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There’s a conversation going on right now in DC between local theater artists and programmers and their counterparts from other countries, and I’m hoping it catches fire and spreads.  I’m still digesting so much of what I heard from all the speakers, and what followed in the hours and days since has made for a very busy head.   One might say it started with the arrival of a visiting delegation of Baghdad University theatre artists for a residency at Georgetown University, but that would belie the prior work done by Theatre Studies professor and director Derek Goldman and his colleagues at Georgetown, and the many other artistic exchanges this city has seen in past years.

Goldman has partnered with Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service Professor of Cultural Diplomacy Cynthia Schneider to produce both a conference on “Global Performance, Civic Engagement, and Cultural Diplomacy,” held at Georgetown June 14-16, and livestreamed on Howlround [http://livestre.am/3Ybia]. The conversations within the conference panels extended into coffees and meals and evening performances of an Arabic-language adaptation of Heather Raffo’s Nine Parts of Desire that was written, directed, and performed by two of the visiting Iraqi artists. A further collaboration between Georgetown theater students and professors and those from Baghdad University was planned for the days following the conference.  Many of the artists involved in the residency expressed their desire to build alternative relationships to those built through the labels of of occupier, insurgent, liberator, Shia, Sunni, refugee, or soldier.  Such relationships, they argued, are vitally important to sustain among Iraqis as well as between Iraqis and their international partners.

At a welcoming reception for this delegation, the artists kicked off the conversation by posing questions like: “how do you define freedom?” or “what forms and sites of performance allow us to know and transform ourselves?” They went on to describe performances that took place in various sites in Iraq and then to discuss the exchanges that led to their bringing their work to the United States and the logistical and political challenges posed in doing so. This theme was picked up later in the conference by Ajoka theatre director Shahid Nadeem [see June 8 post about Ajoka], whose hugely popular comedy Burquavaganza takes place in a visa processing office in the US Embassy in Pakistan.

In an interview with WAMU-DC radio host Kojo Namdi, Goldman, Schneider, and Nine Parts director-translator Waleed Shameel discuss their collaborative work on the conference and residency: http://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2012-06-13/when-theater-meets-foreign-policy-cultural-diplomacy

Thursday’s panels took the conversation from DC-based theater directors and programmers at such places as Theater J, Forum Theatre, Busboys and Poets, the Kennedy Center, the Studio Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, and Woolly Mammoth, to their counterparts in Pakistan, Australia, Britain, and elsewhere in the US. Nicolas Kent, Sharon Memis and Nicholas Cull recounted their process of bringing The Great Game to Washington, DC [See May 28 post]. This set of twelve plays was commissioned by Kent, then the Artistic Director of the Tricycle Theatre, from multiple playwrights who were each tasked with writing about a different assigned period of Afghan history. The production first arrived in DC under the radar, with interest slowly building but not resulting in immediate popular success here.  Mims, the British Council’s executive director in DC, worked with Kent, Shakespeare Theatre’s Michael Kahn and Chris Jennings, and others to bring the play back to DC for a second run and for a special performance for the Department of Defense’s senior staff members in the Pentagon’s in-house theater.   As panelists were eloquently praising this event as a high-water mark for cultural diplomacy and the direct political influence of the arts, running through my head the whole time was this: “there’s a theater in the Pentagon?!!”  I was also struck by the irony that in spite of the involvement of the Pentagon and the support of veterans’ welfare organizations such as the Woodruff Foundation, the artists involved in The Great Game production still had visa issues!

Tensions seemed to emerge when the model of a presenting theater’s handful of performances by an invited theater was contrasted with that of egalitarian cross-cultural partnerships that are sustained through collaboration for longer stretches of time.  Some argued the greater value of the latter, others argued that these models are not mutually exclusive, and can in fact be mutually reinforcing. This discussion led to more involved conversations about the challenges and the potential gains of exposing DC audiences to non-English language theater, and of inviting and championing politically and/or aesthetically edgy work.  The director of the women’s human rights advocacy and empowerment group Vital Voices spoke about their commissioning and production of a playwriting project that generated huge support for Vital Voices and its programs. Cynthia Schneider reiterated in response there and in her account of The Great Game how vitally important “leveraging” the influence of performance is to diplomacy. Her emphasis on the political utility of theater prompted others to warn against approaching the arts as an “instrument” of diplomacy.

As the conference participants settled into their dinner and viewing of Nine Parts of Desire, I headed off to join longtime family friends for dinner and for our own conversations about theater, global politics, and engagement. Gathered around the table were educators, economists, artists, and activists, all of us captivated by the stories of a recent benefit performance for the Barenboim-Said Foundation, an organization that embodies the very kind of cultural collaboration and political engagement called for in the conference.  The story at the heart of it all, however, was that of Wadad Makdisi Cortas, who went from student to principal of the Ahliah School for Girls in Beirut, and who was the mother and grandmother of the women telling us the stories.  The collaborators in the performance were Wadad’s daughter Mariam Cortas, the actress Vanessa Redgrave, and actress Najla Said, granddaughter of Wadad and daughter of Mariam Cortas and the late writer-scholar-activist Edward Said. http://brightonfestival.org/event/455/a_world_i_loved/

The conversation took me back in my mind to my first reading of Beirut Fragments, Jean Said Makdisi’s memoir of her life during the Lebanese civil war. It is heartening to see the writing and the stories of the women in this family emerge into the spotlight, as their lives and their writings offer unique perspectives from within and outside of Lebanon through world war, nationalist and anti-colonial struggles, civil war, and now, distressingly, a shaky post-war cooperation threatening to give way to violent conflict.

A remark made at the conference by Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets Café, also struck me– he said that his inspiration for establishing the Peace Café in partnership with Theater J was the idea that feeding people would make them nicer to each other and less hostile to the provocative ideas they encountered in the plays.  During our meal, someone also remarked that Arab-American plays about food are far more, er, palatable at the moment.  Maybe it is a mark of the mainstreaming of Arab Americans, as hummous goes the way of tortillas and ramen, or perhaps it’s a highly charged indicator of power and privilege within the Middle East, as in The Arab-Israeli Cookbook [http://www.food-travels.com/index.php?id=44&no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=29&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=2 ] or even Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons  [http://www.canadiantheatre.com/dict.pl?term=Mouawad%2C%20Wajdi ].  But maybe it could also be a conduit to a friendlier dialogue about divisive subjects, as in Andy Shallal’s vision.  That brings me around to the other critical question running through the conference: access.  When we call theater transformative and influential because it has reached the policymakers at the Pentagon or the State Department, that speaks to the question of theater’s access to the “corridors of power”. But what about public access to theater? Many of these companies are increasing public access to their work by performing it in public venues or holding free performances in private spaces like schools, factories, and community centers.  Others are participating in free or discounted ticket schemes or partnering with local organizations.  The challenges they cite in such projects lie in building sustained relationships with their audiences. And again it comes back to food and resources: what kinds of relationships, and what kinds of transformations, are possible in the face of material impoverishment and hunger? How can we make theater and food nourish more bodies and voices?

One heartening response to this question: http://www.liveitlearnit.org/index.php

I’m sure there are many others – please share yours here!