Researching Theatrical Representations of Migrations

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Wed Dec 8 2021

Author: Guest contributor

Springer Nature aims to help in the fight for equality and inclusion on multiple fronts, as evidenced by our Black Lives Matter portal and commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG10: Reduced Inequalities and Pride. For International Migrants Day we have reached out to some of our authors, editors, and researchers, asking them how they are helping in the ongoing fight for equity, inclusion and a better understanding of migration, and how we, as a scholarly publisher, are contributing to these goals by publishing and distributing their research. In this interview we speak with Dr. Yana Meerzon, author of Performance, Subjectivity, Cosmopolitanism (Palgrave) and co-editor on seven collections of articles, including Migration and Stereotypes in Performance and Culture with David Dean and Daniel McNeil (Palgrave 2020).

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Please tell us about the nature of your work

Trained as a professional theatre critic in Moscow, Russia (GITIS), today I teach at the Department of Theatre, University of Ottawa. After I received my Ph.D. from University of Toronto, I have been studying theatrical representations of migration created by migrant artists in Europe and North America. With the rise of political populism, religious fundamentalism, and return of the idea of nation state, I turned to the questions of borders and politics of nation building, within which the current practices and discussions of global migration take place. My new research project is entitled “Between Migration and Neo-Nationalism(s): Performing the European Nation -- Playing a Foreigner” and was funded by The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) in Spring 2019.

I have also authored monographs, two of which fully focused on the questions of theatre and migration: Performing Exile - Performing Self: Drama, Theatre, Film (Palgrave 2012) and Performance, Subjectivity, Cosmopolitanism (Palgrave 2020). In addition, I have co-edited seven collections of scholarly articles, including four volumes dedicated to the pressing issues of working with migrant artists in theatre and writing plays and creating productions about migrations. These volumes include Performance, Exile and 'America' (with Silvija Jestrovic, Palgrave 2009),  a two-volume publication dedicated to theatre and migration in Canada  Theatre and (Im)migration and Scripting (Im)migration. New Canadian Plays (Playwrights Canada Press 2019); Dramaturgy of Migration: Staging Multilingual Encounters in Contemporary Theatre (with Katarina Pewny, Routledge 2019) and most recently Migration and Stereotypes in Performance and Culture (with David Dean and Daniel McNeil, Palgrave 2020). Currently, I am working with Professor S.E. Wilmer on a new Handbook on Theatre and Migration to be published by Palgrave in 2023.  

Does your work intend to directly address ways in which we can understand and create better awareness of migration?

From earliest recorded time, individuals and populations all over the world have migrated in search of a better life or to escape subjugation and oppression. Joseph Brodsky, the Russian-American poet, saw an exceptional state of exile as our century’s common place. Since the arrival of over a million refugees in Europe in 2015, the topic of migration has been a major source of public concern and discussion. The recent crisis on the Polish/Belarussian border with a group of Syrian and Iraqi migrants trapped in a no-man’s land further illustrates that often individuals turn into pawns in geo-political conflicts, proxy wars and other instances of biopolitics led by the states and their governments. With the climate crisis, peoples’ movement across borders and territories will inevitably increase, and hence it is a high time that we all come to terms with what Ulrich Beck identified as “the other among us”.

Theatre has continually addressed this theme both in its dramaturgy and in its performance practices. But why would this topic and life experiences attract theatre makers? Telling stories is the leading device of making theatre, and so performance arts can focus our attention on the tales of migration based on migrants’ personal experiences or about them. Theatre can return voices to those who have been silenced because of their flight, and it can create spaces of belonging for those who found themselves displaced, thrown out of their habitats, and seeking a new home. Theatre can turn into such a space of home: it can encourage migrants to share their experiences, but it can also ask difficult questions of responsibility and hospitality that both the hosts and the migrants face. Theatre can contribute to human rights movement, seeking better conditions for migrants in their new lands; and it can work with migrant artists and their communities to seek better representation in the mainstream.  It can also help lobbying for economic changes and changes in policies when it comes to employment of migrants on and off stage; and it can call for anti-racist actions as well as help establish ties between different migrant groups.  

How does your research attempt to address these issues?

In my articles, books, interviews, and edited volumes, I always pay attention to new work and new artistic voices from migrant background, which I can help promoting. An immigrant myself (from Russia to Canada), I see it as my personal responsibility to look for these new voices and support migrant artists at the start of their journeys in the new land. I do not think that after the initial recognition, these artists necessary find their deserved space within the host culture, but I do think that the moment of transition, a space of a threshold, can be the most difficult for these artists to navigate, and so I try to seek out these new voices.

