South Asian Theatre in Canada – A Conversation

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Bhopal Play

Bhopal Photo Credit: Julius Adarna

 

With Editorial Assistance by Rusaba Alam.

Rungh hosted a conversation in June 2018 in Vancouver on the state of South Asian theatre in Canada with Rungh Editor, Zool Suleman (ZS); Rahul Varma (RV), the Artistic Director of Teesri Duniya Theatre in Montreal (who took part by phone); Jivesh Parasram (JP), who was then the Artistic Producer of Pandemic Theatre in Toronto and at date of publication is the Artistic Director of Rumble Theatre in Vancouver; Playwright, Zahida Rahemtulla (ZR); Kathleen Flaherty (KF), Dramaturge at the Playwrights Theatre Centre; and, Rohit Chokhani (RC), Artistic Director of Diwali in BC. Below is an edited version of the conversation which took place.

 
 

ZS: I want to thank you all for agreeing to meet today to deal with some of the issues which I'm broadly going to frame around South Asian theatre in Canada. What I wanted to start with is this very notion of what "South Asian" really means and how you all come to that in the work you do. Rahul, in your work over the past few decades, what does "South Asian theatre" mean to you?

RV: I was always interested in doing my theatre under two identities. That is "South Asian" and "Canadian," so that bridging is important. The idea is basically that we are have made the choice to come here in Canada, seeking our right as immigrant communities. By right I mean we're seeking equality in all possible areas, so we are obligated to create something new expressing our identity and our concerns. The word Canadian, that's the expression of our identity here in Canada, very different from the dominant culture and from others, but at the same time equal to them. The way I always describe it is "South Asian-Canadian," and in between a hyphen, and in that hyphen lives all the conflicting issues or all the important issues.

ZS: Rahul, you've worked for a long time in Montreal. Do you find that this idea of the hyphenated space is different in Quebec than in other parts of Canada?

RV: I do not think that in the world there exists anybody who does not have a dual identity. The white folks who have come here also refer to a British Canadian identity, so this is inseparable, it is impossible to not have the two identities. The hyphen or hybrid culture or dual culture, in that bridging exists our past and our present. Now in terms of Quebec, because their idea is to have a white francophone identity as central to the existence of Quebec, for me it is that much more important to continue to have South Asian-Canadian theatre that negates the centrality of the dominant culture, in this case French dominant culture.

ZS: In this regard, what are the realities in Ontario?

JP: I would say that it's similar, with South Asian-Canadian being a useful identifier. I'm not sure that I can fully agree on the topic of hyphenation. Maybe it is different in Ontario, but I feel like there's a push to say we're just Canadian in a broad sense, and that's shifting a bit in the arts perhaps more than other places. I myself am always hyphenated because I'm already Indo-Caribbean, so that is the first hyphenation no matter what. There's no way that I can say that's one uniform thing. Any form of separation within the diaspora forces some form of hyphenation. As we get into the works that we will be producing in Toronto right now, we work with this possibility of reframing where the hyphenization comes from. On one level it could come from dominant culture, but we address other intersections.

 
 
Open Space
 
 

ZS: That brings me to you, Zahida. I sat in on a reading of the play [The Wrong Bashir] you are working on right now [at the 2018 rEvolver Festival]. Could you respond to some of this in terms of the work you're doing with gender and intergenerational issues?

ZR: One of the things that I have been thinking a lot about lately is hyphenization within hyphenization. I feel like around 10 years ago there was a lot more visibility of South Asians in media, things like Bend it Like Beckham…, Hollywood all of these things, it felt like a lot of the culture that I grew up with was represented in the mainstream. At the same time, however, afterwards there started to be a monolithic representation of South Asians, I got a lot of questions about the things that were being represented, like, "do you have an arranged marriage ?", "are your parents okay that you're studying literature ?", and more. My family history comes through India but via East Africa. That made me think more about the hyphenization within the hyphenization of South Asian-Canadian and made me interested in also looking at a very particular South Asian community, and how we still have a lot of issues and baggage, but that baggage is different from what other South Asian groups are experiencing.

