Decolonizing theatre and our ears
New festival by Red Betty Theatre is offering a stage for BIPOC women stories
The experience of colonization is something communities around the world are familiar with. However, since no two places had identical experiences, each community has its own histories and struggles to grapple with now. At its core, decolonization is about holding space to share these diverse histories and acknowledging the hurts that hide there in order to build a better, more equitable and inclusive future.
Theatre, like all art, is an essential part of decolonization for the unique opportunities the stage offers to share stories and experiences. Though theatre has been around for centuries all across the world, it is too often regarded as a European tradition. As such, it is often difficult for marginalized and racialized individuals to showcase their work and share their stories.
“The majority of artistic directors look at things through a Eurocentric lens and the plays that I write maybe are alienated, by the titles even. For example, my one play which has won awards, it is called Rukmini’s Gold, if they don't know that Rukmini is a name, if they don't know what it is, they have no tie to it culturally. So it's the last thing that they'll read on their pile if they'll even read it. So I found that the only way to get my work produced was to start my own company,” explained Radha Menon, the founder of Hamilton’s Red Betty Theatre.
The theatre recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. Though it has received little support from the city of Hamilton, the theatre has offered its stage to productions including Ganga’s Ganja (2012, 2018), Cockroach (2017) and In The Shadows (2018), written by Menon and put on by Black, Indigenous and People of Colour actors, directors and designers. Its upcoming productions include Blackberry, in partnership with Hamilton Fringe, from June 4 to 13, 2021 in Carter Park and the Decolonize Your Ears Festival in June 2021.
Decolonization is at the core of the theatre’s work. It offers a stage for the stories of BIPOC women so that they may reach broader and more diverse audiences. Red Betty also encourages Canadian theatre groups to better reflect cultural diversity and the cultural practices of different communities.
“[Red Betty Theatre] is inclusive, non-competitive, friendly, equitable, for the people, by the people, of the people. We are open to women artists who are Indigenous, Black or racialized because we believe that their stories are important, our stories are important,” said Menon.
The art world is a difficult one. Theatre projects are typically funded through grants from the government or other institutions. Currently, these grants are extremely competitive and often privilege older, more established organizations but funding cuts in the arts sector have made this process increasingly challenging. Newer organizations especially struggle to receive necessary funding and it is often even harder for groups like Menon’s Red Betty Theatre.
“So put it this way, it took us 10 years to get a Canada council production grant . . . [W]e don't get much funding from the city because we're a new organization and the way the funding structures in arts bodies work is very much based on how long your institution has been around. So all the older ones which are generally male, white-led, they get funded to the teeth whereas the new organizations get the leftovers . . . It's very hard to get everything going and it takes us a lot of time to be able to plan for even one show,” explained Menon.
For example, Menon has had the idea for the Decolonize Your Ears Festival for some time, but it was only recently that the theatre was able to secure the necessary funding to make this festival reality.
“We don't see anything on stages that reflect the cultural diversity and the cultural practices of different communities. So, Decolonize Your Ears is that opportunity for artists to express their own specific cultures and communities in ways that are unrestricted and uncensored,” said Menon.
The festival will feature four plays. One by Menon and three others by emerging BIPOC women playwrights: Natasha Cecily Bacchus, Melissa Murray Mutch, Gaitrie Persaud-Dhunmoon and Joanne Roberts. The festival also offers these playwrights the opportunity to consult and develop their pieces with Hamilton-based playwrights Marilo Nuñez and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard.
Offering a stage and a space to share these stories is a crucial part of not only decolonizing theatre but also the larger decolonization movement.
“Until there is the decolonization of all institutions, government and non-government, we will continue to see racism, bigotry and harassment . . . Decolonization is a massive thing that needs to happen, for there to be any equity amongst people,” said Menon.
Theatre is very personal and different people will walk away from a play with different impressions. Menon especially encourages students to check out the festival and the theatre’s other work, not only if they’re interested in or studying theatre but also if they’re curious about and interested in new stories.
“[T]his is the place where you will hear stories that you will never read in class or in the library or see on TV. These are stories that have been curated especially because of how unique they are and this is an opportunity to grow. And for students, I think the point of going to any kind of institution is to grow. Universities are very colonized places and this is an opportunity to step out of that colonized space into a decolonized space,” said Menon.
Decolonize Your Ears Festival will take place from June 22 to 26, 2021 outdoors, public health restrictions permitting. Alternatively, the event will be livestreamed. Menon hopes that the festival will become an annual event.
Organizations such as Red Betty Theatre and festivals such as Decolonize Your Ears are crucial components to sharing communities’ diverse experiences and histories with colonialism, decolonizing theatre and creating a more equitable and inclusive future.