What does the term ‘intercultural theatre’ mean today? The question seems paradoxical, or even provocative, as all kinds of cultural exchanges regulate our daily life and any artistic adventure goes back to the most varied sources and audiences. And indeed, we have moved a long way from the intercultural experiences of the 1980s of a Peter Brook or an Ariane Mnouchkine. Interculturalism, a fairly new term (1970s) which was once a contested notion, has become a very common thing. It might be therefore worthwhile to examine what this notion refers to and to find out if it can be of any use to describe today’s theatre and performance.
I) Crisis or Normalization?
1) Recent historical landmarks
The fall of the Berlin wall and of communism in 1989 represents a turning point for intercultural thinking. It means the questioning, or even the disappearance of the universal principle, as well as of proletarian internationalism, which functioned as the finest jewel of socialism. It puts an end to an ideology which maintained by force the different states of Eastern Europe under its protective wing (in the Soviet Union or in Yugoslavia). Intercultural theatre becomes the best suited formula in a world with no open conflict between nations or between classes, the best adapted and available solution to the law of the international market and to the progressive disappearance of borders and nation-states1. In the last ten years, borders of all kinds seem to escape any control: since 1989 the political and geographical borders are fluid; after 9/11 terrorism escapes surveillance; since 2008 capitalism itself seems out of control.
In the 1970s and 1980s, interculturalism was rather welcomed by all political powers, right or left, because it seemed willing to establish a bridge between separate cultures or ethnic groups which used to ignore or fight one another. After 9/11, however, a certain fear of lesser-known cultures sometimes leads to a suspicion of intercultural performance. This might be a sign that the metaphor of the exchange between cultures, between past and present, no longer functions very well and that one should at least reconsider its theory. The theory and practice of intercultural theatre of the eighties seem to be left behind by current theatre and performance. As if they could no longer be thought of in terms of national or cultural identity. So what happened in these last twenty years, while politicians kept advocating intercultural cooperation?
2) “Theatre as foreign to society”
According to Robert Abirached, theatre has become foreign to contemporary society (at least in France): “Until about 1970, the audience was aware of its unity. It was a national audience. The National Popular Theatre was the theatre of the nation, a nation whose objectives, references, collective symbols were common to all. This culture was common to the people and the bourgeoisie. This society exploded, for many reasons: there was an increasingly brutal differentiation between [End Page 5] suburb and city centre, between populations coming from outside with their own culture and French and European culture. Instead of a coherent audience, we had a multiplication of micro-societies, which created their own theatre2”.
The intercultural theatre of the last forty years is a possible answer to the fragmentation of audiences and genres. Indeed, it attempts to broaden the national and political perspective by approaching “foreign” cultures. These cultures are mixed according to a central vision, that of a (usually Western) director.
Interculturalism-one tends to forget it-also functions the other way round: whenever a non-European culture uses European classics, it still maintains its own culture of stage traditions. So one should also open the debate to the way all these cultures/nations/theatres handle European or American authors and themes, with what presuppositions, intentions, and with what prejudices and prohibitions. Surprisingly, in Europe and everywhere else, Western intercultural theatre did not become a new genre which would federate all other genres, and, paradoxically, it even transformed itself into a globalized theatre.
3) Crisis of national identity
This deep transformation can be largely explained by a change of cultural as well as national identities. With the end of the...