What is an intercultural theatre: the story of the ACT

When a word is so overused that it can have so many meanings, eventually it becomes meaningless. Take the word Multiculturalism. Or “Asian” as used in Australia. The word “multiculturalism” is bandied around in Australia very carelessly especially by politicians when they are trying to be politically correct. If we are not careful we can end up using the term like these unthinking politicians and be guilty of excluding our black Australians/Aboriginal or indigenous Australians! When we say multiculturalism, unconsciously we do not think Aboriginal Australians. Not that I am advocating that we include Aboriginal in the term Multiculturalism seeing that the label is so meaningless.

Multicultural performances simply mean a whole lot of people from different ethnic backgrounds or countries (and therefore international) coming together and doing an event, as in the show Opera 1938 at the Melbourne Fringe (2012). Brilliant multicultural performance with Anglo-celtic, Italian, Aboriginal and Chinese languages and “historical” snippets from colonial Australia. Wonderful multicultural performance. There are many multicultural performances and events all over Australasia but we are short of an intercultural theatre in the southern hemisphere. The ACT is possibly the first in the world focusing on Australasians and Chinese. (I am still grappling with the term Australasian Chinese or Chinese Australasian! In the USA, they use “Chinese American” which I think is truer to the reality the Americans wish to describe! I.e. they are all American citizens and Chinese in the label describes the ethnicity of the person’s citizenship. But over here in Australasia, we simply use “multicultural”. See what I mean?). The ACT is intercultual notably because it is going to put on performances which are intrinsically “intercultural” in that two cultures or three or even four drawn from Australia and New Zealand. This is a challenge. For anybody. But not insurmountable.

Two plays Happy Ending by Melissa Reeves and my own Our Man in Beijing specifically reveal the cultural elements of both white Anglo Australians and Chinese people. The values intrinsic in both values are revealed if one knows both cultures for example, the Anglo value of egalitarianism and the Chinese value of hierachicalism ( no such word exists in the English language but it is the opposite of egalitarianism and I also believe that heirarchicalism is a value that describes more than half the world’s culture hence it is important that this word is used.)

That is why an intercultural theatre is necessary. An intercultural theatre specifically focuses on two ethnic peoples or cultures, for example, Australian and Chinese cultures. We blend whatever is Australian with whatever is Chinese. This is where the challenges emerge (as pointed out in my earlier paragraph). What is Australian culture? Does it include Anglo-celtic and Aboriginal ? What about the Australians from European and other Asian ethnic backgrounds? And what about the term Chinese? What is Chinese culture and even more challenging: Who are the Chinese? Every question merits a PHd thesis. Yes, these questions are academic but if language constructs realities and it does, shouldn’t we be educating the masses to use the appropriate words to refer to realities. The realities are that underlying the language we use exist feelings of prejudice and racism: twin evils in the world that have killed millions in terms of “ethnic cleansing” and history has shown us again and again that people have gone to war to do horrible things simply by naming and labelling. People are still doing that!

I name my theatre company an intercultural theatre and rightly so for it is narrowly and deliberately focused on Australian and Chinese cultures. It is an intercultural theatre in Australasia (that is, Australia and New Zealand) for it seeks to create opportunities for Australasian Chinese or Chinese Australasians. And now if we unwrap the term Australasian, it includes Anglo-Celtic/Gaelic, European Aussies & Kiwis, Aboriginal and Maori Aussies & Kiwis, and Chinese. This is an unique combo! No theatre company in the world has this combination of ethnicities and seek to create opportunities for these peoples. Come on Aussies, Kiwis and Chinese of all shapes, sizes and colours, let us get cracking and write plays and films that will blend our cultural elements, truly intercultural theatre!

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