The Conversation:

How We Talk About Cultural Diversity in Theatre

written by Nikki Shaffeeullah for Issue 9.4

Last November, a body of artists, arts workers, academics, and affiliates gathered in Victoria for Puente Theatre’s symposium, Sharing the Legacy: Embracing Diversity and the Practice of Inclusive Theatre in a Changing Society, comprising a series of panel discussions, workshops, and performances. The participants reflected a range of experiences, artistic involvement, and cultural diversity, and
the symposium’s programming laid the foundation for three days of conversation about diversity and the arts. In many ways, the conference promised to share the legacy of Lina de Guevara, Puente’s recently retired founder, whose decades of artistic work and social activism have been two sides of the same coin. Lina and many like her paved the way for new generations of community-engaged, culturally diverse, and immigrant theatre artists in Canada.

However, beyond the legacy itself, I left the symposium thinking about how we talk about these themes. For although the conversation about diversity and the performing arts—or rather, “The Conversation”—is crucial, it is certainly not new.

The Conversation is happening everywhere from board rooms to blogs to bars, and it exists within the context of a greater struggle for multicultural recognition in a colonized country and settler society. The Conversation has been going on for decades, as artists working from the margins fought for equal access to the material resources necessary for successful professional artistic engagement. In the 1980s, culturally diverse theatre artists seeking funding could look to either the Multiculturalism Directive in the Secretary of State or the Canada Council for the Arts. Although the former body could encompass arts funding, it did not have a mandate to fund the arts per se. This was “not an arm’s-length agency,” as applications were assessed by a field officer, not juries, and funding was ultimately awarded at the minister’s discretion (off 11). The Canada Council, on the other hand, had no mechanism for funding “ethnic” theatre. Such applications seemed folksy and below the standards of “professional” theatre practice when compared to projects of mainstream (Eurocentric) sensibilities. Thus, culturally diverse theatre makers often fell “between the cracks of government agencies,” unable to fund their projects or be recognized as professionals. As Don Blair, former executive director of the Folk Arts Council of Winnipeg put it, “The arts councils have a finite pie to divide up. And they don’t want to open the door to let in any more takers” (off 13).

Nevertheless, thanks to the mobilization of Aboriginal and culturally diverse artists within a Canada sanctioned as “Multicultural,” a discourse around equity funding began to emerge. The Canada Council officially created their Equity office in 1991, and other bodies developed advisory groups or hired cross-cultural coordinators to focus on issues of diversity and parity. These gains were tremendous, but the Canadian theatre has not yet fully levelled its playing field. The Ad Hoc Assembly, a “loose coalition of Aboriginal and culturally diverse arts organizations that have come together to re-define the working arts landscape,” identifies that even today, the imbalance of power “is embodied in the fact that there is currently no accessible professional performance venue in Canada owned and operated by a diverse organization.” The Canadian arts industry has had progress to celebrate—and has further justice to work toward.

Earlier waves of culturally diverse artists have been joined by new generations, and the face of Canada is more diverse than ever. Statistics Canada projects that in five years, one in five Canadians will be a visible minority. It seems natural that in this pluralistic context and after decades of slow but steady progress, arts workers of all cultures and social positions would be able to get together for a forward-moving Conversation propelled by the legacy of previous Conversations. So why does it so often feel like every Conversation about theatre and diversity is the first?

This feeling crept over me as I read over the description for the first panel discussion at Puente’s symposium, promisingly entitled “The Value of Cultural Representation on Canadian Stages and in the Performing Arts”:

[…] if we don’t work towards a theatre that responds to the interests and expectations of our increasingly diverse population, theatre will become elitist, irrelevant, and devitalized. How can we open up to these influences without losing our identity and histories? What does it mean to work with underprivileged & underserved communities? What is the correlation between different target audiences? Do Canadian stages stand to lose anything if access is not given to other cultures? What bridges do we need to build?

