Some time ago, I was in a roomful of theatre leaders discussing a variety of topics when someone posed a pointed question: Why does TCG invest in international work? With so many needs among theatres right here in the U.S., why spend any time traveling to, learning about or reporting on theatre in other countries? Before answering, I asked the group how many were engaged in international work themselves. About 80 percent of the hands went up. I then asked how many were not doing international work and wished they could. The rest of the hands shot up.
Travel budgets are scarce. Time is scarce. And, in truth, most theatre practitioners in the U.S. rarely have the resources to visit each other’s shops, let alone fly off to Budapest or Seoul to get to know the challenges and triumphs of theatre in those communities. Recent studies, including one conducted by the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, show that funding for international engagement is, in general, lacking. One of the few international travel grant programs for the field is housed right here at TCG: We are fortunate to partner with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for Global Connections, a program that connects theatre practitioners across borders for knowledge exchange and the development of new projects. We receive hundreds of proposals for this program every year.
At the same time (as evidenced by the number of hands that went up in answer to my questions), theatremakers often find that there is nothing more mind-expanding than the opportunity to explore other theatre cultures and practices through global travel and artistic exchange. By stepping outside our borders, or inviting others in, we experience each other’s humanity while breaking bread over ideas; we explore each other’s aesthetics; and we inevitably realize that—although our political and economic environments may differ dramatically—all theatre people are driven by similar passions.
It’s true as well that with a relatively small investment of travel funds, the experiential payoff can be big. TCG has hosted several delegations over the years, to Colombia, China, Cuba, Spain and Sudan. Out of those trips, friendships and collaborations have sprung up among the U.S. delegates, and new cross-border projects have emerged, sometimes getting underway years after the initial visit. Citizens of those countries have come to see the U.S. in a new light. And the act of spending time in a radically different environment, engaging with something we know—theatre—is a powerful kick-starter for reflection on one’s own work.
Two TCG delegations this past March underscored this reality. First, a group of 17 U.S.-based theatre leaders and university affiliates traveled to Cuba for a seven-day research trip, seeing work and visiting theatremakers and dance troupes in Cienfuegos, Cumanayagua, Santa Clara and Havana. Led by the L.A.-based composer Sage Lewis, delegates visited, in Santa Clara alone, El Mejunje, an arts center that boasts a weekly world-renowned drag show, a Sunday afternoon salsa party for community members of all ages, and a cabaret that allows young artists to show their work; Danza del Alma, an all-male dance company that trains, rehearses and performs six days a week (on the seventh day they give classes for children); and Estudio Teatral de Santa Clara, a company founded in the ’80s that dedicates itself to exploring the realities of Cuban life and identity.
All over Cuba, supplies and funding are scarce. Everyone pitches in. Artists are aware that their country’s political system is changing, that they’re on the edge of a new world that may alter what the artist’s role will be. Just as in the U.S., they face issues around diversity and gender equity. One official even assured us that The Laramie Project, by delegate Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project, was having an impact on shaping a new landscape for LGBT rights in Cuba.
Also in March, a smaller TCG/International Theatre Institute/U.S. delegation traveled to Sudan for the Albugaa International Theatre Festival in Khartoum. The festival invited the Bronx-born troupe Universes to perform and give workshops. The delegation became guests of honor at the festival and also met with U.S. and Sudanese officials. In a world where the impressions of the United States are largely controlled by mass media, the power of citizen-to-citizen exchange through theatre grows ever more powerful.
The group also gleaned new ideas about theatre criticism. On the program was an applied criticism session in a tent filled with artists, critics, scholars, audience members and media, all engaging in a passionate discussion about the work they’d seen. According to TCG director of international programs Emilya Cachapero, “It was an incredible example and lesson about audience engagement, done in a meaningful way.”
So why does TCG invest time in international work? In truth, our international focus commands a relatively small portion of our time and resources. Some of that time is dedicated to helping theatres obtain visas for visiting artists and make contact with practitioners and officials in countries where they seek to work. Some is in fulfilling our role as the U.S. Center for the International Theatre Institute. Some attention is spent on our Global Connections program, and, yes, some is in leading delegations of member theatres to places we believe our theatre community can benefit from visiting.
When TCG was founded in 1961, one of its stated goals was to combat provincialism that could occur among theatres scattered across the country. Today, we continue hope that isolationism will never be a hallmark of our theatre community—but rather that the field will energetically embrace a sense of global citizenship among theatre people worldwide.