Putting the spotlight on modern drama is a quest that has taken Christopher Innes to every corner of the world.
In the past two years, the York University professor has participated in a seminar on drama and religion in Tehran, spoken about taboo theatre in Copenhagen and led an international conference on Carnival right here in Toronto during last summer’s Caribana Festival.
“It’s the intersections between theatre and society that really interest me,” says Innes, who has also lectured in Japan, India and Germany.
“Since the time of the ancient Greeks in Athens, theatre has been a major forum for discussing public issues and for influencing society. It still is today.”
Innes has the chance to explore that subject in greater depth following the federal government’s recent renewal of four Canada Research Chairs (CRC) held by York. Innes, who was first appointed as the CRC in Performance and Culture in 2002, will receive $1.4 million over the next seven years to continue his research.
Stan Shapson, vice-president research & innovation at York, says the CRC program allows universities to attract and retain top researchers in a spectrum of important areas — including the arts.
“We need to know more about how the arts play a role in society,” says Shapson. “Especially in the GTA, which is so diverse, linguistically, culturally and racially, it’s a very effective means to get people to learn about one’s past history, learn about different cultures and in a sense how to better interact.”
Innes’ research, which has spawned 14 books and more than 100 articles, runs the gamut from street performance to contemporary Broadway and West End theatre. One major aim of his work is to put Canadian theatre on the international map. “I don’t want to be too cynical, but it is true that Canadian artists get a great deal less attention than European or British or American artists. … It’s just part of the scene,” he says.
To that end, Innes is working on another book, this one about the prolific Canadian composer and director Murray Schafer. Schafer’s unconventional operatic works, based on themes of religion and resurrection, have been performed everywhere from a city square in Calgary to the Ontario wilderness. As Innes puts it, “he ties himself into the Canadian landscape much as the Group of Seven painters did.”
Ultimately, Innes hopes his research will encourage greater funding and interest in the arts, which he says continue to be powerful educational and political tools.
“It has now morphed, of course, into film and television as well as theatre,” says Innes. “But live performance, particularly street performance like Caribana, still influences us in the sense of asserting pride, in the sense of addressing power, in the sense of celebrating culture.”