Multicultural Theatre. Multiculturalism.

By Ira Seidenstein

January 10, 2021

This is a small excerpt from my new book. If you copy any of it for sharing please include: “Excerpt from Quantum Theatre: Slapstick to Shakespeare copyrights Ira Seidenstein”. The book is available now via any independent book seller or online seller via individual orders as print-on-demand.

This is one short essay out of 46. Three essays are on Multiculturalism. Six are on Shakespeare. The others are a wide range of topics. Most of the book was written in 1996. The manuscript was found in storage at a friend’s house in January 2020. I did minor updates in some parts; reworked some; had the manuscript edited; a few essays were invited from colleagues.


“The first 27 years of my life were in a multi-cultural society. I don’t know if I believe in multiculturalism.  In fact I don’t seem to believe in any “ism’’.

My parents insisted on a few things in my youth. I was a rather wild and uncontrollable creature. My parents taught that I should learn how other people pray and to understand that I was Jewish. I was taught that all people are equal, that I should never hate anyone, and never hurt anyone physically, nor with words, nor with thoughts.

My experience of multiculturalism was if I wandered into the wrong neighbourhood there was a good chance I would have to flee or fight.

There are major problems with multiculturalism in society as well as in theatre.

However we have to face facts…the human race is a multi-cultural fact. There were numerous distinct Indigenous tribes in what is now called North America. This is not going to be a history lesson but there are some interesting facts to have in the back of the mind when we discuss multi-cultural theatre. Africa had hundreds of different tribes. So too did the Aboriginals in what is now called Australia. Distinct languages, myths, terrain, physical features. The Maoris of Aotearoa – New Zealand had 12 distinct tribes. However there were others there before the Maoris invaded. The Sami of Norway-Sweden-Finland-Russia have nine distinct language groups. The English are a mixed breed of Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, and Celts. Who are the original people of the land? In Japan there are still aboriginal people but very few. There are many Koreans who were brought to Japan but they will never really be Japanese. The oldest  royal family is in Japan. There are 6,000 languages currently on Earth. The Earth is a multi-cultural experience.

So too is the theatre. In Western  theatre can we separate the influences which we inherit from ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Italy, Russia, England?

What is now accepted as multi-cultural theatre is often nothing more these days than an act and fact of survival.

Governments throughout the Western world do not know what to do to combat problems of unemployment, refugees, racism etc. So they are currently trying to quell future riots, disturbances, trouble, protests… by funding multi-cultural projects.

Everybody with any sense is jumping on that bandwagon and creating projects which governments are willing to fund.

The irony of course is that usually who gets the money and credit is the dominant group in any culture.

Now lets get down to business, to theatre in a multi-cultural society.

First a brief look at my “homeland’’. The USA. I am not a big fan of the USA’s military/industrial/Congressional complex as Dwight Eisenhower labeled it. That complex is “in bed with” the industrial Lobbies to Congress. 

I am Jewish and know full well that America provided a safe haven from the pogroms and prejudice of other lands. I also know that the USA failed to receive enough people in the early 1940s. However the USA was built on the back of slavery. Slavery included blacks and whites. The Founding Fathers owned slaves. In the 1960’s there were race riots throughout the USA and deservedly so. Four university students were murdered by soldiers for protesting a war in which mostly the poor would serve, be maimed, or die.

So do you think that the theatre in the USA would be so liberated and multi-cultural? The USA today is perhaps not a segregated society but it is certainly racist. Paradoxically it is racist at the same time as it is filled with opportunity for anyone. Yet the Vaudeville tradition allowed people of any background to survive and prosper in the performing arts. Whereas the traditional theatre had to paint a lily white picture. A black American could play a maid, or butler and on the rarest occasion an Othello. In the liberated world maybe today in a special production about racism a black could play Romeo or Juliet.

Then you have visionaries who always were seeing right through the myth of the USA as a land of the free. They challenged their own prejudices, bias’, career security and did what was in their hearts. Martha Graham hired anyone. Two of her stars were black and Japanese, or from other cultures than her own. Leonard Bernstein co-created West Side Story which gloriously de-anglicised Romeo and Juliet. The Bard, Shakespeare, by the way seemed well aware of multiculturalism and racism, as it was a regular theme in his work. Why? His father was a Catholic at a time when it was quite un-kosher. Shakespeare’s mistress was from a non-Anglo background. Back to the bad ol’ USA…in the 1950’s TV was trying to fight the racist tide. The Amos ‘n Andy show was an all Black American cast. Later, Bill Cosby arrived with more mature comedy and was for decades the most prosperous entertainer. He understood well the healing property of humour. He had a great head start since his father was a teacher of Shakespeare in a leading acting school. There were many Black comedians who were actively trying to transition a racist reality via the theatre arts. One of the most gifted was Richard Pryor. Then came Eddie Murphy and a great breakthrough was the director Spike Lee. Finally the USA and the world is starting to accept the talent and intelligence of the Black Americans equal to their full capacity. At the same time  it is quite difficult to accept the full Italian source of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino; or the Jewish source of Barbara Streisand, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, or the Coen Brothers. In other words no matter what your culture background in the USA there is really an arch conservative level to which you are limited to express your cultural self. Anything more and it is a threat to the dominant culture.