ZS: This idea of hyphenation within hyphenation and the authenticity of communities—Kathleen, I'm going to turn to you now. In the work you do at Playwrights Theatre Centre (PTC), how do you deal with producing the writer's voice, and then also the representations and the audiences' reception?

KF: Well, as a dramaturg, I guess I always think of myself as being on the side of the play. It's mostly about asking questions, it's more about providing a push and digging and all of that than it is to actually [about] shaping it myself. It's interesting because the conversation about hyphenization hasn't happened since 80s… you know I mean that was when that conversation [was] really big in my consciousness.

ZS: What happened to that conversation?

KF: I think part of it is that I was living in Toronto in the 80s. That was a big conversation in Toronto in the 80s. A lot depends on what's available in any location that you're in. Like when I was living in Calgary for a long time, there were no small theatres. There were the big theatres and that was it. Your access would depend on very few people and a very few spaces, whereas in Toronto in the 80s, people were making theatre in every basement. Even some of the main theatres were in basements. It changes your access, what it takes to be part of things and to make your own work.

ZS: Now, in Vancouver, where do you see the hyphen in the work you're producing?

KF: It's difficult—I feel like the identity struggles are not my struggles, so all I can do is listen to them and try to pay attention on an individual basis. I guess what I'm saying is, if it's important to the person who is doing it then of course we'll pay attention to it. If it's not then it's not my concern, really.

ZS: That kind of moves nicely to Rohit, in the sense that you're located on the West Coast but also central Canada. You're creating incubation spaces in many different locations. How do you approach the hyphenated space and some of the intergenerational perspectives from around the panel?

RC: I think I approach it differently, actually. For me, the identity question as an individual is slightly different compared to the identity question for my body of work. I was curious about other cultures and other identities while trying to find my own home outside of my homeland, which is India. One of the things I decided was that I was not going to define my identity based on labels. It's about, what are my values and what are my beliefs, and that's what I try to look for in terms of connecting with people. As a producer, at the end of the day, I thought, South Asian is broad enough for most people to understand, so the label works. It's broad enough to include a lot of people but it's specified enough to represent a certain kind of work. It's more of a strategic thing that I use the label South Asian.

The Wrong Bashir Poster

The Wrong Bashir Poster

ZS: Thinking of strategy and labels brings me to the check box. By that I mean funding agencies have certain parameters and boxes where you have to mark whether it's an equity grant or whether it's a grant for diversity or whether it's an Indigenous project. The funders can categorize you, but it can also be quite limiting. Now Rahul, in Quebec, I know that you've gone through some struggles with getting funders to understand and support your work. Can you talk about that?

RV: You see, the thing about identity is that at some level it's very difficult and at another level things are not very difficult. Because if you are a member of the majority group, as in India, Hindus are, identity is not even an issue, even though Hindus are agitating right now to have a total Hindu identity for the rest of India, which I do not support. The dominant classes here do not have to worry about identity. In Canada, 35 years ago when I began to do theatre, I understood why identity is so important. The idea was to create South Asian theatre that would express my community in ways that did not exist. And yet I was working on Canadian soil, so I had to make that contribution to Canada to give it something that did not exist, and that was South Asian-Canadian theatre. National theatre was very white, so the point was to bring marginalized people into theatre-making and express their identities. At the same time, these are not external identities to Canada. It is internal because we are all living here. The expression South Asian-Canadian was very important for me, and that is what the hyphen is. That's where some of our issues live. By creating South Asian theatre, we have given to Canada something that it did not have. That's a major contribution we have made as South Asian-Canadians.

ZS: Rahul, when you talk about the contribution we have made, in a way that feels very retrospective, in the sense that this is what we've already done. When you bring in new playwrights, new actors, new producers, does the South Asian identity that you have created for yourself still feel relevant in the work you're doing?

