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Radical Compassion and the Ethics of Cultural Representation

Spurred by the controversies over the new adaptation of The Jungle Book that opened this summer in Chicago, this series of articles explores who is allowed to tell whose stories onstage. This series is curated by Rebecca Stevens, the Chicago Commons Producer for HowlRound.

Representing cultures onstage that are not our own is a proposition fraught with peril. Intercultural theater has brought us many of the most beautiful and compelling productions, but it has also created some of the most culturally problematic works as well. How we choose to represent cultures onstage is a direct reflection of how we personally view cultures that are “foreign” to our own experience. As theater artists, if we objectify these cultures by utilizing them only for their outward aesthetics rather than for their inner substance, we open the door to cultural insensitivity, appropriation, and violation. However, if we can approach these cultures as humble pupils who wish to learn and understand other cultural values, and to incorporate those values into our own artistic works, we may be able to allow these traditions to influence our art in productive ways. 

As we study previous intercultural experiments, we see that history is filled with examples of misunderstanding and miscommunication by some of the greatest theater practitioners. For instance, Gilbert and Sullivan attempted to recreate Japanese theatrical traditions in their Mikado; they produced a comic opera that was entertaining, yet hardly sensitive to the Japanese culture from which they borrowed. Brecht thought he understood Classical Chinese Opera, yet scholars have demonstrated that he misinterpreted this art form and its meaning. Peter Brook’s work on The Mahabharata has been widely criticized for its objectification of this epic and the Indian culture from which it came. These examples demonstrate how even the best intentioned theater practitioners have fallen victim to cultural appropriation in the most unfortunate ways.

I propose that we must approach our work with even greater sensitivity and care than ever. In the past one might stage a play having borrowed from other theatrical cultures without those from whom they borrowed ever knowing the final outcome. In our new global age, this nescience no longer exists. Because we now have access to unlimited information about other cultures and are able to travel more freely to train with practitioners the world over, we are beholden to higher standards. Furthermore, our work can be transmitted globally in an instant, exposing our art for all of its glories and imperfections. 

Some might argue that this stance is a form of self-censorship—that we should have the artistic freedom to do whatever we wish without consequence. I believe that is privileged thinking. As recent examples such as the Danish cartoon scandal or The Innocence of Muslims film prove, our art has real-world consequences that can lead to dire outcomes. Nothing, of course, justifies violence, but we cannot pretend any longer that we create art in a vacuum and that our art has no repercussions. If we create politically incendiary art, we will have to answer to our critics. As art has become increasingly more democratic, and criticism is no longer relegated to the elite few, there is a greater need for all of us to become more thoughtful and compassionate. In other words, just because we can offend does not mean that we should offend. Tennessee Williams wrote, “Some things are not forgivable. Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable.” I think that statement is vital when it comes to how we represent other cultures onstage. 

There are ways we can re-envision how we approach this kind of work in the future. First, theater companies can adopt more horizontal, rather than vertical, power structures that remove influence from the monolithic vision of the auteur in order to achieve a more inclusive collaboration. One of the hallmarks of previous intercultural experiments was the ceding of artistic voice to the all-knowing, all-powerful director. Although these productions created extremely famous and influential celebrities, they often left their collaborators voiceless and anonymous. When the history of intercultural theatre is written, we will always remember the directors that created these works (i.e., Brecht, Barba, Taymor, Ninagawa, Ong), but few can recall the choreographers, dramaturgs, performers, and designers that collaborated with them to make these productions possible. That hierarchical structure is a modernist aesthetic that is proving less convincing in our contemporary landscape. In this way, the theater becomes a place of negotiation, not dictation; of community, not individualism. Second, the reliance on visual spectacle over text has also led to a lack of agency on the part of other non-technical collaborators in the theater. Dazzling, over-produced spectacles often compromised the voice of those being represented by replacing their words with quickly digestible images. This dependence on technology has a price: it sacrifices the specificity of individual experience for the vagueness of mass consumption. 

Finally, through models like documentary theater, theater for social change, and forum theater, a multiplicity of voices is being heard in ways it might not have been in the past. Collaborative techniques allow artists of various backgrounds to create theatrical performances that are more about the sharing of cultural ideas than the promotion of an artist’s singular vision. These works often eschew the tired reliance on reinterpretations and deconstructions of masterpieces in order to tell the specific stories of voiceless members of our society struggling to survive against the forces of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia.

Creating art is a privilege, and it is one we should not take lightly. There is an ethical responsibility connected with all fields, and making art is not exempt from this obligation. As we continue to create intercultural works in the theater that focus on cultural representation, my hope is that we will become more attuned to the world, and the people, around us. The theater demands, and deserves, this kind of radical compassion. 


Thoughts from the curator

Spurred by the controversies over the adaptation of The Jungle Book that opened in 2014 in Chicago, this series of articles explores who is allowed to tell whose stories onstage.

Race and Representation in American Theatre

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"Creating art is a privilege, and it is one we should not take lightly. There is an ethical responsibility connected with all fields, and making art is not exempt from this obligation. " YES. I cannot wait until this viewpoint is no longer radical but simply best practice.

Obviously there's no one-way but I'm increasingly less interested in devised work and appreciate a singular playwright's voice (and really am done with docudrama). Call it hierarchal if you must but I tend to believe if we're doing our job and actually collaborating with our collaborators a playwright can write the script, a director can direct it, actors can act it, and designers can design and it doesn't feel hierarchical. Perhaps it's not the way we've been working that needs to change but the way we write/talk about it. I've noticed both the professional and amateur reviewer/critic have a tendency to focus on one artist who is attached to the project (the playwright or director or leading actor, if they're famous), perhaps trying to create a hero's journey narrative out of the creation. Is it possible for us to keep the models that have worked for years, that continue to work, but change our perspective and response to them? In terms of cultural appropriation... seems like you got something there but (and sorry to be so contrary as your article is so well written and full of exciting ideas) I hope we don't get caught in a trap where we're only allowed to write/create our own experiences. If so, the only art we're going to have in America will be about how privilege makes us unhappy (and yes, I'm being reductive to illustrate a point, I don't actually think America has only privileged unhappy people). I hope as we forge this new global responsibility we still allow people to try to understand others and fail and try again.