[In the mid-1980s, when I was working on a graduate degree in Performance Studies at New York University, I was hired to launch and edit the newsletter for a new organization for stage directors and artistic directors, the American Directors Institute. ADI’s founder and Artistic Director, Geoffrey Shlaes, and I determined that the newsletter, which we decided to call Directors Notes (the title Notes was already in use by a music-oriented association), would not only cover news and announcements of the organization, but articles of interest to theater directors across the country. So when the biennial celebration of worldwide theater, the Theatre of Nations, was about to open in Baltimore, Maryland, Geoff thought I should attend the festival and write about it for the DN. For theater folk, this gathering was a big deal: it was the first (and so far only) TON held in North America and press coverage, not to mention spectator interest, was expected to be huge. So I got press credentials, went to Washington, D.C.—a 45-minutre drive away from Baltimore—to stay with my parents, and headed to the City of the White Stoops. It turned out to be the most intensive theater experience I’d ever had; I frequently saw two shows a day, and occasionally three, plus formal interviews arranged through the press office, and ad hoc conversations and meetings at informal venues like Club 45.
[My original intent was to cover the festival, a program of the International Theatre Institute, an agency of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), for DN, but during the intermission of one performance, I saw Richard Schechner, a professor of mine at NYU and the editor of The Drama Review, attending the same show. I went to say hello and he asked me why I was at the performance. I explained my assignment, and Richard asked me if I’d like to write up TON for TDR as well. He was planning to devote an entire issue to the festival (the coverage turned out to bleed over into a second issue) and I’d write the general article on the overall event, with the rest of the issue filled with articles on individual productions, artists, and issues. I readily agreed, and the article below, “Theatre of Nations: Baltimore, 1986,” is the result. It ran as “Theatre of Nations” in TDR in the spring issue of 1987). A much abbreviated report was also published as “World Theater Artists Meet in Baltimore” in Directors Notes in September 1986.]
Between 15 and 29 June 1986, Japanese theatre came to Baltimore, Maryland. So did Indian theatre, and Czech, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Brazilian, Polish, British, Irish, Canadian, Italian, Swedish, and American. Principally through the offices of Producer T. Edward Hambleton; Theatre Project Director Philip Arnoult; and the U.S. Director of the International Theatre Institute (ITI), Martha Coigney, “The City of the White Stoops” captured the first North American presentation of the Theatre of Nations, sponsored biennially for the past 30 years by ITI.
There were 103 performances of 33 works by 22 groups and solo performers from 13 countries in 16 spaces during 14 days (Monday, June 16, was dark). Along with the international companies and performers, 10 entries from the United States showed 13 works from New York, San Francisco, and Baltimore. The pieces exhibited ranged from traditional drama to ballet to non-conventional theatre to performance art.
Not that all went smoothly. Just as in the 1981 International Theatre Festival, Baltimore-area blacks objected to the appearance of a South African company, despite the fact that it featured two distinguished but banned black performers, and succeeded in having it sent home, a Soviet protest over the inclusion of Peter Hall’s adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm forced ITI President Wole Soyinka to separate the National Theatre of Great Britain’s production from the official festival activities. Animal Farm went on as scheduled, but was considered an “independent” production.
Shortly after the festival opened, another Eastern Bloc country caused a momentary flap. Newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Back Stage, reported that Bolek Polivka, touring with his group Divadlo na Provazku [theater on a string], had been recalled to Czechoslovakia by his government. No reasons were given, and neither the Czech Embassy in Washington nor Polivka himself claimed to know anything about the recall. In the end, Polivka’s The Jester and the Queen went on as planned, playing to full houses including, at his opening performance, the Czech Ambassador, the Cultural Attaché, and their wives. After his last performance, Polivka married his “Queen,” French actress Chantal Pollain, on the stage of the Theatre Project.
Aside from covering the Animal Farm protest and the Polivka rumor, there was next to no national press notice of the Theatre of Nations. Sarah Fenno Lord reported in Warfield’s that the “thirty to fifty journalists, from out of state and all over the world, . . . writing ‘Dateline Baltimore’ stories,” as one of the festival’s principal financers had hoped, did not materialize.
