Staging Displacement: Producing and Presenting Difference

Staging Displacement: Producing and Presenting Difference
Impact 11 Festival and Conference, September 21 – 25, 2011
This conference was organized by MT Space in Kitchener, Ontario as part of its international intercultural
theatre festival. The conference looked at displacement as a common ground for Aboriginal and
immigrant theatre practitioners in Canada, and for performing arts presenters who are seeking work
that speaks to their communities. In collaboration with Performance Creation Canada (PCC), Cultural
Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario (CPAMO), and CCI (Ontario presenting network), IMPACT 11
featured four days of panel presentations, discussions, and networking events with artists, producers
and presenters from across Canada, and of course numerous Festival performances on the streets and in
the theatres of Kitchener.
One premise of the conference was that “Theatre is the space in which we build communities, and the
medium through which we fight for equity and social justice.”
Another starting point was that “Canadian theatre’s success and growth is dependent on its ability to
engage a wider range of audiences from the immigrant and Aboriginal communities, as well as its ability
to attract the younger crowds of the high school and university populations.”
8 different panels, each building on the other, explored:
- Staging The Art of Displacement and Presenting the Art of Displacement
- Building Alliances 1– Partnershipsand Building Alliances 2 – Colonizing the Web
- Interwoven 1 – Interculture/Interdiscipline and Interwoven 2 – Intergeneration, Blood Quantum
and Language
- Decolonizing the Structure and a Concluding Panel
Between 50 and 70 participants, primarily from Aboriginal and immigrant communities attended some
or all of the conference. CCI was represented by its executive director who shared information on the
showcases, festival performances and the conference proceedings with his members.
Over the course of the four days a far-reaching exploration unfolded. This summary is focussed on
perspectives as they relate to arts presentation.
Participants fulfill many roles in performing arts
It was striking how most participants fulfilled multiple roles in the artistic eco-system. Often starting out
as creators and artists, these predominantly of aboriginal or immigrant artists found that it was difficult
to get their work produced. So they formed theatre or dance companies. Then they found it was difficult
to have their work presented, so they became presenters. Furthermore, at times not fitting the
prescribed arts fields by being inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary artists, by mainstream definition,
meant they needed to forge new paths. As a result, participants and panelists had blazed trails and
created openings for dialogue and exchange previously unrealized. These leaders continue to advance
an inclusive, multi-faceted, contemporary artistic experience for people from any walk of life and
In this context the idea of growing an alternative artistic and presenting eco-system that over time has
and continues to create change within the mainstream was briefly alluded to by a mainstream
Theatre grounded in community
This conference made clear that theatre, dance and other performing arts have a tremendous power to
bring people together, to share experiences through the arts, and to share experiences across
difference, across cultures, in short, create community.
The majority of work discussed was firmly grounded in community. MT Space, a theatre company and
presenter, explained how their creation process is predicated on community. When an idea emerges,
MT Space begins to develop a community of interested people around that idea. The idea then grows
and takes form over time with the support of its community; this is a dynamic process where the
community becomes a shaper of the idea alongside the artists. Some ideas engender small communities
and some larger ones. This is in contrast to the concept of artistic creation being only the purview of
professionally trained artists whose work is brought to an audience only once it is completed. The MT
Space approach exemplifies how community building and bringing different people together can be at
the heart of a theatre.
Another concept discussed described how the artist’s motivation stemmed from their own culturally
defined community, for instance a First nations community or the Filipino community, and the desire to
give voice and reflect back to that community something about its own experiences, to reclaim its own
culture and cultural expression. Creating such work - especially when seeking broader presentation or
distribution - was seen as a social and political act, even if the work itself was not intended as political.
Using art and performance was used to help communities reconnect with lost languages, lost knowledge
and reengage and reactivate the peoples’ own stories. In that way, performing arts provided a pathway
and a catalyst for renewed cultural connection.