RV: Yeah, the point I'm making is that these particular communities, in general the communities of colour, were very marginal on Canada's stages and onscreen. It is still very relevant even today, with the visible minority population reaching 23 or so, percent. Then at the same time, as others, it's not necessarily all about displaying our identities. It is, as Rohit said, about an experience, our relationships with others, with ourselves. I go back to the idea of the check box—this is very important. It is still very difficult for the companies totally dedicated to diversity theatre, and diversity theatre is not just putting one body on the stage; it is actually the story and the community. It is not about an individual actor of colour on the stage. That to me is more of a check box mentality.

ZS: I just want to take off from there and ask Zahida, from your generation coming up with this idea of having to tick off check boxes of racial diversity or other identities, how do you struggle with that?

ZR: I'm just starting to come to this now and realizing that a lot of the time they do use those criteria. I feel like sometimes it actually does help people, even if it is just about making sure the numbers are there. I'm still trying to figure it out.

JP: I think the check box system, it's super flawed, but as a device, that's the bare minimum you have to do now. I will check any box that they made available to me, because this is the thing that works for you to feel comfortable with me. Then on the other hand, what is the actual heart of this, that's what I always come up against, personally. I can get a script from a South Asian artist with a kitchen sink drama written in a Western form, there's nothing wrong with that. I could get a script from a white artist who maybe has lived in South Asia for some time and they are writing in that dramatic form perhaps. Which one counts as South Asian? Who gets to check the box?

RC: I think Rahul is right that we ask for these things, but I think these things have actually taken us backwards rather than forward. Because what's happening now is we said we need more resources, I'm just talking about the funding right now, resources to create more South Asian theatre. We didn't say give more resources to the white people to do South Asian theatre, and I think that's happening more, there are more initiatives to diversify. Well, I don't need to diversify; I just want more resources to do what I represent. There are some check boxes that are super flawed, like right now an Anglophone in Quebec is considered a minority language person and I am not. I speak four languages that don't happen to be English or French. I don't get access to those special funds that an Anglophone in Quebec would get, which is really absurd to me. Those kinds of things are going to take a while. I mean I think some of these things are going to become buzzwords, like everybody wants to talk about reconciliation without knowing what reconciliation is. I have seen these being sprinkled many times by the same mainstream producers as buzzwords to throw into their grants. I think this is dangerous because we could get complacent if we think this is advancement. For me this is going a little backwards to be honest.

ZS: That candour touches upon something around the whole issue of, you've become the subject within the box, you've become consumed by the box, and then the hyphen consumes you, you struggle with the hyphen. The dominant cultures don't seem to be trapped in any boxes or be caught up in any situations where they're being consumed. You produce but you're also being consumed as you produce.

RC: I'm type-cast that I can only do South Asian work. Even in South Asian work, I feel so much guilt that I get the privilege to do that and others don't, because I am a so-called "representative" of the community. Also, the fact that, as an artist I want to direct all kinds of shit, not just South Asian shit. I like to be identified as South Asian, but people come to me only when it's South Asian work.

ZS: Kathleen, you said earlier that you don't know if this is necessarily your space, but you're in the space in the sense that you are a part of how work gets produced. You spoke about that time in the 80s, but in the now, where do you see these struggles going?

KF: There is a bit of a disconnect I think between who has any potential to advocate for change in the funding process and all of that kind of stuff. Or who can do it from the ground up in terms of what work is being produced, because ultimately for me what we're trying, what PTC is trying to do, is eliminate the barriers. Redefining the culture, how do we redefine theatre in terms of what it is in community engagement— who is our community, and what do they want to see, and what do we have to offer them?

RV: I think I want to say a lot to that, but I'm going to start from where Rohit left off with this check box idea. The point here is that the check box mentality is attempting to diversify people, and I do not need to check the box because I'm already diverse. I'm saying, well, if you want to do European theatre, it's very good, actually, I like it, keeping doing that, but do not click a box and say that you have gained expertise in something of which you had no idea until the money became available. Once we recognize that we are more than two cultures, and once we recognize that there are many more than two languages, many more regions—that doesn't exist.

