Theatre is the art of story, the art of disappearance, and the momentary mirror of human life. No matter how much is written analyzing, archiving, and recording theatre work, it disappears—each night—only to reappear “for the first time” at another moment. Tomorrow, next week, next century. This page, devoted to news from the International Theatre Institute (ITI), will appear quarterly in American Theatre and report on international moments in this disappearing act.
When I first went to work at ITI in 1966, I was immensely fortunate to have Rosamond Gilder as my boss. She was a theatre critic and then editor of the legendary Theatre Arts magazine. Theatre Arts was a publication that brought theatre to America and sowed the seeds of the regional theatre community that we know today. Gilder was also one of the founders of ITI when it came to life in 1948 in Prague. She had the same persistence in bringing the world to our doorstep as she had in promoting theatre all across our nation. As I learned the work of ITI, Rosamond had two invaluable pieces of advice: “Remember that you have to explain ITI to everyone—from the beginning—every six months”; and, “No matter what material resources you have, remember that the heart of an ITI center in any country is the welcome offered to professional colleagues.” Since this ITI newsletter appears in an issue of American Theatre devoted to internationalism, I want to follow Rosamond’s advice and re-introduce ITI.
A worldwide network of theatre people in 90 countries, ITI was founded in the ashes of World War II and found its mission during the Cold War. It is organized through national centers and several working committees. Since ITI has always been nongovernmental, and because our language has always been theatre, we have always been able to insist on the inclusion and participation of our entire growing list of member countries, regardless of the current state of world politics. Whenever and wherever there was a meeting, seminar, World Congress or ITI Festival, we were obligated to invite everybody. They didn’t have to come, but they had to be invited. That mission created a strong precedent that enabled us to invite Cubans and East Germans to New York (1967), Israelis and South Koreans to Moscow (1973)—and numerous other countries who “didn’t talk” to one another.
As a global gathering of theatre people, ITI has promoted, protected and defended theatre artists, their work, their opinions, and, in some cases, their lives.
ITI’s secret is that we help out. We facilitate. We encourage. We are catalysts. We do not produce, present, create, or move work—we help everybody else get to the place where they do it themselves. For 54 years ITI has fought for the importance of theatre in the world and the importance of America’s place in it.
TCG inherited the ITI-U.S. Center in 1999, and as part of the package a crowd of countries that has spent 50-plus years inching toward one another, trying to find out whether or not they have anything to say to one another—and discovering that, indeed, they do. Now, at home at TCG, ITI has a place to store and share the collective memory of theatre. Our continuity is the memory of the future.
Sept. 11 canceled America’s adolescence and forced us to outgrow our ignorance of and indifference to our neighbors around the globe. We cannot afford isolation—it’s too dangerous. The Sept. 11 attacks also led some theatre artists to question their chosen paths. It reminded me of an event 35 years ago.
In 1967, when the U.S. hosted the World Congress of ITI in New York, the meeting took place on the same days as the six-day war in the Middle East. When the war broke out, we were paralyzed by thoughts of theatre’s irrelevance and frivolity: How could we talk theatre when the world was blowing up? But we had these guests and colleagues from 45 countries, so we continued to work with determination and energy. The Congress began on Sunday, June 4, and ended on Saturday, June 10. On Friday afternoon, the majority of the delegates went across town to the U.N. to watch the General Assembly debates. The next morning, at the closing plenary session, the Soviet delegate (who once read fairy tales to Stalin) rose and said, “Yesterday we listened to the professional diplomats talk and talk. Today we sit again together with one another. We have worked all this week for theatre—WE are the diplomats!”
That’s why we have answered the telephone for 54 years. That’s why the welcome mat is permanent.
Martha Coigney is the director of ITI-U.S. and the honorary president of ITI Worldwide.