Towards a Post/Decolonial Theatre Studies? About life-long learning processes and rethinking the way we act
by Sarnia van Capelleveen, Hidde Stobbe, Tai-Jung Yu
On 13th December 2022, the University of Amsterdam hosted a panel conversation around the newly published book Theaterwissenschaft Postkolonial/Dekolonial by Lisa Skwirblies and Azadeh Sharifi. This book deals with the field of German theatre studies and its lack of acknowledging and reckoning with post- and decolonial struggles and issues. Three other panel members joined the conversation: Anika Marschall, who contributed a chapter to the book and teaches at Utrecht University at the theatre department; Evelyn Wan, who also teaches at Utrecht University at the media and culture department, and Kati Röttger, head of the theatre department at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). The conversation was led by Sruti Bala, teacher at the UvA and Alessandra Tom, one of the students of the Master program International Dramaturgy. Each of them shared from their own experiences of teaching in different university settings, shifting the conversation gradually towards a conversation about postcolonial or decolonial pedagogy. The academics were joined by Master students in dramaturgy and theatre from the universities of Amsterdam and Utrecht, as well as local artists and cultural workers.
Germany has a history of denying their colonial past. For both, Azadeh Sharifi and Lisa Skwirblies, this fact could be seen as the main incentive to start a lifelong journey engaging with and doing research on the topic of decolonisation. Through personal stories from all the scholars on the panel we come to realise that taking the ‘decolonial route’ as an academic is far from easy. In particular, the women of colour had to develop multiple strategies for survival. Skwirblies and Sharifi wrote their book because they both felt that something needs to change in the German theatre scene. They noticed how there was little attention given to decolonial or postcolonial theatre in the German theatre scene, and how their own critiques of colonial structures were not landing correctly because they only circulated in this same colonial structure of the university. For this book they not only invited theatre scholars to contribute, but also interviewed artists and theatre makers, bringing their knowledge back to the makers, and bridging the gap between artistic practice and scientific knowledge. This divide is also created because of colonial structures in knowledge production. ‘This book is not a theory book,’ Skwirblies explains ‘but an exploration on questions around themes of colonisation within German theatre studies and offers suggestions on possible ways to free our curricula, seminars and rehearsal spaces from colonial traces.’
Through asking these questions raised in the book, the conversation during the talk started to develop. One of the main questions that struck us was one raised by the Black German theatre maker Simone Dede Ayivi: “Who is the implicit audience, and who is actually sitting in the auditorium?” A lot of the times a work of art wants to connect to a specific type of audience, but a Black majority audience is rarely, if ever seen across theatres. The people who remain dominant in the audience are elderly, white, privileged ticket holders. This is not because makers cannot connect to these or other audiences, it is the historically ingrained structure that the theatre has difficulties to break free from. When makers of colour are only programmed in special festivals or themed weeks, the big city theatres still need money from rich people to exist, and when theatre schools still have conservative people teaching, it is impossible to escape from these colonial structures.
Another research question proposed by Sharifi and Skwirblies in the book is “What institutional and methodological changes do we need to structurally anchor intersectional analyses of race, class, gender, disability and sexuality in academic curricular and research?” Among other topics, this question drew abundant reflections and conversations from the speakers during that evening. As the event is hosted in a Dutch research environment and addresses the issue proposed by a publication in German, the discussions are situated in a Western Europe academia and enriched by other personal experiences of the panelists, e.g., Röttger’s field research in Latin America in the 1990s and Marschall’s involvement of teaching in the British higher education system in the past few years.
While one contemplates how to answer such a question raised by Sharifi and Skwirblies, it is crucial to look into the context of where it is being asked. According to Sharifi, who identifies as a former refugee and woman of colour, her early research was, in her own words, “pushed” into certain topics, e.g., racialized audiences in Germany. She indicated that her research thus became “special cases”, not yet to be included in the “credo” of theatre academies and education in a country of immigration like Germany.
The ideology reflected by the “situatedness” of a scholar and her topics is also recognized in Röttger’s experience in the 1990s, to which she referred that under the imbalanced knowledge between Latin America and Europe, her research focusing on the former was “marginalized” in the German institutes. Sharifi also emphasized that this rigid and biased notion towards race-and-region-related practices not only causes Black German female artists such as Simone Dede Ayivi to be under-discussed in academia but also exposes misunderstandings and lack of knowledge by, so-called, Western professional critics towards works dealing with specific cultural backgrounds and/or post/decolonisation.
Meanwhile, Marschall and Wan both shared their strategies that almost emanate “activist subversive senses” in various degrees as faculty members in university settings. During her teaching time as an Assistant Lecturer at Queen Margaret University Edinburgh, Marschall was asked to document student attendance through filling out weekly “registration forms”, so that the administration department of the university could notify the government if any students within the asylum system or on international visa were absent. Refusing to serve as the “long arm” of the Home Office’s monitoring system, Marschall not only denied complying but also turned the class into a place for discussing such issues.
