Isn’t Theatre all the Same?
As an art form, theatre is comprised of humans who perform a certain narrative of conflict and resolution through the use of audiovisual manipulations in a transformed space that is shared by an audience in real-time. In this sense, theatre is the same across the globe. However, while all theatre originated from ritual, the forms they evolved into throughout history vary according to the circumstances of the artists creating them in response to the societies in which they lived. In this manner, theatre is an elevated sublimation of the human struggle to understand experiences of conflict. Theatre artists create their art in order to grapple with a specific conflict in response to a specific set of circumstances for a specific audience. It is important to bear this in mind when watching plays from different cultures since their idea of conflict and set of circumstances are most likely different from yours, and you might not be the target audience.
This chapter is an introduction to global theatre and looks at five major areas. It begins with a delineation between the Western World as told by mainstream history as well as the non-Western world from a post-colonial perspective. Then it will look at several theatre forms found in cultures outside Europe and the United States of America, with one example from distinct countries to illustrate similarities and differences from Western Theatre. Finally, it will discuss Intercultural Theater, where different cultures are fused to produce plays. Each of those topics can stand alone and fill a whole library, so this chapter cannot be as exhaustive as one wishes. As an introductory level chapter, the next few pages will describe qualities of distinct theatrical forms attributed to the general contexts in which they were made. This will leave a lot of room for further exploration so feel free to let the ideas pique your interest and spur you on to further research.
West and the Rest
All cultures find ways of communal expression, and as such, it can be said that each culture has its own form of theatre. However, the history of theater often focuses on the Western development of the art form and tends to exclude forms that do not share the same formal elements as outlined by Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. This can be attributed to the tendency of historical accounts to focus on the different movements of power within the Western Hemisphere: from the Greeks to the Romans, to the Europeans, such as France, Germany, England, and Spain, and to Russia and the United States of America. The history of theatre follows mainstream historical accounts of the accomplishments in the arts as a reflection of a world power. In other words, history is told from the perspective of the global leader and highlights the accomplishments of its global power.
Power is the ability to influence others. World power is often manifested in the ability of one country’s government to influence the economic standing and political behavior of the rest of the world. Throughout historical narratives, this influence is often gained through conquest or a war that has been won in that government’s favor. The winner of wars and conquests hold the capacity to tell the story from their perspective in a way that serves them best, so mainstream historical narratives tend to justify their violence and put them in the light of superiority whether it is economical, social, psychological, or even moral. Many of the Western powers from the Ancient Greeks to the modern day have gained their influence from winning wars and conquests, and thus their histories, narratives, and even cultural leverage, have more focus. To understand this fact is to acknowledge that there is another side to the story— that of the colonized, the subjugated, and the oppressed.
War, as the largest manifestation of human conflict, is the subject matter of a multitude of art forms. Theatre, for its part, explores the repercussions of war on the people who wage it as well as the people who suffer from it. Rather than simply reinforcing narratives of superiority, theatre challenges mainstream history’s fixation on lauding the accomplishments of those who win wars. Theatre problematizes the dominant narrative and asks the important question: Why? Why was the war waged? Why did the actions before, during, and after the war have to be taken? Why must innocent people suffer? And why must we, as an audience, watch such suffering unfold? As such, history and theatre are different forms of storytelling where the former is oftentimes narratives told by those who establish the power structures, and the latter provides counterpoints by which to re-evaluate those power structures.
In Western History, for example, the Ancient Greeks are described as an advanced culture that originated and developed philosophy, sciences, and the arts. Yet, the Greek classic play entitled Trojan Women by Euripides explores the pain of the female survivors of the Trojan War in order to question its necessity. Centuries after it was first performed, Trojan Women is still being staged today. A recent staging in 2017 was created by theatre artists from Europe and Asia, who employed intercultural theatre practices in South Korea to commemorate and heal the Comfort Women who suffered unspeakable terrors in World War II. It is apparent in this example how theatre is contrapuntal to history, making the experience, understanding, and appreciation of both more profound and meaningful.
