Decolonizing Creation Processes by Reclaiming Narratives

This week we are holding space for a series on decolonizing theatre practice, which is not an easy thing to do. Instead of asking for single-narrative articles from multiple individuals, we have asked communities to have discussions and share them to keep the conversation around decolonization diverse and complex. Each piece is itself a conversation and we hope you'll join! We couldn't possibly cover everything, so please add your voice and perspective from wherever you sit/stand/breathe in the circle.—Madeline Sayet and Annalisa Dias, series curators.

Robert Goodwin: When you talk about decolonizing Western theatre, how do you explain it?

Mary Kathryn Nagle: I think it means different things to different people.

“Decolonization” is used a lot nowadays, and I think that’s a good thing. People are becoming more aware of the ways in which our lives are predetermined by colonization, and they don’t have to be—we have a choice. We live within a system, of course, but certain things we accept, or we frame things in certain ways in our minds because that’s what we’ve been taught… Realizing you don’t have to see them that way can be really liberating.

There’s a lot of discussion happening about decolonization but not a lot of true education. That’s not on anyone in particular. I think we need to go deeper into particular aspects of decolonizing the theatre.

The historic silencing of underrepresented voices in this country is no accident.

Robert: The deeper, tougher questions—and the conversations that broaden the definition of what theatre can be—are the ones that tend to scare theatre practitioners who come from what could be perceived as a traditional colonial construct.

People get nervous when you start talking about systems and tradition. And it makes sense, because storytelling within cultures is an offshoot of different peoples’ traditions. And sometimes when you start expanding those traditions, people get scared and want to maintain what they know.

But I think there’s a beautiful opportunity when you have folks coming from different ethnic and cultural traditions, all showing ways of broadening storytelling. I’ve always constructed theatre as a means of telling stories, and I think there’s such an interesting possibility when you get to expand how stories are told and what kind of stories are told. I think they’re also connected to who will then be hearing and participating in those stories.

That then extends all the way to the audience: from who’s producing to what kind of entities are being formed, and if folks can get those stories within established entities without nervousness and anxiety. It gets people nervous for some reason. I guess I understand; I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I understand.

Mary Kathryn: I think those people don’t understand storytelling’s role in colonization and colonialism. They’re just really not aware of why they live in the world they live in. American colonialism utilized—and continues to utilize—a very specific form of storytelling that dehumanized different groups of people and characterized the land we live on and with as a commodity, and that’s the narrative and the story that got told. And it’s still told today. We’re still living and breathing and consuming a Manifest Destiny, “go west young man,” “this land is yours” narrative in the United States.

For me, the biggest thing you can do to decolonize the theatre is to put all voices on stage, especially those who have been historically underrepresented or silenced in this country.

The historic silencing of underrepresented voices in this country is no accident. The silence is for a reason, right? Because when you do get to tell your story, you reclaim your power. And that’s very threatening to colonialism and colonization. You can’t exercise power over people if they are defining their own identities and sharing their own stories.

Robert: Yeah, you change the narrative. The narrative is taken back.

Mary Kathryn: Exactly. So, when I hear people talk about decolonizing the theatre, that’s what I immediately go to. Who has been historically silenced, who are we now going to invite to the table and allow to define and share their own stories?

Robert: Right. And I think that’s the interesting part of the conversation, which, like you said, gets deeper into all systems and begins to look at all of our history, especially in America.

We have to look at Manifest Destiny politics. We have to look at slavery and how world colonization allowed America to come into being what we know it to be, and how it allowed a lot of folks to be unaware because a whole system was created based in privilege and lack of awareness. You didn’t have to worry about what was going on in the world. Somebody else was doing the heavy lifting, and people were benefiting from that. Especially when you and I, Native folk and folk who were brought over, are a real direct reintegration and reclamation of the narrative of the founding of our country, and consequently our stories.

I have a picture that I'm looking at right now of my maternal grandmother’s sisters. There are twelve or thirteen of them, and they’re sitting with my great-grandmother and great-grandfather. My great-grandmother is African American and my great-grandfather is Cherokee. 