For some, such as the Shaliko Company’s Leonardo Shapiro, a national spotlight was an important reason for performing at the festival. Shapiro, regretting also the absence of representatives of other festivals, had hoped that The Yellow House, an exploration of Vincent Van Gogh through his letters to his brother Theo, would be picked up for further productions as a result of coming to Baltimore. He was bitterly disappointed with the press apathy: “I thought Jack Kroll [of Newsweek] was going to write. . . . He was here the first week and he left. He told me he would come back and he didn’t. There has been no national press. I got a great review in the Baltimore Sun, which is not going to get me anywhere. So, if I don’t get some kind of national press out of this, this is the end of [The Yellow House].” ITI’s Martha Coigney, when told by a visiting New Yorker at the end of the festival that the Times had given almost no space to the festival, aside from the Animal Farm brouhaha, was “angry as hell at their apathetic attitude.”
Nonetheless, the Theatre of Nations was chock-a-block with some of the best and most interesting performances available in the participating countries. Just as the works on view were varied in style and content, so were the audiences. Certainly some people went to many different performances, and theatre folk were ubiquitous, but the more traditional offerings such as Animal Farm and, even though it was performed in Bulgarian, the Ivan Vasov National Theatre’s Retro, attracted an older, tie-and-jacket crowd. The more experimental pieces, such as Fred Curchack’s Inquest for Freddy Chickan, Shaliko’s The Yellow House, and the work of the Swedish-international collective Jordcirkus and Poland’s Gardzienice Theatre Association, appealed to a younger, more blue jeans-and-sneakers audience.
Some performances had more specialized draws: Northern Ireland’s Charabanc Theatre Company, because it was dubbed a feminist company (it is not), had a heavily female audience; the Theatre Pardes from San Francisco, because it was once called A Traveling Jewish Theatre (it is), had a predominantly Jewish attendance. Sprinkled among the spectators were theatre celebrities such as actresses Helen Hayes, Mildred Natwick, and Celeste Holme; La Mama’s Ellen Stewart; and producer-director Hal Prince.
Since each show was presented only one to eight times, there were opening nights right up until June 27. Something new was available almost every day of the festival and, despite matinees and varying curtain times, it was not possible to see everything.
Many groups, particularly the international companies, came to Baltimore as part of an extensive tour, arriving from another venue and departing for a new one somewhere else. Some groups brought one piece and some two or more. Most of the works were not new. Ghashiram Kotwal (Ghashiram, the Police Chief) by the Theatre Academy of Pune, India, had been in that company’s repertory for 15 years, while Shaliko’s The Yellow House was reconceived especially for the festival. One performance was a genuine premiere: Fred Curchack’s Freddy Chickan.
Aside from the obvious boost to the tourist trade, and the interest to habitual theatergoers in a gathering of performers from far and wide, there is an important benefit of international festivals for American theater professionals. They need to rub artistic elbows with colleagues doing different kinds of work elsewhere in the world. Without cross-fertilization, theater stagnates. Philip Arnoult, whom Martha Coigney called “a card-carrying internationalist” in Warfield’s, accused American theater artists of being “criminally isolated, not only from the rest of the world, but from each other.” (This and all other unattributed statements were made in interviews and conversations with me during the festival.) Even the established geographical regions, such as the Mid-West and the Boston-Washington Corridor of the east coast, behave as if they are walled off from each other.
American directors, for example, do not talk to one another, asserted Stan Wojewodski, Jr., Artistic Director of Baltimore’s Center Stage and a Theatre of Nations co-director. They seem threatened by cross-fertilization and will seldom travel to Los Angeles, Chicago, or Louisville, much less Paris, Edinburgh, or Avignon, to see shows by colleagues. Festivals give artists an opportunity to see the work of a collection of others compacted into a short time. Wojewodski said a number of the participating artists had expressed delight at being in Baltimore for the festival. Geoffrey C. Shlaes, a free-lance director and Artistic Director of the American Directors Institute, was taken enough with Shaliko’s The Yellow House to spend more than an hour discussing the work with Shapiro.
Shapiro himself explained that being in Baltimore was “important to me for the same reason that having a company’s important to me—to be a citizen and to find some way to have a base from which I can say something about the way things are done. I think the festival’s important because American theater is completely closed in—just like the rest of the society.” Mohan Agashe, President of the Theatre Academy of Pune and a leading actor in Ghashiram Kotwal, expressed the same thought: “The reason we also go to national theater festivals [in India] is also to get input. If you keep on getting lost in things only you are doing, I’m sure you’ll run out of your own resources very soon. At some point, it’s very necessary to see the work of others.”
