(Re)presenting Culture in Canadian Theatre

  • Ingrid Mündel (Author) and Ric Knowles (Author)
    "Ethnic," Multicultural, and Intercultural Theatre.
Reviewed by Sarah MacKenzie

True to the book’s title, the essays in this volume map the history of “ethnic” and “multicultural” theatre in Canada, revealing the progression of minoritized performance from relegated “amateur status” to a position of prominence on the Canadian stage. To their credit, the editors contextualize the changing face of “multicultural” theatre as it exists within the fraught space of Canadian nationhood, pointing to the importance of “intercultural” performance as mechanism of national cohesion.

In tracing the “critical histories” of minoritized theatre in Canada, the essays reveal that lack of access to funding has historically hindered the artistic success of groups deemed by the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms to be “folkloric ‘ethnicities.’” Funding for such groups was delivered through the Multiculturalism Directorate rather than the Arts Councils. While constitutional change initiated in 1988 did not necessarily increase the benefits showered upon “ethnic” theatre groups, it did put an end to the “binary” funding system that separated dominant (French/English) theatre from “ethnic” (all visible minority groups, including Aboriginal Canadians) theatre. Beginning in 1991, “multicultural” groups in Canada were entitled to seek funding from Canada’s Arts Councils. The structural shift in the late 1980s provided minoritized theatre groups with more respect and agency, thereby establishing an increased presence of such groups at the professional level. Situated early in the anthology are essays by Carol Off, Beverly Yhap, and Mayte Gómez all of which, published in the late 1980s, touch upon issues of funding and professionalization.
The “ethnic” struggle for space in the realm of professional Canadian theatre illuminated, the essays contend with the question of represented identity in theatre, including concerns about the perpetuation of stereotypes. Given the historic misrepresentation of minoritized communities, playwrights need be cautious when “exposing divisions within their communities.” Angela Baldassarre’s piece deals with intergenerational conflict concerning identity, representation, and what ought not to be shown in public, while Guillermo Verdecchia raises further concerns about dominant culture audiences consuming minoritized theatre. Marie Annheart Baker stresses her discomfort with reoccurring portrayals of Aboriginal women as degraded victims. Lorna Gale and Christine Lenze observe the importance of audience and context, implying that active, responsible viewership on behalf of audiences is integral in “intercultural” contexts.

Jerry Wasserman’s essay suggests that with increased stage presence, “ethnic” dramatists are provided enhanced opportunity to explore conceptions of cultural fluidity, destabilising the boundaries between dominant and minority cultures. Wasserman argues that minoritized playwrights “work to undermine the unwritten restrictive covenants that threaten to delimit Canadian theatre and the Canadian identity.” Rather than working to “pin down the specific contours of ethnicity,” the essays deconstruct the very notion of “ethnicity.” Ric Knowles explores the function of “cultural memory” in theatre, noting that “memory is performative” and “all cultural memory bridges difference.” Knowles demonstrates the way in which cultural memory “plays itself out” in diasporic communities, transforming to become “intercultural.” Paralleling Knowles, Joanne Tompkins depicts theatrical “interculturalism” positively as a conduit to “cultural exchange across borders.” In her concluding essay, Michelle Laflamme asserts that theatre is particularly useful in destabilizing racial categories by highlighting the performative quality of mixed-race identity.
Ultimately, this volume provides a relevant and timely contribution to the body of literature pertaining to “ethnic” theatre in Canada. By portraying both the important role of theatre as a tool of cultural representation and as a reflection of the complexity of Canadian identity, the essays depict the artistic vitality of a range of cultures present in the “multicultural” Canadian landscape, while simultaneously emphasizing the socially transformative capacity of theatre.

This review “(Re)presenting Culture in Canadian Theatre” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 167-168.

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