Meanwhile, you and I are having this conversation exploring colonial narrative when those stories are represented in this picture. I wonder what that play would be, what that story would be, and how it would turn narratives that either aren’t told or are maybe mistold on their heads.

Actors on stage with a table
Manahatta by Mary Kathryn Nagle at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Mary Kathryn: It’s interesting to think about some of the criticism my plays, such as Sovereignty and Manahatta, have received so far. There are people who have said it’s too educational. You really have to unpack that. Because the way in which my plays are educational is that they expose and reveal a narrative that has been purposely silenced by a colonial government. Our authentic stories have been silenced, removed, erased, and replaced with performances like redface and blackface and yellowface, and other forms of erasing or dehumanizing performances.

There is a reason that redface became a nationally adopted performance in the 1830s, around the same time Andrew Jackson was campaigning for president on a platform that advocated for Indian Removal. We, Natives, have stories—true authentic stories. People of color have authentic stories and narratives that are not the redface or blackface that colonialism created.

But when you put authentic narratives of Natives into a play, there are a lot of people who say, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never heard this before. I’ve learned so much.” And they’re excited, and they recognize it as a true story and they want to learn more. Just like you would any time you hear a good story.

Then there are the people who really challenge it, and I’m still figuring that out: how are they challenging it, why are they challenging it, what does it mean, and where does it come from? I think a lot of us hold onto colonial narratives without even fully consciously recognizing it. Just because it’s the narrative we’ve grown up with, the one we’ve been taught.

Letting that go and opening ourselves up to other narratives is very tricky and requires a lot of thought and actual purpose. And so, right now, throwing writers of color who are challenging the colonial narrative straight into American theatre, without thinking about how they interface with critics—critics who derive their practice from a narrative that erases the writers’ communities—leaves our writers of color disproportionally vulnerable in their artistic practice. We’re literally changing the white colonial model of storytelling and infiltrating it with stories that have been purposefully silenced and erased, so there is going to be pushback. But how do we navigate that? And how does an artist honestly take in criticism they receive from an institution designed to erase them?

It’s a challenge. Because I do need criticism for my plays. But when the critique is that my play was too educational… No one says that about a play about a white founding father. And we have tons of those, and those plays aren’t educational because they’re telling us something we already know. And why do we know it? Because it’s the colonial narrative.

So therefore it’s been deemed, in colonial fashion, to be good art because it’s telling us what we already know. And plays by historically silenced people tell us what we don’t know. Their authentic stories do educate us. Personally, I think the question of good art is simply: Is it a good story? And when it’s a good story that also educates an audience about a narrative that has been hidden from them, that is the kind of art most humans attribute authentic value to.

Robert: I think it becomes systemic analysis. Then the challenge becomes grounded in the fact that when we look at other narratives and stories we don’t know, we have to pull the thread on all parts of the form: how things are produced, who’s in the room when stories are being critiqued. It forces a complete analysis.

And then we go to the next level, which is how human beings interact with each other in our country, in systems, and in the world, and then you start uncovering rocks. What’s under the rocks that haven’t moved for a long time?

I was doing some reading about how decolonizing work is happening in South Africa. One of the age-old playwrights, Welcome Msomi, paired Zulu history and stories with Shakespeare, layering the story of Shaka Zulu with Macbeth, for uMabatha. The narrative points to work not only of the Apartheid past, but present-moment issues that deal with social and political power, with accessibility and narrative offering, who controls the narrative... And it just makes folks have to be far more open to merging constructs.

You talk about the breath of criticism, or who’s in the room. I had to learn how to broaden my artistic palette. I grew up in a culturally specific theatre as an actor. I was told by old, experienced journeymen actors that if I was going to get really good at my form, I needed to go train classically. That gave me another set of tools in my box, and when you continue to expand your tool set, your way of working expands.

