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Why doesn’t Britain take part in World Theatre Day?

Paul Ritter, Rufus Sewell and Tim Key in Art by European playwright Yasmina Reza, staged at London's Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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On March 27, theatres all over the globe will celebrate World Theatre Day in different ways. Many will give free performances; even more will have a reading of the International Theatre Institute’s annual World Theatre Day message – this year’s is from Isabelle Huppert, who will deliver it in person at a gala evening at Unesco headquarters in Paris.

The ITI’s first such message was written by Jean Cocteau in 1962. Other message-writers over the years have included Arthur Miller, Pablo Neruda, Wole Soyinka, Vaclav Havel, Eugene Ionesco, Robert Lepage, Edward Albee, Dario Fo and John Malkovich. British contributors include Judi Dench, Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and Peter Brook (twice).

And what will be this country’s contribution to the celebrations? Not a lot. The UK’s ITI centre closed in 2011, having lost most of its influence at home under its last director, Neville Shulman. He wound up the centre when he failed to be re-elected to the institute’s governing body.

The institute has itself survived some rocky times, having been close to bankruptcy in 2008, but now thrives in more than 100 countries, with a full-time secretariat based at its new headquarters in Shanghai. Its next biennial congress is scheduled for July in Segovia, Spain.

ITI is officially a Unesco organisation, so one might expect our Unesco National Commission to acknowledge World Theatre Day, but it does not appear on the commission’s busy calendar. The absence of UK theatre from such international bodies as ITI is an indicator of how out of touch Britain has become with the larger theatre world. British companies and individuals used to lead the way in international organisations, but now we seldom engage with the major European  theatre networks.

Ivo van Hove’s Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The Union of European Theatres (UTE) counts 18 leading theatres in Europe and Israel as members. Originally, the UK was represented by the National Theatre, but its membership has long lapsed. UTE holds festivals of its members’ work, runs training and research projects and has an annual  general assembly.

A rival grouping, the Convention of European Theatres, has 40 member theatres in 23 countries. Nottingham Playhouse was until recently a member, but has lapsed. The remaining UK-based member of the convention is – ironically – the exiled Belarus Free Theatre. Its next conference, incorporating a general assembly, takes place in Karlsruhe, Germany, in April and is devoted to digital innovation in theatre.

This year, the National is the ‘artistic seat’ of Mitos 21, a more informal network that numbers some of Europe’s leading national playhouses among its members, with former NT director Nicholas Hytner still listed as an individual member. Mitos’ next activity is an intensive summer course in Sustainable Cultural Management, led by Julie’s Bicycle, which will take place in Thessaloniki in June.

Finally, the largest amount of European Union subvention goes to the recently formed New European Theatre Action, which has 69 theatres and festivals from 20 countries, largely from Central and Eastern Europe, in its membership.

While we were once leaders in international theatre organisations, our presence is now sadly diminished. Even my own, dear International Association of Theatre Critics lost the British place on its executive committee last year – one we had occupied continuously since the association’s foundation  60 years ago.

Organisationally, Britain is becoming increasingly distanced from the theatre world. But surely individual companies and theatres are more outward-looking? One can point to the splendid work of the Barbican’s year-long festival, which has championed Ivo van Hove and giants such as Robert Lepage and Robert Wilson, and to David Lan’s Young Vic, which has consistently brought major European directors to work with British actors. But apart from appearances at our ever-growing number of festivals (Brighton will have a Dutch contingent this year) we see little of overseas companies on visits to these shores.

Looking at Theatre Record’s listing of a couple of hundred upcoming London shows, you’ll find the continuing Van Hove tributes at the Barbican and a vanity season from Moscow’s Sovremennik Theatre in the West End, but little else. There is no equivalent today of the wonderful Peter Daubeny world theatre seasons, let alone the visits of French (Comedie-Francaise), German (Berliner Ensemble) and Italian companies playing seasons in their own language that once galvanised the West End. London is said to be the 10th-largest French city. Why then can’t it sustain a high-level French theatre company to equal those of Caen or Reims?


Other world days

International Dance Day is held on April 29. The event is organised by ITI’s International Dance Council. American choreographer and dancer Trisha Brown is the author of this year’s message and her company will feature at the International Dance Day Summit in Shanghai on April 27-29.

World Circus Day is held on the third Saturday in April, celebrating circus arts and culture. This year, the eighth edition will take place on April 15, representing the largest celebration of circus communities around the world. The organiser is Monaco-based Federation Mondiale du Cirque. 

World Day of Theatre for Children and Young People is an event held on March 20 by professionals making work for young audiences all over the world. Organised by ASSITEJ, it enables practitioners working in theatre for young audiences to promote children’s entitlement to theatre and the arts, connected to the #takeachildtothetheatre campaign.

World Puppetry Day on March 21 is organised by Unima, the France-based International Puppetry Association and ITI member. Celebrating all things puppet performance-related, the idea came from Iranian puppeteer Javad Zolfaghari with the first day taking place on 2003. 

• Other days include World Opera Day (Feburary 8) and Love Theatre Day in November, which started in 2014 and uses the hashtag #LoveTheatreDay on Twitter as a “virtual celebration of all things theatre”. World Performance Week is a new collaboration between the international performing arts organisations that celebrate their world days between March 20 and March 27

London’s Royal Court has a long and fine tradition, under Elyse Dodgson, of nurturing international playwrights, and if it may appear to be slowing down in recent years it can still claim such successes as Dalia Taha’s 2015 Fireworks, a look at the Palestinian situation through children’s eyes, which was first developed in London in 2013 as part of the Royal Court’s annual International Residency.

