There’s exceptional and important theater in Washington that too often gets overlooked. It doesn’t come nicely packaged in season subscriptions or heralding stars from that other theater town, New York. For those of us who experience such pieces of theater, though rare, they can nonetheless feel like bombs dropped in our midst: disruptive, chaotic, and disturbing, but also illuminating and profoundly moving. In this international diaspora that is our theatre community, these theatre-bombs can come from anywhere.
“I want people to find one another, sit down and listen and learn from one another…I want us to come together to love, rage, grieve, and howl.” Derek Goldman, Co-Director, CrossCurrents Festival
This past week, over 400 theatre-makers representing over 40 countries came to Georgetown for a four-day Gathering (May 8 – 11) that was the centerpiece of the CrossCurrents Festival. Many, who came as far away as Cambodia, Australia, and Nigeria, engaged with one another sharing excerpts of work, panel discussions, workshops, and informal “meets” at the tent (the last often involving international food.)
Derek Goldman, who put this idea together, must have shook in his boots at times in the months, weeks and days leading up to the event at how his radical dream might have turned into either a bore or become an us-vs.-them, tomato-throwing disaster. After all, he insisted on this not being about putting forward “best of” productions. “I want people to find one another, sit down and listen and learn from one another…I want us to come together to love, rage, grieve, and howl.”
It was very much opposite to how most of us work in the Washington theater community, who are all too often straitjacketed into competing rehearsal blocks and performance schedules. I couldn’t help but notice the various leaders of local companies and other guests who were not present or who only took the opportunity to parachute in for their headlined “slot.” They missed what those who committed themselves to the course of four days found: rich experiences of voices and works that resonated and built and conversations leading to new friendships and exciting inspiration.
The schedule was so full and there were so many things to take in, much eliciting such deep emotions, that I admit I was exhausted by the end. It is hard to convey a clear picture of how extraordinary an event this was – making new friendships and being moved often to tears about the artistically challenging and wide-ranging work going on around the world. Much of this kind of work goes unfunded and often is deemed dangerous and targeted by authorities. In some places, there is no tradition of “theatre” as we know it. Some is happening in the midst of war zones.
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Let me try, nonetheless, to give you some of the blended flavors and especially catch a few conversational snippets and reflections, exemplified by a few moments eked out with Howard Shalwitz, Founding Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth (now AD emeritus.)
What did The Gathering mean to you? How would you describe it?
Howard Shalwitz: The Gathering was a powerful demonstration of the urgency of theatre in today’s polarized world. We heard from artists and companies around the world whose work speaks to issues of climate change, migration, white supremacy, unequal justice, authoritarianism, and fundamentalist attitudes of all kinds. These are the forces shaping our world, and theatre makers have a critical role in bringing new awareness and creating forums for education and dialogue.
On Day 1, Azar Nafisi, author of reading Lolita in Tehran and a fellow at Georgetown University, said, “Artists are here from 42 countries to disturb the peace. The best of the work here comes from a place or curiosity, empathy and truth.
James Thompson, Professor from the University of Manchester, talked about the “austerity” policy of Great Britain currently, and how much it sounded like our own country and many others: “ artless, grim, and socially cruel.” He saw this Gathering representing theatre-making in solidarity against such repressive policies globally. Most of all, he saw this work as a community in which making friends is an exercise in the ethics of care as an art form and that (consequently) our works are acts of artful care. I kept thinking about this idea as paramount to process and process as paramount to product, something if not radical at least never much discussed in theatre methodology.
“When I work there [Cambodia] I do the work I have to do. But I work alone. I have come here and I know I am not alone.” – Soung Sopheak, Theater Director of Khmer Art Action
What stood out for you in terms of work shared?
Howard Shalwitz: For me, the best examples were also very entertaining. I’ve always felt that when artists have new things to say they will find new ways to say them; and adventurous theatre artists are finding new ways to engage audiences with a huge variety of tools that go beyond conventional plays. These include docudramas, testimonials, physical works, poetry, music, re-making of classics, etc.
