York professor takes his research to the street

Jason Guriel, a recent masters graduate in English who writes about research at York University, sent the following article to YFile.

innesWhile we may not think that a water fight staged in the street could have serious political and cultural consequences, Christopher Innes, Distinguished Research Professor at York University and Canada Research Chair in Performance and Culture, begs to differ.

Right: Christopher Innes

Over the last three years, Innes and his research team have compiled video footage of a number of large-scale public gatherings, including the protests held outside the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Montreal in 2003. They found that WTO protesters used street theatre to focus and articulate their disparate causes and concerns. Innes’ research in Toronto on Caribana and the Pride Parade reveals a similar interest in how street theatre can be marshalled as a political force.

paradeRight: Pride Parade in Toronto

“Beneath the masks and costumes and theatrics there are serious political messages,” said Innes, a world-renowned expert in theatre. “Caribana is all about the Canadian government’s agenda to promote a multicultural society. Pride, meanwhile, is rooted in the fight for gay rights.”

More specifically, Innes’ work on the Pride Parade explores the often-fluid dynamic between performer and spectator, and, in particular, how the division between performer and spectator is frequently challenged and subverted.

“Even though the barricades along the parade route tend to restrict the crowd to a kind of passive ‘observer’ status, the Pride Parade’s performers will frequently invite audience interaction by engaging, for example, in water fights with the spectators,” said Innes. “And the spectators will fight back with their own water guns. This empowers the crowd, assigning them the status of performers.”

But while such interactions have marked the Pride Parade as an innovative cultural event, one that has broadened the traditional definition of performer while simultaneously promoting gay rights, Innes also points out how Pride and Caribana have become increasingly commercialized.

“Parts of these parades have now become a little clichéd,” said Innes. “The parades have evolved into a big-money tourist draw. Certain events now get repeated, and the parades have started to lose some of their ‘improvisational’ aspects.”

caribanaLeft: Caribana participant

Innes’ interests, however, extend beyond street theatre, demonstrating the scope and interdisciplinary nature of York research. He is currently preparing a book called Broadway to Main St. for publication by Yale University Press in the fall of 2005. The book explores how stage designers for theatre in the early 20th century went on to become industrial designers, lending their talents to the design of cars, buildings and more.

Innes is also attempting to transport a collection of over 500 museum-quality puppets from French Equatorial Africa to Canada for exhibition. Along with the collection, Innes would like to bring an African puppeteer to Canada, someone who could potentially tour schools and museums. The exhibition, spanning 250 years of African history, would serve to document and preserve an important cultural tradition.