This is how The Conversation is being framed in 2012? We worry that “these” influences will cause us to lose “our” identities and histories? Whose identities and whose histories? Is The Conversation so underdeveloped that it neglects even at its starting point to include culturally diverse artists in its imagined “us” and “we” and relegates “these [presumably non-European] influences” to otherness from the onset?

The Conversation about diversity and the theatre is like any conversation about power, privilege, and minority group recognition: it is at its core about social (in)justice. It is about immediate barriers to resources and long-established prejudices that have become enshrined at systemic levels. It is situated within a wider conversation about recognition and cultural pluralism. When players come together to have The Conversation, be it in formal or in informal settings, there must be a baseline level of literacy in the room with regards to social (in)justice, or The Conversation will remain stuck in first gear as it brings everyone up to speed.


Both within its own borders and around the world, people speak of Canada as a multicultural country. What exactly is meant by “multicultural,” however, is neither precise nor universally agreed upon. There are three ways in which Canadian multiculturalism can be understood. First, Canada can be seen as multicultural in demographic fact: First Nations communities, descendants of English and French settlers, generations of other cultural communities, and new immigrants from around the world all combine to form the Canadian populace. Second, national policy, often cited as “big-M Multiculturalism,” declares Canada to be a multicultural state. As growing ethnocultural communities mobilized for recognition in the mid-1900s, the state responded, first with a national policy of multiculturalism in 1971 and eventually the official 1982 Multicultural Act. The third way of interpreting Canada’s multiculturalism is in the ideological conception of a pluralist nation, where the many cultures that make up the country coexist, perhaps dialectically, with no single culture held as superior to any other. This third point is an ideal that has not yet been realized in the dominant Eurocentric Canadian monoculture. In her 2011 book Us, Them and Others, Elke Winter asks if the Canadian “we” is imagined as multicultural in the popular imagination, and her empirical investigation of newspaper media concludes that in fact the mainstream public rarely describes a national “we” that includes cultural pluralism.

The need for cultural communities to be meaningfully recognized in a demographically pluralist society such as Canada is a matter of human rights. In his seminal essay The Politics of Recognition, Charles Taylor contends that “nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.” Recognition, he explains, is a part of human identity, and “a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves” (Taylor 25). Winter’s conclusion that Canada’s “we” is not imagined as multicultural indicates that cultural misrecognition and/or nonrecognition continues to disempower culturally diverse Canadians.

Does the Canadian theatre industry imagine its “we” as culturally pluralist?

Although the narrative of Canadian theatre (and general) history often fails to recognize the early contributions of Aboriginal and culturally diverse communities, diverse groups have been part of the nation’s performing arts landscape for generations. For example, Asian-Canadian theatre in Vancouver and Toronto dates back to the 1910s and 1930s (see Yoon 6) and Black Canadian theatre has a presence dating back to the 1840s (see Breon 2). The 1970s and 1980s saw the establishment of several cultural community-based theatres, multicultural theatres, and multicultural theatre organizations across Canada.

But despite the proliferation of culturally diverse theatre artists, their efforts and contributions continue to be excluded from consciousness. In classrooms, green rooms, and meeting rooms, I have heard people recycle the myth that non-white communities are not interested in creating theatre. The cumulative impact of this nonrecognition invariably serves to exclude culturally diverse artists from participation in the industry. At Puente’s symposium, Natasha Joachim of Calgary’s Afro-Canadian theatre company Ellipsis Tree said her cultural community was not uninterested in theatre, but rather the theatre to them seemed inaccessible: “The theatre is not for us.” Arguing that non-whites are uninterested in theatre erases the contributions of diverse artists and distracts us from the underlying structures of power in the industry that privilege the participation of certain voices over others.

To talk about cultural diversity and the theatre, we need to first collectively recognize the history of these artists in “our” theatre ecology and the value of their contributions to date. To discuss culturally diverse artists paternalistically or as if they do not yet exist is tantamount to not actually having The Conversation at all. When we imagine “our” theatre we must include both those in the centre and in the periphery.


