Western Theatre in Global Contexts, directing and teaching culturally inclusive drama around the world

9 December 2020

ISTA artist and board of trustee member Dr. Jillian Campana shares an excerpt from her new book Western Theatre in Global Contexts, directing and teaching culturally inclusive drama around the world. The 16 chapters in this text, including two chapters from ISTA artists Anne Drouet and Fenella Kelly, explore the junctures, tensions and discoveries that occur when teaching western theatrical practices or directing English-language plays in countries that do not share western theatre histories or in which English is the non-dominant language. It is intended to be a resource for scholars, artists and teachers that are working abroad or on intercultural projects in theatre, education and the arts.

This edited volume examines pedagogical discoveries and teaching methods, how to produce specific plays and musicals, and how students who explore western practices in non-western places contribute to the art form. Offering on-the-ground perspectives of teaching and working outside of North America and Europe, the book analyses the importance of paying attention to the local context when developing theatrical practice and education. It also explores how educators and artists who make deep connections in the local culture can facilitate ethical accessibility to western models of performance for students, practitioners and audiences.

WESTERN THEATRE IN GLOBAL CONTEXTS: directing and teaching culturally inclusive drama around the world
Edited by Jillian Campana and Yasmine Marie Jahanmir
Routledge 2020

Excerpt from Chapter 1: An Introduction to Western Theatre in Global Contexts
by Jillian Campana and Yasmine Marie Jahanmir

Purpose and Relevance

Non-Western theatre students, educators and artists often have an interest in the West in part because of what it represents: access. Western theatre offers access to larger audiences, the possibility of making money or gaining notoriety, and having more artistic freedoms including for many, far less censorship. In part because of this, students and artists from across the world view Europe, North America, and Australia as the places for higher education and training. Knowledge and expertise in Western theatre provides employment access to artists and artist/educators and numerous institutions and arts programs hire Western trained artists specifically, who in turn promote Western approaches and plays above local ones. The institutions in these places present exceptional economic and cultural capital and so it is no surprise that individuals with exceptional intellectual and artistic gifts often seek to study in the West. A Western education offers a promise of success and the possibility of entry into a global world market. As a result of this, the West is the place where most of the training of theatre professors and educators takes place and those considered to hold “expertise” are often Western-trained. Additionally, K-12 and university international education in countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America cater to this philosophy and English language has become the dominant academic language. In addition to institutional dominance, there is a societal perception that American or British styles of education offer greater educational rewards. In looking at Jordanian perceptions on this, educational researchers found that amongst potential and current students: “American education is considered to have higher standards than Arabic education. Arab students are inclined to pursue American education due to its pedagogy and opportunities for career advancement” (Smail & Silvera 2018, 15). In theatre, we often see this viewpoint reflected in the students’ stated desire to work on Western forms. This also helps to undergird the institution’s reputation within the community. As theatre is often the public’s entry point into seeing this pedagogical methodology in action, plays and musicals that are seen as quintessentially reflective of the Western style of education offered at these institutions become prized symbols of educational goals by students, faculty, administration and audiences alike. For example, according to internationalschoolsearch.com in 2019 there were over 500 English medium K-12 schools in China, most which follow American and British programs and exams. And the mega-cities of Hong Kong and Cairo have an average of 55 K-12 international schools serving both local and international students but teaching Western philosophies, including Western theatre approaches. Generally speaking, this is not because the artist educators believe their way to be better, it is simply because it is what they know.

