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From Nov. 12th  to Nov. 14th, the Conseil du Théâtre Québécois presented their 13th Congress. The theme was Cultural Diversity in Quebec Theatre. I curated the theatre interventions’ portion of the congress, five live excerpts from pieces that echoed or propelled discussion around the topics touched upon by the panelists.
Diversity, as with everything in this time and age, can be a complex subject.

Diversity is a useful, polite, neutral term to speak about a visible change in the composition of our Quebec society, and in this specific instance, in the Quebec theatre scene. Its definition is hard to agree upon, mostly because words carry a vision of the world, sustained by a net of semi-conscious assumptions; a vision that is not easily shared. And why should it be?

So, what is diversity? Who are the faces behind the flag of diversity? In the CQT cahier de participant, we read that at the core of the congress, there are First Nations and ethno cultural artists wanting to be integrated into the professional artistic community.

When the audience is invited to take part into the debate, a white Québécois woman speaks up declaring we are all diverse in respect to the First Nations, Québécois de souche included.  Another participant, a presumed token of such diversity, claims she was already an established professional in her country of origin, while here she is stuck trying to prove her credentials to the milieu.

The definition of diversity remains controversial.

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It is the first day of the CQT Congress, a French language conference at the Centaur theatre. It is orderly, polite, positive. It moves smoothly amongst a series of well-articulated panelists from diverse backgrounds that are all mostly in agreement. We hear interventions in English, non translated.  We watch excerpts of theatre pieces that confront, display, and integrate diversity.

From the perspective of the invited Anglophones, this all feels like an old topic.

It is a non-issue for the institutions, as CAM, CALQ, and the Canada Council have all put in place a series of programs that address this very à la mode topic. (An irreverent question can’t be muted: is this why we are here today? Some money has become available in order to invite diversity to the public stage?)

So who is this conference really for?

On the second day the subject of different accents on stage seems to ignite a passionate debate, bringing forth the question of legitimacy in appropriating someone else’s story.

When is it acceptable to tell and fictionalize a story that does not belong to the interpreters visible on stage?

On the last day the participants set themselves to the task of co-writing a series of recommendations to further the integration of diverse artists in the professional milieu. This is where the real debate happens. Dissent raises its head. Proposing and potentially enforcing measures upon theatre companies big and small, doesn’t seem the best path to take. Most theatre makers barely survive, and in that daily fight they don’t want to loose the little independence they have. It seems that we are all capable of speaking and agreeing politely upon the ethical goodness of integration, but not to find the concrete ways to bring about the change needed.

Maybe what should have been discussed is topics like power, dominant culture, privilege and identity. This last did surface at one moment, clearly stated: we must rethink cultural identity on a large scale. We must accept and learn how to negotiate the multiculturalism that is already here (schools have had to make the adjustment faster than us; the diverse kids are simply there, in the class). Yet it is difficult to modify one’s perception of his/her own identity for a shared one that is still a work in progress.

I believe the modification of cultural identity cannot be forced, it is a process that takes place silently as society mutates, according to its needs and actions. But it can be helped. And if theatre simply echoes culture and language (dominant or ghettoized) this talk remains a feel-good chat about nothing. Change can only be effectively brought about by those who sit with the power. When a door opens, someone enters. It is in meeting the other, and working together that transformation happens without us worrying about it.

Did the congress manage to push open those doors a bit more? That was the intention, but when a proposal that had unanimous interest (asking francophone companies to hold open auditions) moved to possible action, it became controversial and was somewhat rejected.

Someone stepped up and asked why we want to pull theatre towards reality: “In my country theatre is a place of the imagination. No matter what accent and color of skin is on stage, it is meant to transcend reality”.
Well said. Theatre itself is the utopia of community. That ephemeral ensemble of humans kept together in one place by a common language.

At the Congress, I saw a community, diverse, divergent, dissentious but very respectful and civilized. People listened. Maybe they did not change their mind, but they listened to intelligent speakers perceived as “The Other”. I must suppress my inborn cynicism to believe that in the invisible layers of impalpable reactions, something happened. Isn’t this what theatre does? We are not ready to redesign society, to truly bridge the gap between “us” and “them”, to let go of fear and prejudice. That utopian dream, le grand nous, will continue to be just that, a dream. But that dream can continue to propel us toward a more inclusive and just society.

But for now, let all get back to our rehearsal studios and create, together.

Arianna Bardesono