The heated discussion around actress Janet Suzman’s statement that theatre is an invention of white people made for white people has triggered many debates around the world and I also feel that I have an obligation of expressing my thoughts.
Although stamped as British, Suzman comes originally from South Africa, so she will understand deeper than many colleagues of hers what international theatre means. Having visited Tanzania a decade ago, I had the privilege of seeing Masai tribes performing the ‘Jump Act’, when each tribe’s man will try to jump off the other in order to establish the alpha male. It is beautiful, it is intense and it is ritualistic – and yes, it is theatre because people watch. Suzman was unfortunate to not explain herself properly, because I am certain that she will know all about different performances all over the world and still call theatre those performances which do not resemble Shakespeare not even by far.
Augusto Boal said that “we don’t make theatre, we are theatre” and this is exactly the point. All around the globe there will be people performing in alternative spaces, or even performing without realizing that they are performing, trying to be someone that they are not at home, school, work, among friends.
But back to Suzman, one thing is to say that the theatre is a white invention, the other is to state that the majority of theatre audiences constitute of middle class white people. I actually agree with that. Speaking of an English speaking world, minorities like Hispanics, Asians and Blacks might feel out of place when visiting a traditional theatre because they are not used to that because their families did not have the habit of taking them to these types of ‘white folks’ performances. Still, they will be experts about their own cultural traditions.
Posh theatres can be scary places. In Moscow, for example, where I lived two and a half years, I always found astonishing the difference between the auditorium of the Bolshoi Theatre and the Moscow Arts Theatre. While one was made for royalty, the other one was constructed for the proletariat. When simple citizens would watch a ballet or an opera at the Bolshoi, they would ‘overdress’ with long glittery gowns and wear fake eye-lashes not knowing that although the Bolshoi requires fine dressing to honour the venue and the artists, it is not a State Ball hosted by the Kremlin. These audiences rushing from the metro station with the gowns, high-heels and make-up in a plastic bag under the arms into the theatre’s public bathrooms for the transformation into ‘chic characters’ was as curious for me to watch as the performance on stage itself. My question is if these people felt confortable doing it, pretending to be people they were not (and truly, that nobody is, as chic people do not dress gowns made of cheap, plastic-looking fabric for the opera, when an elegant outfit would do nowadays). What is really better, to impose one’s lifestyle in others, what also can be understood as offering them a broader point of view, or let the audience feel comfortable in their own districts, in buildings where they won’t feel overwhelmed? I believe that there is no easy answer. Offering cheaper tickets in fancy theatres in certain days of the week could be a peace offering for those who claim that they are always left out, but allowing the community to feel at home in a unpretentious venue near from home should be their right and a duty from the government.
It is not easy to move people to feel like part of a theatre community. For one, most people will think that they have no business in or around a theatre for their background, then some will feel afraid of taking a leap of faith towards doing something that they never thought they could be doing one day, for fun or even as an alternative of life which doesn’t promise money, but promises fulfilment. Like Suzmann, I must generalize now: Random people don’t wish to get involved when offered a chance, as free time nowadays is luxury and they think and rethink and think again when choosing what to do with it, regardless of the options being free of charge and/or in a neutral ambience without obvious attachments to class. How Boal achieved such an immense success with community theatre remains a mystery for me. Perhaps it was about his persona, or a sort of clever, yet devilish approach, which wouldn’t allow any escapes. Like forcing a child to eat a certain dish that looks disgusting but has a mouth-watering taste. How could a child know if the food is delicious or not without being ‘forced’ to taste it? In this case, the adult who forced it on the child did her a favour – like Boal forcing down culture in non-theatre folks.
I have never directed in professional theatres, however I do have my share with community theatre. In South Korea, where I resided in Seoul for four years, I was part of a group called Seoul Players. This group reached out to the English speaking community to join them in a series of festivals in fringe venues. There is when I started writing short plays and started directing them. I felt that I had the chance to try and even fail and this experience was defining for me, as I decided to study theatre properly. This group was made of the most diverse nationalities that one could think of and the result was a mixed audience as well: American GIs (black, white, yellow), British English Teachers, South American housewives (me), Korean happy-go-luckies and other adventurous business men and women in their free time… But how did they get to so many people? It is clear that participating in such events was a ‘cool’ thing to do, but why does the same concept does not work in Beijing, for example? Fear of the government? Or does Beijing offer so much more as a city that people prefer to check out the endless list of outstanding restaurants, bars, parks and professional productions in English that they do not feel the urge to doing art themselves when they can just watch it? There is an Improv International Community Theatre here, but despite a loyal audience, they are always desperately begging for a broader attention. I produced and directed a large variety show (Varieté Show for International Women’s Day at Penghao Theatre) three years ago here with a group counting more than 60 participants willing to work for free as the proceeds would go to charity, but getting all this people together was not an easy task.
Later, I tried to mount a Molière production (The Doctor in Spite of Himself) with bored parents of the British International School, but although they seemed excited by hearing the news first, only five percent of the total number of people that I would have needed showed up. Now I am proposing a 24 Hour Theatre for March 2015. Advertisements are up, website is ready, but until now, only a few number of participants showed commitment. I will still try a last-minute desperate approach, but I am not feeling that this is what expat parents want to do, as shopping and beauty parlours, champagne breakfasts and fancy luncheons suit their idea for having a good time better rather than ‘making a fool of themselves’ in front of others.
So, yes, evoking the community’s sensibility towards theatre has a direct link to the kind of audience one will find. Also, I argue whether defining the colour of the audience doesn’t have to do with the colour of the cast and the colour of the production. What I mean by colour of the production is its tone: what, how, by whom, then the question to whom and where will be easier to establish. In Edinburgh Fringe Festival I watched two years ago Nirbhaya, a play about the rape and murder of a girl in a bus that shocked India and the world. The colour of audience? Like a rainbow. Because of the high percentage of Indians nationals in Britain I believe that other ethnical minority group naturally attach to them feeling a part of a whole, with this whole being non-British.
Truth is that although one tries to reach out and banish some of cultural barriers, people will mostly feel more at ease with their own kind. Living as an expat for almost seventeen years, I guarantee that ethnic groups will search their own kind despite having a few international acquaintances. It is sad, as it is an opportunity for breaking down clichés and pre-conceived ideas about certain nationalities, but it is the way the world is. Brook might find it good, perhaps, as he believes that globalization kills the flavours of the world, what it is true in some sense, but intercultural exchange is important, otherwise theatres and alternative production spaces will continue being mainly white or black or yellow.
Luciana B. Veit