The important contributions of Asian Canadian playwrights to professional theatre has largely been undocumented. As a Vancouver-born theatre artist and scholar of Chinese heritage, my work seeks to fill that significant gap, and highlight the multicultural heritage of Canadian theatre.
Eury Colin Chang, PhD Candidate in Theatre Studies
On the occasion of Canada's 150th Anniversary (1867-2017), I find myself deeply inspired and honoured to spend my days studying Canada's theatre culture. As I write this testimonial, I'm about to literally and figuratively jump, head-first, into exciting and rarely chartered waters. In my humble opinion, I get to study one of the most fascinating cultural movements in recent history: the birth and growth of Asian Canadian Theatre (1971 to 2017). Despite Asian migration to Canada dating back to at least the 1850s, many of the larger, state-funded theatres have consistently imported and produced plays from Europe, the United Kingdom and United States. My research explores how mainstream theatre culture in Canada has been predominantly informed by European ideas, characters and stories. As a Vancouver-born theatre artist and emerging theatre scholar, I spend much of my time working around actors, directors and playwrights. And despite the fact that I believe much of theatre in Vancouver is Eurocentric (a word that I use cautiously and descriptively, not pejoratively), indeed, I actually enjoy much of what I see.
In fact, most recently, for my comprehensive exams, I declared two scholarly specialties—in addition to Asian Canadian theatre, my primary teaching focus is Shakespearean Tragedy! Go figure. To some, the fields of Asian Canadian theatre and Shakespeare seem worlds apart. The fact remains: we would be hard pressed to find anybody in theatre who has never heard of that guy called Shakespeare. Throughout my formal education in Vancouver, I always remember being exposed to Shakespeare in some form or another, but despite this lineage and very classically-oriented "western theatre" history that I've inherited, my doctoral research looks at other playwrights that are equally worthy of attention. Aside from the European playwrights I've studied over the years, (UK, US-based) I also wonder about the local luminaries and Canadian playwrights telling our own stories. And what if those stories emerged, not from 16th century London, but from Vancouver and Toronto in the 21st century of Canada? My research looks at Canadian theatre that embraces the Asian Canadian perspective, born out of Canada's longstanding relationship with the people and culture of the Pacific Rim, writ large. Asian Canadian theatre is the kind of theatre that speaks to the here and now; it speaks to the current realities of urban Canada. My research explores Canadian theatre that is home grown and contemporary.
At times, I cannot help but wonder why Asian Canadian theatre artists have been so absent on Canadian stages, and within scholarly debates, that is, until recent decades. Needless to say, it has become my preoccupation and scholarly job to uncover playwrights and stories that have given voice to Canadians of Asian descent. It has become my duty to study the overlapping efforts and exchanges between Canadians of European and Asian descent, and how both have contributed to Canada's status as a global nation. In a nutshell, I examine theatre that reflects the city's social demographic: theatre that speaks to the many cultures that we see on the street, in our classrooms, and, at the airport. I study theatre that reflects a Canadian culture that is inherently multifaceted and complex.
It is my belief that theatre offers a sacred place for congregation, leisure and personal reflection, but above all, a place for storytelling. Theatre has the power to transport its audiences into new cognitive realms, helping to dust off the myths of the past so that we can revisit them with fresh eyes. Theatre is the place where we go to meet our fellow neighbours, and rub elbows with people in our community. Theatre is the place where we witness the hero's journey: it is the obsession that makes me get up, dress up and show up each and every day. Sometimes, it is the place where I go so that I may understand the troubles, conflicts and ills of the world. In my opinion, theatre is an endlessly fascinating discipline filled with rigor and embodied knowledge.
