How do we make more diverse theatre experiences?
Talking With Heirlooms & Baggage (My Mother's Story) Collaborators Camryn Chew and Ragini Kapil
In Heirlooms & Baggage (My Mother’s Story), the company set out with the hope that the show could embrace some truths around the issue of diversity. The idea of building a theatre company that reflects the diverse identities of people in our community is a core aspiration for us. Why? Well one of the criticisms that’s been levelled at traditional theatre is that it has tended to reinforce white culture – even white supremacy – where people of colours’ stories are way, WAY on the margins of the main story we’ve come to the theatre to watch. How do we change that? So we’re asking ourselves, how do we change the narrative of the stories we see on stage to better reflect the reality of our world? To be more diverse? Devised theatre practice has been one way into this search for change; offering a place where the authentic lived experiences of people can find the light on stage. In this blog I asked fellow Stageworks artist associates and H & B company members Camryn Chew and Ragini Kapil to share their thoughts about traditional theatre, devising and their experiences creating the show.
How do you think devised theatre, and maybe specifically the idea of telling our mother’s stories in the way we’re doing in this show, helps to change what theatre can be? I mean this for you, as an artist, and perhaps also for audiences?
It’s been a difficult road for dramatic productions in schools, local and community theatres, and larger productions as they attempt to become more inclusive and reflective of the global majority. So much of traditional storytelling tends to be intrinsically Eurocentric and although there is an attempt at inclusion, perhaps by including BIPOC actors in roles traditionally played by white people, sometimes the results seem inauthentic, contrived, forced, and awkward. Audiences are not left pondering the story, but questioning the choices. Even harder to take is the consistent prevalent practice of “othering” people of colour, or stigmatizing them with racially stereotypical, and often demeaning, culturally inaccurate or insulting stereotypes.
Telling my mother’s story has made me realize that this feeling of needing to fit myself into a box within theatre isn’t just specific to theatre, as my mom has felt this way as well. The stories that we consume about marginalized identities that are not written by people from marginalized groups often reinforce white supremacy by stereotyping, which is fundamental in order to maintain white supremacy. What I love about devising is that each deviser can have agency over their own story that they are telling, ensuring that we get to tell our own stories authentically.
Arts groups around the lower mainland have been writing and performing devised plays, devised story telling, and devised theatre very successfully in the last few years. These projects have reflected diversity at different levels and have allowed for a new kind of theatre to emerge, one that includes the voices in the communities that are reflected on stage. Devised theatre allows us to explore our personal, cultural, and collective stories in a way that brings a new awareness of not only the stories around us that stem from every corner of the globe, but how there are parallels and relatable events in every family’s story, without resorting to stereotypes or cultural tropes.
Developing my mother’s story through “Heirlooms and Baggage” has been a revelation, because not only has it brought to the forefront the resilience of our mothers, but also a connection between their common experiences and our own childhood memories.
Devised theatre may take some getting used to because the stories are different from a simple two act play structure. It is experimental, new, and exciting. The stories are authentic and unique. It’s not one playwright sitting down and creating something for other people to act out. It’s many voices coming together to create a performance with a powerful message. In this case, it’s the story of our mothers. And even though all the stories are different, what could be more universal than sharing and comparing our Moms’ stories?
In the show you both are telling stories about the experience of being ‘othered’ and judged for being non-white; for your Brownness or your Asianness (am I using the right terms?!). Sometimes it’s about your mother’s experiences, sometimes it’s about your own experience. How do you think these stories might connect with audiences?
This particular project has given me a chance to explore the effect that the British colonization of India and Fiji has had on my own family, me, and my values, practices and beliefs. My mother was brought up in Fiji and educated by missionaries in Fiji and also attended nursing school in New Zealand. She and my dad, who was brought up in India and experienced partition and India becoming a republic, knew what it was like to be considered second-class citizens in their own country. When they arrived in Canada in 1962, as the first Fijian family to live in Nelson, BC, they made a conscious decision to raise us as Canadians. We went to Sunday school, said the Lord’s Prayer, learned all the ways of the western world, and didn’t know anything different. It was a hard time for us as our parents strove to be great Canadians, while we were always being considered “other.”
Now, with the passage of time, people are not only aware of Indian culture, but embrace things like meditation, yoga, chai, butter chicken, and samosas. Many consider me an expert simply by looking at my face. The process of telling my mom’s story allowed me to show how confusing it can be to be a product of colonialism.
I don’t think my mom thought about race as much as I do – she just got on with it, being a trailblazer without even realizing it. I think the audience will connect with the poignancy of her experiences as a young girl, a new immigrant, and as the matriarch of her family. Many will relate to the stories of the children, like me, who didn’t fit in within the culture, nor in their own family.
Something that has come up for me when telling my mother’s story is that it has made me become braver. I have unfortunately allowed myself to be cast in stereotypical roles in the past, as I thought that nodding and smiling along was my only way to have a career/sometimes didn’t know any other option. Being tasked to tell my mother’s story has made it fundamental for me to have more courage, as I can’t let my mom become a stereotype when she deserves so much more than that.
TICKETS for the workshop production of HEIRLOOMS & BAGGAGE(MY MOTHER’S STORY) – Feb 16-18 at Kin Village in South Delta (Tsawwassen) – with Camryn Chew, Peg Christopherson, Renee Iaci and Eric Keenleyside are available on Eventbrite