Who has power in the room?
Interview with Andrea Montgomery
Andrea Montgomery of Terra Nova Productions is a bilingual Canadian playwright and director who has created projects across the UK, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. She has committed to living in Northern Ireland since 2002.
Fifteen years ago Andrea set up Terra Nova Productions, Northern Ireland’s intercultural theatre company. Their mission is “to create excellent theatre where different cultures meet, people explore and the world is changed.” Their vision is “to put the wonder back into the world we all share.” They place community engagement at the heart of many of their projects.
Since then, Andrea has produced, written and directed projects with international colleagues in Hong Kong, Macau, London, Tehran, Vancouver, and Nuuk, Greenland. Her work for Terra Nova includes The Ulster Kama Sutra which she co-wrote and directed, All at Once I Saw A Crowd with partners in Vancouver, Nuuk and Macau. For Terra Nova’s Arrivals she developed and directed 10 short plays, followed by the immersive Mi Mundo which she wrote, and Me You Us Them, which she wrote and directed. She also adapted the script and directed The Belfast Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Terra Nova’s large-scale site-specific Shakespeare projects involving over 120-150 community participants working alongside teams of 40+ professionals.
This interview was conducted by Stefania Gualberti
Stefania – How did your background and experiences lead to your involvement in intercultural theatre?
Andrea – It was a very direct connection. My parents were Canadian diplomats. We lived all over the world. The hunger you have, if you grow up that way, is to fit in. I think that’s probably not uncommon for people who grew up the way I did. I’m a third culture individual. The definition of that identity is that you can never go home; you’re at home nowhere and everywhere. It takes a certain maturity before you start to think: ‘hang on a minute, maybe this background is quite useful. Maybe I can do something with this.’
It’s now 15 years since I set up Terra Nova. I was coming out of being a venue manager, and I realised that what I wanted to do was to set up an intercultural Theatre Company. It was more instinctive than clearly articulated to begin with. I looked around the Northern Ireland scene and thought: ‘What’s missing?’
‘Oh, nobody’s making those connections. That’s something easy for me to do. I can do that.’
In March 2007, I went to a conference in Hong Kong out of a desire to reconnect with Asia. I grew up in Thailand and Indonesia and was missing Asia. In Hong Kong I met a couple who had established a theatre company in Macau and we set up and ran a three year programme there together. But I came home and I wrote a sketch comedy with songs with Nuala McKeever and Anthony Toner called “It’s Not All Rain and Potatoes”, looking at modern Northern Ireland from the outsider’s perspective. I didn’t think about it as intercultural theatre, I just liked bringing an outsider’s take to things. From the very beginning I said that I wanted to work with the world. I knew that. But the real clarity around what interculturality meant to me probably took 18 – 24 months to come into focus. The repeated experiences in Macau helped. Then I was invited to go to Iran in 2009, to the Fajr Festival just a few months before the Green Revolution. It was inspiring. My thinking started to gel.
I just gradually realised “Oh, this is the closest fit between who I am as a person and the kind of art I want to make”.
Stefania – What do you feel is special about arts and especially theatre to transform conflict, connect and build peace?
Andrea – I think theatre has a unique capacity to do those three things. But it’s not an absolute given. It’s not that in theatre that happens automatically. Absolutely not. But if one does put one’s mind to those issues, theatre then can give one unique tools.
I believe that what is unique about theatre is the fact that, as we make it, we are trying to create imaginary worlds. This is true of any theatre piece. One might be making a broad-brush romantic comedy, but one is trying to create a believable world so that emotionally, one’s self and one’s audience engage in that world together for the duration of the piece.
Theatre doesn’t automatically build peace, but if one takes that ‘world creation capacity’, and one then brings it to the place where one is trying to build connection and build peace, putting that conscious effort into it, then that ‘world building capacity’ can allow one to build something that feels like a real emotionally viable peaceful imaginary world.
One has to include it from the ground up, building it into the themes of one’s work: into the way one treats the material and the content that one is working on. It also must underpin how one runs one’s rehearsal room. Learning how to do that, to run a rehearsal room underpinned by conflict resolution and power sharing – that’s been an iterative process. I keep going through the process, learning new things, and trying to apply them.
An important piece of learning for me recently, when working interracially, with multiple religions, different ethnicities and different cultures, was the importance of reflection on power.
