The Various Roles of Rahul Varma
Rahul Varma is QWF’s featured member for March. Rahul Varma is a playwright and Artistic Director of Teesri Duniya Theatre, which he co-founded in 1981. His plays include Land Where the Trees Talk, No Man’s Land, Trading Injuries (a radio drama), and Truth and Treason. In 1998, he co-founded the theatre quarterly alt.theatre: cultural diversity and the stage, and in 2018 he was a finalist for the 2018 QWF Prize for Playwriting. His play Counter Offence, written nearly three decades ago, returns to the stage this month at the Segal Centre and runs from March 15 to April 2.
QWF Membership Services Coordinator Riley Palanca spoke to Rahul about his play and his dual roles as playwright and artistic director. Here are five questions for Rahul Varma.
1) How do you handle the dual roles of being both a professional playwright and the artistic director of one of Montreal’s most active theatre companies? Where does the artist end and the manager begin?
My playwrighting and artistic directorship are inseparably linked. Here is why: As a playwright, I am decidedly political. I am not interested in writing plays about self-awareness, self-realization, or self-discovery, nor in writing feel-good plays about the mainstream and dominant classes. I want to write about people marginalized by the mainstream. I strive to write plays that engage audiences intellectually and emotionally, simultaneously personal and political. I aim to write plays featuring marginalized cultures, forgotten people and silenced voices, stories that protest the loss of human dignity and unpack the power dynamics across class, race, and gender. The mainstream Canadian theatres, especially the big theatres, are unwilling, unprepared, or reluctant to produce or consider radical political plays. So, it becomes necessary or natural to create institutions that would. Rana Bose and I co-founded the socially-engaged Teesri Duniya Theatre to respond to the absence of diversity and representation with critical political consciousness and pave the way for other marginalized and racialized playwrights and artists. So, you can see that my playwrighting, promoting other playwrights eclipsed by the dominant theatres, is directly linked to my artistic directorship of Teesri Duniya Theatre. So, to answer the last part of your question—“where does the artist end and the manager begin?”—it does not.
In all fairness, I must also say that no artist is only an artist—all artists are an artist and something else—a waiter, contract labourer, freelancer, and so on—to make ends meet. In my case, I am a playwright and artistic director who had another job to survive, plus an activist—which is very satisfying.
2) What is a day like in the life of a working playwright, especially in the middle of production?
The day begins at 4 a.m., or very early in the morning, and the first few hours are decidedly dedicated to creative writing—plays, essays, critiques, and so on. The company’s daily work consumes the rest of the day to ensure that Teesri Duniya Theatre continues. This means working for financial survival, sustaining programs, developing new projects and ideas, and the best part is meeting with artists of ideas with passion.
When we are in production, it takes priority over everything else. Production is not merely putting a play on the stage—it is the company’s public face in the audience’s eyes. Everything has to be done perfectly to engage the audience—that means many work hours before, during and after production. Fortunately, I have a supportive family, and Teesri’s dedicated team makes things go well.
To sum it up, days are long; most artists are working overtime, and still, there is something more to do. Overwork, long days, and less sleep are the necessary evil of our vocation, especially for racialized artists. But then, the satisfaction is the results we achieve.
3) Race, nationality, and social activism play big parts in your body of work. What does it mean to put on racialized work in theatre, one of the more conservative fine arts institutions, and is there a line between representation and tokenism?
Let’s take a quick look at the past and the present. Canada is exceptionally aware of its bi-colonial heritage divided by language. Two “founding fathers” established this country through colonization, which is this country’s constitutional reality. Yet, Canada’s constitution doesn’t use the word colonization in its founding documents. The legacy of this history leads Canada’s artists to produce bi-national performances, in English or French, with the self-definition and self-interest of the colonial (read Anglo-French) settlers. These dominant Anglo-French groups, under the patronage of the state, historically eclipsed indigenous people and marginalized diversity as an object of a display merely to create a semblance of inclusion.
