Performing Canidentities

  • Moira Day
    West-Words: Celebrating Western Canadian Theatre and Playwriting. Canadian Plains Research Center
  • Ric Knowles (Editor) and Nina Lee Aquino (Editor)
    Asian Canadian Theatre: New Essays on Canadian Theatre, Volume One. Playwrights Canada Press

As its General Editor Ric Knowles explains, the New Essays in Canadian Theatre series consists of newly commissioned essay collections acting as companions to an anthology of plays in a combination that will be of particular interest for teachers of Canadian theatre courses. The opening book in the series, Asian Canadian Theatre, grew out of GENesis: Asian-Canadian Theatre Conference, held in Toronto in 2010. It brings together over twenty essays by academics and members of the theatre industry as a companion to Love and Relasianships, edited by Nina Lee Aquino. As the first collection ever published on Asian Canadian theatre, this is certainly a groundbreaking achievement, and one that is made all the more remarkable by its comprehensive approach to the field, drawing equally from the theory and the practice of drama.

Several essays consider the nuanced contours of the emerging field (Karen Shimakawa), its history in connection to Asian Canadian cultural arts organizations and activism (Dongshin Chang and Xiaoping Li), and its radical potential to interrupt hegemonic discourses (Sean Metzger). Attention is paid as well to intercultural negotiations with the Asian homeland (Daphne Lei and Siyuan Liu), to the performative use of space (Jenna Rodgers), or to the conjunction of race and comedy (Thy Phu). Other scholars provide an overview of the work being carried out by companies such as Concrete Theatre (Anne Nothof) and Carlos Bulosan Theatre (Ric Knowles), or else by playwrights like Jean Yoon (Esther Kim Lee). Shelley Scott pursues the convergence of feminism and anti-racism, whereas Eleanor Ty approaches drama from the frameworks of memory and migration studies, and Donald Goellnicht from queer theory. Finally, several chapters address the politics of recognition and the relation with the audience (Christopher Lee and Christine Kim).

The academic perspective is complemented by shorter pieces based on panel discussions held during the conference on a variety of topics. In these, dramatists and performers take stock of the work done so far, occasionally rehearsing some of the main arguments of the original discussion, but more often frankly sharing their personal views and experiences. Adrienne Wong and David Yee respectively discuss working in Vancouver and Toronto. Jean Yong muses on the younger generations distrust of professional associations. Brenda Kamino puzzles over the meaning of being a pioneer of Asian Canadian drama. Donald Woo sees mixed-race as an opportunity to create unique works. June Park shares her views on how Asian Canadian subjectivities coalesce in different ways depending on the place, and Jane Luk recounts her experiences with stereotypical Asian acting roles and accents.

Overall, the volume is not only extremely rich in factual and critical information but is also full of insightful and complex perceptions of Asian-Canadian theatre and its practitioners. A running thread through the collection is the relationship of playwrights and companies with the Asian Canadian community in its multiplicity, not only historic or geographic but also generational, as well as a critique of mainstream Canadian theatre in which Asian Canadians (and, for that matter, cultural diversity as a whole) are clearly under-represented. However, one misses in this collection a tidier structure that might provide readers with some guidance through what is a rather overwhelming accumulation of thought-provoking discussions.

West-Words: Celebrating Western Canadian Theatre grew from materials first presented at the conference held at the University of Saskatchewan in 2007, and it brings together scholars and theatre artists. Here the editor Moira J. Day has imposed a more reader-friendly structure, neatly dividing the collection into four sections, three for the prairie provinces in east to west order (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta), and a fourth on “Crossing Regional Borders.” The organization of the first three is similar, each section comprising an overview, two or more articles on theatres, theatre companies and dramaturgical centres, and ending with a focus on plays and playwrights. The last section has a freer format, the only common ground for its four essays being its cross-regional scope.

The Manitoba section starts the conversation with playwright Bruce McManus’ overview of the ups and downs of twenty-five years of writing for the theatre. Katherine Foster Grajewski thoughtfully weighs the implications of the small alternative theatre company Prairie Theatre Exchange’s move to a shopping mall. Hope McIntyre discusses the (mostly budgetary) problems encountered by the feminist company Saravasti in staging local playwrights, and Claire Borody deplores the continued marginalization of experimental theatre companies like Primus Theatre. In the closing essay, Glen Nichols redresses critical bias by analyzing four of Carol Shields’ published plays as theatrical pieces.

In the Saskatchewan section, Don Kerr’s overview stresses the strong role that the University of Saskatchewan has played since 1946 in the development of the theatre in the province whereas Pam Bustin accounts for the success of Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre in providing a space free from the tensions of the marketplace. Two interesting essays follow on the subject of minority theatre. Louise H. Forsyth explains how the only Francophone professional company has met the challenges of catering for a community scattered across the province, while Alan Long traces the origins of Aboriginal theatre in Saskatchewan to the activist plays developed by Maria Campbell since the 1970s. Ending this section, Wes Pearce explores the creation of a Prairie Gothic in Daniel Macdonald’s MacGregor’s Hard Ice Cream and Gas (2005).

Mieko Ouchi opens the Alberta section with an overview that highlights the connection between the province’s oil boom of the 1980s and the rise of theatrical activity and talent. Publishing plays, and specifically publishing Western Canadian plays, is the subject of Anne Nothof ’s chapter, followed by John Poulsen and Kathleen Foreman’s description of Wagonstage, the forty-year-old summer troupe bringing theatre to young audiences in Calgary. Moira Day’s essay addresses the politics of the arts coverage in the province as performed in Frank Moher’s 1988 comedy Prairie Report.

The collection closes with four interesting pieces on a variety of subjects: critical neglect of plays on the Great Depression written by Western Canadian women (Arnd Bohm); the reception of a play that interrogates both regional and gendered identities (Shelley Scott); the suitability or not of the very concept of regionalism as a form of cultural critique (Martin Pšenička); and the opening opportunities for creating new forms of audio drama (Allan Boss and Kelley Jo Burke). Like Asian Canadian Theatre, West-Words repeatedly points out the unequal access of larger theatres and small troupes to funding and facilities, as well as a certain marginalization of the more experimental companies. Moreover, they see the prairie theatre industry as disadvantaged in the larger federal context.

To sum up, the editors of these two collections have managed to gather a rich range of materials on Canadian theatre that, while being of most immediate usefulness in the classroom, can appeal to a much wider readership of people interested in drama and performance. Moreover, they attest to the strength and vitality of Canadian theatre today, charting its history, dwelling on past and present challenges, and envisioning new creative possibilities.

This review “Performing Canidentities” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 125-27.

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