But if you choose to only have one frame of reference in terms of the tools that you use to build, to fix, to renovate, and to analyze, then you’re making a choice. To view things in a particular way, to only fix things in a particular way, is a choice.

That says a lot of the desire of many people to maintain story structure. I know that we have both had experiences with others not understanding anything but linear temporal storytelling.

Mary Kathryn: Yeah. Linear, linear, linear, linear, linear.

Robert: Everyone across the world, other than the West, tells stories in all kinds of circles.

Mary Kathryn: Oh yes. I love a good circle.

American colonialism utilized—and continues to utilize—a very specific form of storytelling that dehumanized different groups of people and characterized the land we live on and with as a commodity.

Robert: In my experience working in regional theatre, it’s a hard sell for some audiences who are used to the linear temporal form, but the expansion of exploring story structure in a different way is just like the circle. It becomes far more inclusive, far more whole.

But you have to say yes to it to be able to really get immersed and get an idea of what it could be. Not only to the institution—the audience, box office, the whole thing.

Mary Kathryn: One really exciting thing about a circle—and if you consider that a form of decolonization in the theatre—is that, automatically, everyone standing together is in relation to one another.

So much of colonization, and theatre that supports colonization, is about isolation and actually separating us from one another. That’s the power of what you can do in a performance, in theatre, that you can’t do in another political arena.

Robert: Right, the value and power and strength is when we do stand together holistically in that circle and engage with one another. It’s an experience that asks us to engage in a way that makes us have to really see each other. And educate, and learn, and be entertained.

I think it’s so interesting that you had a criticism about your piece being too educational. Isn’t that what the form is supposed to do? Isn’t it suppose to educate as much as it is to entertain? That’s in my definition. You’re supposed to take something away from it. I hope that I’ll always take something away from every theatrical experience I have. That’s what storytelling is about.

Mary Kathryn: For sure. Well, it has to be interesting to think about decolonization when you’re at a company that focuses on producing Shakespeare. Do you think Shakespearean theatre contributes to colonization? Or do you want to plead the fifth.

Robert: I think about this often. I wonder if he would think that he was participating in a colonial act. Would he say, “Not only am I trying to do the exact opposite by taking antecedents and explore and pull threads”? Or “My original ideas are pulling threads from at least different nationalities”? I think he would have a problem with how he’s constructed as a cultural icon, if you will, because it seems like he was trying to be pluralistic. I think he was trying to be pluralistic.

That being said, I think, quite honestly, he’s being used as a colonial reinforcement. And that’s unfortunate because you see in some of the lines that are written, the desire for folks to be true to who they know themselves to be intrinsically. And if you’re asking people to be personally authentic, it’s hard to say that the cat was trying to make a culturally isolating or even hegemonic statement.

I think, unfortunately, he’s been used that way. And I think that’s why it’s even more incumbent on institutions that present Shakespeare to do their best to be progressive, and innovative, and pluralistic, in order for us to have spaces for all people versus resorting to a generic rationale that Shakespeare is universal. That’s pushing people away because often the “universality” point does nothing but reinforce the status quo.

Especially if you know that during Shakespeare’s time Britain was one of the major colonial forces in the world.

Mary Kathryn: The narrative of colonialism was one that supported colonial regimes but that has continued to reinvent itself over time. And it evolves. So we have in America today this post-racial colonial narrative: “We’re all the same, we’re all equal, there are no differences.” But that lack of specificity, that “we’re all just the same”… we’re not all the same. How a Native person is affected by something is different than how a person from another community is affected by the same thing because of a very specific history: colonization.

Sometimes, as a progressive thing, we try to erase history, and I think that’s really problematic. A Shakespeare play can get done in a way that seems “progressive,” but actually, sometimes, the more you take it away from its original context, the more it contributes to this idea that our communities’ relationships to colonization don’t matter when they really, truly do.