I had a friend casually remark to me over a beer, “I just don’t like Aboriginal theatre. Is that racist?” I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, quietly brainstorming reasons that might have led him to make this conclusion in an informed way. Have you identified aesthetic conventions often employed by Aboriginal directors that you find disagreeable? Are you unable to find resonance with narratives presented from an Aboriginal world view? When asked to elaborate, my friend simply indicated he didn’t like George Ryga and could take or leave Tomson Highway.

To offer a kind understatement, this is an incomplete assessment of Aboriginal theatre in Canada. Yvette Nolan writes that when Ryga, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, wrote The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, “the door opened at that moment for an indigenous theatre, through which [white] writers like George F. Walker, David French, and Sharon Pollock walked” but “it would be another 15 years before First Nations playwrights began to appear on Canadian stages, telling their own stories” (2). Tomson Highway, Canada’s single most famous Aboriginal playwright, is very often made to bear the burden of representation of the entire Aboriginal Canadian theatre world. Nolan says, “to this day, Aboriginal theatre practitioners sit on panels and committees with non-Native colleagues whose entire experience with Aboriginal theatre in this country is [Highway’s play] The Rez Sisters.” How can we discuss Aboriginal theatre, or culturally diverse theatre, when we are not even literate in the breadth and diversity of what this work entails?


To quote comedian Nile Seguin, “Racism is like the social Snuffalupagus. You see it every day, yet no one believes you.” We cannot have The Conversation if we do not at minimum acknowledge the power and privilege that permeate Canadian society along identity-based lines. This inequality is tangible and persistent, as it for example allows white men to make an average of $20,123 annually more than racialized women (Galabuzi). The arts sector is not immune from these inequalities, where visible minority artists make 11% less than those of the mainstream, and Aboriginal artists make 28% less (Capriotti and Hill).

Despite this reality, illusions of a post-racial world persist. Another friend, over a different beer, confessed his exasperation with equity funding programs for culturally diverse and Aboriginal artists. “It’s like reverse racism,” he said. This judgment is emblematic of how the arena of professional artistic practice resists acknowledging the cultural normativity that impedes certain artists from full participation (and the corresponding need for affirmative action programs like the Equity office) by framing itself as a liberalistic cutthroat meritocracy. A liberal society defines its boundaries “not in terms of culture or tradition, but as the agreement on supposedly ‘neutral’ procedures” that are “justified in utilitarian terms […] necessary to assure individual freedoms from constraints” (Winter 46). The Canadian theatre ecology has historically reflected this view, where the “artist” is an individual creating the best work they can and battling for roles, residencies, grant money, teaching positions, etc. in an admittedly competitive industry.

The problem with classic liberalism lies in the presumption of a playing field where no culture or tradition is privileged over another. With regard to theatre-making in Canada, the dominant British-derived culture plays a significant role in dictating the conventions and standards of an individual’s perceived artistic ability. Axiomatically, “artistic excellence” is a culturally normative concept; there are no rules inherent in the cosmos that govern what is or is not artistically meritorious, or how a work may or may not resonate with an audience member. What Western culture has instead is a foundational canon of classic works whose presumed worth is so deeply engrained in the collective unconscious that it is often mistaken for scientific fact. Shakespeare is studied by theatre students on all continents—but is this because he was the best playwright to have ever lived, or because he is regarded as the best English playwright to have ever lived and the British merely did the best job of imposing worldwide cultural influence through the colonizing of a record number of lands and peoples? The visible minority artist deals with all of the same challenges facing theatre artists in liberal society, but must further negotiate their otherness in a white, Eurocentric theatre ecology.

How can we move past the cultural normativity of Canadian theatre when we do not take the time to reflect on and acknowledge that this normativity exists?


