Gabrielle McIntire, Associate Professor of English (Queen’s University) weighs in on THE ENCHANTED LOOM by Suvendrini Lena.
If any play or work could accurately reflect a Cahoots’ aesthetic over the last 30 years of staging diversity, it would be THE ENCHANTED LOOM. Suvendrini Lena’s debut play is a deeply theatrical and political work nestled inside the very personal story of a family in crisis. The first time that I encountered her script, I was struck by Suvendrini’s authentic and accessible way in which she portrays medical text inside a highly dramatic scene. It was later that I learned that Suvendrini is also a practicing doctor. As such, she brings her own discipline of medicine to her incisive work as a writer, working across disciplines in the truest fashion. Not only does this require a sophisticated knowledge of the medical (neurology, in her case), but also a nuanced sense of drama and dialogue. Add to this, the playwright’s exploration of the diasporic Tamil community, in order to bring light to the tumultuous ending of Sri Lanka’s civil war through the eyes of one family, her play speaks uniquely to the stories of our city, and our time. At Cahoots, we feel obligated to explore and expose society’s scars through the safety of our practice, while many around the world and here in Toronto, are directly impacted from such conflicts. In Suvendrini’s play, she speaks of a feather, that can break the axle of wheel. Cahoots is a small company, but in bringing long-neglected stories to the stage, we strive to be that feather.
We asked Playwright-in-Residence Suvendrini Lena to reflect on her process.
Playwrights are people who hear voices. I’m always having conversations in my head with friends, frenemys, enemys, my child, my lover, and total strangers. So I imagined this interview with myself:
Why do you go to the theatre?
I go to the theatre to connect and feel in a way that is often difficult for me in the real world. Under the cover of darkness its safer (most times) to open up my heart and swim in the sea of emotion and experience that really joins us all together. I like to spend a lot of time on my own. I like to go to the theatre on my own because when the lights go out one is alone and immersed. When theatre is truly brilliant I am tempted to dive so deep that I risk being carried out to sea. I take the risk.
Why do you write for the theatre?
Because I am haunted by voices, not one but many, of people who have become entwined with me. To write them is to set them free. To set me free. And theatre, at least on the surface, and perhaps in its essence, does not need, as poetry or prose or a painting might – a frame of reference, a perspective – characters, worlds, ideas can battle, undress and deflower one another. The frame moves, is adjusted or broken.
What gives you the right to write about other people?
You mean people who are different from me, in particular more marginalized than me? How can I write the voice of a man who has been tortured, or a working class Tamil woman or an immortal Palestininan poet?
Is it emancipatory or oppressive to write the voice of another? Is there a difference if the sub-altern writes the voice of the colonizer, or the colonizer writes the subaltern’s voice. The black the white or the white the black?
Of course there is a difference.
I think the challenge is to work really hard to see and feel my own constructs and history and how it informs any voice I hear or write. But to step into another’s experience and write it –we can never actually do that – we always write what is within. We have to admit that writing a character will always be constructing an ‘other’. There is always a potential for violence and silencing in this. Seen from a different perspective, creating an ‘other’ is a radical attempt to understand, to exercise empathy, without which we cannot support diversity within community.
Wouldn’t it just be better to stick to what you really know. Yourself for example?
I’d have to write about myself alone right now. Memory is notoriously mutable. The past, the future – its all improvisation. And writing about family isn’t any better. I have caused the greatest pain through acts of misunderstanding those closest to me, whom I ‘know’ the best and with whom I share the most ‘experience’ – my mother for example.
The test is: Do the characters we make open us to the voices of others. Or, when all is said and done or, have we just made ourselves more comfortable with the music we already like to hear, or the stories we already know. I think ultrasound reveals this struggle rather well.
Will theatre ever change the world?
Yes. The theatre of the oppressed for example, is rooted in the notion that the theatre, and the rehearsal space where we interrogate and re-envision the larger political theatre we all inhabit. Depending on what we rehearse, what we imagine, how we stretch and exercises our voices, and the voices present in the room, we change the world of the play and the world in which we play for better or worse.
Suvendrini Lena is a playwright and neurologist. Her first play, THE ENCHANTED LOOM will be produced by Cahoots Theatre in our 30th anniversary season, Fall 2016 in the Factory Studio Theatre. Her position is supported by the Ontario Arts Council.
We invite Cahoots creators (current and past participants of our in-house development unit, HOT HOUSE) twice a year to spend some focused time in the studio, over a weekend. We encourage a thoughtful and supportive atmosphere, by putting out the coffee and being available for dramaturgy meetings. It is not quite a cabin in the woods, but it is the best that Cahoots can offer.
One of the biggest challenges for writers is to well and truly carve out time to work on their projects. The compensation for writers of the stage are so lean, that making a full time living writing plays is extremely rare. Most, including myself, write plays for the passion of it, occasionally receiving small fees for my labour. For the writers in our unit, some will be fortunate enough to have received seed funding, or perhaps even a residency. As such, most of the creators have other busy working lives, as well as their personal ones. So, a few hours in a space that is not one’s own kitchen table, or a cafe can be just the thing to focus and launch a project.