Now, what happens here is this that for 35 years or 40 years of doing the work of diversity, my structural ability, my financial abilities have not gone anywhere in a very significant way. Because the existing model is still this: those who are at the very top of the financial echelon are still on the very top, and those who are at the bottom are still at the very bottom.

Now look at the example of my company. I don't do just South Asian theatre. Actually, I haven't done South Asia since 2004. My company has done work about the Filipino Canadians, about the Afro-Canadians, about the Middle Eastern Canadians, about Palestine, about Israel, about Rwanda, about Armenia, and so on and so forth. I do have that freedom and I cherish that freedom here in Canada, but I do not have the same ability to do the same thing with the same market value as my white counterparts, and that's where inequity exist[s], and that's where imbalances are. I'm interested in patching that up.

Now going back to the question of the politics, I said it sometime ago, this is a failure for the theatre world, with people saying, I want to do aesthetics and not politics. I mean, I see no difference between aesthetics and politics. But political theatre to me is about imbalance of power—that's what we're talking about in terms of our organization, and that should be what we're talking about in the narrative of our play. Let's not be in theatre if we do not want to use our voices.

 
 

ZS: Rahul, I appreciate this turn towards the political. The question I have is, what is your ethical responsibility to your subject, whether that subject is a community or a person? I wanted to start with you, Jivesh. You are working on a play right now [Victim Impact] in which the protagonist is a woman from a very specific community. So, the play is embedded in this community, their religious practices, their communal relationships to each other, how they view themselves being viewed by external communities. Rohit is involved in both of these projects [Victim Impact and The Wrong Bashir] and others in different ways as well.

JP: In the projects you're referring to [Victim Impact], it's an interesting case there, because I'm not part of that community. A lot of those decisions to work out composition and portrayal have been made through the writing and dramaturgy process. In that way the canvas is already drawn in a certain sense.

ZS: [In Victim Impact], there are transcripts, there are court records, and it's weaving together a very public story.

JP: Yeah, absolutely, and so it's about considering whether the community would like to identify themselves to a wider audience as vulnerable. There's lots of complexity there so that just has to be treated with a certain care.

Victim Impact Poster

Victim Impact Poster

 

ZS: Because some of the subjects are identified as Muslim in the play.

JP: I don't know if they'd specifically say the word Muslim, but people who know what "Ismaili" means, they would know that's a Muslim community. In the early workshop, I did a lot of research, so that we're portraying the person in the most holistic way that we can. We have to consider all these variables and what each body represents on stage.

ZS: Was there an attempt to get a sense of how audiences might respond?

KF: We engaged the work to specifically try and reach out into that community and get the participation of people who are involved. We didn't get a lot of traction there. We did get some interviews on tape from people who either did not want to be identified or said, "don't tell my husband I said this", and so on. It was only at the actual presentation that members of the community started to respond to some to it, so I'm not sure why that is. It's one of those barrier things—we'd like to figure out what that barrier is.

ZS: [In The Wrong Bashir], Zahida, how are you ethically approaching the specificity of the community that you're dealing with?

ZR: Believe me, that's something I think about every day, actually, given the way that the Ismaili community is sensitive around interpretation of its public image. I really wanted to be careful about those ethical questions because I am from the younger generation of the community. Thankfully, I had a year to kind of go through that, because it would really break my heart if Ismailis didn't feel like they're represented properly. When I first had the idea, I actually pitched it to the Ismaili Council, and it was a very different play back then. It was kind of like a documentary piece about the state of the Ismaili community in Canada and what's happening in the community. I really feel like our children are going to be so different, and I want to capture these precious moments in this generation of our community, because there's so much value in the history and migrations in the story right now. This is something that actually keeps me up at night quite a bit. Over the next year I will figure out the answers.

ZS: For you, Rohit, how do you position yourself in terms of ethics and the audience?