Theatre tackles topics that are otherwise too taboo and unpalatable for polite society to discuss openly. Its live, metaphoric performances of the actions in question intend to pinch the hearts of its audiences, who are suspending their disbelief in a collectively agreed-upon safe space. The pinch, the unsettling feeling, intends to make them consider points of view other than their own— other than the point of view of the dominant narrative. So, while the Western World has enjoyed privileges afforded them by wars won in their favor, theatrical productions even from their own culture have asked them to consider the repercussion of their actions.
Indeed, the Western World has become a dominant force in history because it has actively expanded its territories through various forms of subjugation such as colonialism, slavery, and even genocide, which effectively altered or wiped-out local expressions of the indigenous tribes. There has been much effort to create awareness about these historical upheavals and earnest attempts at reparation, but the violent aftereffects run deep and manifest in societies as cultural trauma. To counter orientalist stereotyping and lend a better understanding of the culture that emerged from the colonizer-colonized interaction, postcolonial theories such as Homi Bhabha’s sly mimicry and hybridity are used as frameworks to balance out the notions of power and culture.
When encountering plays that are not readily listed in different Western drama anthologies, or manifest formal elements that describe canonical plays in theatre textbooks, or are created and performed by people in or from a country different from yours, it is highly recommended to pay close attention to the nuances of the performance. Pay attention to things that are vastly different from what you are used to watching, that leave you discombobulated, and that confuse you. Allow those unfamiliar qualities to inform you about what you are watching, lead you to questions, and ultimately inspire you to seek answers that will expand your understanding of the world.
Puppet Theater is found all over the world and has different genres depending on the material used to operate the puppet: rod, string, or glove. It does not commonly find its way into theatre books, perhaps because it makes use of objects rather than people to play out the action on stage. In a way, puppets function in the same manner as masks: they depict a specific character and are activated by the people who bring them to life. Unlike masks that affect the physicality of the performer that wears them, puppets function as the physical avatars of their puppeteers. While masks infuse performers with character and affect their physicality, puppeteers use precise movement to infuse their puppets with intention. The entire performance makes use of spectacle and music to fully bring to life the narrative of conflict that needs resolution. In Western nations, puppets are often used to engage children, although recently they have been used in Broadway musicals with more adult themes such as Avenue Q and War Horse. In other countries, such as Japan, puppets are created with great craftsmanship and theatre productions require its artists to have lifelong training in puppetry.
Bunraku is the traditional puppet theater that emerged in the bustling port city of Osaka, Japan during the 1600s, which became popular with the collaboration of playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653 – 1714) and chanter Takemoto Gidayu (1651 – 1714). Originally referred to as ningyo jurori, it was revived by Uemura Bunrakuken (1751 – 1810) in the 1800s, and was then commonly referred to as bunraku. There are five main elements of a bunraku performance:
The puppeteers (ningyotsukai)
The dramatic text (jurori)
The chanter (tayu)
The shamisen music
These elements are not concealed in the way Western theatre attempts to do so in its theatrical productions. The puppetry is performed on the main stage (hombutai) while the jurori is chanted aloud to music on a side platform (yuka).
The main element of bunraku is the highly crafted, miniature, life-like dolls meticulously dressed in vibrantly coloured Japanese traditional clothing. The dolls have intricate heads (kashira) and hands, crafted by specialists who make sure the heads have moving parts to allow a fuller range of expressions. Ranging from 1 to 4 feet, their bodies are created and clothed by the very puppeteers who bring them to life during performances. The vibrant colours of the puppets’ costumes highlight their intricate movements, and pull the focus of their audience’s attention. The skilled maneuvering of these intricately carved and painted wooden puppets convey intricate nuances of emotion and complex thoughts.