This text seeks to share examples of the merits of Western theatre practices outside of the West and to make observations about how such work can be ethically undertaken, but it is equally important to remember that the places in which Western theatre techniques have been privileged over local traditions have incredibly rich performance traditions. Talchum, Korean masked drama/dance, for example offers participants and audience members a study of the region’s social classes and customs and a way to laugh at the difficulty of life resulting from invasions, poverty and political corruption (Kim, 1985 and Lee, 1982). Nigerian folk operas present the songs and dances, histories and myths of the Yoruba people (Edachaba, 2018) and the Shi’i Islam Ta’ziyeh plays, performed mostly in Iran but also throughout the world in places where Shi’ites reside, mourn the death of the Prophet Muhammed’s grandson Hussein who was martyred after refusing to accept the rule of the caliph Yazid ibn Muawiya (Riggio, 1994). These examples of world theatre traditions offer just a small sample of the type of robust performances that exist all over the world, in every geographic and cultural region and throughout history. But often when theatre productions are mounted, when new work is made and when students are trained, rich local performance traditions and pedagogies are relegated to a second-class position in favor of a more European approach. There is most certainly great value in examining Western practices outside of the West. Undertaken in context, and without negating the experiences and foundations of the culture where the work or study is going on, such explorations and practice offer Western theatre a place in the global canon. We hope to challenge artists and educators to expand the ways in which they teach, direct and facilitate Western theatre, to acknowledge and embrace the challenges and to listen to, learn from and work with the local communities.

Of course, European approaches to theatre and Western plays have great value and deserve to be appreciated all over the world. However, it is important to understand that the prevalence of Western forms leaves little room to recognize and celebrate the richness and diversity of world theatre approaches. And Eurocentric theatre traditions represent only a fraction of the styles and practices that exist, or have existed, throughout the world. The Western approach and canon is certainly worthy of attention, but attention in the context of the history of world theatre. By paying attention to the local languages, interests, social customs and theatre traditions in classrooms, rehearsals and theatre productions we can perhaps strive to dismantle such hierarchical tenets that place an unbalanced emphasis on Western performance practices in the East, South East and Global Public. Western plays and pedagogies will likely continue to be embraced but we argue for a broader focus, attention to the local and consideration of ways non-Western theatre practices can be explored alongside Western practices This would allow artists, students and audiences to see themselves represented in the stories, characters, themes, designs and exercises. Studying and making theatre in locations outside of the Western world provides educators and practitioners opportunities to learn from and embrace regional and local aesthetics, cultures and methodologies and to adapt their work so that it resonates with, and is accessible to, the participants, amateur or professional.

When co-editor Yasmine Jahanmir arrived in Kuwait, it was a bit like diving into the unknown. Although Jahanmir is Iranian-American, she grew up in the United States and had limited exposure to Arab culture prior to her move to the country to teach at the American University of Kuwait. In her first semester directing at AUK, she discovered a disconnect between the student’s depth of knowledge about Western cultural products, such as American films and television shows, and the lack of attention to historical context of these representations. Additionally, she found it odd that students often expressed negative opinions about their local performance contexts. She was curious about what other practitioners and educators encountered while working abroad and how they were able to balance expectations of teaching Western theater while accounting for local theatrical traditions and found no academic text that discussed these common situations. She set out to connect with other practitioners/educators in similar situations, among them co-editor Jillian Campana who, at American University in Cairo, was finding that the students’ lack of connection to the material being presented was resulting in a general lack of enthusiasm for the subject matter. She immediately sensed that her curriculum and pedagogy was simply not resonating with the Egyptian actors she was working with. She had been teaching and making theatre outside of the US for more than half of her career, in Brazil, India, China, Hong Kong, Thailand and throughout Europe and had always made adaptations to content and pedagogy to meet the students’ needs, but she found that in Cairo for the first several months the particular subjects and approaches she was exploring with her students did not seem to engage them in a meaningful way. Classroom and rehearsal management was also a struggle; in rehearsals for example when students were asked to save their thoughts and opinions for a discussion at the end of the evening, the actors simply continued discussions and sought to direct each other. We were both witnessing a disconnect between our students and Western approaches to classroom and playmaking and at the same time we also recognized that we had been hired at these particular institutions precisely because of our expertise in Western theatre.

