Great Exportations

What can we learn from the successful efforts of other nations to promote their theatre overseas?

By John Barry

It's St. Patrick's Day in Washington, D.C. The Union Station Metro stop is plastered with black posters bearing cryptic, foreboding comments: Cutting your commute time is wishful thinking. Cutting government spending shouldn't be. The dark-suited, grim-faced lobbyists are out in full force. A few stops down the line, at the U.S. Capitol, the budgetary standoff is on. Whatever happens, the arts aren't going to come out on top. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has voted to chop $43 million from the NEA for the current (FY11) spending bill. Almost simultaneously, the Obama Administration has proposed a $21 million cut to the NEA for FY12. In the unlikely event that any of those lobbyists are coming to D.C. to squeeze a few bucks out of Congress for exporting U.S. performers, they've got their work cut out for them.

Or maybe they're just looking for funding from the wrong government. Exiting the Metro on this sunny March afternoon, things get a little more cheerful. At the top of the escalator, a volunteer for Solas Nua, a D.C.-based nonprofit funded in part by Culture Ireland and the Irish Arts Council, hands out some of the 10,000 free books by Irish writers it plans to distribute across the city. With the help of the Irish government, Solas Nua has just completed the Irish Writers Festival, and it's in the middle of a five-play season featuring contemporary Irish theatre. There's more. Five blocks east, the government-funded Culture Ireland is collaborating with the Studio Theatre on the Enda Walsh Festival—a one-and-a-half-month bonanza of works by one of Ireland's rising playwrights. With the help of the Irish Embassy, Culture Ireland has just flown Enda Walsh over from London to attend the opening of the festival.

The Irish economy, in case you haven't heard, is now in its third year of free-fall. Is there something they know about exporting culture that we don't?

Indeed, there may be. What follows are a few lessons culled from interviews with artists, critics, and producers from Ireland, South Korea and the Netherlands. Even in hard times, they've managed to cultivate serious, coordinated programs that develop an international audience for their theatrical treasures.

Ireland: Cultivate Partnerships

James Joyce left Ireland for good at 22; Samuel Beckett lived and died in Parisian exile and wrote most of his classics in French. Both had complex relationships with their mother country, but on one point they never wavered: If you're an aspiring artist, get out. Over a century later, Linda Murray, artistic director for Solas Nua, admits that the slight still stings. "We own that history," she says, "We don't want to lose the next Joyce or Beckett."

The Irish government—and Culture Ireland—definitely don't want to lose Enda Walsh. Over the last 15 years, he's become an internationally recognized representative of a generation of playwrights that also includes Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. Walsh is already big in Europe. Now the Irish want the U.S. to get the message. On the afternoon of March 17, as D.C. is decked out in green, the 44-year-old Walsh is sitting in the lobby of the Carlyle Suites off Embassy Row, looking like a lobbyist himself (except for the red socks). "Sorry about the fookin' suit," he says. "After this I'm supposed to be meeting an ambassador."

So a playwright who began on the streets of Cork is now a guest of honor at the Irish embassy's St. Patrick's Day reception. Even Walsh seems a little unsure what they see in him. He's not exactly a booster of Irish exceptionalism. His darkly funny, occasionally violent plays, including Disco Pigs, The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom, leave the impression of an Ireland that is insular, incestuous and claustrophobic. Penelope, his latest, is set in an abandoned swimming pool on a deserted island.

But the Irish government isn't looking for a booster; it's looking for a partner. Walsh is no flash in the pan. The Irish government's relationship with him started about 15 years ago, when, after two years honing his craft with the tiny Corcadorca Theatre, he came up with the acclaimed The Ginger Ale Boy (1995). The Irish Arts Council gave him and his colleagues a 10-thousand-quid grant (then about $16,000).

"It wasn't much for us, but it was regular income. I mean, what do you need? We were in our early twenties, living on ecstasy and Guinness." It's the sort of nurturing that project-based grants rarely offer, and it gave them the time and space to come up with their 1996 hit Disco Pigs. That show put Walsh on the world map, scoring him a 1997 Edinburgh Fringe Critic's Award, a 2001 film, and multiple productions outside of Irish borders, including in New York City.

Now, Walsh's work is part of the fabric of Imagine Ireland—a yearlong campaign in 40 U.S. states organized by Culture Ireland, which was established in 2005 as "Ireland's national agency to promote and advance the arts in an international context." It's not big, boasting only seven full-time employees—but it's remarkably effective at helping support not only the big names but also the rising stars.