The second element is the puppeteer, whose activation of the puppet works in tandem with all the other elements, dancing as it were with grace and precision. Three puppeteers (ningyotsukai) operate one puppet. The master puppeteer (omozukai) controls the head and the right hand of the puppet, the second puppeteer (hidarizukai) controls the left hand, and the third puppeteer (ashizukai) controls the lower half. All three puppeteers are visible onstage with the puppets, but the second and third puppeteers are fully covered in black from head to toe. Only the faces of the master puppeteers can be seen but they inhibit themselves from showing any facial expression and let the puppets indicate all feelings, thoughts, and actions. It takes decades of training to move from ashizukai to omozukai.
The third element is the jurori, the dramatic text based on legends and folklore, written in traditional Japanese, with universal themes that are still accessible to contemporary audiences. Plots were either Jidaimono or Sewamono, the former being historical events that occurred during feudal times and the latter being contemporary dramas centered on the conflict between desires of the heart and social obligation. Canonical authors such as Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1725) captured private and public historical events about individuals whose compromised social status forced them to choose self-sacrifice as a means to restore political order. The jurori is chanted by the fourth element of the bunraku called the tayu, who reads all the lines of the play from the narration to the dialogue of each character. The tayu changes voices when necessary, making him a very versatile voice actor. He is accompanied by the fifth element, the shamisen, a traditional Japanese string instrument that plays music in the background to enhance the mood of the scene.
From being an attraction for the masses, Bunraku has been refined over the years to its current level of artistry and has been named UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. By not concealing these elements, the audiences can witness the multiple performances that converge in synchronicity, like a dance to music, and appreciate the level of discipline necessary to achieve such fluidity. Furthermore, the excellence of the performance and the story will organically activate the audience’s suspension of disbelief and heighten their pleasure in experiencing the entirety of the production.
Other countries also have puppet theater as well: Indonesian Shadow puppets called wayang kulit and wayang golek, Thailand’s nang talent and hun krabok, India’s Rajasthani puppets called kathputli, Medieval Cairo’s khayal al-zill, and China’s zhangtou mu’ou.
The use of masks is a global phenomenon. Western theatrical forms that immediately come to mind are Ancient Greek masks and Italian Commedia dell’ Arte masks which have been researched extensively by theatre historians. Masks function as indicators of recognizable characteristics, and seeing them allows the audience to readily identify personas and their values by appealing to a visual cue that triggers the social memory of a specific stereotype. The stereotypes exist because of a specific set of circumstances, but as social memory expands with the continuation of time, the circumstances for those stereotypes cease to be given focus, leaving the stereotypes to exist outside of their contexts.
Rather than being understood as a product of circumstances, a stereotype becomes taken as a fact that can be applied across the board. Masks get codified in the same manner. However, without fully understanding the circumstances surrounding the creation of the mask, there will be no appreciation of its existence or use. The codification becomes the sterilization of character, and the same can be said of stereotypes. Masks today can be a metaphysical concept wherein someone “puts on” or “projects” a specific character. To understand masks and how they are used, as well as their originating circumstances and process of codification, is to understand the way we ourselves deal with stereotypes and how we deal with impressions.
Some cultures’ use of masks is rooted in ritualistic practices. Shamans would wear sacred masks to embody higher beings: from gods to demons, from supernatural heroes to mythical beasts. Masks, as representations of nature and the spirit world, serve to mediate between the shaman and the higher power. By wearing the mask, the shaman takes on the ability and the characteristics of a higher power to control forces beyond human capabilities, heal others, and affect the environment. In Indonesia, the word for mask is Topeng, and it is used in dance dramatizations of traditional stories and myths.
The Wayang Topeng has been recorded as early as the beginning of the second millennium. It is a mask theatre form that evolved from rituals and Hindu court practices. It incorporates masks, dance, and traditional music to recount scenes from epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (wayang orang), and myths such as The Adventures of Prince Panji or the Pandji cycle.