WHERE WE SEE OURSELVES: THEATRE AS MIRROR
My research project seeks to fill a significant gap in Canadian theatre history by analysing the work of playwrights of Asian descent, including but not limited to those of Chinese or Japanese heritage. As I begin this journey, I know of only two books that have attempted to document Asian Canadian theatre; both were published by Playwrights Canada Press. The first book, in two volumes, was entitled Love + Relasianships: A Collection of Contemporary Asian-Canadian Drama (2009). It was edited by Nina Lee Aquino. The second book was entitled Asian Canadian Theatre: New Essays on Canadian Theatre (2011), which contains scholarly articles and testimonials by artists. The latter was co-edited by Professor Ric Knowles and Nina Lee Aquino, respectively. The efforts of my peers must be recognized, and for some, these texts listed above are the current entry point into an increasingly complex and highly networked field of study.
And while Asian Canadian theatre artists gain visibility in major urban centres, it also seems as if not enough attention has been given to their efforts. Clearly, the growing body of artistic work surpasses the level of scholarship that artists deserve. At this time, I cannot name any single-authored book that has studied the history of Asian Canadian theatre since the 1970s: in many ways, I am working through un-chartered waters since I am building a history that has not yet been told. My research examines theatre as a social mirror, even if that mirror has yet to be seen by Canadian audiences.
In my opinion, theatre should be the place we go in order to hear stories of our fellow neighbours. As I mentioned earlier, the stories of many European Canadians, and in particular, those of the "settler cultures" are so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness that we often take for granted that Shakespeare is touted as the most important dramatic figure, even in Canada. To be clear, I am not here to refute that claim.
And yet, the Bard, does not represent "Canadian" culture any more (or less) than Italian Opera, Indigenous drumming (and reconciliation, for that matter), or the many Asian Canadian theatre artists leaving their mark on the cultural landscape. And, quite ironically, I write this testimonial knowing well that my own love of Shakespeare is deeply embedded, complex, and should never remain unquestioned. After all, every culture deserves to be seen, heard and recognized onstage. The presence of one culture does not necessarily mean the negation of another. In the world of theatre, the stage reigns supreme: the place where all action happens. The stage is the place where truth is seen, spontaneously unfolding in the flesh as bursts of dialogue filled with fear, surprise, joy and human anguish. Theatre is the drama of life. And so my research examines how cultural groups and individuals are represented onstage, in the flesh, and how such representations come to inform our understanding of each other, and Canadian society as a whole.
As a member of UBC's Public Scholars Network, I seek ways to share this knowledge with as many willing people as possible. To me, being a theatre artist and theatre scholar are one and the same: my work explores human nature in all of its intellectual, physical and emotional complexity. My research, in many ways, is an extension of my previous artistic explorations, unfolding beside the many lessons that I learn from others that I encounter along the path of emerging, public scholarship.
THE PROBING QUESTIONS
Overall, my research is guided by a number of questions: Which conditions and policies enabled the development of Asian Canadian theatre from a grassroots project into a heterogeneous, professional theatre movement? How does a critical historiography of Asian Canadian theatre say about the state of multiculturalism in Canada? Which academic discourses—from Karen Shimakawa's "abjection" to intercultural theatre theory—best frame and illuminate the social and intellectual qualities of Canadian theatre? To me, these questions are like stars in the sky: guiding lights. Even as a fourth generation, Vancouver-born, English and French speaking Canadian citizen of (seemingly distant) Chinese heritage, my understanding of Asian Canadian theatre is constantly shifting and deepening over time. My research process continues to unfold in new and unexpected ways, as I seek to understand the ways in which the movement itself has contributed to how Canadians live and experience the world, and how cultures have co-existed (not always so swimmingly) throughout history.
All in all, I hope my research contributes to the growing body of literature and "talking" about Canadian theatre. I look forward to documenting the artistic output of those who engage in the hard work of "walking" through intercultural exchange, critical social reflection and cultural commentary. I hope to keep "talking the talk" and "walking the walk," with many allies around, working together and towards a big and bold Canadian Theatre.
Feature Image: Nicco Lorenzo Garcia (left) and Laura Miyata (right) in lady in the red dress by David Yee. Photo by Alex Felipe (2009), courtesy of fu-GEN Asian-Canadian Theatre Company.