Intercultural Toronto

  • Ric Knowles
    Performing the Intercultural City. University of Michigan Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Eury Chang

In the preface to Performing the Intercultural City, Ric Knowles alludes to the decade-long process of “building relationships, negotiating, and engaging in research that was necessarily more collaborative . . . than had previously been my scholarly habit.” His extensive research into intercultural theatre’s complexity has resulted in a compelling, accessible book. The playwrights, actors, and creators featured in these pages are represented as highly critical and creative beings pushing against staid forms and narratives.

The book is divided into three main parts: “Contexts,” “Dramaturgies,” and “Mediations.” Each chapter features specific artists, their shows, and various companies with whom the author has collaborated, principally as a dramaturge. Chapter One recalls Knowles’ other works, “Ethnic,” Multicultural, and Intercultural Theatre (co-edited with Ingrid Mundel, 2009), and theatre & interculturalism (2010), laying bare the theoretical foundation of his field. Chapter Two explores dramatic works with strong feminine content and perspectives, namely Anita Majumdar’s Fish Eyes—the solo show integrates the mudras and vocabulary from Bharatanatyam, Kathak, and Odissi dances—in addition to Catherine Hernandez’s Singki, a movement-based ensemble show. The latter, Knowles writes, is concerned “very much about mothers . . . daughters, and the transmission of cultural memory through performance.” Also packed into Chapter Two is an analysis of Ahmed Ghazali’s The Sheep and the Whale; given its representation of endangered refugees (however fictionalized), the play connects intricately to social issues at a time when news of mass migrations across national borders is abundant. Knowles also covers the work of MT Space and Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble, respectively.

Part Two focuses on the dramaturgy of Carlos Bulosan Theatre (CBT), starting with an in-depth unpacking of Miss Orient(ed), by Nina Lee Aquino and Nadine Villasin, credited as CBT’s first professional production. Instead of employing an Aristotelian dramatic structure, the show “focused, not on an individual hero or heroine . . . but on the messy identity issues of a conflicted, intergenerational community in diaspora.” CBT’s other shows are treated: People Power, in which “the subject was the Philippines, but the process and form were largely borrowed,” is discussed, as is CBT’s production of In the Shadow of Elephants. Knowles remains hyper-aware of his collaborators’ tendency to resist, transform, and at times emulate Western dramatic forms and ideologies. Chapter Four focuses specifically on contemporary Indigenous performance, foregrounding it as a pertinent aspect of Canadian theatre and interculturalism writ large. Chapter Five follows suit, focusing on artistic leaders from the Caribbean and their pioneering companies Black Theatre Canada, Black Theatre Workshop, and b current.

Part Three begins with an overview of Soheil Parsa’s Modern Times Stage Company’s adaptations of contemporary classics (Waiting for Godot) and mythology (Conference of the Birds) and other works, leading Knowles to brand the company’s aesthetic as “Iranian Canadian theatrical modernism.” Additionally, this section draws attention to Aluna Theatre and Cahoots Theatre, the latter of which produced the groundbreaking Write about Now conference (1990) and the Lift Off! Festival (1993-2006, 2014), signature events which have served minoritized playwrights over the years.

The book concludes by listing companies and shows under the names of artists, each described by parenthetical descriptions such as “Delaware,” “Indo Canadian,” or “Filipina.” Though I question the necessity of such culturally specific descriptions, I am not offended, confident in Knowles’ claim that cultural communities are internally diverse and multifaceted.

A few milestones and welcome changes in Canada’s arts scene took place recently and deserve mention here as they reveal historically marginalized artists as players within a shifting policy and funding context. In 2015, David Yee of fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre was awarded a Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama for carried away on the crest of a wave; in 2017, Kevin Loring became the National Arts Centre’s first Artistic Director of Indigenous Theatre; and in the same year, the Equity Office at the Canada Council for the Arts expanded its mission to include deaf and/or disabled artists and their practices. Diversity embraced?

Performing the Intercultural City is a dramaturgically sound and insightful book that explores a compelling cross-section of Toronto’s artistic scene. Knowles has lent his talents to a project that required patience, perseverance, and trust from artistic allies, resulting in a study of artistic personalities and practices that resists simple definition or easy homogenization.

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