Intercultural Theatre

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Interculturalism in theatre and performance

Although interculturalism has been simply defined by Julie Holledge and Joanne Tompkins as “the meeting in the moment of performance of two or more cultural traditions,”1 in their analysis of various examples they have highlighted the im¬mense complexities of these interactions. From early in the discourse, the term “in¬terculturalism” has been highly contested: Peter Brook has argued for it being the means to achieve a “Third culture” of “links”4, Ariane Mnouchkine has suggested it allows escape from logocentric theatre and offers the possibility of new theatre aesthetics, Jo Roach and Erica Fischer-Lichte have argued for it as a means of mediating across boundaries of cultural and historical differences’. However, these positions have been challenged by post-colonial theorists who have critiqued its lack of engagement with context and economies as a major flaw, a position well outlined by Rhustom Bharicha. Daryl Chin has argued that it is a form of contemporary cultural imperialism, and Una Chaudhuri has suggested that it is a form of ‘cultural rape’.

Interculturalism in the SA context

So what of interculturalism in the South African context? To discuss interculturalism in South Africa is complex as there are two possible trajectories: one aesthetic, and the other political. it was official government policy to forcibly keep people separated from one another both physically and culturally wherever possible in South Africa during Apartheid. Thus to collaborate was an act of political defiance, at some level. However, it is difficult to differentiate between inter and intra-cultural exchange in SA, as both were happening. Owing to growing urbanisation, men (mostly) from all over the country, and surrounding countries lived and worked together, and made their own entertainment. It is in this context that ‘new’ intercultural forms like the isicathamiya emerged.

From the 1970’s strong voices emerged in the black theatrical landscape of South Africa, mostly in defiance of the Apartheid insistence that writers promote their mother tongues, which lead many black South African writers to defiantly use the colonial languages, and indeed forms of theatre amalgamated with forms form the oral traditions of various peoples, to protest oppression. Some of these writers also began to collaborate with white South African artists, which altered practices in theatre. Oral and physical performance forms central to African theatre were integrated into more mainstream theatre in South Africa. Two of the most significant figures in this shift are Athol Fugard and Barney Simon, whose collaborations in Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972) and The Island (1973); and Sophiatown demonstrate the power of collaborative, improvised theatre to protest South Africa’s realities. It also provided the performers with access to independent, non-government funded spaces like the Market Theatre and The Space in Cape Town from which they could access both black and white audiences. However, the hegemonies remained complex, as white theatre-makers facilitated much of the work, which was published in their name. Issues of recognition, agency, and representation haunt intercultural collaboration, particularly in the context of workshop or collaborative theatre. However, much creative practice and new forms have emerged from this work, even more so in the post-apartheid context where collaboration is more freely possible, not just within the country, but beyond. And the hegemonies are more easily explored and challenged, as seen for example in the work of Handspring Puppet Company in their collaboration with Malian Sogolon Puppet Company in 2004-6)

References Julie Holledge and Joanne Tompkins, Women’s Intercultural Performance (London: Routledge, 2000), 7.

Daryl Chin, “Interculturalism, Postmodernism, Pluralism,” in Interculturalism and Performance: Writ¬ings from PAJ (New York: PAJ Publications, 1991), 83–95.
Una Chaudhuri, “Working Out of Place,” in Staging Resistance: Essays on Political Theatre, ed. Jeanne Colleran and Jenny S. Spencer (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991), 193.
Peter Brook, “The Culture of Links,” in The Intercultural Performance Reader, ed. Patrice Pavis (Lon¬don: Routledge, 1996), 63–66.
Helen Gilbert and Jacqueline Lo, Performance and Cosmopolitics: Cross-cultural Transactions in Aus¬tralasia (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
Rustom Bharucha, Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture (London: Routledge, 1993), 4.
The text for Tall Horse was written by Kephra Burns, and the 2005 version for the stage has been published in Mervyn Millar, Journey of the Tall Horse: A story of African Theatre (London: Oberon Books, 2006).

Syncretizing See Syncretism


Technically an (attempted) reconciliation of diverse or opposite tenets or practices, especially in philosophy or religion. In terms of the arts, this implies the mixing of a bringing together of a diverse set of forms, practices and traditions to create a new form or a particular work of art. It is a prominent feature of South African dance, music and art.


The same concept as syncretism, also used widely by a range of writers discussing African theatre - including ** Hal Wylie and Bernth Lindfor. First used in terms of South African theatre by Temple Hauptfleisch (198*, 1997), and later by other authors. Initiallly syncretism tended to be the most commonly used, though by 2000 hybridism was also being used by a number of authors, and indeed had become the more commonly used term.

Intercultural theatre

Intercultural Theatre in South Africa

Syncretic Theatre and Hybrid Theatre

The terms syncretism and hybrid were both used when discussing South African theatre practice of the later 20th century, where the practice of blending a variety of forms, influences, styles and practices to create theatrical works has become almost standard practice. While the practice actually has a much longer history (also in the rest of Africa), it really came to the fore as a formal theatrical practice with the improvisational political works of the 1970’s (vide Theatre Workshop ’71, The Space Theatre, Junction Avenue Theatre Company, Barney Simon and The Company, Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, Mbongeni Ngema, etc).

Crossover Theatre

A term that derives from a concept within the American music industry (i.e. “crossover music”) and refers to theatrical works which in a sense “cross over” from one (or more) theatrical tradition(s) to another and seeks to blend elements from the constituting traditions/forms. It is thus used as a term to refer to plays/performances which are the results of a process of hybridization and syncretization in South Africa. First coined for this purpose in 1993 by Temple Hauptfleisch (1993, 1997), it has since come into more general use.

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