Topeng masks are revered as sacred heirlooms. They are carved out of wood in the same way as the wooden puppets of wayang golek, they are painted in the same manner, and they follow the same color symbolism. The oval mask has a broad round forehead, wide-set elongated eyes, a slender, pointy, upturned nose, and a tapered chin. Prince Panji is green, King Klana is red, and other noble characters are white or gold. The clown character has a half mask revealing the mouth. This general style varies according to each local tradition and manifests the excellent skill set of the artists who create the masks.
There are two forms of topeng: the solo actor’s topeng wali which showcases the expert skill and virtuosity of the performer as he shifts characterization with each mask he uses, and the five-person ensemble of topeng panca. It is often a dance-drama where the plot is set and the scenes are predictable. Performers use codified gestures and follow set choreography. In some villages, the masked dancers move while a storyteller called dalang narrates the plot and speaks for the different characters by changing vocal registers. The only character who will speak for himself is the clown, who speaks freely and can serve to pass criticism or commentary.
The rest of the costumes are embellished versions of everyday dress. They make use of leather ornaments on the head and ears (sumping), an embroidered velvet jacket over a white shirt or velvet breastplate, a short skirt over black, knee-length pants, a waist sash (sampur) and ankle bells (gongsèng or krintjing). The sampur is the most important part of the costume as the performer incorporates it into his dance using his hands. There are two kinds of sampur that help differentiate the characters: the patterned sampur cindai worn for humans and gods, and the plain sampur gendala giri for animals and demons. The gongsèng is also important as it captures the attention of the audience and highlights the movement of the performer.
While full performances of wayang topeng have become a rarity, excerpts and scenes are still performed during important celebrations. The popularity of the form decreased with the spread of Islam in the country and Dutch colonization, but it continues to be an important aspect of Indonesian culture. African masks are also very popular. While they inspired many western artists like Pablo Picasso, they are integral to ceremonial costumes worn in religious activities. The masks are representations of the ancestors and by wearing them, the participants of the ritual fortify the tribe’s bond with the spirits around them and with nature.
Other countries’ mask theatres include Japan’s Kabuki, Thailand’s Wai Kru, Laos’ Phra Lak Phra Lam, Cambodia’s Lakhon Khol, and the Philippines’ Morionnes Festival.
Kabuki is a highly stylized Japanese performance practice that combines dance and theatre.
Kabuki features highly stylized movement, intricate choreography and it heavily relies on costumes and makeup. It originated in Kyoto in the early 17th Century and it was originally exclusively performed by women. Its founder is believed to be Ozumo no Okuni, who put together a theatre company of all women who would play all roles, including male ones, and would re-enact everyday scenarios with a comedic approach. The genre soon became popular, although it often cast a shadow on the moral integrity of the company members as the performers would frequently be associated with prostitutes and performances would take place in the “red light” district.
Later in the 17th Century, women and young boys were banned from performing, hence kabuki companies became all male, with men playing female roles. This new style of kabuki, known as yarō-kabuki, stayed popular until the middle of the 19th Century. Then, as a result of an economic crisis and a more conservative government, kabuki experienced a setback, becoming more popular in Europe than in its country of origin.
Kabuki was successfully, but briefly, re-established at the end of the 19th Century, when the Emperor of Japan sponsored a kabuki performance in 1887. But then in the 20th Century, as a result of kabuki companies supporting the Japanese war efforts, it was banned again after WWII during and right after the occupation of Japan by the allied forces. During this time, all Japanese pre-war traditional cultural activities were prohibited. The ban was lifted in 1947 and since then kabuki has steadily grown in popularity, both in Japan and abroad.
Elements of kabuki
The traditional kabuki theatres were made entirely out of wood, which caused several incidents, with theatres burning to the ground on many occasions.
The traditional performance space features a walkway that crosses the audience and leads to a stage. The walkway is often used as a stage itself, where actors can perform specific scenes or monologues. The stage is entirely made of wood and covered by a roof. It features trap doors, to allow the sudden appearance or disappearance of an actor, and at times it revolves completely, facilitating transitions and scene changes. Wagons are also utilized.