Part of our interest in creating this text has been to discuss this very juxtaposition: institutions hiring experts from the West and students and performers seeking access to Western material because of what it represents and what it holds promise for, paired with a disconnect between the Western philosophies, texts and approaches and the very individuals being trained in these methods. We acknowledge that both of us have undertaken theatre work outside of our home countries and shared our expertise in Western theatre. Jillian found that as she worked in various countries around the world, the initial point of interest for most students, and for administrators who hired her, was that of the Western perspective. In India, for example, she was initially hired at the University of Mumbai to teach the Stanislavski System. Similarly, at Whistling Woods Institute in Film City she was asked to teach “realistic acting” to Bollywood aspirants. And at the American University in Cairo she was brought on to teach and direct English language plays. She recognized early on that the Indian students in Mumbai and the Egyptian students in Cairo were coming to the subject matter from a very different perspective and with a different set of foundations and assumptions than students born and raised in the West. To combat this unequal focus on the West, she studied Sanskrit performance in depth, training extensively in Kakakali in both Kerala and Mumbai. At the American University in Cairo, she has sought to bring Arab Drama more fully into the curriculum and to produce more plays in Arabic and to also cover other world theatre traditions such as Sanskrit Drama, Kabuki, Wayang Kulit and Halqa. Yasmine, hired in 2016 at the American University of Kuwait, quickly read all that she could find on the subject of Arabic theatre and became a regular audience member of local Kuwaiti plays. Even though she is often asked, usually by other faculty and never by students, to do a Kuwaiti play, she understands that she was not most qualified to do the job and has instead focused on bringing local theatre practitioners to campus to ensure the students become conversant in their local traditions. Playwright Sulayman Al-Bassam gave a well-attended guest lecture during her first year. Director Abdulaziz Safar selected the theme for the 2019 short play festival. Local legend and lighting designer, Muhanna Fawzi, worked with students to design the lighting for Grease, while regaling them with stories of his multiple decades of work on the Kuwaiti stage. Additionally, through the drama club on campus, she has formed a theatre audience group in which students gather to attend local theatre performances. We share these examples because it is important to note that though we both are employed to share our language, culture and expertise in Western theatre, we have consistently sought to engage in the traditions of the places we are working in by listening to and learning from our students and by seeking training from local experts.

Intercultural Theatre in a Globalizing World

If we understand that we are working within a globalized milieu, and that theatre is in some ways inherently global due to its history and practice, then why this insistence on the use of “Western” throughout this book? Firstly, this book is not always about narrative or aesthetic cultural fusion as in many other examples of academic writing about intercultural theatre that analyze the use of non-Western techniques within traditionally Western spaces. There is no doubt that fusion of performance methodologies is important in developing diverse theatrical practice. However, with this book, we hope to broaden awareness of all types of cultural transmission, including how ideas about the West are promoted and reified through theatrical practice. There is often very little resistance to the idea of theatre practitioners doing canonical work when working abroad, in fact, it is often expected. This book attempts to undo the assumption that Western work is universal and asks delving questions about how and why this type of work continues to dominate in global settings. It is about the proliferation, dominance, and understanding of what we consider to be Western theatrical practice and how it lands when produced elsewhere. By continuing to privilege Western plays and methods of teaching, there are some ways in which our work continues to inculcate the dominance of Western theatre. However, by reflecting on what we can learn from producing these works outside of their original contexts, we allow for expanded readings of the original texts and how they function in a global society. Education scholar, Binaya Subedi argues that in order to decolonize curriculum, we must move beyond simply filling previous gaps in pedagogy or including diverse perspectives in the classroom, but that a critical decolonizing approach offers a contrapuntal analysis that undertakes antiessentialist viewpoints of culture, nationality, and identity as frameworks of cultural analysis. For Subedi, “the decolonizing approach examines world events and global issues through a critical lens and values the significance of examining how social differences and power relationships influence knowledge production. This approach scrutinizes the politics of how narratives on universalism or a common global culture are articulated… it explores how questions surrounding such issues as race and class cannot be silenced in conversations about the global curriculum” (Subedi 2013, 638). In a similar vein, by demonstrating how discussions of race, class, ethnicity, and nationality influenced Western work abroad, we hope that this book bolsters the resistance to viewing Western theatrical production as universal.

