The Founder of Théâtre du Soleil speaks about the Controversy
around Robert Lepage's play KANATA
before its opening at the Cartoucherie in Paris
Translated from French by Nora Armani
Interviewer Joëlle Gayot
Published on the Théâtre du Soleil website
In July , while Canadian director Robert Lepage was preparing his show Kanata, a letter signed by 18 First Nations artists and intellectuals, along with 12 of their non-native allies, sparked a heated debate. The show, performed by the actors of the Théâtre du Soleil founded by Ariane Mnouchkine, journeys through Canadian history by addressing the oppression suffered by native peoples. Faced with the absence of actors from their communities in the production, some representatives of these communities accused the production of cultural appropriation. In the process, one funder and co-producer withdrew from the project, pushing the director to cancel Kanata at the Théâtre du Soleil in Paris. Ariane Mnouchkine and her troupe determined to continue with the production of Robert Lepage’s play anyway. [The run, which began on Dec. 15, 2018, has been extended through Mar. 31, 2019.]
What does the term "cultural appropriation" mean for you?
Ariane Mnouchkine -- This term evokes nothing for me because there can be no appropriation of what is not and has never been a physical or intellectual property. That is to say, cultures are not anyone’s property. No bounds limit them because, precisely, they have no known geographical or, especially, temporal boundaries. They are not isolated, and they have been cross-pollinating since the dawn of civilizations. No more than a peasant can prevent the wind from blowing a spray of healthy or noxious seeds sown by his neighbor onto his field, can people, even the most insular, claim the definitive purity of their culture. Finally, the stories of groups, hordes, clans, tribes, ethnic groups, peoples, nations cannot be patented, as some claim, because they all belong to the great history of humanity. This great history is the territory of artists. Cultures, all cultures, are our sources and, in a way, they are all sacred. We must drink from these sources studiously, with respect and gratitude, but we can not accept to be forbidden to approach them, because we would then be pushed back into the desert. It would be a frightening intellectual, artistic and political regression. The theater has doors and windows. Theatre tells the entire story of the world.
What has transpired in the history of First Nations that can explain this controversy?
I am not a historian of Canadian colonization, but let us look at history. An insidious spoliation, turned violent. Endless betrayals. Promises that were never kept. Treaties that were not respected. And in 1867, at the time of independence, a genocidal treatment of First Nations. Exclusion and systematic marginalization. And -- something that has left the deepest traces -- a real assault by the Catholic Church and the Canadian state on native culture through the elimination of the involvement of parents and the community in the intellectual, cultural and spiritual development of their children implemented through a system of infamous boarding schools where a forced, sadistic, abusive, violent, mindless, unimaginable assimilation of children was practiced. It’s similar to what happened in Australia with Aboriginal children. This system was still practiced in Canada until 1996. That is to say until very recently. So many horrendous things happened that despite undeniable efforts in recent years, nothing could be repaired at the snap of a finger. The legitimate claims of the indigenous people far exceed this controversy, which didn’t only have to do with a group of their artists. Moreover, and I wish to say it again, it was not aimed at canceling Kanata, but also, maybe more, was a vindictive movement of thought, advocating the "return of the baton" rather than the long and difficult path of reconciliation that the majority of natives go through with determination and resilience.
Are you worried about the turn of events?
I must admit, I am a little. Enclosures are being defined within which identities that are reduced to themselves alone are cloistered. Is it to better classify them? Infinitely? On September 22, 1933, at the initiative of Joseph Goebbels and through the creation of the Reich Chamber of Culture, Jewish artists were excluded from the cultural arena and could only appear in productions intended for Jewish audiences. Do not panic, I am not accusing anyone of being a Nazi, in this context, but when one starts to examine my theatre company’s ethnic composition, I cannot but recall what the Nazis did. I sound the alarm bell. Beware of certain similarities of thought or methods. Even inadvertent ones.
How should artists react to this? Are you calling for a mobilization?