Eugene Downes is the youthful face of Culture Ireland, where he's been the chief executive officer since 2007. He has carefully honed a path for cultivating relationships with U.S. cultural organizations. "Our first task," he says, "is to find the outstanding partner, in artistic terms, to present an artistic work, and to make it happen. All the benefits—artistic, tourist, economic—flow from that."

That partnership involves an open invitation for curious American presenters from venues interested in Irish theatre. "We bring dozens of presenters every year to see Irish works," Downes says. "That's the crucial step in our effort to put together a successful partnership. The presenters themselves, over a couple of years, have a deeper understanding about the range of culture in Ireland. That creates its own momentum."

Once American presenters express interest, according to Downes, "We try to be as clear as possible about the kind of support we can give. That means fewer uncertainties and unknowns in the equation." Culture Ireland, which in 2010 had a budget of 4 million euros, maximizes its impact with four rounds of funding per annum. "It needs to be quick, it needs to be as simple as it can be. At every step we try to minimize the bureaucracy, keep it a user-friendly process. And if someone has great print, we need to prioritize that, and find the funding for that artist, this year or next."

What is the impact that a government hopes to make when it invests in exporting its theatre? A provocative Huffington Post article from September 2009, written by Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, asks whether, in marketing terms, the U.S. really "needs" state-supported exchange of artists, when many of our performing artists are already on the international circuit:

Marketing only works (and cultural diplomacy is marketing) when it is frequently repeated. And it is simply too expensive to send orchestras and dance companies and theatre groups to the same territory over and over again. And are we really influencing the citizens of a nation when we send performing groups to entertain the elite? Don't the elite come to the U.S. anyway?

Downes (an ex–cultural attaché) notes diplomatically that he's not here to advise Americans, but he says that in Ireland, the long-term investments in touring and developing relationships have paid off: "We're trying to support the natural supply and demand. If the demand is there, we try to bridge the gap, whether it's information or economic. We're putting good money after good money."

The Druid Theatre Company, currently in the U.S. with two shows, is "good money." Since its 1975 founding, the Galway City company has been supported by the Irish Arts Council, and has become a major attraction in Europe and the States. While its production of Walsh's Penelope is getting high marks at Studio's festival in Washington, D.C., Druid is also touring McDonagh's Cripple of Inishmaan to such venues as Chicago Shakespeare Theater; Druid artistic director Garry Hynes says Cripple marks the "longest tour ever of the U.S. by an Irish theatre."

Even in the bean-counting world of the market-driven economy, one thing is pretty clear. Thanks to Culture Ireland and the Irish Arts Council, Ireland's government has a lot more to show for its long-term investment in the arts than for the decade it spent fueling the property bubble with tax breaks. No wonder the Irish Embassy wants people to remember Walsh's name.

South Korea: Go Global

There is a U.S. policy for globalization of the arts. But it's hidden in the agenda of the U.S. State Department, where, since 1999, the USIA's original mission—exporting culture abroad—has been placed under the leadership of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs. Since May 2009, that position has been occupied by Judith McHale, ex-CEO for Discovery Communications. Under her leadership, the department went to work on a 33-page roadmap for the 21st century, which was released in March 2010. In it she comes up with a strategic plan for bureaucratic reorganization to help "shape the narrative" and "deploy resources." Buried in that, on page 14, is a PowerPoint explanation of the purpose of a global arts policy:

Extend American culture's collective reach by facilitating the overseas work of other public and private cultural institutions and organizations (e.g., the Smithsonian or regional arts councils), using technologies to multiply linkages (e.g., online arts management courses taught by U.S. experts or online fora for sharing artistic content), and encouraging artistic collaboration as a springboard for enduring relationships.

That bromide-infused statement of goals is tough to disagree with in principle. But, beyond obvious references to 21st-century technology, what does "artistic collaboration" really mean? My conversations with publicly funded arts organizations and critics from South Korea—which has been vigorously introducing its own contemporary theatre culture to the rest of the world—indicated that when it comes to globalization, Americans may have something to learn.

Starting in the Cold War era, government funding of performing artists abroad has been seen by many in the U.S. as one more way for Americans to "shape the narrative" on a global level. According to Korean theatre critic and associate professor Sung-hee Choi, that's not necessarily how the global marketplace works. "If theatre is going to appeal to a world audience," Choi writes by e-mail from Seoul, "it needs to know what occupies peoples' minds." And those minds and identities are "getting ever more fragmented, diversified, and globalized." Instead of shaping the narrative, a nation trying to promote its work internationally needs to become part of the story.

