When Britain was self-harming last week, I was in the United States. The US theatre industry was staging its annual conference, convened by TCG (Theatre Communications Group: “the national organization for the American theatre”) in Washington DC. ACE had been invited to bring a UK delegation over; CPT (much to our delight) was part of it. The four-day trip couldn’t have been more fascinating – partly because of the international perspective afforded on the Brexit horrors back home, mainly because of the insight yielded into where American theatre is at, where it differs from and converges with our own.
My own experience of the conference won’t have been shared by everyone. You could map scores of routes through this sprawling junket, where countless break-out sessions, workshops and plenaries were available at any given moment of the day. One major strand explored intersectionality, in part because this year marked the twentieth anniversary of a speech on race that playwright August Wilson gave to the equivalent conference back in 1996. The most eye-opening session I attended was “A Space for White Folks Working Towards Racial Justice”, which taught us how to use a ladder tool charting the journey “From White Racist to White Anti-Racist”. To we Brits in the room, it was an intensely strange experience: egg-shell sensitive, low on self-irony, but (on reflection; once we’d recovered) probably useful and certainly revealing about a culture whose racial realities are more extreme and polarising than ours.
I spent a lot of my time in sessions about community engagement, absorbing examples of work by (for example) Cornerstone in California and the Public Theater’s new Public Works strand (pictured, left). I learnt plenty – but I was also struck (in these sessions and others) by the full-spectrum dominance of ‘the play’, in general, and of Shakespeare, in particular. However inventive and progressive the process, the product almost always seems to be a scripted play, by a playwright, usually Shakespeare. Oskar Eustis, AD of the Public Theater, even forwarded the argument that a community disenfranchised from theatre can’t expect to be taken seriously until they’ve made Shakespeare their own, the Bard being some sort of badge of cultural membership. I’m sure CPT-style work (new theatre forms; projects devised or collaboratively made; generally freaky; playwrights seldom involved) exists in the States, but last weekend there was no one speaking loudly on its behalf.
No matter; there was lots else to be inspired by, particularly given the news breaking of events back home – which were widely referred to by our hosts throughout the conference. However respected the UK might once have been internationally (a moot point, that one), on Thursday we instantly became the global template for How Not to Behave. That much was clear from the sympathy, hugs and appalled expressions (“what have you done?”) with which we British delegates were met throughout the last two days of the conference – by the citizens of a country far more used (by their own admission) to being the Crazy Ones themselves.
On the final day, I attended two sessions that had a rallying effect as I steeled myself to return home to the world’s newest laughing stock. The first was a discussion (pictured, right) with Barack Obama’s pal and America’s permanent representative to the UN, Samantha Power, on the subject of theatre as cultural diplomacy. (The questionmaster was UK theatremaker-in-exile, Kwame Kwei-Armah.) Power talked about how she uses New York theatre to broach difficult cross-cultural questions with counterparts from elsewhere in the world. An example: she invited fellow diplomats from countries with anti-gay laws to the Public Theater’s musical about a gay father and daughter, Fun Home. They didn’t know what she was up to; when they twigged, some were uncomfortable with the show’s content. And then, some months later, after the Orlando shootings, the UN issued its first ever condemnation violence on the basis of sexual orientation. These things may not have been related, Power was careful to say. But they may have been.
I found this event, and the conference’s unapologetic focus on theatre as an agent for change, heartening. So too the closing event in the Intersectionality strand, when each of the break-out groups (representing black theatre, native American theatre, deaf theatre, LGBT theatre, theatre for undocumented migrant workers, “men working for gender justice”; you name it) came together to share findings. Obviously, as a repressed Brit, I was aghast when we all held hands while the transgender (or Two-Spirit) artist Ty Defoe chanted a valedictory American Indian song. And yet, to be in this space where all these communities made common cause, where a world momentarily seemed possible where no one was considered to be (or treated as) more different or peripheral than anyone else, was inspiring. I don’t think I’ve ever had a comparable experience in the UK.
The TCG conference’s title this year was Theatre Nation; it was explicitly about transcending national (or any other kind of) borders and defining a global theatre community with shared values and purpose. Impossibly idealistic, maybe – but I needed to hear it after Brexit, and I was ready to be galvanised by Eustis’s talk from the conference stage about theatre’s responsibility towards “radical hospitality” and “radical expansiveness”. All the news from home was of isolationism and “Britain first”, of closing doors and pulling up drawbridges. I left Washington DC with a sharp sense of my responsibility – of our responsibility – to battle the hell out of Brexit by opening doors, building bridges and reaching out to as many friends, at home and worldwide, as possible.