RC: For me it comes down to three questions. One is, what is the intention? Either the playwright or whoever the primary creators are, what's their intention with this project? Secondly, what's the background that the creators are coming in with? Lastly, who gets to make decisions? When Zahida and I started collaborating, my first question was, do you want to create a play that's relevant for Ismailis, or also to talk about specific things? Do you want to do a play in a process that does not let the community themselves appreciate it, or do you want to go to the community? In Zahida's case, it's about doing an intergenerational story that's relevant beyond the community, but she does want to address the community's feelings and concerns. You're not going to be able to please everybody in this process for sure. But you have taken on the responsibility of doing the groundwork to involve and engage with that community. If you're not from that community, you have the additional responsibility to do your due diligence. Having said that, at the end of the show, I personally don't think I'm there to please anybody as long as what we wanted to create happens. For me it's about the integrity of the project that you started, the intention, and if you delivered on that intention, that is fine.

ZS: Rahul, what are your thoughts around these issues of ethical responsibility to the subject? [Also], with the issue of audience, particularly where you work in Quebec, how are you approaching these issues?

RV: I think that last line from Rohit is pretty instructive for me, that it's about the integrity of the work. I do not question a writer of any culture for writing about another culture, not at all. It's about freedom to write, freedom to imagine, but they're expected to do the work if they're doing it for someone other than their own community. For example, my play State of Denial is not about South Asians; it's about the Armenian and Rwandan communities.

Now, that said, I think what goes on the stage in the form of a character is altogether a different issue. We cannot have a person who does not represent that culture or does not have a close organic association performing a role that he or she doesn't represent. Simulation is not representation, so that's how I see it. In terms of the community, my responsibility to the community is not to uphold it, not to praise it, not to present it in a better light, but to critique it. My loyalty is to the subject itself.

As an example, I tell you about this play, Counter Offense, which was about violence against women and had a very mixed cast of characters. The husband was Iranian, the wife was Indian, the social worker was Black, the police officer was white, and the activist was South Asian. I made a choice to present them on the same stage in one story, and the person who was the abuser was from the Iranian community. The person who was defending a police officer, and who was very dedicated to ending violence against women, was a Black woman, and it was very difficult for a Black character in that situation to defend a white police officer, knowing what the police record is. The point I'm making here is that in this play, we have come to a point ethically where the dramatic conflict is not about straightforward good and bad, but it's about virtues in conflict with each other. That's where my loyalties are, how well I deal with that team and these questions. One thing to avoid is a more exotic representation of a marginalized group.

ZS: Who's pushing that exotic representation?

RV: It's a carry-over of colonialism because we like to see the dominant culture's perception of a group. Not looking into the critique of the character, but the appearance of the dress and customs and what kind of jokes we made and so on and so forth. It's not about the deeper relationship. Remember that one of the things about India that attracted British people most was the Indian jewelry.

Counter Offence

Counter Offence

ZS: In your work, Rahul, does the political trump the aesthetic?

RV: I see no difference between aesthetics and politics. It's not so much that if something is aesthetic it cannot be political. I do believe that there is a thing called aesthetic consciousness. I would like my play to be as beautifully presented as anybody else's, but I would like to have the substance totally uncompromised and true to what the issue is.

JP: Aesthetics comes from the word "feeling," right, and so you're coming from a way of feeling, which is very much like what drives art in my practice—like working with emotional intelligence. I really like the politics/ aesthetics thing that Rahul was talking about. Then I think that you can't separate them, and if you do, then you're forced into a specific lens, that specific lens saying that we can separate the intellects from the art, separate context from the process.

KF: I am right with you, I think. My responsibility as a dramaturg is to help the content and the form align. Our responsibility to the audience is—I mean, you're watching for that, watching for clichés or watching for exoticization, you're watching for misrepresentation. You're trying to look at that at the same time, I mean, not saying that you can actually tell for sure what the audience is going to read. But you're trying to avoid instantly making some mistakes or reinforcing a power structure.

