My first solo show has been developed between England – my home away from home -, India, Colombia & Mexico and in so doing, elements from all these countries have found their creative way into the piece. Yet I have no officially recognised ties to any of these places: I’m French born in France from French parents!
So, what happened?
I stopped travelling as a tourist and started travelling as a theatre practitioner: literally and conceptually.
Literally, this means I started working while I was travelling. I’m not at a place in my career where I get invited to work abroad so every time, the choice of destination was a personal decision. A month in Colombia to visit family? Time to make things happen and connect with theatre makers to find out more about what they’re doing. A one-week holiday in India with friends? How about I leave 3 weeks beforehand and find companies to work with.
And that’s how I’ve ended up leading workshops for and with companies in India, taking part in acting workshops in Colombia, connecting with Mexican artists and leading workshops in a prison in Bogota.
Conceptually, ‘travelling as a theatre practitioner’ means that I started approaching my travels with purpose, a lot more curiosity and an active conscience of ‘giving and receiving’. The dynamic of arriving somewhere and offering to contribute your time, skills and an open heart in exchange for the same is an invaluable currency: you not only get to see a side of the city/village/country you’d never see as a tourist but more importantly, you get to connect with your fellow artists around the world and share not just your practice but your humanity. The inspiration that this generates is obviously bound(ary)less because by throwing yourself into the deep end, you start to reflect on your culture, your country, your artistic practice, your values, your priorities…It makes you ask questions you might not have dared to ask for fear of appearing naïve: questions about how your fellow artists view their culture, their country, their practice. How do they navigate it? What nourishes them?
And suddenly, three-dimensional living breathing landscapes of whatever country you’re in start to define themselves.
For example, like all Latin American countries, Colombia suffers from a dark and complicated past and present. This we all know. Fine! But then you get to meet theatre makers working towards peace building, working with memory and identity, using theatre to investigate and denounce despotism, working with women victims of the war, working with ex-guerrillas…and all of a sudden, it’s not just a news story anymore. You feel it, you hear it, you sense it…and there’s no more ‘cultural appropriation’ possible, there’s only understanding, organic processing of information, further questioning and natural assimilation.
In time, fuelled by the generosity of theatre makers from around the world (both natives in their native lands and strangers in strange lands) I’ve learned to let go of the fear of being judged for and/or accused of ‘cultural appropriation’. I’ve learnt to trust that although I’m not perfect, I’m a decent human being. I’ve learnt to trust and respect my limits.
A small but significant example: the first time I went to India, I brought a saree back from Margau; it’s an item I treasure and value but that I can’t bring myself to wear because the mere thought of it makes me feel like an impostor. But that is literally just me and it’s important to remember that. On the other hand, I fell in love with Indian rangulis: a chalk figure you draw in front of your house every morning for luck and prosperity. And that’s something I’ve brought back with me and integrated in my creative process. Because last but certainly not least, I’ve learnt to recognise ‘cultural appropriation’ for what it was: guilt.
Like most people on this planet, you’ll find that artists from around the world are nourished by influences outside of their native cultures and countries. Which leads to an important question: would we accuse a Colombian artist who is using European material to create theatre of ‘cultural appropriation’? I’m glad to say: I highly doubt it! So, let’s be brave in our artistic practices, let’s keep sharing experiences, swapping ideas, inspiring each other, getting stuck on words because we don’t know the language and making up for it by using our common artistic language to communicate. Aspects of it will appeal to you and it’s not inappropriate to integrate them. Other aspects of it won’t appeal to you and it’s not inappropriate to acknowledge it. And yes, all this galivanting outside of your comfort zones might sometimes land you in slightly frightening and/or uncomfortable situations but let’s be honest, there’s nothing like a little bit of fear in a foreign land to remind you that you are indeed alive and kicking and that you still have a lot to do and say
Maud Madlyn is artistic director of Etcetera Theatre. Her show CARRY IT TO THE END was part of VOILA! Europe – London’s European Theatre Festival.
This festival has now ended, but this annual event will be back next November 2018