I think it’s easy to not really investigate what Shakespeare was exploring and what he was ignoring. And what colonial narratives he was promoting, and maybe what he was challenging. But that requires a lot of specificity. You have to really understand his context and investigate that. I think a lot of times, the new colonial narrative that supports maintaining our status quo in contemporary Unites States prevents us from asking the hard questions about our history and where we come from—questions we desperately need to ask.

How a Native person is affected by something is different than how a person from another community is affected by the same thing because of a very specific history: colonization.

Robert: Exactly. I think that’s the challenge. But let’s pull the thread some more. What are we really saying about theatre? And are we up for the challenge for this next period of time in terms of theatre practice as well as theatre consumption? Because the more we try to stay in this neutral, undefined, non-specific history—and the more we ask people to come and consume, in a time when it’s clear that specificity in storytelling is exactly what people are consuming—the more we risk losing the very people we want to invite to participate.

A colleague of mine said that people don’t have to come to the theatre: there’s great content across all technological platforms that we have now, and it’s specific. It’s more than Baskin Robbins, it’s more than your thirty-one flavors. It’s very, very vast. So I can find the story. Like, I just found a platform for African American storytelling called kweliTV that’s got a ton of specific content to my particular culture and ethnicity.

Then why do I go to the theatre? The live storytelling argument is, to me, coming into question more and more because those same forms—film, TV—are stealing the best from the theatrical traditions in terms of storytelling. And so the lines are being blurred in terms of aesthetics, how we as practitioners ideate and build stories and how the public then consumes them. So, what are we telling people who go to the theatre?

Are we setting up the same kind of traditional theatre spaces that have been problematic for decades? Are we saying only certain people can go to the theatre… people with money or from a particular class? Are we saying that the (Western) classics are the only classics? We are again setting the stage for people who want to maintain a particular kind of story tradition? That’s who comes. And it’s a maintenance of a particular narrative, a particular idea, a particular mode. If we don’t want to keep that as the narrative, then some of the decolonizing work has to happen to open the doors. I wonder if we want that.

Actor in front of table, in spotlight
Manahatta by Mary Kathryn Nagle at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Mary Kathryn: It goes back to the fact that if we really do want to decolonize the theatre, it’s more than just saying, Who are we inviting to make theatre and who are we inviting to watch it? There’s a lot more that has to be prepared responsibly if we don’t want to harm anyone. And I actually think there is potential to harm. I’ve learned that by doing plays that challenge the colonial narrative. You are automatically engaging in narratives that have supported things like genocide, so people are going to get triggered. And there’s a lot of trauma there.

I think theatre has the power to heal. But you have to know what you’re working with and go about everything intentionally. You can’t just stick it up there and say let’s see what happens. I think that’s something I hadn’t fully realized until I was completely engaged in it.

Healing the colonial narrative is going to be painful. Because there’s a lot of pain, and that pain didn’t go away because we didn’t talk about it.

Robert: Right. Generation to generation to generation to generation. And when you crack the ground, water hits everyone. Not only the generation that was hurt by the colonial action.

As someone who does contextualizing and engagement work for a major theatre, I know I’m constantly trying to make sure that we pull threads in order to cover not only dramatic action, but to apply what we’re focusing on in the theatre to everyday life and political action.

That’s what you have to do in order to leave folks with some sort of construct that gives them a chance to close the loop on what they’ve seen. Give them opportunities to get more information in order to encounter, explore, and even reframe the narrative so they can go and interact in the world.

It points to the reason we have to have critics from across cultures, ethnicities, and orientations. Producers, executive directors, the whole nine, all through. I think that’s when you start getting into interesting territory in this conversation because it does pull a lot of threads.

Mary Kathryn: Yeah, and that kind of systemic change can scare people for sure.

Robert: To say the least.

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Thoughts from the curators

This series explores decolonizing theatre practice. 

Decolonizing Theatre

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"When you talk about decolonizing Western theatre, how do you explain it?"

"I think it means different things to different people."

I wish this could be clearer.

Could you give some examples of storytelling/theatre that uses a circle structure?  Thanks!