By examining the rehearsal strategies of Modern Times Stage Company of Toronto, co-founded and co-led by Iranian-Canadian director Soheil Parsa and Peter Farbridge, the author, this article explores the intra- and inter-personal communication that allows for interweaving of cultures within the complex social relationships of intercultural theatre. As a case study, it discusses Parsa’s rehearsal process with a Francophone cast of different cultural backgrounds of Bahram Beyz’aie’s play Aurash that took place in Montreal between 19 and 26 November 2019. The main focus is on how different histories and experiences position the artists in relation to each other in Modern Times’ intercultural theatre practices.
Keywords: intercultural theatre, rehearsal practice, ethical relationality, Modern Times Stage Company, utopias
a tiny shiver of messianic time for Shabbat:Daniel Karasik, “messianic time”
imagine there were no oppression to produce our identities. no homophobia or compulsory cisheterosexuality to produce some of us as queer, no racism to produce some of us as racialized, just millions of forms of descriptive difference not essentialized & politicized by violence. when we said “i” in such a world we might mean almost nothing but a locus of desire
It is hard not to hear the refrain of John Lennon’s “Imagine” when reading this blog entry by Toronto writer and social activist Daniel Karasik. In fact, the title, “messianic time,” seems like a wry apology for the utopic tone of its content. If there is one place, however, where utopian thinking tends to run unbridled, it is in theatre. The stage is a laboratory where possible worlds are created, where utopia is found “in the performer’s grace, in the audience’s generosity, in the lucid power of intersubjective understanding, however fleeting” (Dolan 479).
What if we then imagine a creative space where theatre artists of different cultural backgrounds, physical/mental abilities, and gender identities collaborate, not only within a framework of human rights equality, but also in an exploration of the aesthetic potential of their “million forms of descriptive differences”? (Karasik). What if the totality of these differences in bodies, languages, language accents, and gender identities become the primary matter of artistic creation? In addition to revising theatre’s vertical hierarchies to “amplify voices formerly marginalized by systemic inequity” (ADHOC), we can thus also challenge the very margin-centre binary. Messianic tones aside, I believe that exploring more empathetic and ethical ways of communicating in the rehearsal hall can occur in tandem with the ongoing social lobby for equitable political representation in theatre.
If we dare to imagine a rehearsal space in which this kind of theatre practice is possible, it would need to be an ethical one that promotes a “dialogue between human communities” (Ermine, “The Ethical” 193). Or, in the words of Stephane Martelly, it would be a space where creation “is necessarily ethical in its transgression of the norm and in its will to undo the control of power over the meaning” (“Le Prix”). It might also need to be a state of “ethical relationality,” which, according to Métis writer Dwayne Donald, can help us “understand more deeply how our different histories and experiences position us in relation to each other” (535). It would certainly need to be an intercultural space where creative exchanges can take place with the confidence that hidden biases will be uncovered and communication will remain both frank and generative.
The Interculturalism of the Modern Times Stage Company
Intercultural rehearsal halls are some of the best settings in which to study the characteristics of ethical spaces because their artists negotiate cultural differences within the empathetic experience of embodied practice (Albright). By examining rehearsal strategies, we might better understand the intra- and inter-personal communication that allows for cultural interweaving (Fischer-Lichte) inside complex social relationships.
One such intercultural theatre is the Modern Times Stage Company of Toronto. Between 19 and 27 November 2019, I was a participant-observer in a six-day rehearsal exploration of the play Aurash, by Bahram Beyz’aie, which included four actors from different cultural horizons. Led by Soheil Parsa, co-artistic director of the Modern Times Stage Company (hereafter, Modern Times), the workshop took place in Montreal at Concordia University and Théâtre Bouches décousues.