Despite Wojewodski’s indictment of American directors, Shapiro spoke enthusiastically of the work of colleagues whom he respects and on whom he draws for inspiration. He praised the puppetry of Marcos and Rachel Ribas of Brazil’s Grupo Contadores de Estorias (The Storytellers) and is in contact with Dario Fo, who, along with everything else, is an expert on masks, advising Shapiro on two future Shaliko projects, a production of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Mystery Bouffe and Punch!, a new Punch-and-Judy show. Agashe was drawn to Poland’s Gardzienice, and described several performances from Africa, Spain, and Belgium he saw at the International Theatre Fortnight in Quebec City where the group had been before Baltimore. Many of the other Theatre of Nations artists were in the audiences during their times off and gathered nightly to chat at Club 45, the make-shift cafe behind Philip Arnoult’s Theatre Project. It is a way, as Agashe put it, to “know where you really stand in the world scene.”
Despite this evidence, however, such exchanges are still rare in the United States. One reason that the Theatre of Nations is such an important event is that, past festivals in Baltimore (1977, ’78, ’79 and ’81) and the recent ones in Los Angeles (1984) and Chicago (1986) notwithstanding, festivals, popular in Europe and India, are uncommon here. One reason, of course, is the great distances. Regardless of borders and governments, it is still logistically less daunting to transport a company from Budapest to Paris or Helsinki to Edinburgh than it is to bring one from Europe, Asia, Africa, or South America to New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Transportation aside, Ghashiram Kotwal, which has a simple set and few props, cost $20,000 [almost $43,000 today] to produce at the festival. This figure is at the low end of the spectrum because the Indian company does not pay its personnel. Shaliko, who only had to transport their production from New York, spent $46,000 [over $98,000 in 2014] to come to the Theatre of Nations. Unable to raise their original projected budget of $70,000 [nearly $150,000], the company persuaded the artists to take severe cuts in pay to get the show produced in Baltimore.
The entire festival was originally budgeted at $1.5 million [$3.2 million]. With $335,000 provided by city, state and federal agencies, $309,000 raised from the local business community, and $150,000 expected from sales of tickets ranging from $6 to $25, that would leave a short-fall of over $700,000 and necessitated a reduction in budget plans. San Francisco, initially slated to share the festival with Baltimore, could not raise the required $300,000 bond [$640,000] because of apparent lack of interest by local business interests and relinquished its claim to half the event.
Logistics and distance are not the only costs, however. Americans have an attitude about money that, according to Agashe, makes mounting festivals difficult. In negotiating a tour in Europe, Agashe noted, “the inevitable sequence would be what work it is, then they would discuss time, and finally we would come to money. But invariably here in America nobody would even ask me a single question about the work. The first thing they ask about is money.” If the work is worth doing, Agashe maintained, money can be found, but not if the project is dismissed out-of-hand on the basis of finances alone.
Americans are also language chauvinists. According to Agashe, Martha Coigney warned that “to take any non-English-speaking theater to America is next to impossible.” In Passport, the Theatre Project’s newsletter, Philip Arnoult admonished that our “one-and-a-half language society,” as he calls it, prejudices Americans against foreign performances, regardless of dependence on language. Unless it is Tango Argentino, Marcel Marceau, or grand opera, Americans just will not accept it. Agashe traveled throughout the United States before bringing the Pune Academy here, and, despite the warnings, decided, “O.K., it’s difficult, but if we leave it at that, it will not happen at all. Somebody has to go ahead and do it.” The Theatre Academy’s sixteen North American performances, he points out, have been well received by both audiences and critics in such cities as Dayton, Ohio; Fullerton, California; and Rockville, Maryland. This was borne out by reactions at performances of Dario Fo’s Mistero Buffo (Comic Mystery) and Franca Rame’s Tutta Casa, Lietto e Chiesa (It’s All Bed, Board and Church), in Italian with live translation and supertitles; the Suzuki Company of Toga’s Clytemnestra, mostly in Japanese with one actor speaking English; and the Ivan Vasov National Theatre’s Retro, entirely in Bulgarian.