Susan Galbraith: A production that stood out as an experience of the caliber both of artistry but more importantly commitment and urgency in “telling the story” came from Nigeria in the form of a piece of “testimonial theatre.” The Chibok Girls: Our Story shed light on the painful story of the abduction of a group of girls from their village by the Boko Haram. The title might jog some memories but, due to being bombarded by the barrage of news, real and “fake,” the details may have blurred. The numbers changed from a few dozen to hundreds captured and taken into captivity into the forest. But what many of us don’t know is that this was just one of many abductions, and they continue, and that the total number of girls abducted are estimated in the thousands. Some of the girls were rescued or escaped; others remain with their captors. The so-called “forest” is so vast, so dark and dense, that part of the problem is many of these girls cannot be located.
The brave playwright-director Wole Oguntokun decided he would tell their story. He brought some of the original abductees into the first cast and cross-cut individual testimonials with moments of singing, playing, and dancing. No less brave were the actresses in The Gathering’s cast, some of whom worked with those same Chibok Girls, and saw their work as a step in the collective healing as they carry their stories out into the world.
I continue to reflect how the Nigerian actresses and many others in The Gathering worked with such painfully difficult material. I am not sure how they did it. I wonder how and by whom so many of these theater-workers get emotionally recharged.
There were many moments of tears as well as laughter during the four days. There were good workshops in which people who usually designed and led workshops in their own communities threw themselves into participating in activities led by a colleague theater-maker from another part of the globe – from clowning to creating rituals.
There was also an unusual amount of modesty and bare-bones honesty in sharing about the artists’ individual work. Several people spoke about the realities of making theater in Hungary in what they termed “Theatre of Opposition,” moderated by one of the founding voices of the international political-theater community, Phil Arnoult.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Martin Palous, original signer of the Charter 77 which helped launch the Czech “Velvet Revolution,” watched from stage right as excerpts of Vaclav Havel’s play Protest were performed by actors Drew Valins and David Millstone stage left. Albright and Palous helped recreate briefly some of the excitement of the original underground performances (“apartment performances”) witnessed by friends and fellow dissidents then reflected on the work of Havel, playwright, activist and political prisoner, and (later) president of his country. Havel continues to serve as a beacon for other citizen artists and in these turbulent, polarized times to remind us of the responsibility of the individual to stand up to tyranny.
One sharing felt particularly searing and courageous by Washington’s own Ari Roth. I had seen the production of Shame at Mosaic Theatre and knew vaguely some of battle lines that had been drawn in mounting this Israeli-Palestinian work that was conceived to extend itself through collaboration. But at the Gathering, Roth used part pop-up performance, with actress Julie-Ann Elliott, part testimonial by himself reading at a table to outline and respond to what had happened. We witnessed perhaps an all too familiar scenario in cross-cultural collaboration: a total blow up of process and relationship resulting in derailment of original premise and design.
How does The Gathering fit into the work you do in this chapter of your life? What do you learn from the international theatre community?
Howard Shalwitz: In my recent travels to Hungary and Russia, and at the Gathering as well, it was inspiring to see theatre artists, some of whom are facing harsh conditions and real danger, press forward with exceptional creativity (not to mention bravery!) to be a force for good in their countries.
Susan Galbraith: And Howard, you and I both have spoken of the level of artistry we have found in theaters outside of the U.S. and the commitment to and rigor of training. It’s a rare privilege to see the multiple visions and the outrageous means that are found, sometimes when there is a system of support, but more and more when there is none, especially when there is any suggestion of criticism of the status quo. This has been an incredible opportunity in Washington to open our eyes and hearts again to this greater universe of theater-making.
There were a great many artists doing exceptional work and so many more stories in our midst at this important four-day Gathering. Derek Goldman and Cynthia Schneider, Co-Directors of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics from Georgetown University, co-hosted this event.
I’ll give the last word to Soung Sopheak, Theater Director of Khmer Art Action from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He was one of the artists who came the farthest, and whose hard work includes working with orphan children who eke out an existence scavenging in a dump. “When I work there I do the work I have to do. But I work alone. I have come here and I know I am not alone.”