And that's a goal that Korea Arts Management Service, with the support of the Ministry for Culture, Sports, and Tourism, has been focusing its efforts on over the last several years. Other government organizations—Arts Council Korea, Korea Foundation, and Korea Literature Translation Institute—have become part of the concerted efforts to grow international interest in their theatre. That's a big step for a country where, a few decades ago, there was little in the way of modern theatrical culture, and where, until 1987, strict censorship laws were in effect.

It's a strategy that seems to have worked well for productions like Medea and Its Double, which won best director award at the 2007 Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. In that production, director Hyoung-Taek Limb integrated a Greek tragedy into a Korean setting, mixing up Korean martial arts with techniques borrowed from the Beijing Opera as well as from classical Western theatre. The production arrived at New York City's La MaMa E.T.C. in January 2010 after being performed in Chile, India and Romania in 2009–10. The Pansori Project ZA's Sacheon-Ga, showcased at New York's Martin E. Segal Theatre this past January and funded partly by the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, has also received international attention for its interweaving of traditional Korean music, contemporary dance, pop music, and Brecht's The Good Woman of Szechuan.

In 1993, South Korea officially adopted its own policy of globalization: segyehwa. By challenging artistic and linguistic boundaries, Korean theatre, with government support, has developed work that transcends cultural barriers. And it sells.

The Netherlands: Engage and Disengage

The Netherlands has been the source of some of the most provocative theatre to hit U.S. shores in recent years—including the New Island Festival, which took over New York City's Governors Island with performances and installations in 2009. While the exhibits and artists radiate audacity, they're being promoted and networked by a tiny cultural office that is as effective as it is self-effacing.

The cultural section of the Netherlands Consulate General in New York—general director Ferdinand Dorsman, along with performing arts specialists Erwin Maas and Gabri Christa—has a specific task: assisting U.S. organizations interested in booking Dutch performers. (A third specialist focuses on visual arts, design and architecture.) They network, and they help promote. And then, according to Maas, they make themselves scarce.

"We like people to lose track of us," says Maas. "Once we start a relationship going, that's our aim." Maas notes that they shy away from being associated with funding or sponsorship: "We don't fund, we facilitate." For example, the consulate promotes performing arts events on its blog. Once it makes a sustainable connection between an artist and a presenter, or a work with a potential audience, it moves out of the picture.

The consulate's relationship with Dutch avant-garde troupe Dood Paard puts that technique to test. The 17-year-old collective came last month to the U.S. for the second time and performed REIGEN ad lib at NYC's Guggenheim Museum. Dood Paard receives an annual subsidy of 639,000 euros from the Dutch government and 108,000 euros from the city of Amsterdam. In New York, the Dutch consulate contributed the relatively small sum of $6,000 for publicity and networking. But, crucially, it opened the conversation between Dood Paard and the Guggenheim, which decided to present the play in conjunction with its exhibit "The Great Upheaval: Modern Art from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910–1918."

The consulate has established and/or strengthened similar bridges on behalf of many other Dutch theatre groups—including Speeltheater Holland, Theatergroep Max and Toneelgroep Amsterdam, all three of which have visited or will visit the States this year.

No cultural program is one-size-fits-all. But perhaps elements of the strategies that are working for Ireland, the Netherlands and South Korea—and for the dozens of other countries keeping their work on the international circuit—can aid and inspire the U.S. nonprofits that currently fill in funding gaps and find ways to send theatre artists abroad. It could be more transformative still if we, as a nation, opened ourselves to learning from other nations' concepts of "cultural policy." Undoubtedly, we have a lot to learn.

There are, in fact, signs that the State Department is increasing its interest in performance as a tool of intercultural understanding. For example, a new State Department collaboration with the New England Foundation for the Arts, Center Stage, will fund U.S. tours by 10 performance ensembles from Haiti, Indonesia and Pakistan. However, according to Cynthia Schneider—who, as a Clinton appointee, served as ambassador to the Netherlands from 1998 to 2001, and who is now a research fellow for the Brookings Institution—the biggest obstacle to developing U.S. cultural policy is "one of attitude, not structure." She explains that, within the U.S. government, "The value of cultural exchange is defined very narrowly."

Attitudes are changing, however slowly, and many artists are eager to help expand that definition. David Muse, the new artistic director of the Studio Theatre and one of the forces behind the Walsh festival, is already planning further international festivals, and half of Studio's upcoming season is comprised of U.S. debuts of foreign plays. "The idea of having artists from different countries collaborate is the next big step. The whole world is becoming globalized," Muse says, "and it's time for our theatre to do the same thing."

With a little helpful advice from our friends, some smart investments, and a coherent and unified approach, we can take that step and make cultural exchange a two-way street. First, though, we have to affirm that we have a culture worth exporting.

John Barry writes about theatre and the arts in the D.C. and Baltimore area.

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