Developing audiences in own community and in mainstream
A thread throughout the conversations was that some progress has been made in having broader
experiences, experiences based in diverse cultural contexts, available on mainstream presenters’ stages.
Yet, there was also a sense that mainstream presenters’ solutions to diversifying programming were
often based on a quota, either explicit or implicit, rather than the merit of the work. One piece on a
season seemed to be the average (in a single catch all category of “aboriginal-visible minorityimmigrant”).
There was a sense that presenters tended to insufficiently consider audience building in connection to
these pieces. This gave rise to the opinion that the work itself might at times be a secondary
consideration for presenters.
Yet, audience development cut both ways: contemporary artists who are grounded in a specific cultural
group’s experience and wish to give voice to those experiences find that they do not necessarily have a
large audience from their own community coming to see their work. Reasons cited ranged from basic
audience development concern to minority cultural groups being less interested in contemporaneous
art venues being located outside the geographic comfort zones of some communities, to
artists/companies not having their own suitable venues, to not having the time or resources to develop
audiences while also creating the work. That in turn means presenters cannot make assumptions about
artists bringing a built-in audience or fan base, any more than they would for many other touring
Conversely, when mainstream presenters book culturally diverse work, participants have found that
their usual audience is less likely to attend and, moreover, that little audience preparation is
undertaken. This is compounded with some audiences’ outdated view that Aboriginal work, for instance,
will be “heavy” and that Caucasian-based audiences (original settlers from the UK or France) may feel
“guilty.” This stands in contrast to the reality described of contemporaneous Aboriginal works being less
focussed on the stories of systemic abuses and drawing from the full spectrum of multi-faceted
Aboriginal experience and genres of expression, including–notably−humour.
Some participants also described experiences of various minority groups watching work about each
other’s experiences, indicating that there is interest that can be fostered across cultural boundaries
without compromising artistic integrity; this exchange was thought to be important as it builds bridges
between many different people.
When programming is used as a primary tool for audience development or audience diversification, the
discussions made clear that assumptions about who the work is for, what the work is about and why
audiences might enjoy attending had to be more fully examined between artists, producers and
presenters. “Aboriginal work” does not by definition draw an aboriginal audience any more than
“Filipino work” draws a Filipino audience. The interest and cross-overs may not always be obvious but
experience has shown that they do exist.
In this vein of contemplating ‘evolving audiences,’ a Calgary-based presenter described his experience of
having grown from a collection of actors using found spaces to self-present their work in the 1980s with
20 or 25 people attending, mostly friends and acquaintances, to a month-long international festival that
draws tens of thousands to a variety of venues and, as a result, not really knowing who attends
anymore. He explained that they now try to understand their audience using surveying and paying
attention to demographics a lot more. This is a useful tool in many ways including in communicating
back to the community, the city and funders.
Building and working in partnerships
Cultural differences were understood in the broadest sense. From working across socio- and ethnocultural differences, to dealing with differences in organization size, budget and capacity, to differences
in objectives, values and modes of working and decision-making, as well as organizational structures.
Assumptions were identified as the antithesis to successful partnerships.
The panelists shared experiences of various types of partnerships:
A philosophy of partnership predicated on “how can I help the next person and honour who
came before me.” Often these partnerships deal with mentorship, sharing skills, knowledge and
experience; and not only for younger people, but across ages based on skills and experience.
An artistic partnership between dancer, playwright and presenter meant that the partners had
to learn to speak to a presenter, understand the values they themselves held and they
encountered among their partners and in so doing negotiate differing values and emphasis on
values. While the process had challenges, the outcome worked.
A partnership between a struggling not-for-profit arts organization and a Chamber of Commerce
formed for the purpose of fundraising that was challenging as expectations were not clearly
spelled out, the relationship was not based on mutual trust, and financial parameters were
imposed late in the process by the commercially-oriented partner.
