Decolonising Scottish Theatre
Jaïrus Obayomi on decolonising theatre – and the arts in Scotland.
One of the myths of the pandemic is that it has been a kind of “leveller” and we’re all as in this together as each other. Neither the anecdotal nor the statistical, the local (such as the crisis of UK child hunger) nor the global (such as vaccine inequality) – of course – bears this out. The social fissures, apparent to many in the Before Time and arguably yet more apparent now to very many more, have – lamentably and predictably – opened further. Another myth, perhaps more prevalent and pervasive, and painfully intertwined with the former, is that to have eyes newly opened to injustice, oppression and inequity is to be able to, if not fix things, then certainly move toward fixing things. Progress towards progress. Metaprogress.
Conversations around or adjacent to decolonisation within theatre and the arts more generally take the form of individual practice – in theatre specifically, it often means ways of working that move away from the canonical and textual emphasis. Within that, there is a healthy rejection of [the myth of] universalism. While purporting to draw people together, universalism proselytises for the superiority of one tradition, selling subjective metrics as objective fact. Decolonisation broadly, but in theatre specifically, is the advocacy of other points of view, pushing back against entrenched positions that exist largely unquestioned.
“Our minds must be as ready to move as capital is, to trace its paths and to imagine alternative destinations.” Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Decolonisation differs from diversity because the idea isn’t to fit excluded people into existing structures. Instead, decolonisation challenges structures that exist on a “twas ever thus” basis to self-evaluate. Yet as with diversity, a barrier to decolonisation is the pervasive issue of accessibility. In the case of decolonization, this takes the form of the “who” is in a space making and watching work, with a healthy side dollop of “how”. It may seem trite, hackneyed, and over-referenced, but considering who is talking and who is listening – or, more accurately, who gets to talk and who gets to listen – is crucial. Visibility matters in an experiential art form where the point of seeing is believing, a microcosm where absence of evidence can routinely be taken as evidence of absence. Operating outside “mainstream” frameworks, through the theatre practitioner’s choice as well as because of an absence of alternatives, an artist-led approach is a way of bypassing those accessibility issues and gatekeeping, intentional or otherwise.
“Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.” James Baldwin
If organisations have a blindspot in their structure, practice and outreach, which omits decolonisation from their agenda, and lack the cemented engagement with artists and audiences who would support or agitate for decolonisation, then decolonisation appears to be a non-issue. As a non-issue, it disappears.
In an artistic and cultural ecology like Scotland’s, an artist-led, individualist approach runs somewhat counter to the reality of the landscape, which remains reliant on pre-existing and established frameworks, organisations, and structures. After all, what exists here is a more centralised, highly organised environment, standing in contrast to places where funding is much more sparse and disparate, and the agenda is by necessity commercial. Relatively small and self-contained, Scottish theatre is home to a framework of publicly supported organisations/agencies and a modest range of public funding avenues. Last year, as one of those avenues, Edinburgh City Council offered funding for culture projects on a basis that smacked of old-school paternalism; organisations could apply with a suitably BAME maker partner onboard, rather than allowing these makers to apply for funding themselves. This precluded the opportunity of artists joining forces to working together, as the stipulation was that the project had to take place under the auspices of an existing organisation. It also had the unwitting effect of commoditising BAME practitioners, as some companies sought out someone to shoehorn into existing plans requiring funding. My own experience of this was not an uncommon one: an out-of-the-blue social friend request, shortly before the application deadline, from a theatre-maker known to me but who, to this day, has never discussed my practice with me. A little digging via friends uncovered that this theatre company was (suddenly? cynically?) looking for a suitably BAME writer for – yep! – an existing but unfunded project about refugees.
Thus, while the artist-led approach can empower individuals to engender change that might be otherwise slow to arrive, it doesn’t reflect the way in which a large part of work in Scotland is made and staged. It lets organisations – and supporting structures such as criticism – off the hook, if decolonisation is something that happens around them or in spite of them, rather than within them. This is not to deny freelancers the opportunity to be thought-leaders or agitators in their fields but really to recognise the nature of the landscape. The situation feels not wholly dissimilar to other aspects of the gig economy, where risk is offloaded onto the (precariously) self-employed, who are both visible on the frontline and invisible at a decision-making or agency level.
This is made all the more frustrating as, on the face of it, Scotland feels like somewhere that decolonisation could already, should already, be an entrenched part of the conversation. Using the broadest of broad brushstrokes, part of the national identity centres around a knowledge – both tacit and explicit – that there could be other ways of doing things here. A knowledge that subscribes to the view that an imposed status quo is an imposition, one that drowns out other voices and rebuffs and bulldozes other ways of doing things.
Yet, despite this, Scotland faces difficulty in decolonising its cultural spaces, practices and structures given that the model that arts organisations often follow when diversifying their output is, arguably, effectively a colonial model in miniature, with the arts organisation as proto-metropole with outside artists client or dependent. With their concentrations of resources, power and visibility, arts organisations such as (but by no means exclusively) theatres occupy and dominate their creative landscapes akin to the power dynamics centred in metropoles. Within this context, although framed as collaboration, instances of external connection with outside artists are in reality encounters. Prized and “exotic” artists are ostensibly “brought back” from creative wildernesses, and recontextualised. No matter how seemingly favourable the terms or amenable the audience, the rules of engagement – short-lived, in borrowed space, on borrowed time – are prohibitive of dialogue.
“We must be careful with the vocabulary that defines us… to not internalise the negativity.” Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
To an extent, it is a phenomenon that is in-built and ingrained into theatre’s conceptualisation and understanding of itself, continued and pervasive use of gatekeeping language provides an insight into that conception. Marketing blurbs, invitations to tender and calls for application use superlatives liberally (“the best”, “the most creative”) and freelancers vie to be part of the narrative of the one-off – chasing the latest “opportunity” – analogous to the encounter-based, metropolitan model above. This dealing in the intangible arguably separates theatre from other cultural sectors; the exploitative history of an item in the catalogue might be flagged on a description placard, the fully itemised breakdown of whose low or unpaid labour hours might have made a production possible is unlikely to be found in any show programme or press pack. In the self-conceptualisation stakes, Theatre the Ephemeral endures, a more palatable epithet than Theatre the Exploitative.
The politics of space mean questioning whether there is room for decolonisation (and decolonising practitioners) in Scottish theatre, given that a move towards moving towards a decolonised landscape isn’t enough. It will take active intention, not merely good intentions. The obvious answer, though, is yes, there is room. On the one hand, it doesn’t feel a wholly unfair characterisation to suggest that Scotland already flirts with the idea of something of a Scotland-centric decolonisation-lite. On the other hand, theatre is a spatial discipline: the magic of theatre lies in the creation of other dimensions, parallel to our own, and the stories placed therein. In both the abstract and the real, it is about making space, utilising space, reimagining and repurposing space.
There is room – and people from beyond the metropolitan hegemony ready to claim it.