There is an extraordinary repose and calm that emanates from the space when writers are here for the SPRINT. It is such a different energy from when there are rehearsals, or meetings. I like to think that the collective focus and stillness results in a more productive writing state. The power of the SPRINT too, comes from the short amount of time. There is no time to meander, or continually ‘research’. Writing time is precious, and with a dedicated block of time, it is possible to achieve so much. Several of the projects from that weekend, will indeed see the stage, most notably THE ENCHANTED LOOM by Dr. Suvendrini Lena, which will hit the stage next fall. Dr. Lena is a practicing geriatric neurologist and theatre creator and mom. Now, if she can make the time to write – what excuse do the rest of us have?
The participants of the Winter SPRINT were:
Kawa Ada, Kanika Ambrose, Jo Simalaya Alcampo*, Shaista Latif, Jani Lauzon, Suvendrin Lena*, Amanda Parris*, Rafael Renderos*, Donald Woo*
*current 2015-2016 Hot House Members
The simplicity of the show, John & Waleed (which could be seen merely as a show about two men and their music), belies the virtuosity and artistry of these two musicians. Ostensibly, this show is about John Millard and Waleed Abdulhamid’s own lives (variously growing up in Southern Ontario and the Sudan), and their progression towards music, happiness, and, for lack of a better term, their ‘bromance’.
However, the deeper narrative thread is what I call the ‘colonialism’ thread, represented by the migration of people, and their music. Some of the connections are more overt. For example, the city of Kitchener (where John spent some of his childhood), is named after the British General who invaded Khartoum (the capital of Sudan). A funny coincidence, considering the two men onstage and their kinship. As well, the banjo was originally an African instrument, which travelled to America via the slave trade. Eventually, it was absorbed into minstrel shows, and now is clearly an instrument connected to the folk music of the American South. And yet, John on banjo supporting an African children’s song taught to him by Waleed, is both unexpected, and utterly right.
In many ways, the piece presents our shared colonialism without judgement; it simply was. In Canada, we all, whether we like it or not, are also a product of our collective histories. Both John and Waleed, through migration (though John’s family was from a little further back) brought them to Canada, then Ontario and eventually to Toronto. The same could be said of the music they carry with them, from the traditional, to their own compositions, the songs tell a migratory tale of their own. All that history conspires to bring John & Waleed to a time and place where they are able to engage in each other’s music and luckily for us, share it with us through our show. I hope you get a chance to experience the magic of their friendship with us.
All photos of John Millard and Waleed Abdulhamid by Dahlia Katz Photography.
Winter has really set in to Toronto, and for many, the end of the holiday season means the beginning of the grant-writing season, where we hunker down to tackle applications for our funding. I actually enjoy the process of working through projects that are on the horizon. It is the permission to not only dream about the future, but plan it as well!
Before heading too deeply into 2015 and beyond, I can’t help but look back at Cahoots’ accomplishments in 2014. My personal highlights below:
The Wanderers by Kawa Ada – Absolutely top of the list is our production of Kawa Ada’s startling and courageous script about the fallout of generations of war from an Afghan perspective. Told in an elliptical style with the aesthetic of shifting memories fractured by trauma, and yet tinged with the normalization of violence, Kawa’s play achieved real pathos and bold delicacy. The Wanderers was shocking, upsetting, and ultimately transformative. The production was helmed by former Cahoots’ Artistic Director and current head of Factory Theatre, Nina Lee Aquino, who is one of the city’s most vibrant and kinetic directors. With a keen eye, and boundless enthusiasm, Nina led an award-winning team through a challenging and complex narrative to epic and poignant effect. Although I did not program The Wanderers, I was thrilled to see Kawa Ada‘s vital and unique voice on the stage. Brave and visceral, I can’t wait to see what he produces in the future.
Crossing Gibraltar – We brought back our exciting arts access program from the past. This program initially began as an adjunct program in 2006 along with the award-winning production The Sheep and the Whale by Ahmed Ghazali, translated by Bobby Theodore and directed by Soheil Parsa. For that production, Cahoots had worked with youth in Parkdale, 5 of whom were invited into the cast as the ensemble. From 2006 – 2010 Crossing Gibraltar continued to be reinvented as we adapted our dynamic outreach program working across the city in various diverse communities. In 2014, we brought back our outreach initiatives with 3 separate programs, two programs for adult women, and one for youth, all for participants from a refugee or newcomer background. Working in theatre training, writing and visual arts, facilitators Lisa Pijuan-Nomura, Lisa Codrington, Shaista Latif and Catherine Hernandez created the space for artistic expression through their workshops. I am so proud to see Cahoots once again working with marginalized communities. If we are to continue to be relevant, then as a company we must also challenge ourselves to connect and engage through the art itself. With a renewed vision, commitment to our work beyond the professional communities and embracing the diversity of the city of Toronto, I am pleased that Crossing Gibraltar will continue to be a part of Cahoots’ future.