In the second half of 2019 I spent a lot of time thinking about power and who has power in the room. There’s a song from Hamilton, “The room where it happens”. The character talks about wanting to be in ‘the room where it happens’ in politics. I would now say it is not enough to be in the room where it happens, what matters is who has power in the room once we are gathered there. I try to shape my rehearsal and commissioning processes to look at that, and to provide equity.
The rehearsal process has to echo the messages in the thing one is trying to create. This should be a given, but unfortunately it’s often not. According to research completed by Anne Marie Quigg ten years ago, the Arts in the UK have some of the highest instances of bullying of any industries. If there’s peace woven into the theme of one’s play, or if interculturalism, or mutual respect, or any of those issues are embedded in the play, noticing that is stage number one, but then one has to let those themes guide one’s ethics for creating theatre.
I also believe it is important to engage with the concept of intersectionality, of gender, race, language, class, age, education, wealth, health and ability. I’m white, older, dyslexic, a woman, an immigrant, not a member of a recognised organised religion, educated to post-graduate level. Knowing how these thing intersect will give you an understanding of where I access or am denied power. An analysis of intersectionality and where power lies is important and one needs to address it in the room.
One of the things that I have done most recently is to consider power preference questionnaires, in which I ask people to think about where they like to lead and where they like to follow on the stages of a project. The responses, and my own reaction to them were really surprising. I remember, one of my actors (indigenous Irish, mixed race, straight, male) mentioned he really likes to be a leader in the early stages and then, as the thing develops, he just wants to be a follower. We chatted informally; I looked at him and said:
‘Really? I want to lead all the time! At the culmination of the project, when it’s all getting really tense, that’s when I want to lead the most.’
He just laughed at me and said: ‘We’re different Andrea.’ Which of course is the whole point.
If one don’t ask, then one don’t know, and one can’t build in the opportunity for people to lead when people need it. But also, it doesn’t work to assume that everybody wants to lead all the time.
Speaking of leading, it is a short step to ‘representing’. I must just add that I believe one of the worst things one can do is to ask colleagues of different races or different religions to stand in and represent their entire ethnicity, religion or nationality. They may want to lead at a particular point, or represent a particular point of view, but let them choose. One needs to find out what is of interest to colleagues, and how their individual and collective identities intersect.
Stefania – How can intercultural theatre help tackle racism and sectarianism locally?
Andrea – Well, I suppose that wherever one makes it, intercultural theatre becomes local. In my view, it is quite important for the local dominant culture not to instrumentalise artists as tools to tackle racism and sectarianism locally; not to see them as only having value as tools for that task. It is also important to understand that tackling racism and exclusion does not mean just inviting people to learn how to be part of the dominant culture, however well meaning the desire to help them ‘learn to fit in’ may be. At its worst this says to migrant artists: learn how to be like us or shut up.
I value using the methodologies of theatre to give people an understanding of what it’s like to belong to a dominant culture, and what it’s like to have to try to integrate into a dominant culture. And of course the thing about theatre is it’s just play. It’s incredibly loaded, because people invest in it emotionally, but it isn’t real life, so it is playful, ultimately, as long as one takes care of people.
Theatre can give people a chance to try on the coat of difference in a safe place. But it is more than that. Together we theatre makers are aiming to create a work of art. Ultimately each of us working in this area has to think about what we want the end product to be. My end product is not just the process. I want both: I want a good piece of theatre AND I want ethical process. I borrow from many other practitioners who are specialist in ethical engagement and knit their ideas together with my own in order to take artists and participants through a process, but the journey is leading to a final artwork that they can be proud of.
Combining those two elements is what works for me locally.
Stefania – Working with communities and large groups, who might have different levels of expertise, how do you overcome the barriers, especially with participants who don’t consider themselves as actors or theatre experts?
Andrea – Thank you for asking.
I’ve spent a lot of time working out methodologies for people to actively direct and influence the work without being professionals themselves.
I have developed a methodology to create projects where people come together as equals and have the opportunity to undertake personal development using artistic skills. They are connected to a writer and actors who investigate their stories with them, led by a director and dramaturg [a literary advisor or editor- Ed]. They help work on the script, they discuss it, become dramaturgs themselves; they are invited and invited back again into rehearsal, to see the thing is on its feet, they influence and guide development and even staging; they then come to the show, discuss it, bring others to see it if they wish. Together we celebrate at the end: we all feast and post mortem. Quite often some time later we meet again to review discuss assess.
I just don’t want to be excluded from the ranks of professional artists because I am interested in this kind of deep engagement with my community.