I also believe we need to educate our mainstream audiences and readers more about migration; to show them that when we cross a border, we carry all our histories, cultures, languages, and other customs with us. This baggage cannot be lost or forgotten, and in many theatre works of migrant artists it manifests itself in the forms of accented writing or acting, multilingualism, hybrid languages of performance, but also through the personal stories of loss and gains, family encounters, historical memories and new discoveries. In my writing, I pay special attention to the idiosyncrasies of migrant theatre works, and I try to demonstrate the richness of a cross-cultural encounter that theatre created by migrants and about migration can offer.

Finally, I try to remind my readers of the underlying trauma that the act of border crossing carries. Writing about migrants and refugees who might not have reached their destination or perished in the bureaucratic systems is for me an act of commemoration. Without the act of remembering there is no forgiveness or reconciliation, and hence revisiting and remembering these histories of forced or self-imposed traveling is my major academic, personal and ethical task.          

What are the short and long-term goals of your work?

The short terms goals of my work include: bringing new voices, specifically the voices of migrant artists, into a theatrical spotlight, and helping migrant artists find new theatre homes in their host countries.

One of my long-term goals is to consolidate the work of many theatre and performance studies scholars who work with migrants or write about migration into a special field of scholarly studies: theatre and migration. This field will acknowledge the place of an outsider – a migrant - in historical and contemporary practices of making theatre.

 My other goal is to influence the re-thinking of historical narratives, so as to acknowledge, research and celebrate the role outsiders played in shaping national and transnational histories and literary and theatrical canons. I want to emphasize migration as a keystone of historical evolution and of the changes in today’s world. Rising nationalism and populism worldwide are reactionary movements against the effects of global migration. With climate change, migration will only increase; now it is time to prepare society for these tectonic shifts and challenge our assumptions about our cultural, religious, linguistic and economic practices. Theatre arts and cultural performance are the venues to ask questions about these core values and can serve as training ground for social and ethical behavior, as well as a place for solidarity with the other.         

What do you think is the most productive way that researchers can engage policy makers? What has your experience been with policy engagement?

Although my personal engagement with policy-making has been limited, other theatre researches and practitioners have been actively involved with NGOs and governmental organizations helping them think about new policies related to migration. This engagement included running outreach projects, lobbying with the local MPs, writing petitions to local and federal structures, participating in the discussions of how to allocate support and funds to individual theater projects and companies working with migrant artists or focusing on migration

What does public engagement look like in your field and how important do you think it is for researchers to make a societal impact with their work?

Public engagement in my field takes different forms, including community building exercises and projects, working directly with refugee groups, helping migrant artists seek funding and venues to showcase their work, liaising with established theatre institutions and newcomers to help the latter to get more transparent access to these mainstream structures, working in the rehearsal room with migrant artists, helping them  lobby for their rights and support their fundraising campaigns. Theatre researchers also promote the work of migrant artists by publishing their work, reviewing their productions, interviewing them for open access publications, social media and state media platforms, inviting them to speak to and work with our students, lobbying with the non-profit and academic organizations to hire migrant artists in leadership positions.  

What progress would you like to see next towards this topic worldwide or locally?

The educational and promotional work of migrant artists is at its initial stages. I believe more information is needed about the historical impact of migration and how it continues influencing creation of new theatre language and practice worldwide. Collaboration and ability to listen to and work with each other are the goals that we need to continue setting. Cultural exchange, dialogue, and respect are the core values that theatre can share and teach to the world off-stage, and hence it can become a model for communication and reconciliation we have been seeking since the dawn of times.      

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About Yana Meerzon

Yana Meerzon is Professor at the University of Ottawa and President of Canadian Association for Theatre Research. Trained as a professional theatre critic in Moscow, Russia (GITIS), she also holds a PHD from University of Toronto, Canada. Yana is the author of three books, with the latest volume Performance, Subjectivity, Cosmopolitanism published by Palgrave in August 2020. She co-edited seven collections of articles, including Migration and Stereotypes in Performance and Culture with David Dean and Daniel McNeil (Palgrave 2020). Her current research project is entitled “Between Migration and Neo-Nationalism(s): Performing the European Nation -- Playing a Foreigner”; and it has been funded by The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Yana is the editor of the “Essays Section” of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques.


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