Vancouver's Tremors Festival challenges colonial notions about art

Rumble Theatre artistic director Jivesh Parasram serves independent creators by focusing on process as well as outcomes

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      Here’s how the performing arts have mostly been presented over the past century in Vancouver.

      A theatre, music, or dance group conducts rehearsals. People with specialized expertise in acting, singing, directing, playing instruments, lighting, stagecraft, costumes, makeup, and other areas ensure that the production reflects their highest standards.

      Then an audience shows up, watches the show unfold on-stage, and leaves feeling either satisfied or dissatisfied.

      The team at Rumble Theatre wants to shake up this hierarchical paradigm.

      “I’m not a big fan of highly delineated roles in a creative process,” artistic director Jivesh Parasram tells the Straight by phone. “I understand why they have to be there sometimes. But those are all things that I think we wanted to actively be working on changing: to up everybody’s agency in what they could be bringing to the project, whatever the project might be.”

      Parasram arrived at Rumble from Toronto in 2018 to join Kellee Ngan and Christie Watson in a joint leadership model.

      Parasram points out that public-funding cycles have shifted, offering more opportunities for independent creators.

      “So, I wanted to focus on supporting that community by kind of giving them as many skills as possible and equipping them to be tapping into that funding structure so that they would have a bit more autonomy in how they were doing stuff,” he says.

      In short, the new leadership team wanted to get “more art happening” at Rumble Theatre. They also aimed to implicitly decentre its work from the traditional “North Atlantic triangle”—i.e., the United States, Great Britain, and, to a lesser extent, Canada.

      Jivesh Parasram's Take d Milk, Nah?, which was shown last year, explored what it was like to be neither Black nor white growing up in Darmouth, Nova Scotia.

      Rumble focuses on decolonialism

      In addition, Rumble Theatre’s vision embraces cross-sectoral discussion and alternative models of presentation.

      It also aims to build solidarity “within an artistically driven, disruptive, and decolonial perspective”.

      According to Parasram, decolonialism as it pertains to the arts remains an evolving concept.

      “So that makes it exciting in its own right,” he says.

      This approach manifests itself in Rumble Theatre’s multidisciplinary Tremors Festival, which runs from October 28 to 31.

      It will showcase eight new works in development. They include theatre, dance, music, video, and virtual reality.

      Parasram says that Tremors is “lightly inspired” by Toronto’s Rhubarb Festival, which also places a premium on developing new artistic works.

      “It allows us to show a bit of a piece and get immediate audience feedback on how that’s landing so the artist can continue to develop it, or maybe not develop it further,” he says. “Or decide that maybe the piece fits a smaller time frame. So we were looking at that and asking pieces to be about 30 minutes of material.”

      But is a decolonial approach really viable within a larger superstructure in which the Ministry of Canadian Heritage—a creature of the Crown—is providing funding?

      "So far, it is," Parasram says. "A lot of it has to do with lateralization, and kind of undoing colonial habits and habitual ways of working."

      However, he also believes that engaging with the question of colonization can be more challenging for white artists. That's because many who are coming from a BIPOC perspective are more apt to incorporate this intuitively into their projects.

      And just because someone is from a BIPOC community doesn't mean that they've been actively doing decolonial work.

      "For some of them, it may be the first time they’ve actually had to contextualize what they do in that way," Parasram says.

      Parasram's view of the world and the role of art in fomenting change was influenced by the best-selling book Empire.

      Process is important, too

      Prior to the pandemic, the team was hoping to present two of these productions simultaneously in separate rooms at the same location.

      That would have enabled audiences to move back and forth, taking in parts of both.

      However, in response to COVID-19, Rumble Theatre ended up working with Progress Lab to videotape the new works from different camera angles as part of what will now be a virtual festival.

      Parasram’s thinking about colonialism has been influenced by Empire, a 20-year-old book by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt that examined the hierarchy of global power and the influence of so-called knowledge machines.

      This term was a shorthand way to describe how the arts, universities, and education systems can help re-create society in ways that might go some way toward levelling the playing field for the oppressed “global multitude”.

      “Whatever we do starts to be reproduced in society to a certain extent, according to our reach, according to our resonance,” Parasram explains.

      “So that’s part of it," he continues. "The other thing is I actually draw quite a lot on mystics and mystic philosophies.”

      They include what he describes, in a lighthearted tone, as “questionable gurus from South Asia”.

      Hanuman, the Hindu god of service, is tattooed on Jivesh Parasram's arm.

      Hinduism influences Parasram's approach

      Parasram was born in Ottawa to Indo-Caribbean parents and grew up in Nova Scotia. His approach to producing multidisciplinary theatre emerges—in some respects—from Hindu traditions dating back centuries.

      Hinduism places a great focus on process in the belief that if this is done properly, the outcome will take care of itself.

      Hinduism also teaches the value of detachment, which Mahatma Gandhi defined as “skillfulness in action”.

      “It is only when we want nothing for ourselves that we are able to see clearly into other’s needs and understand how to serve them,” he wrote.

      Parasram’s family embraced the monkey-god Hanuman, who was a selfless servant to Lord Rama.

      In fact, Parasram even has Hanuman’s image tattooed on one arm. Garuda, the legendary bird-like creature in Hinduism, is on his other arm. Garuda is linked to Vishnu, a god who destroys evil and fights injustice.

      He points out that Hinduism is an informal faith: some adherents pray fervently at community gatherings whereas others are far less religious and just wander over to the food area to grab a bite to eat.

      Parasram sees parallels between Hindu traditions and the theatre, in which performance can be highly spiritual, whereas other aspects are not.

      And the Tremors Festival’s focus on process rather than the outcome is one way to upend the traditional approach to performing arts in Vancouver.

      “We’re trying to focus less on the individual shows rather than what the amalgamation of them becomes,” Parasram says. “It’s about kind of creating a kaleidoscope of this meeting place.”

      Immigrant Lessons will present Origins V at the Tremors Festial.

      Tremors Festival tip sheet

      This Year’s Tremors Festival is showcasing eight works in development:

      100 YT GUYS IN AN HOUR Rage Sweater Theatre Productions’ musical comedy recasts BIPOC history through the lens of anticolonialism, touching on everything from Christopher Columbus to the Jones Brothers.

      Attachments Dusty Foot Productions features six queer characters engaged in intersectional polyamory who meet on one of the character's 30th birthday.

      Danceboy: First Dance The first 30 minutes will be shown of Munish Sharma’s solo show integrating poetry, story, and dance.

      Low Grade Euphoria The Public Swoon’s series of short videos focuses on self-care, pleasure, and companionship in the era of COVID-19.

      Origins V Immigrant Lessons produced this interdisciplinary exploration of identity, colouorism, and intersectional oppression.

      the fire that runs through Queer filipinx immigrant Joshua Ongcol’s delves into the dichotomy of revolution and appeasement in the minds of migrants.

      The time It takes me to get to you Subjects of History responds to the rise of fascism though an examination of politics as public performance and how our bodies can bypass our belief systems.

      Underground Absolute Fiction Anais West explores queerness and its relationship to western imperialism.