Theatre as a Space for Conversation Among Canada’s Solitudes

by Aurélie Lacassagne

Theatre is something of an ultimate art form that allows the meeting of cultures not only on and off stage, but also between artists and audience. As such, it constitutes an unconventional political space where the rifts—social, racial, cultural, historical and gender—that fracture our society and divide our communities can be overcome. To put it another way, theatre can be a highly effective tool for facilitating dialogue and, potentially, empowerment.

Theatre can also present as a space of infinite possibilities, in direction as in messaging. This applies particularly to what Eugenio Barba called a Third Theatre, that is, a theatre characterized by “the autonomous construction of meaning that disregards the restrictions imposed on the performing arts by the prevailing society and culture.” And while the model of the Wild West Show—as popularized by Bill Cody, aka Buffalo Bill—may seem singularly inappropriate, historically besmirched as it is by its commercialism, its racism, and its major role in constructing and perpetuating stereotypes that are deeply rooted in our collective frame of reference, reimagining it today, in 2017, is a responsible form of cultural reappropriation; Daniel David Moses took a similar approach in 1996 in The Indian Medicine Shows.

Solitudes brought together in a Third Space

In Canada, rejecting social restrictions is achieved by, for instance, bringing solitudes together around a writing table, a stage, a performance venue. It may be symptomatic that the stock expression is “two solitudes,” the title of Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 novel. Not that those two solitudes don’t exist, but they have never been the only two solitudes in this country. It’s a revealing indication of the historical neglect not only of the Indigenous and Métis peoples that helped shape the nation, but of all the immigrant communities that have landed on our shores over the last 300 years.

Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show brings all these solitudes together with the intention of forging connections, having a conversation, creating something collectively. This is not the kind of multiculturalism where each community tells its stories but stays partitioned in its own ghetto: here, it’s a matter of investing a Third Space, to borrow Homi K. Bhabha’s concept, a space where oppressors and oppressed can come together to compare their recollections of a pivotal event—in this case, the Métis uprisings in western Canada—and perhaps to begin considering potential pathways to empowerment. In other words, this show embraces hybridity (Bhabha’s term; I prefer “creolization”). In that sense, the creators’ approach follows a well-established tradition: as Ric Knowles points out, theatre has always been a hybrid art form, from ancient Greek tragedy to Elizabethan theatre and commedia dell’arte, and including the many and diverse forms of contemporary theatre around the world.

An intercultural theatre that encourages errantry

For Ric Knowles, intercultural theatre is “a site for the continuing renegotiation of cultural values and the reconstitution of individual and community identities and subject positions.” In other words, from a cultural studies perspective, theatre, like other art forms, is regarded as a site for ongoing negotiation and for challenging the dominant discourse.

In its bold approach, Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show presents interesting rhizomatic possibilities, namely, the potential to create rhizomatic identities composed of multiple roots, throwing into question the dominant identity–roots. Indeed, the play goes so far as to put forward the conditions for the possibility of real political change. The premise is simple: Without an authentic conversation, without true decolonization, there can be no reconciliation. This show shares in the process of decolonizing theatre and opening a conversation. The artists participating in this project propose a first step in the reconciliation everyone talks about but isn’t sure how to achieve: acknowledging, listening to and understanding our national memories.

To that end, the play also invites us to change our way of thinking by favouring errantry, wandering, in order to shape new social and cultural identities that transcend the static identities dictated by the History written by the victors.

As Édouard Glissant states in his Poetics of Relation, “Errantry, therefore, does not proceed from renunciation nor from frustration regarding a supposedly deteriorated (deterritorialized) situation of origin; it is not a resolute act of rejection or an uncontrolled impulse of abandonment…. That is very much the image of the rhizome, prompting the knowledge that identity is no longer completely within the root but also in Relation. Because the thought of errantry is also the thought of what is relative, the thing relayed as well as the thing related. The thought of errantry is a  poetics, which always infers that at some moment it is told. The tale of errantry is the tale of Relation.”

The concept of errantry is not about the journey; it’s not a question of the audience setting out for a chance encounter with the Other, nor of opening oneself to the Other and returning home with one’s identity intact. Errantry is about letting the Other in and incorporating it into a new identity that is not single, but multiple.

A multiple identity, then, to be constructed collectively, in full awareness of its unpredictable and changeable nature; an identity that acknowledges the mistakes and horrors of the past, and is coherent with our contemporary experience. Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show invites us to create just such a multiple, multilingual, multisensory identity, and perhaps even to dream of the possibility of multiple reconciled futures.

Further Reading

  • Eugenio Barba, “Tiers Théâtre : l’héritage de nous à nous-mêmes,” translated by Éliane Deschamps‑Pria. Jeu 70, 1994, p. 43–53.
  • Homi K. Bhabha, Les lieux de la culture : une théorie postcoloniale. Paris, Payot, Essais Payot series, 2007.
  • Helen Gilbert, “Black and White and Re(a)d All Over Again: Indigenous Minstrelsy in Contemporary Canadian and Australian Theatre,” in Ric Knowles & Ingrid Mündel (eds.), “Ethnic,” Multicultural, and Intercultural Theatre. Toronto, Playwrights Canada Press, 2009, p. 106–133.
  • Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation. Originally published by Gallimard, Paris, 1990. Translated by Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1997.
  • Ric Knowles, Theatre & Interculturalism. Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2010

AURÉLIE LACASSAGNE is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Laurentian University in Sudbury. She is a theorist by training, and her areas of research include cultural policy, cultural studies, and issues of identity. She is particularly interested in creolization in the arts.