To clarify, I have been a participant-observer in Modern Times’ rehearsal processes for the past thirty years, being involved in some creative capacity in most of the company’s thirty-four productions as co-artistic director of the company. This position affords me easier access with respect to carrying out research on the company’s practices, while likely adding a subjective bias to this narrative: my admiration for Parsa’s work must be declared at the outset, both for the subtleties of his theatre aesthetics and for the strength of the ensemble that he seeks to create in rehearsals. My main objective has been to explore how relationships between the team members evolved in the rehearsal process, to understand how these relational dynamics interact within the context of Canadian identity politics, and to document how they assisted or impeded intercultural creative exchanges.
Modern Times Stage Company was founded in 1989 by Parsa and me. He has directed all its productions, ranging from translating and adapting works of Iranian authors, such as Bahram Beyza’ie and Abbas Na’albandian, and revisiting canonical Western authors, including Anton Chekhov, Federico Garcia Lorca and Shakespeare, to devising or authoring original works with, for example, Guillermo Verdecchia, Parsa, and myself.
The company has produced an average of one show every season and has favoured co-productions with artists from other countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Cuba, Denmark) over international touring circuits. It has gained considerable renown in the Toronto theatre community, having earned sixty Dora nominations and sixteen awards, among other accolades.
Modern Times’ mandate is to seek archetypes that “transcend cultural and political borders. . . to move away from ideology towards a human vocabulary that speaks across civilizations” (“Mandate”). To nuance this unapologetically universalist statement, one can find in the company’s background material. Since its early work in the 1990s, the focus on “exploring and taking inspiration from the uniqueness, commonality and differences of the human experience” (Knowles, “The Modern” 65) has engendered an approach to interculturalism that aims “to see Canadian theatre audiences and theatre practitioners change their idea about what they need to see on stage in order to recognize themselves” (“Planning Profile” 3).
Modern Times does not put a spotlight on the cultural specificity of each of the actors with whom it collaborates, but “represents her/his unique individuality as an artist and human being” (“Organizational Profile” 1). Indeed, this seemingly universalist mandate expresses Modern Times’ ultimate desire to equally represent the range of cultural diasporas in Toronto through the specific dimensions of human experience. In my view, it is Parsa’s history of immigration to Canada that makes this possible.
Modern Times and Western Interculturalists
When Parsa arrived in Canada in 1984, he brought the cultural history of Iran in his suitcase. In his early explorations of Persian forms of theatre at Modern Times, such as ta’ziyeh-khani, pardeh-dari, naghali, among others, he examined his own cultural semiotics in the context of European theatre and North American artists and audiences. For example, in the one-thousand-year-old tradition of ta’ziyeh, a bowl of water can represent an ocean and a riderless horse can signify Death. To avoid a cultural echo chamber, however, Parsa invented his own theatre signs to evoke the idea of ta’ziyeh in his new home in Toronto.
Through productions such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1995), in which Parsa used ta’ziyeh-khani as a source of inspiration for his directorial approach, he began to recodify his own sign systems, testing it with his multicultural casts and through his Toronto audiences. This transculturation of the Persian theatrical tradition would become central to the physical dramaturgy of his productions, such as in the evocation of the whirling dervish in Hallaj (2011) and the flamenco dance in Blood Wedding (2016). By examining these culturally-specific dances, he developed new choreographic languages filtered through his actors’ abilities and sensibilities:
Soheil Parsa: As a director, if I have a cast, I shouldn’t just be thinking about myself—’This is my style, this is my culture’—I need to have openness to keep a balance. It’s not all about me now . . . my job is to help the actors tell the story clearly so that the audience doesn’t get bored(Farbridge, “Aurash Workshop Audio Recordings Day 2” 23:44–24:00)
Parsa maintains the belief in the unifying role of his directorial vision and, at the same time, the understanding that the final product must emerge from the particular alchemy of the different individuals with whom he collaborates on each project. The application of that directorial approach in rehearsal with artists of many cultural backgrounds and trainings has been described by scholar and dramaturg Ric Knowles (who has written extensively on Modern Times), as “a much more genuinely inclusive and re-appropriative modernism” (“The Modern” 65)—which echoes Parsa’s own admiration for modernist theatrical tradition and dramaturgy.