Edmonton’s Wishbone Theatre’s recently hosted “Mapping Cultures: Engaging Artistic Expression in Edmonton,” a great initiative designed in part to address questions about who can speak for whom when minority cultures are represented on stage. Although it was a stimulating Conversation, the general tone made apparent to me that the central question—“Who can speak for whom?”—does not sit well with liberal conceptions of the artist. The artist in liberal society should be able to create the art they want and tell whatever stories they want, even (if not especially) when the stories belong to others. That’s what most theatre is, after all: people pretending to be other people. Art, however, does not exist within a post-colonial vacuum. The West has a long history of reducing and commodifying the other in a variety of media, and when artists from the mainstream are afforded the liberty to unilaterally represent the marginalized (and profit from these representations) without horizontal consultation, we only perpetuate these asymmetrical relations. Some of the most commercially successful theatre in past years have exemplified such cultural appropriation—the orientalism of Miss Saigon and the neo-minstrelsy of Show Boat, which came to Toronto in the 1990s via the Mirvishes and Livent Inc., respectively, come to mind. The aforementioned beginnings of Aboriginal theatre in Canada provide other examples. The Western inclination is to frame social reality “in ways consistent with European ideals of desirability, normality, and acceptability, while dismissing alternative frames or perspectives as inferior, irrelevant, or threatening” (Fleras 44).

When community-engaged artists argue that stories are best told by those who have lived them, it is not meant to homogenize or ghettoize all who identify with a given culture, nor is it to suggest that an individual artist can or should bear the burden of representing her entire culture. As Edward Said wrote, “No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points” (336). However, if we as theatre practitioners want to engage in cross-cultural storytelling, we will only move forward when we first consider how subaltern and dominant cultures are connected through legacies of power imbalance, and that these past relationships continue to have ramifications in the present. By all means, The Conversation can include debates about metonymy and mimesis, how to best stage traumatic stories, and the relationship between a story and its storyteller. But let us approach these debates with a mindfulness of the histories and economies that surround cultural representation in a post-colonial world.


Canada’s “big-M” Multiculturalism is a product of liberal society. Smaro Kamboureli describes Multiculturalism as practising a “sedative politics, a politics that attempts to recognize ethnic differences but only in a contained fashion, in order to manage them,” and thus professes pluralism without actually “disturbing the conventional articulation of the Canadian dominant society” (82). A Multiculturalism that limits the definition of cultural identity to food and clothing preferences obscures the systemic issues—like racism, xenophobia, and Eurocentricism—that underlie the need for such policy in the first place. This manifests in the performing arts as white bodies, and Eurocentric narratives are privileged as baseline “Canadian” while racialized bodies and diasporic and Aboriginal narratives are relegated to otherness, at best tokenized and at worst deemed incompatible with normative Canadiana.

In popular conversations about cultural diversity and the theatre, the dialogue has tended to focus on skin colour, visible minority actors, and colour-blind or “non-traditional” casting: the Canadian Theatre Critics Association hosted a 2010 panel on Non-Traditional Casting and Criticism, and the theatre media buzzes when classics are produced with multicultural casts. Non-traditional casting has been an important stride toward equity for non-white actors, but is far from the core issues and in some ways functions like a “big-M” policy of containment. All colour-blind casting in itself allows is for racialized individuals to be participants in a still-dominant white theatre. With respect to culturally diverse characters, sociologist Augie Fleras writes, “Minorities are rendered acceptable by media if their appearance or actions coincide with mainstream expectations or values […] minorities whose differences are perceived as problematic are whitewashed by sanitizing them for mainstream palates” (66). Colour-blind casting can thus be seen as yet another way of containing diversity, for it masks the deeper issue of truly culturally diverse roles and voices on stage. The focus on colour-blind casting is an oversimplification that brands the conversation as a (liberal) tale of individuals with different skin colours finding ways to work together, when it instead needs to be an analysis of how groups have had unequal access to creating social narratives, rooted in a history of nonrecognition and misrecognition. The Conversation of equity and equality in the Canadian theatre demands a vocabulary of social justice more nuanced than what liberal ideology will allow.