RC: I agree with everything that has been said, but I also think that our whole industry is exoticizing. We can be conscious about it, but we all have done big commercial shows where one thing or the other is exoticized. We spoke about exotifying in a colonial way, but I've also seen a lot of exotification that we do to ourselves and to others. Like in India—I love Bollywood movies, don't get me wrong, but Bollywood does this all the time with some minority groups in India. They go to a place in the Northeast or something and completely exotify the culture of the tribal people there. So, we do this to ourselves, too, so I just wanted to throw that out there in the conversation.

ZS: There [are these] issues of culture, commodity, and fantasy, which brings me to a kind of a turn in the conversation around solidarity. Are we building solidarities with other communities, or within the industry, in networks of other producers?

RV: About the question of solidarity, I think it is tied to what we write. There is a general sense of camaraderie among people who have gone through the struggle of realigning themselves as a class in this country. We do communicate with each other, and this has produced some wonderful results. Right now in Canada, South Asian-Canadian playwrights have produced a very impressive body of written work. The beauty of that is that it all comes from very different perspectives and from very different approaches. Now, the second question is whether it translates into the production of the work. I think it's the choice of the artistic directors. We do not have companies across the country that have the ability and the willingness and the resources to say that, well, they will produce work of this persuasion as soon as it is created. That doesn't exist, so that just goes back to say that the structure disparities still exist, so the work doesn't get produced. Then the easier work does get produced.

Bhopal Play - Photo by Julius Adarna

Bhopal Photo credit: Julius Adarna

ZS: Rohit, you're involved in many productions right now. Are there certain solidarities you're building in this work?

RC: I think the concept of solidarity is in many ways also a little bit problematic. I mean, I'm pro-solidarity, and I love that we work together, but we are all expected to get along, and that is a problem. You can have 20 more general companies in the city of Vancouver who are well funded and who can have healthy competition with each other to get those resources. Meanwhile, we are inadvertently competing for one or two spots because there's no space in that system to have 20 South Asian companies get funded. I would like to see that there's true diversity, and there should not be an expectation, for example, for me and Jiv to get along together or to always include each other in our projects. He should be able to do his shows on his own, and I should be able to do mine. We're not there yet. I mean I can count the number of presenters who are South Asian mandated in the country. Because of my body of work, people think that I can lead any South Asian project. I actually don't feel that way about [the] South Asian community here, and especially as a non-Punjabi in Vancouver, I can feel like as much of an outsider in the South Asian community as elsewhere. Because the dominant groups within the South Asian community might also not be aware of where I come from.

ZS: That's an interesting point about difference within the South Asian community that's not as legible to the mainstream. The orientation of the cultural work that happens in a place often tilts towards that majority audience. In Toronto, meanwhile, there's a very large Indo-Caribbean community, Punjabi community, Hindu community from the subcontinent and other places, and so on, so it seems to be more variegated in terms of South Asian identities that are visible. Jivesh, in your work in Toronto, how do you read the landscape of the city and these kinds of networks and solidarities?

JP: In terms of whose work would get regularly produced by a midsize company, that's probably largely the same throughout the country. To take a quick side step back to solidarity, I do think until we collectively have enough of a body of work built up, I think there does need to be a solidarity amongst South Asian artists across the country. We need to maintain that link so that we can get into the intricacies, the intersections of it. Here's a really heavy thing that we're all holding, and if I come and I help you hold that for a while—I don't even need to like you, but I need to want to be there for you and that needs to go beyond South Asia. Within South Asian communities it's also huge, absolutely, like standing with my Muslim friends on the issues they're facing. But similarly, that link needs to come with artists finding solidarity outside. The artist needs to actually enact solidarity in their practice, in what they do, and that's how we can build those networks.

