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On Global Citizenship

Last June, Theatre Communications Group kicked off a yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary. Throughout this year, TCG will explore and celebrate four core values that are important to its own work and to the work of the theatre field: artistry, diversity, global citizenship and activism. American Theatre has commissioned four reflective essays, each touching on one of these values. In this third installment, Ann Mari Engel of the International Theatre Institute (an organization for which TCG serves as the U.S. center) shares her thoughts on how global citizenship is shaping a new ITI committee.

By Ann Mari Engel

The International Theatre Institute (ITI) was founded 63 years ago with the aim to promote understanding and peace between theatre people. It was formed on the initiative of UNESCO, in reaction to the shock of the World Wars, and the organization and its national centers have been working in this spirit ever since.

ITI’s members have often reacted publicly to violations of the rights of theatre artists. Nevertheless, some of us believe that artists’ rights should have a more important place in our international work, and that we have to raise our voices higher on these issues. In 2010, we started a working group, which resulted in a motion to the ITI Congress in Xiamen, China. The motion was approved, and so the ITI Action Committee for Artists’ Rights was formed.

In defending artists’ rights, we can lean on the “UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression.” In 2005, the convention was signed by 117 countries, but few have implemented it in practice. The convention’s first guiding principle is that “cultural diversity can be protected and promoted only if human rights and fundamental freedoms—such as freedom of expression, information and communication, as well as the ability of individuals to choose cultural expressions—are guaranteed.”

Additionally, the UNESCO “Recommendation Concerning the Status of the Artist” states that all of its countries must respect the “human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or relation, by the Charter of the United Nations.”

It is an important responsibility to watch over the rights of theatre artists and their free artistic expression, and to analyze violations and make those cases public. Every day, somewhere in the world, there are attacks on individuals expressing their ideas, on journalists and on civil rights defenders. In many places, artists are subjected to censorship and hindered from practicing their profession. Our new committee will, when needed, make official statements to political authorities with the participation of national centers. We will collaborate with other international networks and activities, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freemuse and freeDimensional, drawing upon their knowledge and experience.

In the work of the committee, we will focus on violations concerning artistic work (though we also recognize that violations of artists’ rights often stem from their involvement in political work). We need to become much better at reporting to each other from all over the world. We have asked ITI members to learn the best practices from their local networks and non-governmental organizations already active in watching and campaigning, and to visit the committee’s website for more information about its aims and tasks, and about the cases it is working to publicize.

In 2010, the working group disseminated information about cases of censorship in Malta and Zimbabwe, and publicized ways that the drug war in Northern Mexico leads to the breakdown of local theatre structures. The group also reported on and protested the arrests of members of the Belarus Free Theatre; the torturing and killing of Guatemalan director, actor and dancer Leonardo Lisandro Guarcax González; and the shooting of Juliano Mer Khamis, the founder and director of the Freedom Theater in Jenin. [See “Creation Under Occupation.”] We also proposed to the UNESCO commission that it send out communications expressing mourning and protest regarding violated artists, as has been done over the past decade for harassed or murdered journalists.

Since the official formation of the ITI Action Committee for Artists’ Rights in summer 2011, cases we have paid attention to included attacks by a group called Institut Civitas against Romeo Castellucci’s production of On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris; and the takeover of Budapest’s New Theatre by an extreme right-wing, anti-Semitic nationalist, who will make the theatre a forum for nationalistic ideas. Such frightening developments are happening all over Europe.

We also participated in the campaign for the Iranian actress Marzieh Vafamehr, who was sentenced to jail and corporal punishment for her role in the film My Tehran for Sale. As a result of the international protests, her punishment was reduced, and she was released.

ITI’s manifesto contends that theatre can be important and offer a different outlook on the world. It can make people reflect and act for change. Today, more than ever, we need global solidarity among artists and the whole theatre community. In an era of economic globalization and spreading market forces, not to mention new and ongoing military conflicts, art is not the main priority for states and their leaders.

After many encounters with theatre people worldwide, and after participating in many international projects, workshops and festivals, I am convinced that theatre is, and must act as, an important force in society, and that theatre people all over the world have a lot in common, even if their social and economical conditions differ.

Theatre is by definition local, and it often lives in close connection to its local audience; at the same time, it can be deeply universal. People’s living conditions differ, but human strivings are very much alike. As global citizens, we have to respect cultural diversity at the same time that we celebrate universality.

We also have to realize that traces of colonialism and the tendency of Western influence dominate performing arts in many countries. The Indian director and critic Rustom Bharucha has, in his work Theatre and the World, presented interesting reflections on Western dominance and false “interculturality.” He pleads for intra-cultural theatre projects, respecting all the possibilities of cultural pluralism. He quotes Mahatma Gandhi, who effectively expressed the double aspect of being a global citizen: “I do not want my home to be walled in on all sides and its windows to be stuffed. I want cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

The ITI Action Committee for Artists’ Rights invites everyone to contact us and to contribute information and ideas for defending the human rights of artists.

Some of us have the freedom to speak and express ourselves; we must always remember that a great many others do not.

Ann Mari Engel is the director of ITI Sweden, vice president of ITI and president of the ITI Action Committee for Artists’ Rights.