The World’s a Stage

In his new book, Barry Freeman says theatre can—and should—bring strangers together

Cover of book called Staging Strangers

While a night out at the theatre can be entertaining, it can also provide us an opportunity to learn about people we don’t know.

“Theatre is a powerful and meaningful place to develop relationships among strangers,” says Barry Freeman, an assistant professor in Theatre & Performance Studies. He focuses his attention on theatre in Canada, mainly in Toronto, “where artists are increasingly telling stories about distant strangers elsewhere in the world.”

Freeman chose the word “stranger” intentionally. It’s different from the idea of the “other,” which is someone outside an imagined community, or a “neighbour” who is inside it. A stranger is on the threshold, “perhaps looking to be welcomed, though perhaps never quite admitted.”

“In the world we find ourselves in today, so many people have this hybrid experience of living on the border,” Freeman says. “The stranger is also a highly theatrical figure in that it is able to be two things at once, much like an actor playing a character who is able to simultaneously be both.”

Theatre in Canada has been implicated in making many people strangers, he says. You could start with the European colonists that laid their own traditions over top of the many pre-existing indigenous performance traditions. “My students are always stunned to learn that up until the 1950s, the so-called Potlatch ban under the Indian Act actually made some traditional forms of indigenous performance illegal,” says Freeman.

And there is much to say about how other marginalized groups have struggled to overcome prejudice to be part of the so-called dominant culture in Canada.” In some cases, these other communities have maintained their own performance traditions, developing theatre in their own language, for their own diaspora.

A related phenomenon is what Freeman calls “Church Basement Globalism,” which arises within amateur theatre groups presenting work within specific cultural communities. “If you learn more about these groups, you see that they aren’t strictly ‘local’ at all, but very importantly globally connected to the cultural and politics in their homeland,” he says. “They have rehearsed in whatever space was available, such as church basements, but in fact they have been internationally networked.”

The tradition continues today, Freeman says, but it’s changing in response to a more globalized world. And that’s where we can find some hope. Theatre can be a place where we can develop compassion and empathy for outsiders.

Freeman highlights nearby companies such as Cahoots Theatre, Why Not Theatre, and the Debajehmujig Storytellers as examples of groups motivated by a desire to generate understanding across cultural divides.

“Some theatre seemed to me to be calling on its audience to see, know, feel for and care about distant strangers in some way,” he says. “Staging Strangers is about trying to tune into the ethical nature of the art in how it’s realized between the stage and audience.”