The arts serve as the language that allows political entities to communicate. Education in both the developed and developing countries is emphasizing business, technology and the sciences, and the countries may thrive accordingly, independently. But it is the arts, by expressing the profound human values, that act as durable forces for unity across continents and cultures.
"A Theatre for All"
Who knew, from the stuffy, heavily-censored Stanislavsky we all read about, that he was enormously well-traveled and always interested in what was cutting-edge. [i] In Stanislavsky's Legacy (ed. E.R. Hapgood), we have part of a 1926 letter Stanislavsky sent to his Paris friend, Firmin Gémier, who was the first to play the role of Jarry's outlandish, outsized Ubu Roi. The theatre, Stanislavsky argues in the letter, is uniquely able to speak across cultures, and for that reason, it has an important role to play in world peacemaking.
His first idea, Stanislavsky writes, was to further good relations between Russia, Europe and America by bringing together all their actors. He bemoans the fact that those in power have forgotten "the high significance of the theatre," its "educational and uplifting qualities as an influence on the masses." The theatre, he says, is "one of the best and principal means of bringing about reconciliation and mutual understanding between nations… of leading to the achievement of world peace." He notes that when he has performed in a language foreign to his audiences, where their culture was alien to him and the play was alien to them, they have all understood each other perfectly. Actors, then, should be allowed to travel to transmit "the intangible human feelings which are beyond consciousness… and necessary to the understanding of a foreign people… [a]n invisible light is conveyed from soul to soul." Governments have an obligation to create "a theatre for humanity, a theatre for mutual understanding."
Working during break, Sweden symposium (Sept. 2010). Pictured: members of IATC, leading theatre critics of Portugal, Korea, Mexico, Finland. At right, Baltic House Theatre Festival boot-and-butterfly poster (Russia)
"Remember the war, not the hatred"
Substantial parts of my work have unfolded abroad, and everywhere I encounter this theme of the ability of the cultural arts to heal political rift. For example, I travel yearly with the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC), of the UNESCO culture sector. In 2006, during a frightening episode of North Korean military brinkmanship, I saw the international critics' attendance for their 50th anniversary congress, to be held in South Korea, increase in solidarity. In 2009 in Poland, I saw the commitment of the Grotowski Institute to creating a visual and vocal language that bypasses national boundaries. The following year, visiting the national theatres of Sweden, Latvia and Estonia, I heard repeatedly: the arts allow us to remember war without remembering the hatred; the arts give us all a common language; through the arts, we overcome cultural isolation. [ii] That same year, for the prestigious Baltic House Theatre Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia, the promotional image was of a butterfly alighted on the toe of a combat boot: the arts mitigate our culture of violence.[iii]
Teaching at the arts university in Taipei, Taiwan, I saw the tensions between Taiwan and China barely contained by artistic exchanges. As Special Guest Speaker for a pan-Mexico roundtable at Mexico's leading voice institute, I was moved by the talented delegates' sense of urgency to train the unmediated speaking voice as a metaphor for a larger humanist project. Invited to Russia's oldest theatre academy, I was reminded that Russia, perhaps more than any other country, has developed, transmitted and relied on its elaborate artistic culture to survive, literally, the chaos of its political culture.
2nd U.S.-China Cultural Forum, U.C. Berkeley (Oct. 2010). Pictured: Dr. LIU Zhen, Director, Chinese Opera Institute, Chinese National Academy of Arts
"We are friends, my friends"
The 2nd U.S.-China Cultural Forum received an enthusiastic welcome to the San Francisco Bay Area. The full two-day forum featured a dizzying number of thoughtful, forceful, tender and witty speakers, all with stellar titles from leading arts and cultural institutions. Here are just a few of the many highlights:
James Leach, Head of NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) and traveling with President Obama's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, sounded a note of promise to delegates of China's Ministry of Culture: Walt Whitman said that poetry would go farther in the way of peace than politics; Confucius said that more time spent appreciating music and learning courtesy would mean the end of war. Later a U.S. panelist added that John F. Kennedy's version was: we would not have war if more politicians knew poetry and more poets knew politics.
Throughout the forum, the issue of translation was always near the surface. From the Chinese panelists, we heard several times that historical periods of political openness had meant the introduction, translation and performance of Western literature and drama. But even at the best of times, a translator of such materials was respected not for his artistry, but for bringing to the fore any themes in a text that could have political implications. (A student of mine told me that the the Chinese title of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath translates as The Angry Grape.) Overall, the various stories we were told about the distorted Chinese translations of Western texts were bested only by the stories of how the West botched their translations from the Chinese language. One famous example from the 1600s: picture an earnest team of 12 Jesuit priests reducing a 400-page document recording Confucius's vast body of thought to 60 pages of language both "dense" and "stilted." The point was also made that in modern times, America has focused on the translation of China's diplomatic documents rather than of its literature.
Dr. LIU Mengxi, Director of the Institute of Chinese Culture at the Chinese National Academy of Arts, posed the question about the U.S. and China: how are we going to resolve our hatreds? His answers were disarming. Above all, we can never resolve them with weapons. The U.S., he said with great emphasis, should think about this. In fact, history doesn't say why we are even fighting—we are just like a couple! "We are friends, my friends"; "different looks, same heart"; "even if there are bad feelings, let's not get a divorce." We can find common ground in beauty, in compassion. An example of beauty trumping politics? Dr. Liu named one dynasty in which conflict with the barbarians was resolved by sending beautiful women to make the peace.
Final performance: professional Peking Opera actors in the hat sequence from Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in Taiwan (actors: CHEN Fu-Guo, CHEN Yuan-Hong; dir. MA Bao-shan, for my MFA directing class, 2007)
I have seen in Asia and Europe the palpable role the arts play—not only culturally, but also socially and politically. In our globalized era, all our artists and thinkers need expanded skills to participate in world culture. In America, where we have no Ministry of Culture and no National Theatre to articulate our sensibilities and priorities, our teachers have a special obligation—and a special opportunity—to foster the intellectual and creative lives of America's students. I believe that a consistent and compelling aesthetic education is the key to enriching our nation's relations, on every level, with the rest of the world.
[i] The new Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky (Oct. 2013) finally offers new perspectives on Stanislavsky's work. My own essay in it is "Stanislavsky on voice and movement: Contexts, concepts and content." http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415535649/
[ii]There was a delightful 2-part video made of this trip, "Theatre Arc [sic]: Baltic House," narrated by the incomparable Nikolai Pesochinsky:
[iii] I wrote about the remarkable Baltic House for Scene4 the following year: http://www.scene4.com/archivesqv6/sep-2011/0911/lissarenaud0911.html
Cover Photo -Façade: building on the Shanghai Theatre Academy campus (Oct. 2013). Stanislavsky's image at upper left.
One only sees dots up close; the faces emerge when seen from a distance
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