Conference Report CDE 2009

18th CDE Annual Conference, Vienna, Austria
4th-7th June 2009
„Staging Interculturality“

As the title „Staging Interculturality“ already indicates, the 18th annual conference of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English (CDE) centred on performative representations of cultural identities across national or ethnic borderlines, a field that might appear as somewhat amorphous. However, the defining characteristic of this area is not only that the buzz-term ‚interculturality‘ is applied in a myriad of forms across different disciplines but also that the concept is used within specific disciplines in varying contexts. As a consequence of the great variety of approaches to, and definitions of, this term, the conference showed to what extent a notion which is ’sent travelling‘ through various cultural, theoretical and methodological territories, both gains new meanings and opens up innovative insights along the way.

In his opening key-note speech „Writing Black People“, the dramatist Simon Stephens (London) shed light on the estrangement, prejudices and pitfalls a ‚white‘ writer may have to confront while attempting to create his ethnic or gendered ‚other‘. With reference to his recent plays Motortown (2006), Pornography (2008) and Harper Regan (2008), Stephens pointed to the significance of socio-political sensitivity and demonstrated his idea of interculturality as a productive dramatic mode which makes cultural heterogeneity visible.

The first presentation of the following panel, „The ‚Cultural Mulatto‘ in the Drama of Adrienne Kennedy and Suzan-Lori Parks„, was given by Lenke Németh (Debrecen). She examined Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro (1962) and Parks’s Topdog/Underdog (2001) with reference to Trey Ellis’s term of the ‚cultural mulatto‘ as a cultural embodiment of transgressive native African-American identities. Németh argued that both plays employ intertextual and bio-fictional strategies in order to not only undermine racial binaries but to negotiate with the fluid-fixities of mixed-racial selves. The second paper, „‚Among Unbroken People Next Door‘: Henry Adam’s Drama of Interculturality“, discussed three recent Scottish plays, Among Unbroken Hearts (2000), The People Next Door (2003) and Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5: In the Time of the Messiah (2006). Tracing Adam’s formal and aesthetic development from local ‚Trainspottingish‘ youth drama via farcical multi-cultural community drama to cynical politico-religious drama, Holger Südkamp (Düsseldorf) demonstrated the plays‘ commitment to Scotland as a multi-ethnic society. The panel was rounded up with the second key-note lecture entitled „Performing Interculturality: Arabs in the West“ held by Marvin Carlson (New York). He gave an overview of the current trends, topics and tendencies of Arab drama and theatre cultures in the US after 9/11. Carlson outlined how playwrights with an Algerian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Tunisian, or even an Iranian or Iraqi background address the situation that ‚Arabs‘ now serve to replace ‚the communist‘ as the former US-American arch-enemy and how they have dealt with the ensuing near-breakdown of positive intercultural communication.

The second panel dealt especially with aspects of staging diasporas and migration. It was introduced by Giovanna Buonanno (Modena). Based on Patrice Pavis’s definition of intercultural theatre, her paper „1001 Nights Now: Diaspora Narratives on the Contemporary English Stage“ examined the liminal space created by negotiating with performative representations of ‚cultures in translation‘ in Yellow Earth’s 58 (2004), Tanika Gupta’s Sanctuary (2002), and the Copenhagen/Nottingham production 1001 Nights Now (2002/05). Marilena Zaroulia’s (Winchester) presentation, „Travellers in Globalisation: From Near to Elsewhere and Back“, discussed David Greig’s San Diego (2003) and A Disappearing Number (2007) by Theatre de Complicité. Using Marc Augé’s concept of the ’non-place‘, Zaroulia demonstrated to what extent transitional quests for identity correlate with the cultural dynamics of super-modernity and may thus function to design new utopian communities on a global scale.

The third panel surveyed the paradoxes of interculturality from intracultural perspectives, starting with Claudia Georgi’s (Göttingen) contribution „Intercultural Relations and Intracultural Diversity in Richard Bean’s The God Brothers„. Analyzing the play’s fictional Tambian community in Africa as an epitome of cultural alterity, Georgi argued that Bean questions the concept of culture as a pristine category by exploring the dangers of unilateral assimilation or Westernization. The following paper, „England People Very Nice: Intercultural Confusions at the National Theatre, London“, stayed with Richard Bean but turned the attention to interculturality as a social process in the UK. John Bull (Reading) used Bean’s The English Game (2008) and the controversy created by England People Very Nice (2009) to show how these plays effectively highlight the current political confusion about the rivalling ideologies connected with the concepts of interculturality, multiculturalism and integration.

