Terrapin Puppet Theatre, Tasmania Australia and the Haya Cultural Centre, Amman Jordan

The complex history of misunderstanding and conflict between the West and the Arab/Islamic worlds can make successful cross-cultural theatre collaborations difficult to undertake. Current diplomatic relations between the Western and Arab/Islamic worlds heighten the focus on Western negative perceptions of Arabic/Islamic stereotypes, exacerbating collaborative efforts. In turn, cross cultural theatre exchange between the West and Arab worlds is all the more imperative to attempt and to succeed. In 2018, Terrapin Puppet Theatre in Tasmania successfully obtained a grant from The Australian Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and The Council for Arab Australian Relations (CAAR)1to visit the Haya Cultural Centre, Jordan and to collaborate in creating a children’s theatre production. The purpose of the visit was to strengthen and promote Arab/Australian relations. As a Shadow Artist and Researcher, I was fortunate to be part of this inaugural co-production and visit Amman along with Artistic Director of Terrapin Sam Routledge and Filmmaker/Lighting Designer Nicholas Higgins. I was asked to lead a series of shadow puppetry workshops with creative staff at the Haya Cultural Centre in Amman. Australia has a solid history of international puppet theatre collaborations including the shadow theatre production, Theft of Sita, an adaptation of the Ramayana, directed by Nigel Jameison and produced by Performing Lines for the 2000 Adelaide Festival. More recently, Australian theatre companies Polyglot and Terrapin Puppet Theatre have both shown strong commitment to developing cross-cultural international theatre processes. Polyglot have developed a long term collaboration with Indonesia’s Papermoon Theatre in Cerita Anak, a performance that has ‘children at the centre of the work’. Since 2016, Terrapin have been busy touring, among other productions You and Me and the Space Between, with its first performance in a language other than English in Shanghai in 2018. Theatre that focuses on the non-human elements of images, puppets and objects rather than spoken text, is key in developing a site for a productive intersection across ideas and cultures.

Cross cultural theatre practices of the past have been characterized by Western imperial appropriation and dominance, or, ‘encounters between the West and ‘the rest’ (Lo/Gilbert, 2002, p.32). Critics of intercultural theatre collaboration such as John Russell Brown, have argued that the import of costumes, masks and other dramatic forms from far off lands is tantamount to yet another form of Western pillage (Brown, 1998, pp. 9-19).  Lo and Gilbert argue that critiques such as Brown’s ‘risk instigating a kind of paralysis insofar as they suggest that virtually no form of theatrical exchange can be ethical’ (Lo/Gilbert, 2002, p. 41). Richard Schechner, 1989, argues for an interculturalism that can both embrace experimentation as well as ‘a return to traditional, even ancient values’ (Schechner, p.157).  This is a tough theoretical minefield to navigate when about to embark on such a project. Is there a kind of intercultural theatre, whereby cultural differences can be explored and even celebrated? Can the shadow theatre act as a form of theatre that can intersect form and content and allow for collaboration to flourish?

1Established in 2003, The Council for Australian-Arab Relations (CAAR) seeks “to strengthen Australian-Arab relations by advancing areas of shared political, economic and social interest and building a greater awareness and appreciation of each other’s cultures and values”

 (http://dfat.gov.au/people-to-people/foundations-councils-institutes/caar/Pages/council-for-australia-arab-relations-caar.aspx).

Tracking device with torch designed by Nicholas Higgins.