Cahoots is often in the position of developing and producing first-time playwrights. As risky, and yes, as scary as this is, it is still incredibly rewarding to see such productions come to light. We are in a development year, and future seasons, starting with 2015-2016 will once again feature playwriting debuts. As we move into the darkness of winter/funding application time, I also consider the opportunities we have to artistically engage with the communities that inhabit our city. I know that optimism is not particularly popular, or perhaps seemingly even available in light of funding changes and dwindling audiences, but I cannot help but be excited for what we have in store. Here is to an inspiring 2014 and stay tuned for 2015!
I didn’t want to address our reviews for our production of THE WANDERERS, which have been polarized to say the least. I didn’t want to address them because, although I’ll defend the right of a reviewer to have an opinion, the role of a theatre company is not necessarily to dialogue with said reviewers. However, I felt compelled to voice my opinion on one aspect. I have a growing concern with the ease at which reviewers dismiss a culturally-diverse piece of theatre, seemingly because it didn’t meet their own expectations of what they knew or what they desired to see onstage. The most obvious recent example is this quote from the review of THE WANDERERS by Martin Morrow of the Globe and Mail:
“Imagine a show that starts off as a witty immigrant comedy and then suddenly introduces incest, hysteria and gory self-mutilation. It’s a bit like watching Kim’s Convenience abruptly morph into Blasted.”
The plays to which THE WANDERERS are being compared to are Kim’s Convenience by Korean-Canadian artist Insurp Choi, a heartfelt comedy about a convenience-store-owning Korean family, with a production that is currently touring Canada; and Blasted, by UK playwright Sarah Kane, a gut-wrenching piece that comments on the fractured psyches of war, which was staged in a critically-acclaimed production by Buddies Artistic Director, Brendan Healy. The comparison itself is a bit reductive. Can THE WANDERERS, the first professional play in Canada by an Afghan-Canadian artist, only be understood or discussed within the context of two other plays, ones which more appropriately fit a euro-centric model?
However, this is a minor point compared to the heart of my concern. I can at least begin to understand a comparison of Ada’s play to Blasted. They share similarities in theme, tone, and even content. But, a comparison with the vastly contrasting Kim’s Convenience, seems only to be, well, convenient.
The two plays, Kim’s Convenience and THE WANDERERS are completely different in every way. The first is a one-room naturalistic family comedy, whereas the other, is an epic, imagistic and episodic work spanning decades and borders. One is about a working class family fairly settled in Canada, and the other, about broken souls still on the search to healing. Different styles, different modes, different intentions, different time periods and born of different cultures.
And so, we come to what the two plays do have in common – they are both plays from a specific cultural community, or as we cheekily refer to them as insiders, “brown plays”, ie. a play made by “brown” people. So, why invite the comparison? It is likely because Kim’s Convenience, still on national tour, has been without a doubt, the most high-profile success of a “brown play” in recent memory. As I said, the highest profile, and perhaps the easiest in reach. To me, it articulates an expectation on the reviewer’s part as a benchmark of what an ethno-specific play should be. (I say this without any disregard or envy for Choi’s fine work. In truth, I am a fan, and I have seen Kim’s Convenience three times.)
The above quote is merely an example highlighting my increasing concern about the possible impact that these sorts of expectations (from reviewers, audience and programmers alike) may have on future work. Reductive comparisons are problematic and do not account for the individuality of the artist, and in particular, the specific aesthetics of the artist.
Asking a culturally specific story to be told through a specific lens is asking for that culture to be placed in a box of your own understanding. Why do we even have our own specific expectations of the artistic voice of a cultural minority? Expectations of form, lead to expectations of content, lead to expectations of voice, lead to the loss of the unique cultural perspective of the artist. Does all culturally-diverse work have to live in the same established aesthetic?
Cahoots’ mandate is one of inclusion and pluralistic values. We believe that all stories are important and deserve to be shared. We entrust and empower our artists to share the specifics of their perspective and as such, an artist needs to have the ability to be able to tell the story in the form that they want to tell it. Kawa Ada should be considered on his own terms. His experience is unique and indeed, so is his aesthetic. He writes episodically, mimicking the selected memories of PTSD survivors. He writes elliptically, as befits an indirect style of Afghan storytelling. He writes poetically, because he is an artist.
So, if not using reductive comparisons, then how do we discuss and engage with culturally diverse plays if they come from an aesthetic that we have no experience of? If there is no prior experience of a particular cultural aesthetic, then what vocabulary and what context should be used? Further than that, if we are not able to discuss or understand plays from different cultural perspectives without being diminishing, how can we even begin to live and understand one another?