Teesri Duniya Theatre was founded in 1981 as an alternative theatre in Montreal that set out to change the world, as Artistic Director Rahul Varma tells me, “one play at a time.” I ask Varma to describe the theatre in a few words and, pausing for a moment, he offers: “Powerful, personal and provocative.” Having experienced one of the non-profit’s plays, about the 1986 Filipino Revolution (People Power, written by the CBT Collective and directed by Nina Lee Aquino), I would have to agree entirely with Varma’s assessment.
Varma tells me that for 30 years the group of dedicated, inspired and politically-motivated artists have been telling untold histories and supporting multiculturalism and interculturalism that is committed to multiethnic casting and narratives. Decidedly socio-political and cultural, Teesri Duniya’s lineup over the years is a list of provocative titles: Miss Orient(ed), The Adventures of Ali and Ali and the Axis of Evil, Bhopal, My Name is Rachel Corrie and Truth and Treason.
Varma looks back at the germination of the project as a way of filling a void: “In terms of representation of minorities, nothing existed in cinema, theatre, music – barely any artistic representation anywhere. And when one could find it it was exoticized or stereotypical – we wanted to make it visible and move away from stereotype representations.”
Setting out to use art for social change instead of “reinforcing the status quo” Varma and friends created a theatre with strong roots in the South Asian community, and quickly branched out to the Anglo and Franco communities of Montreal. By his own description, Teesri Duniya’s plays have strong aesthetic values married with strong political values. Varma puts it like this: “It can look beautiful but without political substance, that beauty is lost.”
It’s a theatre that achieves a technical prowess while avoiding too much agit-prop, as some political theatre is prone to do. Varma believes that entertainment should never be sacrificed at the cost of politics, and the reverse is also true: “If it is left only for visual consumption it would be meaningless and you are not an artist but an entertainer.” Fiercely political, the plays communicate urgent socio-political messages turning on themes of justice, equality, anti-oppression and free expression. Varma adds: “Every play is propaganda. But just because it is political doesn’t mean it has to lack high aesthetic values.”
Indeed, Teesri Duniya achieves this delicate balancing act – the politics seep from the stage in a professionally practiced artistic context where you (the audience member) do not feel lectured at, but rather part of something deeply important, meaningful and even transformative.
In the context of feel-good government-mandated Euro-centric Multiculturalism, this small but prolific group of thespians is a breath of fresh (intercultural) air. Varma sees it as a larger project indeed: “Our work represents what Canada is – the political and cultural complexities that Canada represents. Every play we’ve done has challenged existing notions of belonging and nationhood.” He tells me that behind the work there is a philosophy that “our stage must reflect the streets of the country.” And those streets—the many diverse streets of Canada—look nothing like what we hear and see on the CBC. Canada is full of stories but most of the ones that end up being told are about the dominant White class. In this regard Teesri Duniya is a multiculturalism corrective.
One group in particular gets little to no representation (along with First Nations) and that is Asians. Varma maintains that part of the group’s mandate is to offer a space for this invisibility to be reversed. “Asians get so little representation, we aggressively work to get the attention of the non-Asian audiences to show them that there are more than two groups in Canada.”With their own interpretation of Canadian multiculturalism, Teesri Duniya powerfully diversifies the arts with not only robust representation of under-represented actors, but challenges Euro-centric narratives that dominate the performing arts in Canada. Varma does not like the government’s application of multiculturalism. “Multiculturalism is in opposition to biculturalism. While Multiculturalism has achieved some things like the legal framework around anti-racism, it still lacks the structure that recognizes the various cultures inside Canada as distinct and equal.” He adds that their work must always support diversity and difference and a sense of community.
“How do we have a sense of belonging” – Varma asks rhetorically, noting that belonging does not have to be equated to assimilation or even reconciliation, but is rather about “standing side by side in respect and negotiation.” Creating a sense of belonging through their plays involves a tremendous amount of work that goes beyond scripts and stage tape – it is the work of outreaching, and connecting with, the various communities that make up the Canadian mosaic.
Varma is passionate about this point. “Plays are dialogue. The play may not lead into tangible social action, but into dialogue with various communities. If we have achieved dialogic action, we have done something right.” He feels that there needs to be stronger links between the professional theatre world, the academic world, and communities of all stripes and sorts. The stories told through the plays of Teesri Duniya are intensely political, but as Varma says, “They are also very personal, and through the personal we transcend boundaries and link to communities.”
Theirs are strong relationships to be sure. Plays are often connected to campaigns, audiences are often invited to participate in various ways, and theatre members wear multiple community hats, from actor to activist to citizen. The plays are fierce but under-appreciated as is often the case with art that dares to be overtly political, and especially when those politics challenge the status quo.
And despite funding difficulties that are made up for by an intense volunteer commitment Teesri Duniya soldiers on – an important, outspoken and vibrant member of the arts community and the activist community in Montreal, Canada, and the world at large. As digital natives shy further away from the “traditional arts” and a Conservative majority dangles a large and looming butcher’s knife over the Canadian arts sector, collectives like Teesri Duniya need support more than ever.
Canada is a country bursting at the seems with culture, but historically the most visible articulations of culture have suspiciously reflected White settler sensibilities, tastes and values. Teesri Duniya Theatre challenges this hegemony with a creative and cultural ferocity that, if given the support to grow and prosper, just might change the world – one play at a time.
For more information on Teesri Duniya, including upcoming productions, visit their site or their Facebook page. The same folks also run Canada’s only professional theatre journal, alt.theatre: cultural diversity and the stage. Image at top: Truth and Treason by Rahul Varma and directed by Arianna Bardesono.