Parsa’s directorial style and universalist leanings have been strongly influenced by British theatre director Peter Brook, whose internationalist productions (according to his critics) fall within the “appropriative type practiced by western interculturalists”—such as Richard Schechner, Ariane Mnouchkine and Eugenio Barba—because they use “decontextualized elements of othered cultures in their attempts to rejuvenate decadent western theatrical forms” (Knowles, “Performing Interculturalism” 1). Contrary to them, Parsa does not mine artists from a distant and mysterious “théâtre du monde.” The difference could be grounded in the fact that his immigration to Canada in 1982 coincided with a major shift in Toronto’s demographics, when visible minority groups grew from 13.6% in 1981 to 51.5% by 2016 (CERIS; Statistics Canada). Artists came to Modern Times from the cultural diasporas of Toronto itself, and many of them had experienced marginalization as recent immigrants to Canada. A member of one of those communities, Parsa was aware of and affected by exotification, exclusion, and racism in a theatre community dominated by a white Anglo-Saxon majority and therefore distanced himself from its practice.
But another distinction, according to Knowles, is the company’s “focus on ‘uniquenesses’ and ‘differences’ within the human experience” (“The Modern” 65). Parsa does not attempt to corral humanity into one ‘universal’ theatre, but rather allows the aesthetic differences of the actors or of theatre performance styles to inform and emerge out of the tightly woven fabric of his stagings. As he states, most of this process of hybridization is unconscious, unplanned, and integral to the creative process (Parsa, “Personal Interview”).
Regardless, the emphasis on the totality of the actors’ personal and cultural resources has become recognizable to Toronto audiences and critics as unique to Modern Times, “one that isn’t about a nebulous idea of diversity, but simply emphasizes the individuality of the performers” (Nestruck). This perspective on interculturalism eventually became the centre of the company’s wide-ranging theatre studies project, Postmarginal, which looks at cultural diversity as “a creative opportunity in the theatre” (Postmarginal website).
Montreal vs Toronto, Ad Nauseum
Aurash (Parsa et al) is Modern Times’ most frequently produced play. Originally staged by the company in 1998, it has been remounted eight times in five different countries and in four languages. It tells the story of a naïve stable-hand who becomes an unwilling player in a post-war border treaty when he is chosen to determine his nation’s border by shooting an arrow from the top of a mountain. Its roots are in a one-thousand-year-old Persian nationalist myth, which was revised in the 1970s by Beyza’ie. In 1998, Parsa and dramaturg Brian Quirt adapted this poetic text into a mixture of storytelling, physical theatre, soundscape, and lighting (Modern Times, “Aurash Program” 3).
The workshop-rehearsal of Aurash that this article addresses was slated for a French-language production in Montreal, Quebec in 2021. Actors Maya Kuroki (Japanese, she/her), Ligia Borges (Brazilian, she/her), Benita Jacques (Haitian, she/her) and Roxanne de Bruyn (Belgian, she/her) were present in the rehearsal hall, alongside Amir Sám Nakhjavani (Iranian, he/him) and Laura Gallo-Tapias (Colombian, she/her), who assisted with the research and translated for unilingual English or French speakers.
The 2019 rehearsal process of Aurash is unique because the intercultural practices of a Toronto-based theatre company are being introduced to a Francophone theatre community in Montreal. The identity politics of the rehearsal process are thus marked from the beginning by the differences in the social and political histories of these two cities. Before launching into a description of the Aurash workshop, I would like to step back to give a short contextual explanation of the impact of these two different cities on the process. I hope that by contextualizing it within my own lived experiences in both Toronto and Montreal, I will be able to embrace the inherent limitations and biases of a shorthand account.
I am an English-speaking, white male of British, Irish and Scottish roots who grew up in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and have lived in Montreal over half my life. I have a perspective of Montreal as an immigrant to the city as well as an expat’s view of Toronto as someone who has travelled back there to work for 30 years. I have a special relationship with my own identity in Montreal, linked to the political context of Quebec in Canada and its imperative to preserve its character and its language; the social positions of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Persons of Colour) members of the Aurash workshop are obviously far more complicated.