In a similar way, Wan talked about how her design of curriculum involves “sitting with the unknown” with her students instead of rushing week by week into different political topics, because such issues entailing positionality, including race, gender and class, also ask the space and time to process the unsettlement of students and their individual backgrounds.
The struggle in postcolonial teaching is shown in the fact that the history of the University Theatre, the location of the panel, is rooted in colonial history and money. This however is not well known by most of the students. The building was built by the administrator of the WOC and the VOC, and he lived in this place for several years. To show the history of this building, and to get it more attention, the University Theatre is researched in the podcast Far Too Close by four students of the UvA. The building is more often seen in relation with one of its other owners, Rembrandt, who painted parts of his famous The Nightwatch in this building. More about this history, and its not so innocent stories can be read in the book De Zeventiende Eeuw by UvA researchers Helmer Helmers and Judith Noorman. The knowledge of the colonial history is thus there, it is just not often talked about. Even in this panel the history of the place was not mentioned, while it could be a good example of working through the material legacies of Dutch colonialism immanent in the University.
As pointed out by Röttger, today, the post/decolonial theories are more in the spotlight compared to the 1990s, as they also take centre stage in Theaterwissenschaft postkolonial/dekolonial: Eine kritische Bestandsaufnahme. However, there are other problems emerging to the surface of academic fields. For example, Wan critically raised the question of how to engage with the works and practices of artists of colour beyond discussing only their identity and autobiographical methods, while Sharifi singled out the disputes surrounding the differences and/or similarities of immigration issues and (post)colonisation. These topics demand further investigations and also gesture to the ongoing work to be done that calls for scholars in the current and coming generation.
Towards the end of the talk, unfortunately rather late, the discussion opened up to questions from the students. One of the present students asked: ‘Why would everyone on the panel, after hearing about the many struggles and heartaches, still work within a university? Aren’t you supporting a patriarchal and imperialistic system?’ In other words, aren’t you supporting what you are fighting against? ‘Why would you not look for a smaller community? Open-minded to honest reflection and radical change?’ The student further explains that these questions emerge from the significant worries he has about his future within a university. Due to his ethnicity, he questions if at this moment there is a place for him in the academic world. Another student who joined the talk, self-identifying as Indian and an independent artist working in the Netherlands, claims that the only way for him to gain recognition and to work properly within the Netherlands would be the abolition of the existing cultural institutions.
The Nigerian American author, performance artist, and curator Jaamil Olawale Kosoko wrote poignantly about curatorial practice in white institutions: ‘No matter the capacity (staff member, artist, audience, board member), I question if the modern American white institution is actually capable of delivering the kind of care and hospitality needed to sustain members of minoritarian communities who have been forced to work within spaces where the white gaze (and its corresponding micro-aggressions) are endured on a daily basis.’ Although this statement is not about scholars working within academia, it does connect to the overarching theme of the possible incapability of major institutions to be fully inclusive and to decolonise themselves.
Sruti Bala, Associate Professor at the department of theatre studies in Amsterdam, argues that the question of the decolonisation of the university is inseparable from defending the task of the universities in social and political struggles. The creative protest within the ‘Fees Must Fall’ movement was a powerful performative act of demanding the removal of the statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Moreover, this example shows the power of theatrical and performative modes of engagement outside of a proscenium stage.
As we have seen in the panel discussion, the classroom and university can become the place where we explore the issues around decolonisation. As pointed out by Röttger, today, the post/decolonial theories are more in the spotlight compared to the 1990s, as they also take centre stage in Theaterwissenschaft postkolonial/dekolonial: Eine kritische Bestandsaufnahme. However, there are other problems emerging to the surface of academic fields. For example, Wan critically raised the question of how to engage with the works and practices of artists of colour beyond discussing only their identity and autobiographical methods, while Sharifi singled out the disputes surrounding the differences and/or similarities of immigration issues and (post)coloniszation. These topics demand further investigations and also gesture to the ongoing work to be done that calls for scholars in the current and coming generation. Two ‘action points’ that Sruti Bala further explores in the article cited above, should be considered when discussing decolonisation. Be aware that you have acquired knowledge you will have to rethink and possibly let go of and do not step out of (or scare away from) conversations you feel are not in your area of expertise. You’ll realise that once we start engaging with decolonisation, a lifelong learning process awaits us.
Hidde Stobbe is currently studying Applied Musicology at Utrecht University with an Elective in Dramaturgy and works for the foundation Eigen Muziekinstrument and classical music festival Klaterklanken. His research interests lie in the social impact of curating and performance, and sustainable music/theatre production.
Sarnia van Capelleveen is a theatre studies scholar focusing on dramaturgy and audience research, accessibility and social inclusion. She is currently following the MA program Contemporary Theatre, Dance and Dramaturgy at Utrecht University.
Yu Tai-Jung is currently the Deputy Manage Director of IATC Taiwan branch. Before his MA study at Utrecht University since 2022, he served as international affairs manager and resident dramaturg of Formosa Circus Art, a contemporary circus company in Taiwan.