But with the waves of new people coming from the non-white world, which was necessary for the survival of the political economy of Canada, protests by BIPOC artists and multiculturalism becoming the official state policy (the 1970s), things began to change. The representation that Canada is multicultural became necessary. Coinciding with the emergence of the new demographic reality, along with other writers of colour and companies like Teesri Duniya Theatre, attention shifted to more radical and representational theatre analyzing colonialism, class, gender, and racial relations. Teesri Duniya Theatre and many like-minded companies began to produce culturally diverse theatre with political consciousness, unafraid of critiquing and asking for systemic change.
To your question, “what does it mean to put on racialized works on the stage?” Even before the colonial contact, Canada was more diverse than the so-called two solitudes. We are more than two solitudes. We see diverse cultures, languages, races, and heritages freely walking on our streets – why must we not see them on the stage? Teesri represents diversity not merely as a display but with a political and decolonizing consciousness. The intercultural theatre we present represents the plurality that lives in Canada, and it brings racialized communities together and makes the larger society aware of marginalized groups. Because of the inclusive nature of our work, communities meet on the stage to question themselves and each other—and hopefully join hands in challenging corrosive powers that deny human beings their dignity.
And to your question on “is there a line between representation and tokenism?”
It is a big question; I will answer it as best as I can. The two are different, but in everyday practice, the two often overlap. As EDI (Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) becomes a mainstream conversation, tokenism disguises itself as a representation to the detriment of racialized communities.
Tokenism is a perfunctory practice of granting visual representation to marginalized groups through one or a few individuals from a specific marginalized group. Tokenism is a symbolic effort to look inclusive of underrepresented minorities by recruiting individuals from those groups to give an appearance of cultural, racial, or gender equality. Tokenism is a profiteering arrangement between the host and the token at the exclusion of the more significant interests of the token’s community. Yet I do not blame the token for being a token because of the historical powerlessness they have experienced all their lives. What determines tokenism depends more on why and how someone occupies the space.
On the other hand, representation is an outcome of political recognition of diversity—cultural, racial, sexual, and gender-based differences. Representation is a way to achieve egalitarian inclusion. The way to assess representation is to assess how adequate representation is in providing public goods to disadvantaged and marginalized groups; how effectively it addresses conflicts arising from racial tensions and misrepresentation. Accurate representation benefits the common interests of disadvantaged groups and society.
Is there a line between tokenism and representation? Yes, there is—it is in the intent. When the motivations are authentic, there will be respect, sensitivity, and a desire to cultivate cultural competence.
Representation means embracing people from different backgrounds, valuing their opinions and experiences, respecting their expertise by acknowledging the wisdom and perspective they may bring to the conversation and admitting blind spots and engaging with them as human beings, not just tools as a means to an end.
4) How have you been able to find and build a community through your art?
I am an artist who explores the intersections of racial, gendered, and socio-economic marginalization and uses drama to create a shared space in which racialized communities celebrate and critique their past and present and interact with communities other than their own. This means creating opportunities for local artists to engage with their communities and address significant issues through arts. We build community by collaborating with the community towards a common and meaningful purpose.
5) Counter Offence was first staged almost 27 years ago. What has changed since then? Has the play changed, has the city changed, has anything changed?
When I wrote Counter Offence 27 years ago, it examined two genuine struggles competing with each other. Virtues collide in this play. What happens when the fight against racism comes into conflict with the struggle to end violence against women? It was written in Montreal as a murder mystery in 1995 when Premier Jacques Parizeau injuriously blamed ethnic communities for the referendum loss. I wrote Counter Offence when the representation of racialized communities on stages was next to nil. The play addressed domestic abuse and racial profiling amid the separatist movement’s highly heightened political climate of ethnonationalism. I wish all three issues would diminish, but they have only worsened in nearly three decades. Domestic abuse has not subsided, and racism has risen to new heights. Islamophobia, anti-semitism, anti-black, anti-Asian, and anti-aboriginal racism has manifested in racial profiling, killing unarmed men, street attacks, unmarked graves, and inadequate systemic response. Ethnonationalism of yesteryears has become a mainstream issue under the Legault government, as seen in Bill 21 and Bill 96.
So the need to represent this play in 2023 is as relevant as in 1995. I encourage you to come and see it.
Rahul Varma’s Counter Offence runs March 15 to April 2 at the Segal Centre. For more information, please visit Teesri Duniya’s website at: https://www.teesriduniyatheatre.com/whatson/counter-offence