RC: That's a good point, that there can be an allyship, mutual respect, even if not necessarily friendship with everyone who shares your identity. I'm really curious to know, do we all feel united as South Asian creators? This just an example—I spent eight years educating in the U.S. before I moved here, and what I would see in [the] African American community activism was more effort toward unity and collaboration. Or in Indigenous politics, despite differences within and between individual Indigenous communities, there seems to be more of a united front in terms of fighting for that voice of reconciliation in this country. I don't think we have that as South Asians, and I'm not comparing these three situations exactly, but more often than not, I find South Asian communities to be divided rather than united.

ZR: Yeah, I think unity can be a bit problematic in that the community is so diverse. I think still because of what has been happening before in theatre, and the importance of solidarity within the community for the generations before, they have relied on that just out of necessity, even if they're forced to find common ground that isn't there. Even myself coming in at this time when things are kind of opening up a little bit more, I might tell myself, oh, it's safe for me here. Like when the person that I approach to work with today is still a South Asian person—I think we still rely on it even if it's very complicated.

JP: I don't think I would say the word "united" to mean one singular voice. I've never been to India. I come here from the Caribbean, so the double diaspora as I call it. So, I don't think we're necessarily united in our theatrical voice. I think that what we could benefit from more of a network of discussion and more of a network to actually provide development work.

RV: On the question of solidarity, I want to be aware of people with whom I share a cultural heritage. It should not be expected that because we are united in this one sense we must also be ideologically united. This is one of the misconceptions around feminist movements. Women make up half of humanity, so they're going to have diverse viewpoints. With so many South Asians with very diverging views, very diverging religions, very divergent way of thinking, we should not expect to be ideologically homogeneous. But we can still build solidarity by trying to build awareness of each other, what we are doing, how we are thinking, who we are, and so on.

I was born in India. I was born in the Hindu religion. I don't practice, but I don't deny it, either. In a legal way, I represented a backward caste, which carried a very big stigma, and I made friends in India with people who were from other minorities. In my work I always express through names and through content the people who are marginalized within the South Asian subcontinent itself. Theatre is not about representing the mainstream. Theatre is about showing what has been marginalized by the mainstream. Muslims appear very heavily in my plays as characters because they represent a minority in that country. Women are underprivileged, so they fare very strongly in my plays. Sometimes I do not give the name to my characters, for example, in [the play Bhopal], [the characters] Devraj and Madiha never announcing that they were coming from different cultures. That's my way of expressing minorities in my work.

ZS: Rahul opens up this point about feminism. Can feminism or feminist struggles illuminate some of the struggles we're discussing around identity, politics, antiracism, and solidarities?

KF: Well, my age is second-wave, and that makes me a second-wave feminist, and it was a movement full of all kinds of racism and all of that. I think part of the question doesn't even come up unless you actually know people who are different than you are. If you don't, then you're blind to it, and you never hear the stories, or you're never confronted with it. I mean it's a constant struggle. Right now I feel like my solidarity or my energy, my political energy, have to be in support of Indigenous people in this city. There no way that I ever will learn everything there is to know, but I have a lot of appreciation and respect. There are lots of things to learn.

ZR: The question of whose voice is represented, women of color speaking about representation—one of the things that I'm thinking a lot about these days, that I'm a little bit uncomfortable with, is when discussions can in some spaces lock people out and kind of shut down the conversation. Things can just get so polarized that sometimes I'm sitting in a space and I can already see that line starting to divide the room. They're choosing it, of course, because of the history of our world, and we learn from it. One of the things I'm really looking forward to, starting out as a maker, is how that conversation is going to go.

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Bhopal Photo credit: Julius Adarna

ZS: What are some of the challenges and the promise we see moving forward?

JP: I think for me, based on the conversation we've had today, the big challenge is how do we work towards more familiarity in the art work. I mean familiarity in terms of how we are integrating forms and different parts of the work, but also in terms of the identities that we have and how we view ourselves in the larger conversations that are happening. We can be in the mainstream and out of it at the same time. The expectation to redefine ourselves in order to be South Asian, I think we've agreed that that's inadequate. How do we blur those lines between us so we have more than one hand vocabulary of South Asian that we can draw on, on the other hand we can call on sensitivity and specificity. We can use that to our advantage in telling these stories, so that people experience us like we experience ourselves here, through all these, to a certain degree.

