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Making Inclusive Intercultural Theatre in Northern Ireland

Monday 23rd July 2018 at 2pm 0 Comments Drama

Belfast Tempest (2016) © Neil Harrison Image: Belfast Tempest (2016) © Neil Harrison

A piece by Terra Nova's Artistic Director Andrea Montgomery.

"Eleven years ago, I set up Terra Nova Productions, Northern Ireland’s only professional intercultural theatre company. We try to ensure that all people involved have ownership of our productions, working as we do in the relatively monocultural environment of post-troubles Northern Ireland.

The challenges of being and working interculturally

To articulate what Terra Nova does, I need to come clean about two things. The first would be my own personal experience of being a ‘third culture individual’. I was born in Delhi, grew up in Ottawa, Bangkok, Geneva, the Savoie, Jakarta, Toronto, Vancouver and London. I can’t shake this perspective. It is in my bones, and it forms all aspects of my artistic work. It makes me intercultural. And it made me intercultural even in my early theatre days in in London in the 1990s, when I was desperate to fit in, somewhere, and wished it didn’t. Even today, I feel my external appearance doesn’t match my internal identity. It feels too narrow. Theatre provides relief.  A home. I am working in an intercultural space because it was the only thing that finally made sense.

Secondly, I want to underline that at Terra Nova we are not academics or scientists, we are artists. We are not setting up hypotheses to test; we are ‘fumbling towards the [intercultural] truth with thick gloves on’. We are driven by artistic instinct, and we have a simple mission: ‘To create excellent theatre at the place where cultures meet, people explore, and the world is changed.’ Terra Nova works at the place where the tectonic plates of cultures meet, rub up against each other and create sparks. Sometimes we get burned, or burnt out, and sometimes we make mistakes… although these are usually where the best learning comes from.

We also work in an environment (Northern Ireland) that has seen approximately 40% cuts to arts funding in real terms in the last six years, and is currently facing an 8% cut, bringing the total arts spend to about £4 per head of population (as opposed to close to £13 per head of population in the Republic or Ireland, and over £10 per head in Wales for instance). At the time of writing this, we currently have no sitting government and no formal governmental arts policy. Our largest political party, the DUP, is governed by the principals of the free Presbyterian church, with a sometimes challenging relationship to artistic expression. The 2011 census showed that of Northern Ireland’s population of 2.8 million, 11% were foreign born. This number is growing rapidly, and as a result we have one of the fastest growing hate crime problems in the UK.

Staging intercultural stories

In its eleventh years of existence Terra Nova has worked internationally, partnering and participating in projects in Hong Kong, France, Iran, Greenland, Canada, Egypt, Lebanon, Ukraine, Germany and Macau. We’ve brought colleagues from India, China, Canada, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Texas and more to Northern Ireland to co-create work. We’ve also worked extensively to bring the stories of Northern Ireland’s new communities to the stage, always ensuring there was also a voice for indigenous citizens, especially those from disadvantaged areas. Eleven years ago there were no visible minority professional artists working in the mainstream in Northern Ireland’s arts sector that we were aware of. That is finally changing, and we have been a key part of that change.

In our largest production to date, our 2016 intercultural Belfast Tempest, we worked with professional artists from around the globe, and 189 Belfast citizens, born in 52 different cities. Our longest running project is “Arrivals”, currently in its fifth year, which has resulted in the creation of 12 new intercultural plays. I created Arrivals because I felt, as a producer/ director, that intercultural stories weren’t coming through and that intensive exploration with writers, actors and members of Northern Ireland’s new communities was needed to hone intercultural competency and draw stories out. I believed that mainstream playwrights, directors and performers need to understand non-visible cultural differences and build intercultural competency.
What do I mean by non-visible cultural difference? Things like:

  • Value of the individual vs value of the collective
  • Perceptions of time, timeliness, on-time
  • The role of food, hospitality, breaking bread
  • Flat vs steep hierarchy
  • Direct vs indirect communication
  • Fluidity or rigidity of gender roles, gender separation
  • Permissive or directed parenting styles
  • Marked differences in body language, and levels of physical contact, such as the significance or lack of eye contact.
  • protocols around audience behavior, length of performance, or whether it is appropriate to change seats during a show, or get out food

My experience is that working interculturally is not about slavish devotion to your norms or my norms, but about understanding that they may be different and then forging a middle ground and a unique language that is viable for us as artists, for our project, and is therefore perceptible by our audience. I have learned that key principal to abide by is ‘no theatre about us, without us’. And Terra Nova programmes had to be built in a way that engagement options were available at every step of the way.

