For a fleeting moment this summer, America threw off its cloak of cultural isolation and American audiences experienced the wonders of the most significant international artistic event in our 208-year history—the Olympic Arts Festival. At the same time, theatre practitioners entered into an international artistic dialogue embracing four continents at the TCG National Conference.
While the Soviet bloc boycotted the Olympic Games, a Polish theatre company shared the laurels of defiance with Romanian athletes by performing at the festival, which lured some of the world’s greatest contemporary theatre artists to America. Some of the visiting companies embraced in their work the cultures of other countries (including a French Kabuki Shakespeare, a British French classic and Japanese-stvle Greek tragedy), and American audiences were exposed to—and excited by—a startling array of work grounded in other cultural traditions.
The significance of this new internationalism for a country as geographically, linguistically and culturally isolated as ours cannot be underestimated. It has everything to do with our theatre. More important, it has everything to do with our world.
In a chilling moment—one of many at TCG’s conference—John Hirsch described his inability to “wrap his mind around” what he saw on a visit to India, because Hellenic and Judeo-Christian values did not apply. He spoke of his need, as a theatre artist, to “retrain” himself to become non-judgmental about totally different cultures. “You cannot work fully,” he said, “unless your antennae are extraordinarily sensitive to what’s going on around you.”
In today’s global village, what’s going on around us literally encompasses the planet. But, as Hirsch told the conferees, artists in the U.S. today are still peripheral: “We are not around when serious matters are really dealt with.” Robert Wilson blames America’s lack of global interchange on the absence of a cultural policy. He believes that international cultural activities act as “a window to the world.”
A few Americans have looked through that window. For years Ellen (‘LaMama”) Stewart has been America’s uncontested cultural ambassador for theatre, a whirling dervish who circles the globe spawning theatres and importing foreign artists to perform at her New York theatre. Some companies have embarked on international projects of other kinds: Milwaukee Rep has an ongoing exchange with Japan; the O’Neill Center, Intiman, the New York Shakespeare Festival, Repertorio Español, City Stage Company have brought the world’s literature to their stages; the Guthrie, Missouri Rep and American Rep, to name a few, have engaged leading foreign directors.
But the overwhelming majority of international activity has worked just the other way: We have exported some of our leading innovators—Wilson, Richard Foreman, Meredith Monk. We have also sent a few (too few) of our large companies on foreign tours—Arena Stage, ACT, Actors Theatre of Louisville. Yet how many Americans had seen the work of Ariane Mnouchkine, Giorgio Strehler or Tadashi Suzuki before the Olympics?
Diversity has always been a part of America’s indigenous culture and its theatre, but a national theatrical provincialism has also prevailed. With the exception of the British, few foreign companies venture to these shores, and those that do rarely get further than New York.
The word “exchange” implies two directions. We don’t have to wait for another festival or the next TCG conference to keep up the momentum. We can create our own “cultural policy.” Ways can be found to import, export and exchange. Some of these ways will cost money—how will we pay? By making it urgent, important, essential. Without that sense of priority, the wherewithal will not materialize. There are already encouraging signs of interest from corporations, foundations, the government. USIA is expected to fund one, possibly two, foreign tours by American companies in the coming year. The Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission has asked TCG to administer a project that will send five companies to Japan over the next decade. American and foreign corporations have recently supported international cultural activities (British corporations paid the tab for Britain’s Salute to New York last year). The Asian Cultural Council and the American Scandinavian Foundation have supported arts projects, as have foreign governments and airlines.
But tours and festivals are not the only ways for theatres to play a more active role in “understanding the other.” Travel, study, invitations to visiting foreign artists and translation commissions are less costly, and can play a significant role in the development of a broad-based approach to international exchange.
Theatre can make a vital contribution to world civilization. Athol Fugard, in this issue’s cover story, says theatre has a potent civilizing effect because it forces one to listen. The Olympic festival proved that language is no barrier to listening. How exciting to contemplate American theatre artists and audiences listening, like Fugard, to more different voices and looking through Robert Wilson’s window to the world—with their antennae out, Hirsch-fashion, sensitized to discover both the world’s universality and its otherness.
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