying to ensure representation of Canada’s many sociocultural streams.

Be that as it may, the parameters of diversity must not be confined to the original settlers, immigrants and their descendants. Let me explain. There is a commonly held belief that “Canada was (is) built by immigrants.” This belief grew out of the struggle for equality. I remem­ber how, through my personal involvement in that strug­gle in the early years after my arrival in Canada, I quick­ly incorporated this statement into my own vocabulary. I can still recall using it in the heat of a discussion with a native friend. His eyes widened and I questioned my conscience. But instead of criticism, he smiled and gra­ciously said, “Don’t worry. I welcome you to my country.” From that point on, I realized that we have all, in varying degree, benefited from aboriginal generosity, at an immense cost to their own history, nationhood and well­ being. The point is that the idea that Canada was (is) built by immigrants may be appealing for immigrants and their descendants, but restricting our understanding of heterogeneity this way would perpetuate a grave his­torical injustice. Razing the monolith of homogeneity and replacing it with a new redefined notion of heterogeneity is therefore not simply a means of achieving cultural and artistic equality but also an opportunity to right an his­torical wrong of monumental proportions.

Any shift in the country’s artistic sensibilities is prob­ably due to the climate created by this new cultural politics. For the trend to continue successfully, I believe it is important to enhance our artistic practice, focus on artis­ tic innovation, and steer clear of the kind of tokenism exhibited by some large theatre companies who jump on the diversity bandwagon mainly because someone somewhere has a budget for it.

Promise and Potential
Based on my personal knowledge of and work with many diverse artists, I can identify certain commonali­ ties in their “Canadian experience”. After arriving in Canada, they don’t look for an artistic job. Their first pri­ority in Canada almost always is to put bread and butter on the table by engaging in any profession that they can practice. Subsequently, or concurrently, they begin prac­tising their art. They are almost always very creative in finding ways to pursue their artistic endeavours, particu­larly if their work is not recognized by the funding bod­ies. Alignment with community organisations, communi­ty theatre, “variety” shows–all become tools in the artist’s attempt to earn professional recognition from these agencies.

Fortunately, the progressive implementation of poli­cies based on the new cultural politics means that cen­tral institutions such as the Canada Council for the Arts have begun to ease this situation. For example, the Canada Council has accorded equitable recognition to diversity. As a result, today second- and third-generation
immigrant children are opting for artistic careers. This is in direct contrast with the past, when immigrants from countries of colour insisted their children become engi­neers, lawyers and accountants. This shift probably reflects confidence in Canada’s new artistic policies, a situation that bodes well for the country and the artists concerned.

As immigrants and their offspring enter the arts in ever-greater numbers, a wonderful opportunity is open­ ing up. With artists of all generations displaying stylistic, artistic and cultural influences from their ancestral coun­ tries, the clash and interaction of their inherited styles with those of the dominant culture are giving rise to something new–something uniquely Canadian!

Let me give you an example of the above. In 1987, I wrote and directed a play called Job Stealer. The play was written in response to racism that some refugees from Sri Lanka experienced after “fleeing the boat”. The writing was influenced by a form of protest theatre in India, which by necessity is message-driven. Therefore the understanding was that the louder and clearer the message, the closer the play will come to achieving its goal. The presentation style was influenced by a form of theatre in India called Nautanki. I believe that the enthusiastic response to Job Stealer by audiences and critics alike was a result in large part of these “foreign” influences.

In 1990 I wrote Land Where The Trees Talk, a play set in the James Bay area of northern Quebec. The play dealt with native land rights and environment and was produced during the Oka crisis–the armed stand-off between the government and the Mohawk nation. This time the play was directed by a noted Canadian director, Jack Langedijk, who combined the Indian Nautanki style in which the text was written with the high ener­gy and high-paced “show” values usually found in the popular theatre of Canada. The result was wonderful. Since then we have been mixing various influences of Indian theatre with existing Canadian theatrical styles. The net result, in my opinion, is a unique brand of Canadian theatre created by new Canadians either in exclusivity or in collaboration with artists from the dom­inant culture.

Efforts along these lines are one concrete way in which ethnic and minority artists and artists without “clout” can achieve demarginalization. Such efforts would also present a tremendous marketing opportunity for Canadian theatre by providing the country’s cultural communities with the opportunity to see themselves on stage. Happily, that journey has begun; but we have a long way to go. There are two important goals that we must strive for. One: we must intensify diverse artistic practice, and two: we must not repeat mistakes the mainstream has made. In other words, we must pre­ vent diversity from being homogenized as in the past.

The question of authenticity keeps coming up and having said the above, I would argue that “speaking as” is not as important as “speaking about”. “Speaking as’ amounts to a kind of generalization that may not be in the best interest of the advancement of the art of diversity. I base this argument on the understanding that no community is a one-issue community and no communi­ty can be described or dramatized by one single voice. There are multiple positions that a diverse artist must inhabit simply because an artist, diverse or mainstream, is more than just one thing.

In the larger interest of continued exploration and innovation, it is important to shun tokenism and learn from other practitioners and their work. The road to where we are today–viewing our art through a new cul­tural consciousness–is centuries long. The challenge will now be to practice our art without distancing our­ selves from the styles and ideas of the dominant culture or from our particular cultural heritage. Pursuing an all­ inclusive approach not only will help channel diverse artists and their art into the mainstream but also will result in a mainstream that is more diverse.

Rahul Varma is a director and playwright, born in India and based in Montreal, Quebec. He is the co-founder and Artistic Director of Teesri Duniya Theatre , a multicultural company dedicated to artistic diversity.