The opening paper of the next panel was „Mapping Polish Identities on the British Stage“, presented by Monika Pietrzak-Franger (Siegen). She looked at two plays which thematized Polish labour migration: Gappard Theatre’s 2007 production RE-ID and Cherry Blossom (2008), a cooperative stage production of the Traverse Theatre and the Teatr Polski Bydgoszcz. Pietrzak-Franger highlighted that identities are shown as subject to change through migration in these plays and she investigated how theatre might serve as a trans-cultural contact zone through the use of multi-media and bi-lingual stage aesthetics. In the following presentation, „Intercultral Encounters in debbie tucker green’s random„, Marissa Fragou (London) set out to examine how green’s experimental one-act piece not only challenges representations of the black female self but also notions of sameness and otherness by foregrounding the dynamic interaction between race, age and gender. The concluding paper of this panel, „The Whiteness of Irish Drama: The Irish and Their Black Other“, discussed the shifting constructions of Irishness in plays as different as Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) and Donal Kelly’s The Cambria (2005). From the critical perspective of Whiteness Studies, Sarah Heinz (Mannheim) revealed blind spots of whiteness by exploring the epidermal discourses constituting the highly ambivalent notion of Irishness.

The third key-note speaker, Nicholas Grene (Dublin), rounded off this Irish focus in his lecture „Contemporary Irish Theatre: The Way We Live Now?“. Through an extensive survey of new productions in Dublin theatres in 2006, Grene shed light on the current heterogeneous trends and tendencies which characterize the contemporary Irish theatre scene. The second playwright to speak at the conference was Tanika Gupta, who considered her own practice of „Writing Beyond the Stereotypes“. In conversation with the theatre critic Aleks Sierz she related how her Bengali background and London upbringing shaped her writing. She explained that in her plays she both addresses biographical issues and transcends the confines of the typical ‚Asian family story‘, e.g. in Sanctuary (2002), a play concerned with the genocide in Rwanda, or in Sugar Mummies (2006), which deals with the mutual exploitation going on between white women travelling to Jamaica and their black lovers.

The final panel of the conference brought together the British theatre experts Keith Peacock (Hull), Graham Saunders (Reading), and Kathy Smith (London). In his paper, „Youth, Multiculturalism and Hybridity“, Peacock introduced the formation of youth identity as special theme of multicultural drama. He drew on Hanif Kureishi’s Borderline (1981), Ayub Khan-Din’s East is East (1996) and Tanika Gupta’s Fragile Land (2003) to show how generational conflicts interact with cross-cultural conflicts in drama and how the search for a gender identity is sharply accentuated against a background of hybridity. Saunders addressed a great paradox of contemporary British theatre in „‚The Great Chinese Takeaway‘: The Strange Case of Absent Orientalism in Contemporary British Playwriting.“ His point was that, in contrast to Caribbean or South Asian playwrights, BBC (= British-Born Chinese) authors are almost non-existent on the British stage. The scarce instances of British-Chinese playwriting, e.g. Yellow Earth’s Running the Silk Road (2008) and Ben Yeoh’s Yellow Gentlemen (2006), only highlight this relative absence, which Saunders took as significant for the special intercultural relationship of Britain and China. In „‚[There is nothing] Outside of Text?‘ – Towards a Psychoanalytic Model of the Transcultural Spectator“, Smith investigated the relationship created between theatrical texts and transcultural audiences. Her examples were Mark Ravenhill’s Mother Clap’s Molly House (2001) and productions by the theatre groups Kneehigh and Graeae. By introducing the aspects of audience involvement, queerness and disability to the debate about interculturality in drama, she suitably widened the focus of the conference in the final paper.

The conference location in Vienna also offered a whole range of possibilities to test the theoretical debates against practical theatre work and consequently visits to current theatre productions were an integral part of the conference programme. CDE is especially grateful for the very fruitful cooperation with Volkstheater Wien, which culminated in a discussion with members of the cast and the production team of the Vienna production of Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters.

Mark Berninger (Mainz) and Ines Detmers (Chemnitz)