Other performances did not depend on language at all, such as Grupo Contadores’ silent puppet plays, Hungary’s Gyor Ballet and Martha Clarke’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, or were presented in English by multilingual performers such as Jordcirkus and Bolek Polivka. Still, these performances do not get seen in the U.S. often enough to break down our prejudices and fears of not understanding them because, it seems, we simply do not have a tradition of sharing our work.
John Strausbaugh, formerly Associate Director of the Theatre Project, quoted Philip Arnoult’s philosophy on this subject in Passport:
I’ve said it many times—art is fundamental to the sanity of the planet, and that one of the most important gifts we can give one another is to share our artistic visions among nations and cultures. . . . I think it’s a very sane impulse. In the last five or so years there’s been a lot of official talk by governments about establishing a cultural policy and formal exchange programs. That’s good, but in truth it’s mostly still talk. The truth is that it’s only when artists meet artists and artists meet audiences that the real exchanges happen. There are artists and audiences in Baltimore, New York, San Francisco and Montreal who are seeing what artists around the world are doing. They’re sharing visions, accepting and rejecting one another’s ideas. But there needs to be more. It’s a two-way street.
It was to permit “theatre artists . . . to communicate unencumbered by the pressures of politics” that ITI was organized in Paris in 1948 as an arm of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), according to an ITI press release. The Theatre of Nations was first held in Paris in 1956, and remained there until 1975 when it became a biennial event hosted by a different country each time. Nevertheless, it has taken eleven years for the festival to come to North America, mostly because, as Agashe asserted “it’s just not customary.” Well, now we have tried it and, despite being ignored by the press and other festival representatives, it has worked.
Within the smorgasbord of offerings, there was a decided bias towards the experimental. According to Wojewodski this was neither an accident nor the result of the personal interests of the planners. In most major American cities there are good companies that present Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, O’Neill, Mamet, or Shepard. What is needed is more exposure to the out-of-the-ordinary. What would be the point of a festival that featured only what everyone is already familiar with? Who would travel any distance to see it?
The experimental bent of the Theatre of Nations had also another rationale. Philip Arnoult remarked that the American avant garde of the ’60s was greatly influenced by Europeans such as Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, and Eugenio Barba. American groups in the ’70s synthesized the European influences into an indigenous form, and returned the impulse to Europe, where it was picked up by new experimental troupes. Now, in the ’80s, the work of American experimenters is better known in Europe than it is in America, and both Arnoult and Wojewodski are endeavoring to “complete the circle” by reintroducing new European work to American artists. They saw the Theatre of Nations as a way of bringing receptive artists together in a big way.
Theories and intellectual projections aside, the Theatre of Nations festival was a success from the point of view of audiences who saw and enjoyed a great selection of theater. As Martha Coigney said of the reactions she had overheard, “This is what it should be about—people just saying, ‘My kid saw that and loved it’; ‘My wife thought it was fun.’” No criticism, no analysis—just enjoyment. There was certainly something for everyone to enjoy. A sampling:
To begin with there was Animal Farm, controversy aside. Peter Hall’s production is a straightforward rendering of Orwell’s fable with lyrics by Adrian Mitchell and music by Richard Peaslee, who also did the music for Martha Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights. This pair also composed the music for the Royal Shakespeare’s Marat/Sade and US.
As a small child sits at the down-right corner of the forestage, reading the novella with his back to the audience, the anthropomorphic beasts of Manor Farm create and then subvert an animal workers’ paradise. With costumes and masks ranging from full-heads for the horses, cows, and donkeys to snouts for the pigs, and stilts of varying heights for the animals’ forelegs, the production style is as simple as a child’s pop-up book, and the theme as subtle as a sledgehammer. Orwell’s blunt anti-totalitarian, specifically anti-Stalinistic, moral was neither diluted nor enhanced by the National Theatre’s interpretation. No wonder the Soviets objected.
Jordcirkus, a ten-year-old communal theater group, brought four pieces to Baltimore. They performed one of their street pieces, As the Bird Flies (Fagelvag) at the opening ceremonies, presented one matinee performance of a children’s play, A Little Princess (Draken), and several performances each of Blood and Champagne (Blodsband) and The Duel (Duellen).
Blood and Champagne, inspired by Latin American novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, recounts the four-generational history of the Montoya family as a young man learns it from the ghosts of his ancestors. Anselmo has been locked in a room since childhood to hide his family’s shame at his illegitimate birth. When he emerges from his prison, there is no one left in the house—except voices from the past.
