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  • Committing Theatre: Theatre Radicalism and Political Intervention in Canada
  • Sonja Kuftinec (bio)
Alan Filewod . Committing Theatre: Theatre Radicalism and Political Intervention in Canada. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2011.

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Cover image of Alan Filewod's Committing Theatre published by Between the Lines (2011).
Cover design by David Vereschagin

Alan Filewod commences his innovative archiving of activist theatre in Canada in his own home, teasing out the impli-cations of his attachment to a carving that his naval officer grandfather brought from Japan and transformed into a lamp stand. Filewod's medi-tation on this inherited object strikes a number of thematic keynotes in Committing Theatre: the relationships between the local and the global; practical experience and its theorization; and the dilemma of negotiating an inheritance that is invested in British working-class utilitarianism as well as being—not incidentally—military and patriarchal. It's a finely detailed entry into the tensions that undergird Filewod's historiographic reclamation of what he variously terms theatre of political intervention, refusal, and activism.

Filewod's project is rooted in his own passionate activism as well as in rigorous attention to a variety of archives, field notes, close readings, and theorizations. In addition to a cultural materialist grounding, these theorizations interweave dramaturgical analysis, postcolonial theory, postmodern aesthetics, feminist critiques, and elements of performance studies. One of the tensions Filewod dwells on is the shifting cultural paradigms that render certain forms of "theatre" [End Page 95] more visible than others; thus, his scholarship stays open to alternative formations such as fantasy role play and viral video while resisting too broad a paradigm of performance.

Committing Theatre's richly resourced bibliography includes material that ranges from the Moose Jaw Literary and Debating Society's Mock Parliament Program of 1903 to the Toronto Police Archives; from mass communications media such as the nineteenth-century Labour Advocate and mid-twentieth-century radio transcripts to a contemporary DVD produced by the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination. As a historian, Filewod deploys these various resources to look differently at archival traces—exemplified by a recurring example, catalogued in a 1919 Vancouver newspaper, of a bouquet of caterpillar-strewn branches thrust by a frustrated worker toward a civic official. Filewod reads the presentation as Brechtian gest and, more broadly, as an example of how to seek out absent traces of activist performance tropes. It's a way of both marking and remarking upon how "theatre" becomes "that which is findable by theatre historians" (3) as well as that which is reproducible and marketable. Filewod's scholarship evidences astute historiographic meditations on how dominant narratives emerge, particularly those that tie the theatre estate to the nation-state. He is relentless about making visible and reflecting on tensions and contradictions, including those derived from dwelling on the local, which calls attention to his own positionality. Committing Theatre highlights several of these tensions throughout a more or less alternative chronology of Canadian theatre history.

One tension emerges in the very terminology of "Canadian theatre." Filewod details how "Canadian-ness" can be figured as resistance to US cultural hegemony, monopoly capitalism, and British imperialism as well as iterating yet another mode of white Anglo patriarchy. As Filewod points out, some formations of "Canada" elide the multiplicity of communities within its territory, including aboriginal presence that precedes European settlement, French-speaking Québécois, and various immigrant communities from South Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe.

While focusing on left-oriented theatre, Filewod also notes that some forms of agitprop and intervention, such as military theatre and battle reenactments, emerge from the right. He critiques the militarism and machismo that structure these formations while also noting how "progressive" theatrical activism often deploys combat rhetoric. He additionally underlines tensions between modernist aesthetics associated with centralized movement-building and a postmodern aesthetics of fragmentation.

Filewod rigorously critiques patriarchal formations and points out his own orientations toward "hegemonic normatives" and "demographics of whiteness" (vii). Still, I found myself yearning for a few more examples of feminist, indigenous, and queer theatrical formations—perhaps an indication of where future scholars might focus. I also wished at times for slightly more reflexivity. In indexing shifts in spectatorial...


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