What can we do about the post-colonial imperialism that means British theatre thinks ‘international’ only means not-in-English?

Convener(s): Stella Duffy

Participants: Joss Bennathan, John P, Jo C, Kane Bixley, Anthea Wiliams, Josh N, Nick W, Rebecca, Lisa Gornick, Amy Letman, Sebastian Warrack, Alice, Chloe, Anne Tsang, Kathrin, Lisa w, Morven Macbeth, Zia Trench

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

Stella explained that this issue had come out of her recent work with a new NZ theatre company here, on new NZ plays, and a feeling from the ‘establishment’ that there is a lack of interest in ‘foreign’ work that is in English. That international has come to be seen as not-English (or in translation) rather than the far larger and more inclusive body of work that might also be in English but, by virtue of not being from Britain, is certainly international. And her view that this is to do with a) post-colonial guilt, which encourages Brits to believe that non-English work has more value (even when from another country that may or may not also be English speaking) at the same time as b) a more traditional colonial assumption that suggests British already know/understand those countries that speak English either primarily or as one of two languages (eg, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US, much of Africa, much of South East Asia, much of the Indian subcontinent, most of the Pacific Islands).

And the points that came up were :

  • How do the French, who also have/had an ‘Empire’ address this issue? Answers that in literature at least there is a thriving post-colonial interest in work also in French but not from France, and in theatre there is an assumption (which may be an ideal and not true in practice, but has been loudly voiced nonetheless) that it is ALL theatre, so why would they divide it into national categories anyway?
  • Ireland : was pointed out that new generation of Irish playwrights are showing their work here (Britain) first, rather than in Ireland.
  • LIFT : 16 curators in (and from) different countries – suggesting works to bring here, from those countries. Ie. Instead of sending someone from here to go and see them, or to an international work-selling-event, actually have suggestions of work to bring here coming from the people working in those countries themselves. Thereby making it possible to be picking from a far larger range of work, and seeing work in its context, giving it a better chance to be seen/sold here. (General agreement this was fine way to work!!)
  • Concern that international work that does get programmed here has elements of either exoticism (they’re so different to us) or the known (we’re all the same) – and that the work in the middle that conforms to neither expectation doesn’t get the same showing.
  • An issue of familiarity, we see work of and by ourselves in Britain all the time, so there is an appetite for that which is assumed to be different.
  • Film is better/more successful at selling itself as an international medium – why is this? Audiences are more used to it/more ready to ‘read’ films/more skills at selling from programmers. (but also mention from film-maker later in discussion that actually is big appetite for work in English now and getting harder to sell work that is not.)
  • Form/content question : often international work comes in a form that is different to what we are used to. (eg, may be more devised/performer-led work) – and while this can be easier to sell (ie, is more ‘different’ and so an appetite for it) is also hard to programme – ie, the problem of reading on a page a ‘script’ for a devised piece.
  • Are we missing out on work and learning from post-colonial countries that are in English? eg, there is a feeling that it is good to have a play in Tamil from Sri Lanka, but not one in English? That British post-colonial guilt can get in the way of seeing ALL that could be offered/experienced.
  • Resources : so expensive to bring things here, is an economic risk to bring a play here if it’s in English, because of the assumption that it is similar to what we’re already doing, and therefore there’s no point in buying it because the British audience want exotic/different/other in it’s ‘foreign’ – there is an assumption there is no interest in what appears to be the same.
  • Concerns about laziness of programmers (all buying same work from same festivals, same old doing the rounds)
  • The shift away (has it happened??!!) from white/male/middle class work challenging the traditional English style
  • LIFT : also can be problems in bringing work by artists that are not funded or who don’t work in ways that we are used to. Needing to create a cultural context in which to present their work – well worth doing, and can be very successful, (liaisons with local communities etc), but does create different set of problems.
  • Examples cited of use of local (immigrant) communities to give a cultural context for work by Maori/NZ/Chinese artists
  • Question about what are the plays from abroad that UK theatre choose to put on, to spend UK money/resources on? What are the criteria for choosing them?
  • Is there a problem that white ‘colonials’ are not ‘foreign’ enough?
  • Point made that comedy doesn’t seem to have the same problem. Is an assumption that comedians touring here will speak in English, and that they still have valid views/different pov to their work.
  • There is also a degree of mistrust/misunderstanding in some countries about selling work here. Eg, the agents in other countries (NZ/Canada cited) who didn’t want their work on at fringe venues, preferring to ‘wait for the National’.
  • National/RSC – is it useful to have these national-centric institutions in Britain? If we scrapped them could break down all the barriers, so not assuming there is a ‘British’ theatre, narrow it down to counties/areas/types/styles of theatre instead or nations or languages?

Which marvelously then meant the discussion segued from post-colonialism into BUILDINGS!!!!!

  • young people love Soho and Royal Court and hate the Old Vic!!! (young people were asked to consider Finborough and Arcola and Southwark Playhouse etc etc – that there are plenty of theatre other than the big funded buildings!) Wanting theatre buildings that feel comfortable to young people – with music and drink and theatre and food and space (and then dj’s!) to make an entire night of it. Multi-purpose buildings. Conglomerate entertainment – put the lot in the same space.
  • Re-vamp the Old Vic in a site specific manner, using all sorts of different areas in the venue instead of just plain old pros-arch?
  • Desire to break down the traditional old buildings that attract tourists but not ‘us’ – breaking down the old colonial buildings! (so it is connected to the main question after all!!)
  • That buildings can do great stuff, that not all of them are trying hard enough or encouraged enough - perhaps as audiences we need to start making more demands of them? To see how and where they can be used anew?

And then, just to finish, a point that brought us back to the international – a reminder that not all work is good JUST BECAUSE it is international, not all foreign language work is good just because it is not in English. Not all different is best merely for the difference!!