A not-for-profit art project approached colleges and universities to form a collaborative
partnership capable of realizing an ambitious project. Significant funds were raised, support
from student performers was rallied, as well as a student production team was created that
could both mount the project and learn essential skills relating to their artistic and technical
studies. This collaboration brought together about 165 people from across the country; a
collaboration that 20 years later still pays dividends in the relationships and connections that
were formed.
Corporate sponsorships and partnerships were identified by participants as a particular challenge. There
was a sense that corporate business/success measures were not useful and there was not a natural
common language. It was thought that one key to success across the cultural divide in terms of both
business and cultural diversity was to find the sympathetic insider who could become a champion and
aid the evolution of a common language and champion the partnership. Another aspect discussed was
to not succumb to the idea that business is all about the numbers; businesses interested in supporting
the arts may be interested in the things that theatre and dance has to offer to artists, to their
community, and to the company in creative ways, too – and beyond attending audience.
The idea of “match” artistic endeavours to corporate partners or sponsors interests was brought
forward. The discussion suggested that as long as it fits the artistic aspiration, certain angles might be
worth pursuing. For instance, youth and education have yielded well-aligned partnerships, as have some
social causes.
There were numerous creative partnerships brought forward that had provided openings for innovative
and beneficial partnerships. Theatre’s power to cut through the façade and show experiences and make
them real is an important asset. This was obvious in the example of a law school inviting an aboriginal
theatre company to perform at graduation – the performance helped the graduating class to see law
from a new perspective and made a powerful impact as people were about to begin their law practice.
This speaks to another idea, of social acupuncture, of change that often comes from the edge and brings
a new energy to old structures.
Business borrows the language of the arts often; and yet there is a pervasiveness of a business language
imposed on the artist.
Instead, artists can take the opportunity to hone their story and excite and enthral their partners, both
larger and smaller, with the possibilities of collaborating, being open and looking for opportunities.
Looking for commonalities, learning more about each other, being open and taking some risks in the
process were seen as opportunities to advance successful partnerships, artistically and in other ways.
Layers of respecting difference
This conference brought forward the careful weighing of the differences between Aboriginal peoples
and recent immigrants who come from a wide variety of countries, increasingly non-European.
Participants undertook a careful navigation of issues of privilege from various perspectives, not only in
terms of the original British and French settlers of Canada.
There was a sense that art offers a powerful and unique vehicle for respecting difference and
transporting experiences across difference.
This included navigating issues of cultural appropriation relating to stories and cultural expressions as
they exist in someone’s country of origin’s indigenous cultures, and whether and how they can take
these stories and re-create them in their new contexts. Panelists shared how such permission was
sought from Elders to bring stories from one place to another while creating a new, contemporaneous
work that is meaningful and respectful of both realities.
Evolving a common understanding: Language and meaning
Language in its manifold dimensions was a recurring theme.
Language was seen as a barrier as much as a potential enabler. The barriers tended to be about the
misunderstandings that come from the negotiation of space between dominant culture and other
cultures. Assumptions coming from the dominant culture context were seen as often problematic
because concepts and their interpretation are not identical across cultures. That means those
communications have to negotiate both the sending of a message and its reception more carefully.
For example, one panelist explained that to many Aboriginal people Pow Wow is a contemporary
performing arts concept while the current mainstream culture tends to regard it as traditional, folkloric,
part of ritual and usually not art.
Forms of art presentation can differ greatly. In various cultures there is no division between life and art.
It exists as one. For instance, much of Aboriginal performance is participatory and grows out of
celebrations, rituals and sharing in the community. Such a concept is difficult to make space for on the
stage of a European-based performing arts system and its formal divisions between performer and
audience. The Canadian mainstream culture delineates sharply between life and art, and tends to see
them as different activities and modes of being.
Participants coming from immigrant communities, found similar challenges but from a different
perspective: while the First Nations Peoples were displaced by European settlers making new colonies
for themselves, new immigrants to this country often with a colonial legacy are negotiating their own
displacement, finding new footing and wanting to be respectful of the ancient land we inhabit and the
country we live in at the same time.