The evolution of a participative theatre project

Arrivals was meant to be a one off: a programme of workshops in the community, out of which we grew a group of committed people who participated in a masterclass and guided four actors (Romanian, Hong Kong Chinese, Northern Irish and British Asian), five playwrights, and one director (me) through the creation of five short pieces of theatre, after which they enjoyed and commented on the results on stage.

But some projects won’t die. By Arrivals2 we’d added extra intercultural dramaturgy support and additional community sessions with the writers, an extra masterclass, and for the first time a programme for the intercultural artists emerging from the community. By Arrivals3 we’d figured out how the community could workshop the script and influence, staging, choreography, set and more.

We’d also realized we needed to clarify the levels of engagement we offered. We developed interlocking programmes for 1) simple engagement, for 2) emerging artists and for 3) professional artists. We let people choose where they want to be on any given project. We weave food and celebration events built into every project, and we ensure that everyone who engages is invited to re-engage at key points along the continuum of the project. And we continuously ask for feedback. We’re now about to mount the fifth year of Arrivals.

Shri & Caro Puppet Couple © Neil Harrison


As Terra Nova starts its second decade, I’m raising money to build a new project around an emerging black Northern Irish actress. And we’re planning a new big intercultural Shakespeare for next year. So, what have we learned about intercultural work?

  • It is possible to devise in translation;
  • it is good for both audiences and artists to be in an environment with languages they don’t speak, between alienation and attraction;
  • it all takes more time;
  • it costs money;
  • perfect bilingualism isn’t necessary, but high-level intercultural competency is;
  • it costs money;
  • cultural awareness isn’t a substitute for artistic training – and it isn’t right to force someone into a theatrical role because they happen to be from the culture you want to portray on stage, even if they helped create the piece;
  • intercultural exploration is not the same as artistic exploration, although the two can go hand in hand;
  • it costs money.

Being asked about any burning thoughts I might have about intercultural theatre, I have two:

We talk about artists from ‘new communities’ in Northern Ireland. My quarrel is not with the word ‘new’, it is with the word ‘community’. Non-Northern Irish artists or artists from ‘new communities’ can find themselves labeled as ‘community artists’, shut off from the benefits and challenges available to professional artists. This needs to change. Artists from non-Northern Irish backgrounds tell me they continuously face people with unconscious biases about their place in community vs professional arts.

And let’s not forget that informal professional networks, our buddy, school and family systems, the differences in professional protocols from culture to culture, and the “hiring of people I click with” can all work against artists from outside the dominant culture. We as professional artists need to be aware of these issues as we seek collaboration partners in the development of our work.

My second burning thought? The rude, irreverent, zany, grand guiñol shouldn’t be excluded from intercultural work. There shouldn’t be a hierarchy of ‘important’ or ‘serious’ intercultural stories that are ‘worthy of funding’ or ‘need to be heard’ as decided by someone, we know not who, usually from the dominant culture. If intercultural work arises from and is equally owned by the intercultural people in the room, it can take any form those people want. As I learned, new immigrant women might want to make a comedy cartoon musical about winning the lottery and running out on your husband, not an ‘important’ or ‘serious’ work about their immigration experience.

To use Bahasa Indonesia terms, ‘kasar’ as well as ‘halus’ (‘vulgar’ as well as ‘cultivated’) has its place in intercultural arts."

Andrea Montgomery
Writer, director and founder of Terra Nova Productions.


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