One of the things that happens to immigrants and visible minorities in the Arts in Northern Ireland, is that we get labelled as ‘community practitioners’, thereby less valuable as ‘theatre experts’ as you call them. We are instrumentalised to deal with the post conflict environment in which we exist. And we don’t necessarily have the same freedom just to go and be an artist. We can’t write any play, we have to write an immigration play, or a trauma play, because that is what we can get support or interest for. We become tools of the necessity for peacebuilding. It’s problematic because you don’t have the freedom that is afforded to members of the dominant culture. I feel that I have allies so have been able to successfully fight this, but I have seen others struggle.
This is a facet of the dominant culture exerting its power to decide what is valuable. For example, I did a piece, probably about ten years ago, with a group of asylum-seeking and immigrant women. We were doing stop motion animation. The idea was to work and learn about each other’s cultures and as a result, enjoy making a piece: a small stop motion animation about whatever we wanted. The participants said they wanted to feel joy and pleasure and they wanted to do comedy. They made a piece about winning the lottery and running off to Acapulco with their baby and leaving their husbands behind. That got a big laugh. But I can remember the reaction from the funder was:
‘Oh, no, no, no, we funded you to go through the process of working with them as refugee and asylum-seeking women, to tell THAT story’
And I was pushing back saying: ‘No, no, they have control.’
I defended their right to decide the story they wanted to tell; this Acapulco Abscondment is what they wanted to do. My job was to make sure process of intercultural skills building was integrated into the development of fun Acapulco story they chose. But there are certain stories that the dominant culture wants to hear. There are certain roles that the dominant culture wants immigrant artists to play. If we have intercultural competency, it is partially because we’ve come from an outside culture, and we’ve arrived in the monoculture that is the two tribes of Northern Ireland. There can be a tendency to push us into particular types of art therapy, community engagement, peacebuilding. It’s not that it’s not valuable, but sometimes I might want to write a play about winning the lottery and running off to Acapulco.
Even if the peacebuilding process is built into the project, the participants should decide to make what they want. That’s freedom and self-determination.
So, that’s why I have real concern about how things are perceived. What is important?
‘This story is important, that story is not important’.
The power doesn’t always reside with the global majority or immigrant artists and the power doesn’t always reside with a global majority or immigrant participant, it often resides with the funder. And that often mean one is governed by the dominant culture’s notion of what one should be working on. That can end up driving people back into telling the stories of their trauma, re-traumatizing people.
In one project I undertook last year, with Syrian refugees, they decided they wanted to work on recreating a perfectly happy day from their past, because they felt that they were always being boxed in as survivors of the war. They wanted to show their culture, which was ancient, and of which they were very proud. We tried to create that in sound art. We couldn’t go to Syria and record because the gardens they wanted to spend their perfect day in were destroyed. So, we figured out how to recreate them, and then together we built that perfect day.
One must facilitate people to tell the stories they want to tell, the way they want to tell them, then work together to forge a work of art.
Stefania – You talk about the danger of re-traumatizing people but how do you think the creative process can have healing trauma at both individual and collective level?
Andrea – I believe one can heal some trauma, because we can all have power in the imaginary world of theatre. As long as one has power, one has control. Participants decide on the themes and direction of the story and then they work with professional artists to realise it. I think the key thing about not re-traumatising people, is that one respects them, goes slowly, and ensures they determine pace and direction of travel. It’s an adult-to-adult engagement and one defends them from those who would wish to cherry pick the stories that they’re going to tell.
The second example I wanted to give you was of a wonderful funder who give Terra Nova funds to commission individual artists from immigrant or global majority backgrounds who had links to Northern Ireland. Some lived here, some just had links.
The funder wanted to work with communities who had particularly suffered because of COVID. We made the case in 2020 that global majority communities in the UK and Northern Ireland had experienced higher pandemic mortality rates, and that immigrants have been more cut off through lockdown. Immigrants’ support networks might be in Peru or in Canada. Lockdown was harder on them, was tougher, because they have less of a close network to support them. The funder agreed, but a condition was that the commissioned artists must work with ‘their communities’ to develop the work of art. Terra Nova agreed, as long as the artists could choose what ‘their communities’ meant to them. It must not default along the lines of ethnicity, or even nationality. Allowing the artist to define ‘their communities’ in lockdown put the power into the hands of the individual, not the dominant culture’s notion of what that individual’s identity was.
Stefania – Is there a particular project or engagement that you want to talk about in relation to this conversation on our campus setting?
Andrea – I wouldn’t mind just adding a wee bit about the intercultural process that I value.
