From the Executive Director
When Horizons Expand
By Teresa Eyring
As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this. —Paul Robeson
When TCG recently revisited its core organizational values, global citizenship emerged as a principle that demanded to be stated and emphasized. If the theatre community is to have an impact in the world, to invest in its own relevance in the 21st century, we must move beyond isolationism. By understanding ourselves as part of a vast network of theatremakers occupying all points of the globe, we become empowered not only to expand aesthetically but to live up to the moral imperatives of the art form we share.
But our American theatre community faces so many challenges: funding, audiences, cultivating the best art, to name just a few. Can we really afford to think globally when we have so much to accomplish right in our own backyards?
When TCG was launched by the Ford Foundation in 1961, W. McNeil Lowry talked about how this new organization could help combat the provincialism he perceived to exist among U.S. theatre folk. At the time, there was no reliable mechanism for information-sharing and collaboration. If Lowry were alive today, he might say that isolationism is the new provincialism—and that one of TCG’s key roles is to help facilitate a greater global consciousness in our field.
In fact, TCG has long fostered dialogue on the topic of global engagement. In an early issue of American Theatre (Sept. ’84), then associate director Lindy Zesch wrote about the Olympic Arts Festival, directed by Robert Fitzpatrick and held in Los Angeles in conjunction with the summer Olympics that year. She noted that the importance of the “new internationalism” engendered by the festival could not be underestimated in a country as geographically, linguistically and culturally isolated as our own.
That same year, at the TCG National Conference, director John Hirsch confessed his own difficulty “wrapping my mind around what I saw on a trip to India, because Hellenic and Judeo-Christian values did not apply.” He also noted that in an increasingly global society, artists in the U.S. were still peripheral—they were “not around,” he contended, “when serious matters are really dealt with.”
Things have changed. Over the past few decades, and especially in the past five years, we’ve seen a rise in awareness and connectivity between U.S. theatre practitioners and theatre communities internationally. The Internet and advances in social media have been crucial tools in building relationships and awareness, and have also contributed to a new sense of activism. There are endless examples of artistic exchanges taking place. And there are organized movements to assist international colleagues dealing with repression or disasters—including such recent efforts as enlisting support for the Freedom Theater of Jenin (see "Creation Under Occupation"); national and global assistance for the artists of the Belarus Free Theatre; and SHINSAI, a national consortium of theatres and universities working to provide assistance to artists affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Global citizenship means taking action, but it also means simply being aware. It means cultivating knowledge about artists, aesthetics and issues affecting both our colleagues in the U.S. and those abroad. It means recognizing that even though economic and political systems differ, many of the challenges faced by theatre artists are shared worldwide.
At the 33rd International Theatre Institute World Congress in Xiamen, China (which Jeff Liu writes about in this issue), I was reminded of just how many colleagues we have around the world with similar passions and concerns. The attendees at that meeting were a multinational, multigenerational group of theatre people; their discussions ranged from the evolution of theatre as an art form, to the role of theatre in lifting people out of poverty, to ways theatre can contribute to world peace.
One of the most powerful sessions was called “Empowering the Performing Arts,” in which an international panel discussed topics ranging from how to make Chinese opera relevant to contemporary audiences to the problem of cultural hegemony in Brazil. Ultimately, what became tangible was an enormous sense of possibility that exists when theatre people the world over get to know one another.
In a January New York Times blog post, Nicholas D. Kristof, a journalist who has earned his own global citizenship stripes, wrote about Melinda Gates as she headed off to investigate maternal health and women’s issues in Bangladesh. He praised the Gates Foundation for concentrating its resources on the world’s neediest citizens, opining that until recently, philanthropy has been mostly about supporting the local museum and symphony and university, helping those who are “already better off.”
Kristof’s observation was startlingly indicative of the perception that the arts are a mere frill in today’s complicated world. But the truth is different. Theatre leaders tell us that one of the most important priorities for them in the coming years is “identifying the most meaningful ways in which the theatres can become productive citizens of their communities.” Theatre, as we know, is extraordinarily local—it serves communities defined by geographic and political boundaries. But its purview can be global; at its visionary best, theatre can erase the very boundaries of our consciousness.
We have an opportunity in this decade, in this new year, to make a new kind of impact as productive citizens—citizens not only of our individual, local communities but also of our shared global theatre community.