In my experience working for cultural equity in Montreal’s Francophone theatre community, I have witnessed the impact of Quebec’s ethnic nationalism on actors coming from diverse cultural horizons. Skin tones, language accents, and non-western theatrical training can be threatening to the narratives and working practices of a white Francophone theatre community that “[perpetuate] an unequal relationship of power with respect to minority ethnocultural groups” (Jeldi et al. 6; translation mine). This malaise manifests itself as a lack of representation of diverse cultures on Montreal’s Francophone stages (Pruneau).
This said, significant work has been done on closing the gap in ethnocultural representation in particular since the Conseil québécois du théâtre (CQT) held its first conference on this theme in November 2014, and especially following the controversy surrounding Robert Lepage’s SLAV and Kanata in the summer of 2018 (Dunlevy). There is a self-described (and oft-repeated) “prise de conscience” (Labrecque) regarding the homogeneity of Montreal’s stages, , and in many ways this ethereal idea of “consciousness” is being solidified into structural, programming and casting changes.
By contrast, Modern Times’s hometown of Toronto has gone much further in integrating its diverse communities into the city’s theatrical landscape. I witnessed these changes growing up with Modern Times over the past thirty years. Today, Toronto is a place where “the traditional hegemony of whiteness on the city’s stages is actively being challenged ‘from below’ by an informal coalition of artists of color working in solidarity across difference to create a theatre scene that increasingly reflects and challenges the cultural makeup of the city” (Knowles, “Performing the” 2). The proof is in the pudding: there are a multitude of professional theatre companies in Toronto that feature BIPOC artists, as well as a significant presence of marginalized persons in decisional roles in major companies. For example, during the 2019–20 Toronto theatre season, the artistic directors of three of the city’s five largest theatre companies were from marginalized populations: Marjorie Chan (Theatre Passe Muraille), Nina Lee Aquino (Factory Theatre) and Weyni Mengesha (Soulpepper Theatre). However, the battles to represent the city’s cultural diasporas are not over, nor has the road to get to this point been without its traumas. The painful conflicts surrounding cultural identity in Toronto theatre in the 2010s—questions of white privilege, Indigeneity, gender politics—are still felt in the community today.
Within this complex political context and with two languages in the room, the eight members of the Aurash workshop met between four to six hours a day, for a total of 30 hours work. The objectives were twofold: 1. to introduce the play to the actors; 2. to develop a common physical vocabulary by exploring the actors’ vocal and gestural subjectivities. From this perspective, the workshop was both a professional rehearsal period and a research inquiry as the research informed the rehearsal process, and vice versa. Nonetheless, the workshop’s goal was to work towards a full-fledged, audience-ready production.
Vocal Subjectivities: Colonized by Language
On the first two days, we looked more closely at the text work of the actors. Their different cultural backgrounds stimulated discussions on the matter of language accents. We began by using the term ‘accents’ to describe the differences between Brazilian, Belgian, Japanese and Haitian French speakers, but we quickly realized the word’s political weight for the actors:
Roxanne de Bruyn: In the Francophone community, we have a tendency to level everything . . . I was told that “Your r’s are too heavy,” that I had to get rid of them. But I thought that my regional r’s were great. . . .(28:15–28:50)
Ligia Borges: Accents are political. Accents are a choice. Accents give status . . . it is very politically hierarchical.(40:00–40:45)
Benita Jacques: Accents are a way of excluding.Farbridge, “Aurash Audio Recordings Day 2”: 40:45–40:49, my translations
In the end, we decided to use the term ‘vocal subjectivities’ as a way to diffuse the political stigma of ‘accents.’ Nonetheless, the prerequisite of speaking and understanding French and the respect of its structure and correct pronunciation seemed anchored in the actors. Language competence was a strong marker of identity in the group, and in that, I believe the colonizing effect of language was manifest:
Benita Jacques: When I go into an audition, in fact I put on a costume. The costume which was formed for me by theatre school. We were deconstructed at school and we are reconstructed. They worked us in the norm for French . . . to bring us to the norm, to be like all actors.(Farbridge, “Aurash Workshop Video Day 6”:12:22–13:30: my translation)
Although there was no specific exploration of the vocal subjectivities’ impact on character development, we looked at how to describe in ethnographic terms what we experienced through the sound of the actors’ voices. Parsa had each of the actors read Aurash’s last monologue, while the other participants wrote descriptions or made drawings based on the experience of what they heard. We explored the differences of tonality, rhythm or cadence. For Parsa, finding textual rhythm is a very important part of his process. Clearly, there is no single interpretation of any play, but his directorial approach demands a certain rigour to achieve the rhythm he perceives in the text. In this way, he distinguishes language competence from language accents: actors must be sufficiently proficient as text speakers to be able to render his directorial vision, but, internally, the text can be imbued with their vocal subjectivities.