The first censor is our fear. Being accused of racism is very scary, and our accusers know that. They use it. But as long as we are concerned, in all conscience, we know that we are not racist and that our work, the diversity of the group with which we have been creating works for so many years, is not. In short, our whole life proves the opposite. We must refuse, in the light of the ethnic composition of this cast, even before anyone has seen our production, to be labelled spoliators and racists, and consequently criminals. We all have eyes, ears, memories, legends, all of which are interrelated in many ways. We are not ''only'' French or ''purely'' white. Or ''only'' indigenous. Should we bow our heads to an ancestral curse, of biblical dimensions, that continues to plague us from generation to generation?
Are we, forever, for centuries, racists and colonialists, or are we human beings, carriers of universality: Blacks, Jews, Arabs, Khmers, Indians, Afghans, and natives, whose epic stories we sometimes want to tell, and who, like us, as the basis of their cultural particularities, carry within them the universal human being? And after all, who benefits from tearing society apart, in this way? How will this interminable tribalization help dismantle the savage capitalism that is ruining our planet? How will it stop the greed of multinationals? What is the purpose behind it? How will it give us the meaning and the love of the common good? Why do some ideologues try to fool our youth by taking advantage of their idealism, their generosity and their thirst for solidarity and humanity?
Kanata at Cartoucherie, Paris
Who are these ideologues?
I do not have to name them. By their answers and their attacks, I believe, they will show that they have recognized themselves.
Is it not a discourse that falls on deaf ears?
It's worse than that. It is a trial, where every word of the defense is inverted and added to the indictment of the self-appointed prosecutors. It becomes necessary to constantly navigate between forbidden words that are more and more numerous. How to speak sincerely, and with confidence, when each word can become, at the whim of the interlocutor, an incriminating clue, revealing our ignominy? Under the scrutiny of such commissioners, how can one escape artificial language, clichés, hypocrisy, and finally the inevitable lie?
Is it possible to avoid guilt?
Once all paths of material, legislative and symbolic reparations have been made and these repairs, always imperfect and insufficient, have been definitively obtained, we must recognize that we may still be guilty of many things, but not of everything, not all the time and not forever. The path is identical for those who are, or think of themselves as the victims, because it may be somewhat indecent to appropriate too much of the suffering of an ancestor, or make it one’s own. The grandchildren of deportees did not suffer what their grandparents or great-great-grandparents suffered. I am one of these grandchildren, and as such I cannot build eternal bitterness and hatred on the fate of my ancestors. Hatred and bitterness that my grandparents who died in Auschwitz would not have wanted to leave me with. They loved me too much, I'm sure, to want to inflict the pain of such hatred on me. I cannot boast of their legacy and through it hold the whole world guilty and responsible, and forbid a young German actress, innocent of what her great-grandfather could have done to mine, from playing Anne Frank, when she has the talent and the moral stamina to do it.
How do you feel today?
At a meeting in Montreal back in July, Robert and I sought out the indigenous artists who had expressed their incomprehension, not to say their disapproval, at the lack of native actors and actresses in the Kanata cast. We had to remind them again and again that this play had been rehearsed and produced in France, with actors of very diverse origins, first of all refugees, then residents in France, then most of them naturalized as French in recent years. Many of the artists who met with us that night had heard vaguely about the Théâtre du Soleil, but were unaware of its principles and its way of operation. The meeting was held in a respectful atmosphere, on both sides, and I thought we were moving forward on the difficult path of understanding and reconciliation. This meeting, which I will remember all my life with a very special emotion, lasted more than five and a half hours, but we would have needed, and we will still need, more time. We will take this time. We promised. But the next morning, all those who did not want this meeting to conclude with an agreement, and who had not attended it, attacked us. And, I admit it today, Robert and I have been plagued by accusations of all kinds resulting from the amount of intimidation and misinformation on certain forums or blogs and springing up on social networks where a multitude of anonymous people are involved. After the announcement of the cancellation [of the show in Canada], many of the native artists we had met with that night did not hide their disappointment and even their disapproval of this outcome, which they had not asked for. So we pulled ourselves together and decided that the best answer to the attacks would be to present the first episode of the production ourselves.
Will you be the co-author of this episode of the play with Robert Lepage?
No. But I'm the co-author of the manifesto explaining the decision to present it.
Photo credit 1: Martin Chamberland for La Presse
Photo credit 2: Archives Théâtre du Soleil