Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

North-South Theatre Exchanges: Sistren's Tours of Canada in the 1980s and Early 1990s

Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

North-South Theatre Exchanges: Sistren's Tours of Canada in the 1980s and Early 1990s

Article excerpt

Sistren, a Jamaican popular theatre company comprised mainly of working-class women, emerged in 1977 under Michael Manley's "democratic socialist" government. Although the group initially received support from the Jamaican government, Sistren also began receiving small grants from North American development agencies in the late 1970s, such as the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) and Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO). Its work was of interest to Canadian Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) because the group was borne out of leftist politics and ideals. Ian Smillie, writing about CUSOs funding of Caribbean-based projects, points out that, "Sistren, a group of unemployed ghetto women, was assisted in the formation of what would become an internationally acclaimed theatre company" (46). When Sistrens future was left in doubt following the election of the conservative Jamaica Labour Party in 1980, which proceeded to dismantle the Manley government's policies, Sistren turned to Canadian development agencies for greater financial support. Throughout the 1980s, Sistrens success and reputation increased to the point that by the end of the decade it was considered the foremost women's popular theatre company in the Caribbean region. This was due to the level of Canadian aid assistance provided, as Canadian NGOs such as Inter Pares were donating up to $500,000 (Cdn) in three-year instalments by 1992 (Saibil 11). Sistren survived on this funding and was able to tour extensively within the Caribbean region where they formed their most supportive alliances and did their most important grassroots outreach.

The work for which Sistren became renowned in the Caribbean region was of major interest to Canadian popular theatre workers, whose methodologies had been influenced by adult educator, Ross Kidd, who, in turn, had profoundly influenced Sistren's approaches to popular education. By the early 1990s, Sistren had toured Canada three times, while individual group members had made numerous solo trips to conduct workshops, participate in conferences, and undertake training, usually at the behest of Canadian development agencies. During each tour, Canadian popular theatre workers and development educators attended Sistren's performances and, to some extent, exchanged skills with group members; it is unclear, however, what Sistren gained from these visits, other than contacts and financial support.

By using Sistren Theatre Collective of Jamaica as its case study, this article will argue that between the 1970s and 1990s, Canadian development agencies involved in the Canadian popular theatre movement, specifically the Canadian Popular Theatre Alliance (CPTA), turned a genuine possibility for exchange between theatre companies in the global North and South into an opportunity to "showcase" their funding beneficiaries through development networks. I will also argue that Canadian popular theatre workers, influenced by Canadian development agencies, wanted to learn about Sistren's use of Boals Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) in Jamaican communities and its approach to collective creation so that they could apply these skills in their own community outreach activities. Eleanor Crowder, formerly a popular theatre worker in Ottawa, claims that "[t]he initial interest for us in Theatre of the Oppressed came out of CUSO and Oxfam and Inter Pares--people who encountered TO in Central America at the Jesuit Centre and were already seeing it work overseas and trying to find ways to link with it here in Canada" (qtd. in Schutzman 198). While Canadian popular theatre workers were eager to learn about Sistren's theatrical methodologies, very few travelled to Jamaica to experience and observe the context in which the group was working. (2)

In this article, I use Canadian popular theatre worker Ian Filewods and former Sistren Artistic Director Honor Ford-Smiths critiques of development agency funding and its impact on popular theatre, in both the Jamaican and Canadian contexts respectively, as the point of departure for analyzing the relationship between Sistren and Canadian development agencies, such as Inter Pares, on the one hand, and Sistren and the Canadian Popular Theatre Alliance, on the other. …

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