Monday, November 3, 2008

Theatre as International Policy

"I believe the artist is amongst the most honorable members of our society. Amount the most powerful. That the artist can profoundly affect life in a way that no politician, no business leader can. Because it deals primarily with the personal, speaking one to one with all its participants, yet by its very nature knows no boundaries."

British playwright Kwame Kewi-Armah gave the keynote address at the TCG National Conference in June. The speech was entitled "Theatre as International Policy." After you wade through the first half of the speech about Kewi-Armah's inspirations and background, some real magic begins to take place.

But not in the way you might think.

He does address the idea of theatre as an advocate for change and the values of theatre and the arts as a model for some of that. The meat-and-potatoes, however, are that the arts (and especially theatre) need to be cultural ambassadors - and not just as part of artist exchange programs (though those too are important).

America's image is suffering across the globe and this tarnished reputation is hurting our ability to reach out to other nations. Events like the wars in Iraq and Afganistan are only a small part of that. Our aggressive unilateral approach and labeling everyone as either friend or foe is not the only factor either. A large part of this image comes from the culture we export.

Hollywood exports films that are very lavish, violent, and risque. Our music industry trades in Hip-Hop. Our commercial products are very decadent and consumer driven. I think you can start to see where he is going with this. In other words the image of ourselves that we export isn't very attractive either.

Kwei-Armah goes on to tell us about his personal visits to the US and how shocked he was as to what he found here - it certainly wasn't the violent society that he expected. And his experiences in American theatres were second to none.

But we are exporting a very ugly image to the world - what can we as theatre artists do to improve what other people see? Sadly we as American theatre artists won't have the same impact as Hollywood or Television, but we should do what we can. Think about a few ways that you can impact our cultural image both at home and abroad with your work in the theatre.

And as we go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new president here in America, read over Kwei-Armah's speech and think about what our role in the world should be.

Happy Birthday: Terrance McNally (b. 1939)

1 comment:

  1. Back in the Sixties, a Catholic monk named Thomas Merton wrote about poets, writers, et al as 'marginal' persons, that is persons in the margin, the comment-section, if you will, of the main page. For him, that also meant they were prophetic; they saw where society was, remembered the promise of what it could be, and were responsible to call the "main page" back to its purpose, its promise. And they did it in and through their artistic forms.
    That is not to say artists and their craft need not be fun or entertaining. Indeed, the jester served a significant purpose in the king's court, if nothing else to keep the king mollified so he didn't wipe out a village or town because of his frustration and anger.
    But the artist, the playwright, and their products elicit what is deepest within from realms we cannot see yet kingdoms from which we live, and bring to light that which is often darkest for us all: our very selves. Their "comments" are more than mere passing chitchat. They are the edits, the punctuation marks that provide meaning, cohesion, clarity and strength to the main page.
    Kwame's speech reinforced the importance of the margin on the page, that invisible boundary that calls us back to our purpose, and to keep the narrative and dialogue dynamically in order and ongoing.