Reading the first panel description at Puente’s symposium, I was concerned that the whole allocated time for this Conversation would be spent reviewing the basics, as the room came to a collective understanding of why we were having The Conversation at all. To an extent, it was. But, as a group, we moved forward as best as we could. As Ted Little said in his opening address at the symposium, “For as long as the neoliberal myth has been under construction, community-engaged artists have been dedicated to representation for and by the marginalized, countering the isolation of the individual, and providing a voice in defense of the Common Good.” The Conversation during that first panel as well as the rest of the programming did succeed in provoking new questions and creating a framework for artists to share their current challenges and successes. In the panel “Training: The Performer in a Multicultural Society,” Majdi Bou-Matar, Krystal Cook, Janis Dunning, and the audience had a heated but productive Conversation about the lack of cultural diversity in theatrical training institutions and the Eurocentric foundations upon which these institutions operate. Theatre SKAM presented the tremendous one-man show Cariboo Buckaroo, which Matthew Payne devised in close cooperation with members of British Columbia’s Cariboo-Chilcotin community. The performance was followed by an uplifting Conversation about how to construct meaningful intercultural partnerships. During the panel “The Importance of Partnership and Collaboration,” Diane Roberts of urban ink and Valerie Wong of Visceral Visions described a forthcoming project between their companies and the Vancouver Playhouse, an inspiring example of horizontal collaboration between artistic groups with different levels of economic clout.

The Vancouver Playhouse, however, announced in March that it would be forced to shut down. The fact that one of the country’s largest and oldest regional theatres has closed is simultaneously sad and symptomatic of the need for the Canadian theatre industry to critically reexamine its modes of operation. Arts funding and ticket sales are low; reflexivity should be high. The industry must ensure it is truly relevant to contemporary Canadian society in all its diverse colour and character, both as a matter of social justice and as the key to the industry’s survival. We need to continue to have Conversations and take action inspired by our discussions. But we must remember the importance of contemplation before we sit down for conversation. Working to build a Canadian theatre that reflects Canadian society will enrich our collective practice and restore popular faith in the art as a necessary and vital part of civic society.

Works Cited

“Ad Hoc Assembly.” Obsidian Theatre Company. 9 November 2010. obsidian Theatre. 10
January 2012. Web.

Breon , Robin. “The Growth and Develoment of Black Theatre in Canada: A Starting Point.” African-Canadian Theatre. Ed. Moynagh, Maureen A. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2005.

Capriotti, Kathleen, and Kelly Hill. A Statistical Profile of Artists in Canada: Based on the 2006 Census. Hamilton, ont.: Hill Strategies Research, 2009. Web.

Fleras, Augie. The Media Gaze: Representations of Diversities in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.

Galabuzi, Grace-Edward. “Race and the Canadian Project in the Twenty-First Century.” Lecture. Centre for Race and Culture. Telus Centre Auditorium, Edmonton. 23 March 2012.

Kamboureli, Smaro. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature In English Canada. USA: oxford University Press, 2000.

Nolan, Yvette. “Aboriginal Theatre in Canada.” Aboriginal Theatre in Canada: An Overview. ottawa: National Arts Centre, 2008.

off, Carol. “Heritage or Cultural Evolution: Federal Policy on Multiculturalism and the Arts.” “Ethnic,” Multicultural, and Intercultural Theatre. Ed. Ric Knowles and Ingrid Mündel. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2009.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Statistics Canada. “Study: Canada’s Visible Minority Population in 2017.” 22 March
2005. Web.

Taylor, Charles, et al. Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Ed. and intro by Amy Gutman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Winter, Elke. Us, Them and Others: Pluralism and National Identity in Diverse Societies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. Print.
Yoon, Jean. “Chinese Theatre In Canada: The Bigger Picture.” Canadian Theatre Review 110 (2002): 5-11.

At the time of printing, Nikki Shaffeeullah was an actor, director, improviser, and community-based theatre facilitator who had worked on many theatre-for-development projects across Canada and internationally. She was then an MfA candidate in the University of Alberta’s Department of Drama, where she was completing her thesis, Staging Diversity: A Practical Investigation of Community-Based Theatre and the Settlement Process. Nikki holds a BA in International Development Studies and theatre from McGill University.