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Theatre artist Gavan Cheema invites audience members to care and connect with democracy at Monsoon Festival

Gavan Cheema. Photo by Kajal Singla
Gavan Cheema says that the Sikhi concept of seva goes hand-in-hand with democracy. Photo by Kajal Singla.

Sometimes, the most thought-provoking comments emerge near the end of an interview. A recent example came during a Pancouver phone call with Gavan Cheema, co-artistic director of Theatre Conspiracy in Vancouver.

She was discussing an upcoming immersive workshop, Is Democracy Dead: An Interactive Theatrical Game. The Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts will present it at Progress Lab in East Vancouver on August 26.

I asked Cheema if her community is playing a special role in Canada in preserving democracy. In particular, I wanted to know if Cheema—who has a double major in history and theatre from UBC—sees her community serving as a bulwark against right-wing authoritarianism.

“I can speak to that in terms of being a diasporic Sikh woman,” Cheema responded. “A big part of Sikhi is this concept of seva.”

Sikhi originated with the teachings of Guru Nanak (1469-1539). He preached equality between all people. Moreover, a cornerstone of Sikhi is engaging in seva (selfless service).

“When I think about engaging in anything that has to do with community, it comes from a place of seva,” Cheema said. “I think democracy and seva go hand-in-hand. You can’t necessarily have an effective democracy if everybody isn’t engaged, if everybody isn’t informed, and if there isn’t any sort of buy-in into public discourse.”

Himmat Photo by Wendy D
Banth Munish Sharma and Gavan Cheema played a father and daughter in Himmat. Photo by Wendy D.

Cheema invites audiences to care and connect

Cheema feels that Punjabi Sikhs in the Lower Mainland play an important role in the democratic process.

“It’s a part of our faith to be able to engage in public discourse and do our part to serve the community in ways that feel meaningful,” she added.

In that spirit, Is Democracy Dead? invites audience members to care and connect in a documentary-style workshop. In addition, it enables them to investigate current events and question manipulative tactics employed over social media.

Cheema said that Theatre Conspiracy adapted the workshop from its immersive and interactive show Foreign Radical, which toured internationally.

“What I’ve done with Is Democracy Dead? is take out the games and things that worked really well for Foreign Radical and put new content in it,” she explained.

The massive, yearlong farmers protests in India in 2020-21 inspired an earlier iteration. Cheema said that this version of Is Democracy Dead? offered people an opportunity to “unpack all of their complicated feelings” in a safe space.

“We did it at the Surrey Civic Theatres…and the turnout was amazing,” she recalled.

Cheema, a former teacher, has also developed a student version, which has been offered in Surrey schools.

Meanwhile, Theatre Conspiracy co-founder Tim Carlson will co-facilitate the Monsoon Festival workshop with Cheema. She said that Carlson’s journalistic experience leads the company to examine topics through a documentary lens. That, in turn, feeds into her theatre practice.

Tim Carlson
Theatre Conspiracy founder, playwright, and journalist Tim Carlson will co-facilitate the workshop with Gavan Cheema.

From bhangra to the Cultch

“I’m always interested in getting people to think about things in different ways,” Cheema said. “I think theatre and art have so much power and potential to give people spaces to connect—to give people spaces to empathize with each other—especially at a time when everything is really confusing and people are really polarized.”

Cheema is no newcomer to the Monsoon Festival, which is produced by the South Asian Arts Society. For many years, she’s known the executive director, Gurpreet Sian. He made his artistic mark as a bhangra dancer and dhol player before becoming a broadcaster on Hockey Night in Canada in Punjabi.

“I started off as a bhangra dancer when I was in high school,” Cheema revealed. “That was actually the first time I heard of South Asian Arts.”

Sian and the society partnered with Theatre Conspiracy in producing Cheema’s landmark play Himmat. It premiered at the Cultch last year.

She wrote the script about a Sikh immigrant father reconnecting with his daughter. In addition, she acted in one of the leading roles. This work earned Cheema the Sam Payne Award for Most Promising Emerging Artist at last year’s Jessie Awards.

“Monsoon did a stage reading in a truck yard during COVID—and we did a drive-in style show at the time,” Cheema said. “Gurp has always been around and has always been a big figure in the South Asian community in Surrey and the Lower Mainland. He has supported not only dancers but artists and theatre makers and creators.”

Festival details

The Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts presents a Theatre Conspiracy workshop, Is Democracy Dead: An Interactive Theatrical Game. It takes place at 7 p.m. on August 26 at Progress Lab (1422 William Street). For tickets, visit the website. The Monsoon Festival runs from August 17 to 31 at various locations. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.