What is the difference between intercultural theatre and Western theatre that embraces locality? When Patrice Pavis first published The Intercultural Performance Reader in 1996 the term hinted at a blending of performance traditions from different cultures, an “exchange or reciprocal influence of theatre practices” (2). Much of the production work in this book falls within the various definitions of interculturalism, cross cultural, syncretic, and multicultural theatre. It is virtually impossible, and frankly irresponsible, to attempt to produce theatre that offers a one-way transmission of Western cultural production within a global setting. Even work once touted for its ability to draw on multiple cultures to create an engaging theatrical spectacle, such Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata, has since been critiqued for its flattening of culture. As Performance Studies scholar, Soo Rim Lee, looks back at Brook’s 1985 production, she writes that the play functions in “universalizing the narrative” of the original Indian text and results in a depiction of “the world as an extension of Europe” (Lee 2018, 88). Many attempts at intercultural theatre suffered a similar fate, spuriously reducing culture into a fixed entity, so that a fusion of culture resulted in an outdated binary understanding of the cultures reflected in a show. Additionally, removing a performance tradition from its original context is ripe with the possibility of misuse and misunderstanding. In his well-known critique of intercultural theatre, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture, Rustom Bharucha contends that production work claiming to celebrate diverse cultures can actually be an abasement of traditional performance practices. In the case of Western practitioners utilizing traditional Indian forms not only disconnects the tradition from “its aesthetic and social context” but also loses “its links to the lives of the people from whom it is performed. Nothing could be more disrespectful to theatre than to reduce its acts of celebration to a repository of techniques and theories” (Bharucha 1993, 4-5). Bharucha was reacting to a colonialist style of interculturalism, in which subaltern performance practices are unmoored from their original contexts in order to enliven other theatre forms. Yet, even he did not dismiss the potential for intercultural exchange if done responsibly.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in interculturalism as a method of exploring our global world through theatre. Ric Knowles argues for a rhizomatic approach that “rethinks interculturalism as a complex set of negotiations across multiple sites of difference on stage, between the stage and the audience, and within audiences” (Knowles 2017, 2). In Interculturalism and Performance Now: New Directions?, theater scholar Charlotte McIvor argues for the centrality of collaboration in opening intercultural practice’s capacity “for both revisionist and future-oriented modes of critical engagement” (McIvor 2018, 4). Some scholars, while still promoting the utopian potential in diverse cultural influences, suggest a move away from the term “intercultural” as it presupposes that culture is immutable. As culture is no longer understood as a fixed set of identity markers, but rather as a morphing, intangible social agreement, the notion of an exchange of cultures seems outdated and relies on outmoded binaries, i.e. East/West. In Pavis’ 2010 update to her foundational text on intercultural theatre, she suggests that the intercultural theatre of the 1970s and 1980s no longer has the same poignancy in an increasingly globalizing world. Additionally, as access to media and technology expands at ever increasing rates, cultural production is no longer fully containable within national/ethnic boundaries. Much of contemporary cultural production is always already global. Pavis writes: “the effects of globalization on our way of doing and understanding theatre are increasingly evident. Hence the renewal, or the complete mutation of interculturalism; hence our growing consideration for the phenomena of globalization, our will to think of theatre according to the world which produces and receives it, taking into account its socioeconomic and ethical dimensions” (13). Perhaps it is no longer helpful to think of an intercultural theater, but rather a theater that is inherently global. Theatre researcher, Erika Fischer-Lichte, also steers clear of the term “intercultural” theater because for her it relies on negative assumptions of nationalistic or regional ownership of theatrical traditions, undermines the performance capabilities of diverse populations, ignores power differentials between types of collaborators and privileges the sanctity of text over embodied performance. For Fischer-Lichte, “by interweaving performance cultures without negating or homogenizing differences but permanently de/stabilizing and thus invalidating their authoritative claims to authenticity, performances, as sites of in-betweenness, are able to constitute fundamentally other, unprecedented realities – realities of the future, where the state of being in-between describes the ‘normal’ experience of the citizens of this world” (Fischer-Lichte 2014, 12). As our world becomes increasingly globalized, our daily lives are enriched with the diversity of people, cultures, and experiences. Whether you call it intercultural, global, or interwoven, theatre has a unique capacity to reflect this abundant diversity.