One of the most popular and spectacular “tricks” of kabuki is a technique called Chūnori, where actors are attached to wires allowing them to “fly” over the stage and audience.
Costume-wise, kimonos are utilized. Kabuki kimonos are very detailed in decoration and are made with expensive silks and fabrics. Makeup is also very specific to kabuki. The use of rice powder helps create a white base on the actors’ faces, which becomes a canvas for the creation of a face mask that could be either a human character, a supernatural one, or even an animal.
There are three main categories of kabuki plays: the Jidaimono plays, the Sewamono plays, and the Shosagoto plays.
Jidaimono plays present events drawn from Japanese history.
Sewamono plays on the other hand are known as “domestic plays” and feature common people in ordinary/extraordinary situations. The so-called suicide plays are popular Sewamono plays and are based on lovers who decide to die together because, for various reasons, they cannot be together in real life.
Finally, Shosagoto plays are more heavily relying on dance and leave most of the narrative to movement, with very little dialogue.
(box by Kiara Pipino)
Musical theatre has a long history and the development of its form into its many variations is as fascinating as it is varied. The contemporary productions on Broadway and the West End, which enjoy a high-level popularity, have somewhat perfected the roadmap to commercial success, through a rigorous process of constant evaluation from a community of critics, peers, and audiences that exist in a theater consumerist ecosystem. It is a huge industry that thrives on both local and international tourism. Still, it is the manner in which music is incorporated into the storytelling and heightened by the spectacle of production numbers that make musical theatre the popular form that it is. Other countries stage popular musicals that have found success on Broadway and the West End, but they also have their own form of musicals. At times, such musicals serve another function beyond entertainment.
Sarswela and Seditious plays in the Philippines
The sarswela is a Filipino musical adapted from the Spanish zarzuela that was brought in during the late 1800s. By then, there was a booming colonial theater scene, and the political turmoil in Spain led theater artists to seek refuge in the Philippines. Initially intended to make a profit by entertaining Spanish officials and wealthy locals, Zarzuela troupes eventually inspired Filipino locals, who then adapted the form by incorporating the one-act saynete to convey their own stories. When the Americans took over the colonial government of the Philippines from Spain at the turn of the 19th Century, the Filipinos, who had just declared their liberation in 1898, were furious. They had fought for freedom from 333 years of Spanish colonialism with the help of the Americans and considered them allies. Playwrights then used the sarswela to convey nationalistic messages to inspire the masses and incite action. American officials considered these plays seditious and had them outlawed. They are now considered a traditional form and are revived to inspire nationalism.
Because of the western influence brought about by colonialism, the sarswela is seemingly the most accessible theatre form of those mentioned in this chapter to students versed in Western Drama. Like most western musicals, it follows Aristotle’s delineation of character, plot, diction, spectacle, song, and theme, as well as the scene-song-dance structure of popular shows. The sarswela can be as short as one act and as long as five acts. With a combination of prose and verse, it is either completely sung through or has songs interspersed in the dialogue.
What makes a sarswela different from its western counterparts other than its use of the local languages of the towns in which they were written is its political leanings. While it features the everyday life of the locals through love stories, each character and plot line alludes to a deeper meaning. The older sarswela plots feature characters that are often allegories for the motherland and her many struggles for freedom. Light-hearted and satirical at times, the younger sarswela plots reveal the behavioral culture and values of Filipinos at the turn of the 19th Century while conveying feelings about the current political climate and the yearning for a better future.
Back then, the playwrights and theatre artists were not full-time practitioners whose sole focus was to harness and hone the craft, passing it on from one member of the family to another. They were simply lovers of the art form who took time out of their daily lives to lend their experience in performing in the Catholic Mass choirs to compose songs or passionate citizens who believed in the power of theatre to communicate to the masses. Popular playwrights from all over the archipelago include Severino Reyes, Aurelio Tolentino, Buenaventura Rodriguez, Mariano Garland, and Catalina Palisoc, among others.