Gestural Subjectivities: Reconstituting Cultural Signs
On the final three days of the workshop, Parsa invited the actors to share gestures from their cultural backgrounds to find a common theatrical vocabulary for the choreography. Since the play begins with a highly physical war scene, he asked the actors to prepare gestures from their cultures that expressed mourning the death of a loved one. Each of the actors presented three gestures and Parsa elaborated one of them to develop the choreography of the war scene. A discussion followed each presentation and sometimes the actors revealed the source or personal significance of the gestures. This work seemed to have a strong effect on the actors’ perceptions of each other’s cultural backgrounds and artistic impulses. For example, Ligia Borges spoke about the unique corporality of Maya Kuroki’s representation of mourning:
Ligia Borges: When you did [those movements with] your hand, or when you did [those movements with] your head and neck the other day, I didn’t even know that I could move my muscles like that, you know? So, to be completely destabilized in my manner of thinking and my structure of moving, is very cool.(Farbridge, “Aurash Workshop Video” 53:18–53:37; my translation)
For her part, Maya Kuroki was moved by Benita Jacques’ expression of mourning in a rhythmic dance:
Maya Kuroki: For me, your dance of sadness touched me so much. I talked about it a lot with my friends. It’s really . . . I have never seen someone dancing in a funeral in my culture, but I understood the feeling profoundly, so it spoke to me . . . so much beauty . . . it’s true, it is different but at the same time connected with everyone.(Farbridge, “Aurash Video Recordings: Day 6”:54:45–55:32; my translation)
Borges’ and Kuroki’s reactions support the idea that the performance of embodied cultural memory (Knowles) can increase the sense of connection and empathy between actors from different training programs and with distinct personal/cultural experiences.
On the Promise and the Perils of Rehearsal Utopias
One of my research interests in the workshop was to observe how the actors’ agency and collaboration evolved in the rehearsal space, and to assess if the intercultural explorations were involved in that evolution. There was indeed evidence of a progressive deepening of intra- and inter-personal connections. On the third day, for instance, after one of the actors told a personal family story of being thrust at a young age into the role of a parental figure with her siblings, there was a sense of empathy that emerged. The actors continued this conversation during the coffee break that followed. Communion and camaraderie are present not only in intercultural theatre—all performance processes can generate this—but what makes it a unique experience in this context is the nature of the intercultural relationships and their effect on artists who have lived through marginalization:
Benita Jacques: “This work, the research that we are doing, it’s special for me because our chemistry developed very quickly, because we met each other as we are, because you accept us as we are, with our baggage, our differences . . . so we felt free from the start to participate. This chemistry is essential. We are being first accepted for our differences. . . The state of being oneself . . . to not enter into a mold or a box”.(Farbridge, “Aurash Video Recordings: Day 6” 04:40–07:36; my translation)
Jacques’ statement also introduces another level of reflection on ethical relationality. Her experience in the workshop reveals the hierarchy in the rehearsal process. Who was doing the “accepting” and what power did that afford them? This perspective harkens Rustom Barucha’s critique of cultural interweaving: “Once you insert identity and conditions of work into a collective action, agency gets contextualized and the metaphorical thinking that attempts to elude history or to transcend or suspend it will inevitably be troubled” (184).
