Decolonizing Theatre

an Introduction

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.

Over the last year, the American theatre, like many other fields, has been looking at its roots and raising difficult questions. How could we as a field be guilty of so many instances of oppression, sexual harassment, and other forms of dehumanization despite increasing understanding of “equity, diversity, and inclusion” principles? What problematic systems did we step into and support that we may not even be aware of? Is there some invisible structure currently embedded in our institutions and the (inter)national theatre ecology?

This week, HowlRound is offering a series on Decolonizing Theatre Practice to increase basic understanding of how colonialism (still!) functions on these lands and across the globe. This series aims to create room for dialogue about how the “American” theatre has been and still is complicit in these systems, and also how it might be a space for needed healing.

We tend to think of colonization as a historical event, but…colonization is a structure, not an event. We can still see examples of classic colonial structure in many of the practices of our field.

You may have heard about the recent movement to decolonize the Brooklyn Museum and wondered what the implications might be for theatrical practice. Over the course of this week, we have invited a variety of artists to participate in a series of conversations about the way colonial structure inhabits our stories, our practice, and our communities, and to think about ways we might decolonize each and all of these. (As a note, each piece in the series has two or more voices as an intentional way to complicate the notion of a single narrator, even here on HowlRound.)

But first, what is colonialism anyway? We have invited Shakespeare cartoonist Good Tickle Brain (Mya Gosling) to collaborate with playwright Annalisa Dias to help us understand the structures and vocabulary around decolonization. For anyone interested in a more thorough set of definitions, check out this handout created by Claudia Alick, Ty Defoe, Annalisa Dias, and Larissa FastHorse for their “decolonizing theatre practice” session at the 2017 TCG conference.


The structure of classic colonization, typically characterized by a mother country that enters into an extractive and genocidal relationship with what becomes a colony, is usually what people think about when they hear the word “colonialism.” We tend to think of colonization as a historical event, but many, many theorists have written about how colonization is a structure, not an event. We can still see examples of classic colonial structure in many of the practices of our field.

Some examples for further discussion might include:

  • Prominently funding the use of Shakespeare in educational programming for “at-risk” populations, based on the notion that Shakespeare will “improve” people. This has been termed by Dawn Monique Williams and others as “The Shakespeare Missionary Complex.” While well-intentioned, this unfortunately mirrors practices of missionary conversion: the idea that bringing this famous white author to people of color improves their lives perpetuates the idea that one culture is superior to others.
  • Educational theatre programs in “at risk” or “underdeveloped” neighborhoods. (These words are usually coded language for communities of color, which are positioned as in-need-of-saving. How might we critique and decolonize these power dynamics?)

The structure of settler colonialism, which grows out of classic colonialism but is characterized by the colonists staying rather than returning to the mother country, relies on the erasure of Indigenous peoples and conversion of people (of color) and lands into property. The US, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia are considered settler colonial societies.

Some examples of settler colonial structures in theatre include:

  • The fact that very few theatre institutions have produced native plays or have reciprocal relationships with Indigenous artists and the lands on which theatres operate.
  • The commodification of “equity, diversity, and inclusion” initiatives (think about the ways in which black and brown bodies are commodified in the name of “diversity”).
  • Beyond individual institutions, think about the rhetoric of Creative Placemaking, Creative Cities, and Arts Districts and their relationship to gentrification/displacement of primarily communities of color. How does this dynamic mimic settler colonial structure?

Neocolonial structure, typically characterized by an economic system that mimics classic colonization with the mother country repositioned as a “first world” nation and colonial countries as the “developing world,” also persists in the international theatre ecology. Neocolonialism is also characterized by the extractive commodification of lands and by cultural appropriation, specifically insofar as profit can be made by selling cultural products extracted from “developing” countries.

Some examples of neocolonial structure in theatre include:

  • International arts partnerships that assume dominant Western stories and theatremaking have anything to do with “saving” or “developing” other communities.
  • The role of exporting US cultural products in the service of global US imperialism.
  • Funding structures that rely on extractive technologies (many theatres accept corporate funding from or have investments in the fossil fuel industry).
  • Predominantly white institutions receiving funding and prestige for “equity, diversity, and inclusion” work while theatres of color continue to receive disproportionately low funding.
  • In season planning, the economic quantification and tokenization of “identity” plays (ie. having a “Black play” or a “Latinx play,” etc).

