As the UK’s cultural sector prepares for Brexit, it’s important now, more than ever, to look to organisations such as the International Theatre Institute for expertise and guidance, says Nick Awde. He speaks to ITI’s director general Tobias Biancone about the empowerment that comes from cross-border collaboration
Whatever the forthcoming implications for artists’ freedom of movement next January, what is certain is that EU funding streams and programmes will be cut off. A radical shift is therefore needed in the overall industry’s approach to international collaboration.
In theatre, artists and companies have been impressively quick to react on an individual level – as has Creative Europe – but the sector’s leaders are yet to come up with a plan to rethink the UK’s cultural position post January 2021.
UK practitioners will need to look further afield for the expertise and networks to help negotiate and realign to the global playing-field, which is anything but level.
The largest world network for the performing arts is the International Theatre Institute, based in Shanghai, with more than 90 centres around the world. It’s not a funding body and has a limited budget for its own worldwide activities, but it does offer links and advice on global practice, lobbies governments and doesn’t cost those seeking its services a penny.
“Interestingly, ITI was created in 1948, just after the Second World War, on the initiative of two Britons: playwright and novelist JB Priestley and philosopher Julian Huxley,” says ITI director general Tobias Biancone. “ITI’s aim then and now has been to create platforms for international exchange and for engagement in education of the performing arts, for beginners and professionals alike, as a way to promote mutual understanding and peace.”
He continues: “Cultural diversity is an immensely important part of what we have always stood for. For example, in Europe there’s still the idea that what we see on stages following the European tradition is the only way to express theatre. It’s a viewpoint so embedded that outside of Europe you’ll find the elites will value staging a play by Shakespeare over their local national forms of performing arts. This colonialisation through culture or ‘cultural hegemony’ needs to change – and working for this change is key to why ITI exists.”
This predominance of Western culture is apparent in many performing arts universities in every country, Biancone says. “Unfortunately this not only kills cultural roots, it also reduces the cultural richness and diversity that this world has to offer. It’s important that we take care of the intangible cultural heritage side of the performing arts, otherwise the diverse world that the performing arts can offer is lost.”
1. World Day of Theatre for Children and Young People, ASSITEJ International (March 20) assitej-international.org
2. World Puppetry Day, Unima (March 21) unima.org
3. World Poetry Day, Unesco (March 21) en.unesco.org
4. World Mime Day, World Mime Organisation (March 22) worldmime.org
5. World Theatre Day, ITI (March 27) iti-worldwide.org
In some countries even the idea of the performing arts as we know it is struggling to be accepted, while in most countries, as is the case in the UK, moves towards diversity are held back by limits on funding and cultural barriers.
“Money is essential to any cultural action and also for the survival of the performing arts in any country,” says Biancone. “But that doesn’t mean the performing arts should follow the commercial line. The performing arts should be for the people, not just for an elite. For everybody. And it should take up not only their issues but also preserve and promote their identities.”
The ITI centres are also sharing resources on practical responses to the nationalism that’s on the rise globally, where a constant feature is attacking or closing down any part of the performing arts perceived as not following the ‘norm’. ITI sees open dialogue with governments and institutions as part of the wider route to strengthening the position of artists.
Biancone acknowledges that this can be problematic in the short term but points to the performing arts having inbuilt tools that often create engagement with those opposed to free theatre, especially through areas such as academia and education.
“Education is a right and integral to strong theatre, whether it’s self-education, at school or at university level,” he says. “But any education for me is also about being able to listen and raise awareness.
“Freedom of movement is also a right. Isolation is never the answer to anything. You should be able to choose where you want to live and work. So performing and collaborating in other countries is not just the business of culture but also about interacting with other artists and learning from each other’s experiences and traditions.”
The performing arts should be for the people, not just for an elite
A while back, a group of ITI centres and committees started work with Unesco, ITI’s parent organisation, on formulating the NO VA project (No Visa for Artists) and ‘a passport for artists’. These were looked at seriously and the schemes even landed on the desks of a few ministries of culture, but they appear to have fizzled out.
“All the endeavours that I know of, including Unesco’s, weren’t followed through due to lack of funds and lack of administrative clout,” says Biancone. “There’s also the problem that this sort of initiative becomes an inter-governmental game, complicated by the fact that the value of culture and the arts at government level is often poor.
“Artists therefore need to find new routes for making themselves important to their governments. What is now on the agenda at Unesco is global citizenship, and recently there was a major meeting dealing with this,” he adds.
Help in setting up those new routes is now needed in the UK, where the situation with the European Union has already started creating barriers.
The most prominent case was the cancelling, by the European Commission in 2017, of the UK’s turn to host the European Capital of Culture for 2023 – bidding cities were Dundee, Nottingham, Leeds, Milton Keynes and Belfast/Derry. The European Commission also removed the UK’s eligibility to have a host city after it leaves the EU. These were purely political acts – neither decision had a legal basis.
Designed as open to all bidders is ITI’s new World Performing Arts Capital, a partnership with Unesco that sees cities selected annually to programme events that raise global awareness for the performing arts. The World Performing Arts Capitals will pair a major metropolis like London or New York with a smaller city or town, similar to those selected for the European Capitals of Culture, or a major city with a limited budget, as found in Africa, Latin America, Asia and parts of Europe.
The successful bids will be announced on March 27 at ITI’s World Theatre Day celebrations at Unesco in Paris, and kick off on May 21, 2021, which is the UN and Unesco’s World Day for Cultural Diversity.
Initiatives like this show how ITI is actively responding to the changes in the world industry. Mindful of the fact that many international organisations have lost direction and funding as a result, ITI carried out a radical structural overhaul and then transferred its general secretariat headquarters from Paris to Shanghai in 2015, while also maintaining its base at Unesco in Paris.
But Biancone equally sees change as a local responsibility. “It’s a never-ending process because performing arts communities all over the world are constantly evolving. As points to serve the performing artists and arts in their country, ITI’s national centres need to be ready to focus on the issues that exist in their sphere of influence.
“The general secretariat has transformed itself well, now the central strategy is how to empower the centres, strengthening the ties between them globally and locally.”
The real empowerment comes from those inter-country connections and cross-border collaborations – driven not from the top but from the grassroots, says Biancone. “Never give up. Take a multi-level approach. Exceed the expectations of people who may never have been to a theatre or who see danger in the performing arts.
“Now this may all sound theoretical, but in practice we know this has been done all over the world, always raising the status, impact and potential of the performing arts.”
Founders: JB Priestley, Julian Huxley
President: Mohamed Saif Al-Afkham
Director general: Tobias Biancone
Based: Headquarters in Shanghai, China, with more than 90 centres worldwide
World Performance Week, a collaboration between international performing arts organisations, starts on March 20, ending with ITI’s World Theatre Day on March 27. Details: iti-worldwide.org