The modernist, universalist paradigm of Parsa’s work; the company’s emphasis on art for art’s sake; and the neo-liberal, product-focused funding structures in which it operates make it vulnerable to the very power structures that it seeks to dismantle. Modern Times would like to break the social norms through which colonialism is manifested in the theatre and go “beyond the discourse of inclusionism and tolerance toward an articulation of what is possible in the studio” (Alvarez et al. 2). Still, as the actor Roxanne de Bruyn mused, “I do not want to feel like I am in a utopia—I want to feel human” (Farbridge, “Aurash Video Recordings: Day 6” 41:56–42:05; my translation). De Bruyn pondered about the absence of conflict in the space, about what was not said and perhaps got quashed by the common desire for harmony and peace. Relationality requires this kind of self-reflection to reveal repressed thoughts; it is “an ethical stance that requires attentiveness to the responsibilities that come with a declaration of being in relation” (Donald 535; my emphasis).
Despite these challenges, the nature of Modern Times’ intercultural rehearsal process creates agency in the rehearsal hall and cross-fertilization of cultural resources. As Knowles suggests, this approach is more non-appropriative because the company shares Erika Fischer-Lichte’s “utopian belief in the ‘transformative power of performance’” (“Performing the”133). But rather than placing emphasis on hybridity as the ultimate “placeless” synthesis of culture, Parsa’s rehearsal hall puts faith in the immediacy of performance to create meaning for the artists and ultimately the audience. These theatrical moments were fleeting, unrepeatable, but were nonetheless present in the room during the Aurash workshop.
Can artists enter the “third space” of hybridity (Bhabha) without fear of assimilation? Is such a utopic space possible in the theatre? Perhaps it is what Cree scholar Willie Ermine describes as leaving the “shoes outside the circle” (“What is” 02:39–02:50) to enter an equitable framework of dialogue, or similar to Diana Manole’s idea of the “suspension of culturally and politically-conditioned beliefs” (“The Suspension”) that she observed during a Modern Times “Subject and Creation” workshop in 2018 (“Multilayered Diversity”). Both of these liminal spaces require vulnerability and humility; they require accepting a risk to be harmed by the process; in short, they require trust. As an artist, Parsa describes it in this way:
Soheil Parsa: I believe vulnerability is essential in artistic creation. As a director and creator, if I lose that sense of vulnerability in a creative process, then I feel I am not genuinely creating. I become a boss who “knows” everything and moves the actors around like pawns. There would be no room for surprises and discoveries. That sense of “not knowing” is usually terrifying, but fundamental to the genuine artistic creation. Sometimes you have to put yourself in a place of not knowing.(Farbridge, “Aurash Video Recordings: Day 6” 01:03:45–01:04:18)
Perhaps the crux of ethical relationality is about having the courage to ask the difficult questions, to understand that biases, ignorance, and obstinance need to be challenged, and that, on the other side of that challenge is the opportunity to repair past errors.
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*Peter Farbridge is a Montreal-based actor, writer, and teacher. As a co-founding member of the Modern Times Stage Company in Toronto, he has performed in many productions, including the title roles in Macbeth, Hamlet, and Hallaj. He has earned several Toronto Dora nominations and awards for his work with Modern Times, as well as a META nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Montreal in Progress (Infinitheatre). Peter has worked as an actor in film, TV, and theatre in Toronto and Montreal both in English and French. He also writes for documentary video and has directed several social documentary films. He is currently preparing a Master’s research-creation project within the fields of Anthropology and Theatre. He would like to thank all the participants of the Aurash workshop for their contributions to this article, as well as the editorial contributions of Yana Meerzon, Diana Manole and Crystal Chan.