There are parameters determined by producers, by government funding bodies, by teachers, directors, publicists, peers, friends which determine how much of ourself we reveal. On the other hand sometimes the theatre limits your range to only performing as what you physically appear to be.

Why couldn’t Sylvester Stallone play Othello? Why couldn’t Bill Cosby play Shylock? In the theatre anything is possible and can work. The conservative forces in every country limit our creativity by promising success.

The theatre community fails over and over again to accept the full power of multicultural theatre to give us unlimited creative potential. Even in the USA, Canada, England, France.  Places where they love to sing their own multicultural praises.

Again in the USA there were many successes and tests such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Oh Calcutta. One of the greatest projects though was from Orson Welles producing Macbeth in Harlem, he was leading us over fifty years ago. Numerous Jewish performers were actual activists consciously fought to assist Black Americans to have equal rights and opportunities. Even while the Jewish comedians inherited the blackface art the more famous ones at the same time were activists and that included Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Milton Berle and numerous others including often the producers.

These wonder projects were decapitated by the overwhelming sense that in the USA we’re  all just Americans and we speak English. This left no room for a theatre run for and by Native Americans, no room for a funded Estonian language theatre. Or Italian theatre etc. Even today when Spanish is the official second language it is hard to justify supporting a dozen Spanish language theatres. For many years the Jewish community supported a Yiddish theatre. This circuit survived as a regular business. When the community lost interest the business died and the investment and experience went elsewhere. This same creative and business force built many American industries such as Vaudeville, Hollywood, performance unions, jazz, and musicals. From the Jewish creative freedom in a safe homeland artists from Irish, Black, Italian backgrounds flourished. In vaudeville people from any culture who had an act could survive and flourish. Without Italians, Irish, Blacks, Jews, the American theatre would have little development. Some of the English immigrants who flourished in a multicultural society were Bob Hope, Stan Laurel, and Charlie Chaplin.

We must learn from history though. See the opposition between Chaplin and Hope. Bob Hope backed the USA all the way but Chaplin expressed his own views which happened to differ from the accepted policies and thus he had to leave a home he had for forty years. That is Charlie Chaplin …in the USA …the land of the free.

What do you think is going on with talents of lesser note in lands of lesser mythological freedom?

How many Russian artists would be welcomed and supported in the Czech Republic today? in France… or in, or …

Yes France accepted Nureyev. Yes the USA accepted Balanchine. In these rare acceptances though it is to create or enhance a National institution .

However, if we look at the ballet world it is frequently harbouring a multi cultural climate. Ballet is historically passed on through the great masters from Italy, Russia, France, Denmark and England. Modern Dance is generated from the Germans and Americans. Jazz is the domain driven by Blacks and Hispanics. So there is a multi-cultural network on going. Where there is no limit in teaching there is a great limit in creative freedom and financial support.

Here we see the Wall in the multi-cultural myth. It is acceptable only if you directly and obviously benefit the host company or nation. It is pure business it is not enlightenment.

As Jews we know we must assimilate and this is the tragedy.

Once you assimilate whether you are English or Sami, you lose the multi and become cultur-ised or pasteurised. Like a very poor quality bread you lose all the vitamins, minerals, fibre, and flavour. We all lose. Even the new home country. This is the tragedy. The more support and freedom given to the many cultures the more beauty we will see in the host culture. What happens is people are scared of loss. Loss of support, of security, of prestige. Just like in a village we are scared not of one person but scared of an invasion and a loss of our way of living.

Assimilation robs the Jew of everything. It does the same to the melody and gift of language to the Black Americans. Assimilation denies Hispanics their own rich poetry. What about the poetry of Arabic culture? What about the loss of heritage from abundantly diverse Asian cultures? The loss of wisdom from indigenous cultures. The Jew can be secular without assimilating. As a Gershwin song says “it ain’t necessarily so”. Until the recent past such a paradox of secular without assimilation seemed possible. Now it is unlikely to be achievable. Cultures can adapt and still survive, but assimilation tends to dominate every traditional culture. In part that is due to the regression of what is now, in 2020 called “Progressive”. 

Assimilation is less than survival. Assimilation is a loss of life force and loss of beauty. Assimilation is a denial of our past. Multi-cultural policies are often driven by prejudices about other people’s past.

At the same time George Balanchine is a great example, he didn’t create another Bolshoi or Kirov. He created a genuinely new, fresh, visionary American ballet. He grew as an artist. He challenged himself to find new inspiration in a new land. However, Balanchine’s genius was totally supported, for four decades, by the American visionary Lincoln Kirstein.

Then part of the goal of multicultural theatre, is to enrich our theatre experience. But the artist can do this thousands of ways. Can the governments and funding bodies support possibilities which challenge their (the bureaucrats and politicians) personal belief systems.

The range is vast. The policies are limited. These policies are executed not just by bureaucrats but also by directors, artistic directors, critics, teachers and everyone who controls the doorway in and out of the theatre. They are referred to as gatekeepers.

                                       18  Multi-cultural II.  An Example

Australia is a multicultural society. A very successful one. Most of the population derives from other lands. Less than 1% Aboriginal. There are more Greeks than in Athens… “

This is a small excerpt from my new book. If you copy any of it for sharing please include: “Excerpt from Quantum Theatre: Slapstick to Shakespeare copyrights Ira Seidenstein”. The book is available now via any independent book seller or online seller via individual orders as print-on-demand.

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Ira Seidenstein