- Theatre as Cultural ExchangeStages and Studios of Learning
It was a pleasure presenting for "Theatre Symposium: Cross-Cultural Dialogue on the Global Stage" in April 2016. The symposium offered a unique opportunity to dialogue with colleagues about how global perspectives influence our practice. Whether we work in performance, technical production, or theatre studies, our artistry and scholarship expand when we take time to learn about other cultures and consider how our production seasons, classrooms, and professional work might change by introducing world perspectives. Global travel begins in our minds. We must first imagine a broad context for what we consider to be theatre; then we can engage with new paradigms that will define the future of our artistic forms. Even though we work in diverse contexts, each of our areas of expertise can benefit from engaging with literature and practices that take us away from our comfort zones. Intercultural experiences, coupled with meaningful interactions with people who differ from us, expand our minds. As the head of the Global Theatre and Ethnic Studies minor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I advocate for theatre practices that foreground diverse cultures and promote engagement with intercultural communities. "Going global" enhances our ability to absorb multiple perspectives that can broaden our understandings about theatrical practice.
Often I hear that we are all humans under the skin, but through my travels and classroom experiences I have learned that while we share common emotions and physiques, ideologies and belief systems can be really different. And that is the beautiful thing about the theatre. It provides an opportunity to physically, viscerally experience another perspective of human existence. As a scholar and practitioner I find performance to be an ideal way of crossing borders. When I think about stages and studios of learning I wonder, how do we teach for a global future? Most theatre programs offer a combination of literature and studio courses coupled [End Page 12] with a production season. In general, we remain committed to teaching a canon of plays that reflect the history of Euro-American, English-language theatre. Global and multicultural theatre appears as the spice to enrich our experience of a progressive historical evolution of Western drama.
Escaping this approach to theatrical training is a challenge because, as faculty members, often this has been our training, our experience, or our area of expertise. It is intimidating to approach learning about the cultures of the entire world. In addition to a plethora of plays, there are language barriers. And if each cultural drama represents a distinct ideology and cultural context, then how can we immerse ourselves in all of these deep histories and experiences?
We can begin to connect to other cultural positions just by considering our own background and heritage. Each of us brings experiences gleaned from a lifetime of immersion in a unique cultural context. Too often, we underestimate the impact of our learned cultural behaviors on our daily arts practice. Faculty members and students in American classrooms tend to think of themselves as part of an assimilated, hegemonic middle class. If we consider our ancestral heritage, each of us actually carries distinct cultural knowledges or understandings. For example, we tend to forget that our grandparents may have come from Ireland or that we might have been raised on a farm or an island rather than within a suburban community. Our heritage connections travel across generations and impact our worldview.1
One of the exercises I introduce in class to help students begin to think about global identities is to have them "perform their identity" as an opening activity. When I start this exercise, at first there is confusion. White students tell me they do not know what to perform. African American students ask me if they can perform any identity. I encourage all students to select a song, dance, or poem that is about who they are and to perform it. Within this exercise I have seen poignant theatrical acts. One performance that stands out for me is the work of a student of Swedish descent who performed a ritual of stuffing Christmas sausages. He stood in front of the class and began...