With the continued occupation of the United States of America in the first half of the 19th Century, the introduction and advancement of radio, film, and television led to the decline of the sarswela. It enjoyed a resurgence when its political capabilities were tapped into during the 1970s, a time of political turmoil and unrest. Today, it lends itself as a historical tool in the understanding of Filipino values, culture, and aspirations.
Other countries also have their own forms of musical theater such as China’s Peking Opera, India’s Sanskrit Drama, and Japan’s Noh Theatre.
All theatre is “intercultural” in the sense that different cultures inform each other in the making of any theatrical piece. When we stage Ancient Greek plays and we are not from Greece, when we do a French exit ala Molière and we are not French, or when we perform Shakespeare and we are not citizens of the United Kingdom, it is easy to see why doing those plays would be “intercultural.” However, even now, when Greeks stage classics, or the French perform Molière, or the British stage Shakespeare, they are informed by developments in theatre-making all over the world. Furthermore, the Greeks, Molière, and Shakespeare themselves took from foreign influences that informed their theatre-making. However, the notion of interculturality as it is currently being discussed in contemporary times, spurred initially by the theories and discussions of French theatre scholar, Patrice Pavis, is problematic.
Intercultural theatre presupposes that cultures are pure, its terminology and study come from a history of colonialism and cultural appropriation, and its different theorists cannot seem to agree on its basic tenets. Philippine sociologist and theater director, Ricardo Abad ruminates on the history of intercultural theater and on the debates criticizing the field’s imperialist origins. He categorizes intercultural theater theorists under two camps, namely “universalists” like Richard Schechner who claim a universal language for the theatre and privilege aesthetics, and the “materialists” like Rustom Bharucha who stress cultural specificity and appreciation for local context and underscore political value. Abad debunks both camps and looks to postcolonial theater instead as a means to approach questions of authenticity, hybridity, and agency.
One possible framework to explore postcoloniality and interculturality is Homi Bhabha’s discourse on hybridity in his book, The Location of Culture (1994). Hybridity, first taken from horticulture, is the crossing of two different species to breed a third kind. Bhabha’s application of the concept to postcolonialism, refers to the effect of the transcultural interaction of colonizer and colonized. The hybrid culture can function as a means of resisting the colonizer’s hegemonic power that tends to exoticize the colonized through the minimizing gaze of orientalism. Bhabha’s discourse can be quite difficult to read and grasp for young scholars on an introductory level, but many established scholars explain and apply his work such as Argentinian anthropologist, Nestor Canclini in his book, Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (1995). Other scholars have criticized Pavis’ discourse such as Jacqueline Lo and Helen Gilbert who wrote: “Toward a Topography of Cross-Cultural Theatre Praxis” (2002). Pavis himself has reflected and updated his previous discourse, shifting his earlier terminology away from “intercultural theatre” to “intercultural performance” to refer to productions that incorporate performance styles from different cultures in his article, “Intercultural Theatre Today” (2010).
Differences as Invitation for Expansion
As information about the world becomes more and more accessible, it is important to ask the right questions when encountering different kinds of theatre: How different is the theatrical form of the play and production from the kind of theatre with which I am most familiar? What are the circumstances surrounding the creation of the dramatic text and the performance text? Who are the theatre artists and for which audience are they initially creating their theatrical piece? How different am I as an audience member from the play and production’s intended audience? How are my experiences, values, and aesthetic tastes different from those of the theatre artists and their intended audience? What new perspective is this play asking me to consider? What is my response to this invitation and what does that response reveal about who I am? Considering your answers to these questions will leave you expanding your understanding and empathy, and ultimately more cultured than if you had not. Not considering these questions might leave you feeling discombobulated and lost when watching a play created in a different culture.
Bunraku (and its 5 elements)