While this book is not explicitly about theories of interculturalism, the chapters in this book provide detailed accounts of how multiple participants (directors, educators, students, actors, devisers, writers and audiences) form multiple nodes from which to understand how cultural practice is translated, translocated, and transmuted. We offer new perspectives on how and why Western theatre practice occurs in global settings, as well as its effects on students, practitioners, and audiences. Through our framing of Western theatre within a global setting, we show how our understanding of what is “Western” or deemed canonical continues to adapt in an increasingly global environment. This helps us to think through the myriad ways global theatrical production has been continuously shaped by Western forms, as well as how the various global forms continue to shape our understanding of what is considered “Western.” While we don’t posit a singular solution to this problem, each case requires its own particular consideration and process to account for the specific texts, styles, and contexts at play in the room. Broadly, we promote the idea that any theatrical activity should account for the cultural specificities of the voices in the room and the intended audience. Theatre is not an auteur activity, but rather a collaboration that is shaped by multiple perspectives. Instead, we hope that the subsequent chapters offer a multiplicity of examples that address and negotiate the successes and pitfalls of working within a culture that is foreign to one’s own training, culture, language, and/or nationality.

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Excerpt bibliography

Bharucha, Rustom. 1993. Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture. Oxford and London: Routledge.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika; Jost, Tortsen and Jain, Saskaya Iris, eds, 2014. Politics of interweaving Performance Cultures: beyond postcolonialism. New York: Routledge.

Ghosh, Manomahan, 2016. The Natyashastram. Ascribed to Bharata Muni. New Delhi: Chaukhambha.

Idachaba, Armstrong, 2018. “Elements of Traditional African Drama in Contemporary Nigerian Video-Film” Research Gate.

Internationalschoolsearch.com John Catt Educational Ltd. 2019.

Kim, Yŏng-gyu, 1985. “Characteristics of Korean mask-dance drama” (1985). Unpublished Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers. University of Montana.

Knowles, Ric, 2017. Performing the Intercultural City. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Lee, Doo-Hyun, 1974. “Korean Folk Play,” in Folk Culture in Korea. Chun Shin-Yong, ed. International Cultural Foundation. Korea: Seoul.

Lee, So-Rim. 2018. “Translation, Adaptation, and Appropriation in Brook’s Mahabharata.” New Theatre Quarterly 34 (1): 74–90. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org.unr.idm.oclc.org/10.1017/S0266464X17000690.

McIvor, Charlotte, and Jason King (ed). 2018. Interculturalism and Performance Now: New Directions? Springer.

Pavis, Patrice (ed), 1996. Intercultural Performance Reader. New York: Routledge.

Pavis, Patrice, 2010. “Intercultural theatre today,” in Forum Modernes Theater, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 5-15.

Riggio, Milla C, 1994. “Ta’ziyeh in Exhile: transformations in a Persian tradition” in Comparative Drama. Vol 28, no 1 p 115-140.

Smail, Linda and Ginger Silvera. 2018. “American Universities in the Middle East: A Student’s Perspective.” Cogent Education; Abingdon 5 (1). https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org.unr.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/2331186X.2018.1447228.

Subedi, Binaya. 2013. “Decolonizing the Curriculum for Global Perspectives.” Educational Theory; Urbana 63 (6): 621–38.

Jillian Campana
I am a Theatre professor and Associate Dean of the School of Humanities at the American University in Cairo. I have studied with Augusto Boal and hold a PhD in Theatre for Social Justice. My research looks at theatre as a tool for survivors of trauma.

Theatre is a form of anthropology. It allows us to look into the hearts and minds of others to explore what drives individuals and societies. Documentary theatre, TO processes and mask work are some of the many ways that allow us to explore the perspective of others.

I write, direct and perform. My newest book: Western Theatre in Global Contexts: directing and teaching culturally inclusive drama around the world (Routledge, 2020) discusses the importance locality plays in making work. I currently serve on the board of trustees for ISTA.