RC: I am sitting in a place where I'm kind of getting tired of conversations unless they're really conversations I want to be in. I'm more and more focusing on just doing the work, and my work kind of—half of that work is my personal projects that I'm interested in. At the same time, I'm wanting to champion new efforts and create new initiatives that give people opportunities to see new playwrights as well as existing playwrights and all of that. I think we need more structure around alternatives to depending on mainstream producers and presenters. We need more companies like the model that we're creating here, which is working, so we want to see this in different parts of the country and globally. Having a network that connects these companies—I'm not saying not to work with mainstream producers and presenters at all, but we need a different structure that is just our own under the South Asian label for now. That's what I will work on, and I think that's what the move forward will be.

RV: I've now lived more than half of my life in Canada, rather than India, where I was born. I feel that obligation, and I think that I would like to help to build up Canada as a nation where plurality, multiculturalism, multilingualism, and difference and diversity are part of that building of the nation. That said, I do think that the way we can move forward is if real equity is established, because inequity is not by consequence of the work we are doing individually, but rather it is structural, it is systemic. That needs to be corrected, so in terms of my work, my South Asian identity, which I am very proud of, is a political identity, but it is not an exclusion of any other identities.

A more inclusive society would be to have all identities acknowledged with a sense of equality. Without that, we get homogeneity. I will continue to do political theatre—that's my journey and I made no compromise on that. Diversity I do not need to work for because it was already integrated in the mandate of my company from the very beginning. Canada as I envision it has to move from biculturalism to multiculturalism, from bilingualism to multilingualism, and all that is an aesthetic statement. Things will get better if we incorporate all that with the sense of equality.

ZS: Rahul, I wanted to end with you partly because I think, from all of us around this table, you might have been in the game the longest. On the other hand, Zahida, you are part of a new generation entering the scene now, and I'd like to hear a bit about what promise you see and what you need to move forward with your creative enterprise.

ZR: I think that things are changing, and I can feel it. Things are opening up. I think that the way moving forward will be not to get too siloed, not to become complacent to the battles that were being fought before, and then to still kind of find a way to move forward.

ZS: On that note, I want to thank you all for making the time for this conversation. I think this is very valuable, a certain kind of focused conversation, and then hopefully people read what we're talking about, and then they have other iterative conversations that move forward. Thank you all very much.

 


Rahul Varma is a playwright, essayist, and community activist. He is a co-founder and artistic director of Teesri Duniya Theatre. His works include Land Where The Trees Talk, No Man's Land, Trading Injuries, Counter Offence, and Bhopal. Rahul lives in Montreal with his wife and his daughter. View full bio

 


Jivesh Parasram is an award winning multi-disciplinary artist, and a fine maker of dhal. His work has been performed internationally including Canada, Italy, and the West Indies. He is Artistic Director at Rumble Theatre in Vancouver, and is a co-founder of Pandemic Theatre. View full bio

 


Zahida Rahemtulla is an emerging writer of fiction and theatre. Her play-in-progress, The Wrong Bashir, was recently selected as a national finalist for Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre's MSG program and is in development at the Playwrights Theatre Centre. View full bio

 


Kathleen Flaherty is the Dramaturg at PTC, and a former producer of radio drama and Ideas documentaries for CBC Radio. She collaborates with theatre makers to dig into the deep structure and essential story or idea, the soul, of a work, building outward with concrete details and images to manifest a piece of theatre live in space with the capacity to engage an audience. View full bio

 


Rohit Chokhani is an award-winning arts curator, director and cultural leader. He is the Artistic Director for Diwali in B.C., co-creator of the Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts, and is an Artistic Associate at Bard on the Beach. Rohit grew up in Bombay (Mumbai), home to Bollywood, the centre of the Indian subcontinent's vibrant performing arts industry. He is highly passionate about making performing arts equitable. View full bio

 

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