The residency, originally the International Summer School, had a huge influence on world theatre during the ‘in-yer-face’ heyday of the 1990s, with leading playwrights of that generation passing through London and taking away international relationships that continue to this day. Germany’s Dea Loher and Marius von Mayenburg, Spain’s Juan Mayorga, the Argentine Rafael Spregelburd and Romania’s Gianina Carbunariu are among its alumni. While detractors may accuse the Royal Court of imposing a grungy, late 20th-century style on world theatres, these are still names that resound around the theatres of continental Europe and beyond.

But how much notice do our producing theatres take of foreign dramatists? The West End hosts plays by  Yasmina Reza and Florian Zeller. And Loher, Von Mayenburg and Roland Schimmelpfennig pop up occasionally on the fringe or Off-West End – Schimmelpfennig’s Winter Solstice has just finished at the Orange Tree, and Von Mayenburg’s Plastic was in Bath last month. But you will look in vain for much evidence of European theatre pacemakers, let alone those from Latin America or Africa, in or out of London.

Although our theatre business pays lip service to the wider world, the truth is we’re only really interested in what we can sell it. More than 90% of the arts community wanted to stay in the EU, so what was its involvement? The Arts Council produced an interesting survey after the referendum campaign, with replies from about 1,000 organisations and individuals, including 353 portfolio-holders.

“Across music, performing and visual arts, 56% of exports went to Europe in 2014, worth £362 million.” Then comes the smaller print: “65% of the Arts Council’s national portfolio organisations have undertaken international activity at some stage in the last three years, earning £34 million in 2014/15.”

That is less that 10% of those exports. It continues: “While 59% of this activity took place in EU countries, the biggest export destination was the USA, with Australia and Canada also in the top 10.”

And there you have it: we have a good mutual arrangement with America. We earn large amounts of money from overseas sales of UK theatre product, led by the portfolios of Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Judy Craymer. But we don’t give a toss for the wider world of theatre, because it doesn’t earn enough. Maybe it’s time for the return of a little altruism. We could start by rejoining the ITI.

Nurturing ‘theatre and a culture of peace’

World Theatre Day 2016 ceremony in Guangzhou, China.

While the UK will not officially take part in this year’s event, Nick Awde looks back at the history and mission of the International Theatre Institute’s World Theatre Day.

Launched in 1962 by the International Theatre Institute in Paris, World Theatre Day is now celebrated globally each year on March 27 by ITI’s national centres. The world theatre community takes part, along with other entities such as the International Association of Theatre Critics and the International Drama/Theatre and Education Association.

For the World Theatre Day international message, ITI invites a world theatre figure – this year France’s Isabelle Huppert – to share their reflections on the concept of “theatre and a culture of peace”. The first message was delivered in 1962 by Jean Cocteau, then Arthur Miller the following year. An august procession of English-speakers has joined them in subsequent years (see feature opposite).

The message is translated into as many languages as possible (Malkovich holds the record with more than 50) and is then read at performances in theatres and other venues worldwide or reproduced in print and online media. The message author then appears at the ITI’s own main event and reads it out – which Huppert will do on March 27 at the Unesco hall in Paris.

In 2013, when message author Dario Fo was unable to attend the main event for health reasons, ITI asked people to come up with inventive ways of performing his message in videos that were then put up on YouTube.

During the rest of the year, ITI is represented by world theatre ambassadors, first appointed in 2008 with the job of promoting theatre on local and international levels. Georgian director Robert Sturua is a recent appointment, joining a list that includes Wole Soyinka, Vigdis Finnbogadottir and Anatoli Vassiliev.

Officially subtitled the “World Organisation for the Performing Arts”, ITI is also the world’s largest such body, with centres and regional groupings across the globe. Cooperating organisations include the Professional Association of Canadian Theatre, Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art and Short+Sweet Theatre, and India’s National School of Drama.

Never resting on its laurels, ITI is always looking at new ways to help spread the message by creating the likes of the International Dance Committee – which organises International Dance Day – the International Festival Forum, International Monodrama Forum, International Playwrights’ Forum, Music Theatre Committee and Young Practitioners’ Committee. Other ITI initiatives include committees to champion theatre education and training, artists’ rights and cultural identity.

World Theatre Day was the brainchild of Finnish director Arvi Kivimaa, who in 1961 asked ITI to create an event for the whole globe. Backed by the Scandinavian centres, his proposal was launched the following year on the opening day of ITI’s 1962 historic Theatre of Nations season in Paris.

Given that the UK is not currently an ITI member, it’s ironic that not only were the Brits centre-stage at that first celebration in Paris but we were also the driving force behind the organisation’s creation. The institute was founded in 1948 – a year after the Edinburgh International Festival – through Unesco, by a group of theatre and dance experts that included Tyrone Guthrie, JB Priestley (said to have had the original idea) and Unesco’s first director general, Julian Huxley.

As with Edinburgh, ITI’s founders believed that theatre needed an official voice after  the Second World War, because artists “could and should communicate across borders even when their governments might not”. It’s a voice that’s still needed.

International Theatre Institute in numbers

Director general: Tobias Biancone
President: Mohammed Saif Al Afkham
Founded: 1948, Paris (Unesco)
Based in: Shanghai
Member countries: 88
Member organisations: 20
Next world congress: July 14-22 in Segovia, Spain

The International Theatre Institute’s main celebration of World Theatre Day takes place in Paris on March 27: world-theatre-day.org; iti-worldwide.org

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