Many felt that the limitations of language can be overcome through listening deeply and with the intent
to gain understanding across difference. They felt that theatre and dance could overcome some of the
barriers posed by language because both are modes that show rather than tell.
Online technologies to disseminate art and build community
Panelists see online technology as a way to create and disseminate artistic and cultural experiences.
One panelist shared their experiences of building a Filipino art and cultural centre and web site
enabling sharing among a global Filipino community, rather than being place-bound. The depth
of engagement of the diaspora from various countries, while building a local youth arts and
cultural centre highlighted the web’s power of distributed creation (several people working on
the same project across time and space) and distributing creative ideas.
An aboriginal media artist demonstrate his multi-media work, moving fluidly from his complex
multi-media performance pieces to such a piece being videotaped, edited and produced to be
disseminated further online. He referred to his laptop as being the same as his grandfather’s
A third panelist showcased a unique iPad app in development called Native Earth that will
enable users to locate which peoples land they are on, and historically who has inhabited the
land. This app will have a blog component as well as some information will invariably require
updating as this information is difficult to verify at times. This app is part of a web portal that
will be used to create awareness, education, in partnership with Seneca College, through
interactive video, games and information. A theatre organization is creating these tools as an
extension of their mandate.
These online modes of creation and dissemination do present a different model compared to live
theatre. Understanding what that means to the mashing up of art forms, skill sets and audiences is
evolving. There are no definitive answers, other than it is well worth experimenting.
These leading examples of disseminating performing arts via online modes were presented as the
beginning of new opportunities to create and disseminate in the future. One speaker proposed that the
current technology innovations that are coming will enable artistic expressions and their dissemination,
and reaching audiences beyond most people’s imaginations.
Online marketing
When discussing online media, the discussion also veered toward the use of Facebook and other social
media to build audiences. There was a sense that these tools had initial appeal and worked and then
they quickly became ineffective.
While this frustration was shared by some, there was a stronger sense that social networks are just that,
social networks, rather than merely a sales channel. As such, the ways to use these tools had to be
specific to what they were good at rather than wondering why ticket sales are not forth coming. Building
relationships and being prepared to engage in conversations are the Facebook mode. Twitter is about
pushing out news via web links. Blogs are about opinion and experiences, often in a longer format.
Funding – why are you a non-profit?
A panelist on the final day suggested a rethinking of why arts organizations are structured as non-profit
organizations. The suggestion was made that the primary reason for adopting a non-profit corporation
structure is to become eligible for government funding.
Yet, there is a cost to going after this funding: in administrative resources, proposal writing, responding
to funder’s priorities, waiting for an answer, and so on. Structurally, non-profit organizations must have
quite elaborate administrative structures including a board of directors which must be recruited,
nurtured and trained in order to be useful to the organization over time.
The panelist suggested that while government funding can be important, other ways of working and
organizing may get some projects/organizations to their goal faster or more effectively.
This discussion did not suggest that public funding was unimportant. On the contrary, it aimed to open
another avenue of contemplation in terms of how to meet specific artistic goals.
Conference Organizers, Partners and Panelists:
Majdi Bou-Matar, Pam Patel, Yvette Nolan, Rick Knowles, Charles Smith, Warren Garrett, Michael Green,
Guillermo Verdecchia, Nina Lee Aquino, Falen Johnson, Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, Margo Kane, Franco
Boni, Inga Petri, Naomi Campbell, Brenda Leadlay, Tara Beagan, Archer Pechawis,
Jed DeCory, Christine Mangosing, Adhri Zhina Mandiela, Lee Su-Feh, Nisha Ahuja, Cathy
Gordon, Monique Mojica, Jay Hirabayashi, Bea Pizano, Angela Rebeiro, Pat Bradle, Marrie Mumford
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