Decentering is one of many strategies for moving toward decolonization. As we saw above, classic colonial structure presumes that the “mother country” is the “center” toward which all things flow and from which all things come. This is one version of history that has been systematically centered over time. Decentering opens space in the circle so all can be heard and seen. If we acknowledge the circle we stand in with everyone else (human and more-than-human), it will be easier to connect and learn. Decentering involves understanding that there are many models for story, narrative, and leadership. For example, many traditional Indigenous leaders take the entire group into consideration in decision-making, rather than using hierarchical (colonial) decision-making processes where individuals function on their own and report back (to the center!). Decentering helps us remember that our communities are healthier when every voice is in the circle with us.

Some examples of decentering questions we might ask include:

  • What assumptions do I make in meetings, collaborative processes, and other decision-making spaces about whose opinions are most valid? What are my implicit biases?
  • What is the structure of a play and the way it is cast? Who has the most stage time? What character is most often speaking? Are there other ways to rethink whose story is being told and how?
  • When I find myself in the center, how do I step out and offer space to others? How can I listen better? If my or my community’s voice has been systematically silenced, how can I work to center that narrative?
  • How does my work or my institution center capitalist cis-heteronormative ableist white supremacy? How can I or my institution decenter those and center voices and bodies that have historically been silenced and/or erased?

There are many strategies for decolonization. Most of them have to do with rekindling relationships to the land, pausing the cycle of production to create space for listening, and decentering white supremacy and its need for strict boundaries, borders, and binaries.

Some questions we all might ask ourselves on our decolonial journey are:

  • What is my relationship or my theatre’s relationship to the lands and Indigenous territories I live and work on? What degree of reciprocity is there? How can I begin to acknowledge and build reciprocal relationships with Indigenous peoples where I live and work?
  • How is my work or institution complicit in colonial structures and how might we interrupt and reimagine those structures?
  • How does my work or my institution participate in environmental harm?

This week, we’re excited to go on a decolonizing journey and we can’t wait to dialogue as an interconnected field about the ways we might all move forward together. We’ll start with a conversation about decolonizing the primacy of text, words, and language. Then we’ll move into a conversation about decolonizing creative processes. Next, we’ll hear from a variety of folx about decolonial ethical principles for working with/in communities. Then we’ll broaden the perspective beyond Turtle Island and think about representation, borders, and identity in an international context. Finally, we’ll get together again for a live conversation about interconnected theatre ecologies.

Questions that may come up this week:

  • What are the ways we colonize our audiences, our artists and ourselves?
  • How can we dismantle these faulty principles and offer new solutions to connect to the community and land we are a part of?
  • How often do you think about where you’re from? The waterways giving life to the land around you? What are your roots? Your community? Where do you connect?

We hope that each piece in this series will end with more questions than answers, and we hope you’ll use the comments to engage in dialogue around the many ways that colonial structures manifest in our theatre spaces and processes. In that spirit, we invite you to name, reflect on, and make visible other instances (in your own practice or in your community) where you’ve observed colonial power dynamics at work.

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Thoughts from the curators

This series explores decolonizing theatre practice. 

Decolonizing Theatre

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As a cis white lady theatremaker/educator who is committed to doing work for social change, I want to admit that found myself having a lot of initial reactions of, like “pinch,” “ouch,” etc - realizing that I am complicit in many of these practices, but then also having that impulse to resist, to “throw up my hands,” or wish that there was the voice of the “devil’s advocate” represented more. But I am proud that with each of those reactions, I was able to breathe and try to step back and just listen, reflect, and accept that there is so much truth here and that there is so much implicit bias not only in the content of my work, but also in the *way* I work. I feel a little like the dude brah in the de-centering cartoon, maybe, and I really appreciate the sentiment of that one - the idea that we can be uncomfortable, but if we have the courage to step out of the center and work with our own discomfort, there is so much beauty (and truth!) to be seen. So I want to say thanks to the folks in this series for being the the lady in the de-centering cartoon (and all the cartoons) for taking the time and energy to do this article and this series. I am excited to read the rest. Thank you!

Hi Jane, Thank you for this insight! I think you're super not-alone here. I've heard very similar things from a bunch of folx about leaning into the discomfort and being able to find the beauty. Madeline and I did a session on decolonizing Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference this year, and there were similar points raised. I'm always inspired when people are brave enough to name the discomfort publicly. You know? We're in it together. Thank you for sharing your perspective!