I think it’s quite important to articulate the difference between what I would call multicultural work and intercultural work.
Multicultural work is when we have an opportunity to observe elements of each other’s cultural expression, artistically. We show, we unpack and explain, and we enjoy learning about each other’s expertise in each of our cultural arenas. That’s lovely. It’s like a mosaic.
However, Intercultural work is where we work slowly to come together in a new way, to forge a new joint culture, acknowledging that the process cannot be rushed. It is through this process that we learn to understand the value differences that underpin our different cultures. Cultures can differ a lot around values. There will be unwritten rules about things like how one treats one’s parents, how one treats one’s children, how genders interact, whether one speaks directly or indirectly, how one uses eye contact, one’s perception of time. How does one deal with status and saving face? How much personal space does one need? How, when and where may one touch somebody else? What is professional? These are the differences one has learn about when working interculturally.
I have a methodology that I go through, where we explore our differences and assumptions, and we start to unpick them. I get people to pay attention when they find themselves reacting to another human, judging, and thinking:
‘All good people know that you must…’ or:
‘All polite people know that you do…”
I say: ‘If you notice those kinds of thoughts, you’re in an intercultural hotspot’.
I work that into early explorations. Then we will work on the play, and we’ll look at how interculturality happens in the play, and we’ll work on ourselves. About two thirds of the way through the process, I do a thing that I’ve now called the “heart of the art”, where we stop and check our values. We notice whether we still remember them. We review if we are acting on them. We check how we’re dealing with the difference.
I talk about value dissonance. How do we sit in value dissonance and not say: ‘I hate your values, so I hate you?’ For example, in talking about whether one was ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ on Brexit.
These really ‘hot’ issues are fantastic for exploring value. If one does that work, and one stops and embeds that in the creation of the play, and one works on the power structures, then one creates real intercultural theatre. Intercultural in the rehearsal room, in the relationships, on stage, in the content and the way it’s presented. And then what I find is, if one asks people how they’re feeling or how they’ve been affected, this is where they tend to say: ‘my mind has been opened’.
It takes a long time to build this kind of theatre. I don’t find it exhausting, because I love to be in an intercultural space, that feels comfortable, but it takes a lot of work.
Of course the real challenge is when people break the rules we have co-created. You need to set the boundaries for the work to be done. You need to hold people accountable.
Stefania – Could you share some of the learnings you have encountered in your years of experience?
Andrea – Remember that this work is an iterative process. I think of it as being like a tower. You’re climbing the tower walking up that spiral staircase, and you get around in the front and you look at the view. A year later, after more climbing, you might be higher up, looking at the same view, but with more knowledge. One must keep asking the same questions again and again: What matters? Who had power? Was it shared? What did we do? Did we communicate appropriately? Did we set the boundaries? Did we take care? Did we listen?
I spend a lot of time on that.
The thing I struggle with is how to feed the learning back into the system, the society I am a part of. Some of the evaluative mechanisms just don’t work.
The funders want to measure change, and currently they ask one to interviews at the entry point and at the exit point. Fair enough. But you can imagine if I am standing there in a room in rural Northern Ireland, with my Jamaican colleague and my Canadian accent, and I have to start by distributing a form with a set question like:
‘Do you like people of different cultures being in Northern Ireland?’
Well, the entry questionnaire is going to be corrupted by the fact that we’re the ones asking. Northern Irish people don’t want to ‘send you away with a sore heart’. They know they’re going to be putting their ‘anonymous questionnaire’ down on a table in front of me, and that I’ve probably noticed their handwriting and the colour of pen they are using.
I think our system of measurement around peace, racism, and sectarianism is broken. The evaluation process, its entry questionnaires can break the fragile trust one seeks to build at the start of theatre peace projects.
I would like to take that learning back into the system and try to improve evaluation somehow. The system is not entirely functioning, but I don’t know how to fix it.
The system also engenders compassion fatigue. Fifteen years in and I find myself asking how do we nurture the artists in the process? Who is taking care of them?
If we don’t ask these questions, we end up using people. Nobody is paying artists to take time to reflect and evaluate or even to use our art to express what we have learnt in our projects and create a work of art about it. The focus is all on the participants. Our current mechanisms just move artists on into the next peacebuilding project. Those projects are extremely valuable, and one can feel moved and grateful, but one can also end up feeling exhausted.
I want to consider: ‘How are we doing what we are doing?’
Can we get together and reflect on that? Can we evolve into a new stage into this artistic peacebuilding and anti-sectarian work? Is that possible?