Crossing Borders; Sharing Cultures

I’m pleased to share a guest post from our Council Member and Theater J programmer, Stephen Stern. Steve attended a recent convening at Georgetown University that focused on International Collaboration. These sessions were recorded, and can be viewed here. Now, Steve’s perspective on the conversation:

Iraqi actress Layla Mohammed in the first-ever Iraqi Arabic adaptation of Heather Raffo’s 9 PARTS OF DESIRE presented by the Georgetown University Theater & Performance Studies Program. (Photo: Sarah Gormley

On June 14-16 Georgetown University held an International Convening on “Global Performance, Civic Imagination and Cultural Diplomacy”.  This was an exciting gathering of theater folk and artists of other disciplines; writers, directors, performers; academics in performing arts and international studies; cultural managers; and public affairs and policy officials.  One subject of discussion was the place where performing arts meet international politics — in which international populations are engaged by direct or interpreted works from other cultures.  Pervading the explorations were those places where the artist’s imagination sparks and collaborates on bringing excellence into production — and links with the stories, lives, and ritual and cultural practices of communities and cultures in challenging situations throughout the globe.  Mutual learning, nurturing, and creating of engaged art of many varieties is the result–many examples and challenges associated with this kind of work were shared.

The first panel, “DC: A Laboratory for Global Performance and Engagement”, featured Shirley Serotsky and Andy Shallal, 6 other DC theaters, and a response from Peter Marks. Though attention was rightly paid to the Kennedy Center’s body of work with International Festivals and Shakespeare Theater’s Great Game: Afghanistan and other international residencies — the discussion kept returning to the experience and example of Theater J: our mainstage work, the developmental festivals, the engagement with “foreign” artists, issues, and cultures on the ground, Peace Cafè initiative, and 15 years of effort in speaking through international engagement to a growing audience and multiple communities.

Theater J hosted the Cameri Theatre’s production of RETURN TO HAIFA in 2011.

It was a terrific privilege to be able to carry on a running commentary about my experience and the chain of involvement of Theater J and Ari Roth–and to hear from great artists, great social activists, and those wrestling with how great acts of the imagination encounter great issues and make great art.   (As I said toShirley offline, in response to how do theaters of limited resources who can’t possibly bring the best of international theater here fit into this? –  “Like Theater J?  – do it anyway.  This is where 15 yearsof hard work plowing away on this has gotten us.”)

Above all examples of extraordinary artistic creation were shared in clips and discussion — some led and developed by Western artists — others nurtured by arts activists empowering local performers, local rituals, local community needs to have their say, to share their creation.

I call your attention to this 9 minute YouTube — in which you will see brilliant Peruvian theater artists performing in and with communities traumatized 20 years after a brutal war, in the face of a Truth and Reconciliation commission attempting to give redress.  A whole other series of clips from Acting Together Project can found here.

Throughout the conference, sparks of passion and intense exchange were set off by notions of diplomacy’s need for language of stability and art’s always wrestling with conflict and instability; of not over-instrumentalizing the inspiration of art and rather nurturing artistic inspiration to lead all levels of engagement; and many other issues.   A NEA rep spoke of her difficulties in broadening support for such work because of US domestic priorities, and I was happy to be able to report that for Theater J, some of our greatest successes with NEA grants have come with showing the link between our international engagement and our local audience mission.   The NEA rep went on to speak of this gathering being the closest thing to a service agency for organizations in the international engagement field.  Georgetown conveners Derek Goldman and Ambassador Cynthia Schneider will be doing “nimble” follow up work on this need and I know that Theater J (and myself) will want to stay thoroughly engaged.