In a fast-paced and physical presentation, Jordcirkus actors double and triple as many characters, some real, some long dead, some purely imaginary. The company, adept at mime and circus arts as well as conventional acting, has combined many styles and techniques, using bits of costume and a jumble of a set made of corrugated metal and wooden slats, into a performance that alternately draws the audience in and assaults its senses. Often hard to follow intellectually, the story unfolds in fits and starts, confusing reality with fantasy and past with present. Though each actor often seems to be in his or her own production, the energy never flags.
In a more conventional vein, the Ivan Vasov National Theatre of Bulgaria presented Retro, a straight comedy by Russian playwright Alexander Galin. In subtle but conventional Stanislavskian realism, the six actors are able to communicate, with the aid of an English synopsis, the tenderness and most of the humor of the situation. The story is of a young couple, frustrated by an elderly, widowed father who never leaves the house. They invite three lonely women over for a visit in the hopes he will marry one of them. Though the visitors are supposed to come at different times, they all show up at once—and the old man refuses to cooperate.
The incongruity of a Russian play performed in Bulgarian before an American audience is momentarily disconcerting, but the truthfulness of the performances and the consistency of the characterizations manages to come through. Of all the Theatre of Nations presentations, Retro was the most dependent on language and, though a simultaneous translation was proposed, it was rejected by festival producers as too complex and expensive.
Not depending so much on language, but on traditional Asian storytelling techniques of music, mime, and dance, the Theatre Academy of Pune presented Ghashiram Kotwal. Written for the company by Vijay Tendulkar, the two-act play is the story of a corrupt nineteenth-century mayor of Pune who appoints an even more corrupt police chief who becomes a vicious tyrant. Combining techniques of Western theater with those of traditional Indian performances, especially the moving human wall, borrowed from the khele, a kind of performance game or play-acting the young servants in Bombay engage in during their time off, the Academy actors sometimes portray characters and sometimes present themselves as performers as they unfold a political satire appropriate to today’s India. Stepping in and out of the wall, which itself may serve as scenery, chorus members play many roles. The Sutradhar, or Narrator, drawn from ancient Sanskrit theater, also alternates between standing outside the action and entering into it. The Marathi-speaking company, drawn from fields as diverse as medicine, engineering, and business, conducts seminars and workshops, promoting experimental theater using Indian and Western forms.
(The appropriateness of Ghashiram Kotwal to other societies as well as contemporary India was demonstrated by an anecdote Mohan Agashe told me. When the Academy performed the play in one city in Europe, they were required to preface the production with a disclaimer that the characters were fictional. Instantly, the audience assumed that the play related to local current events and began searching for the keys to the “true” identities of the Indian characters.)
Language provided no barrier at all for the Grupo Contadores de Estorias of Brazil. Puppeteers Rachel and Marcos Gaetano Ribas presented two wordless pieces drawn from Brazilian folk life, Indian lore, and contemporary life using foot-high, doll-like puppets manipulated directly without strings or rods. Pas de Deux is a play of urban life, and Mansamente (“softly,” “smoothly,” or “gently”) tells three stories about Brazilian Indians and peasants.
Set to Brazilian flute music, Mansamente first depicts the solitary life and death of a peasant couple as they farm their small piece of land. The second story is the adventures of an Indian boy who changes places with a squirrel he chases up a tree. In the third tale, a young Indian couple from a tribe made extinct by syphilis caught from Europeans enjoy life and then make love in consonance with nature. The Ribases, dressed in black from head to toe, gently and gracefully manipulate the puppets. In the meticulously set scene, lit from floor level as the puppeteers loom in the shadows, the puppet characters go about their various activities—tilling the soil, climbing a tree, flying, making love—as if they were in a dream. No word is spoken—the only sounds are the haunting music and the occasional squawk of a bird—heightening the dreamlike quality of the performances. Even the Ribases seem to sense this: at the end they quietly leave the Amazonian lovers so as not to disturb them.
Pantomimist Bolek Polivka’s The Jester and the Queen is a different kind of dream world. Combining the sensibilities of Stanislavsky, Brecht, Marceau, Bill Irwin, and Doug Henning with a slightly bleak outlook and large measures of humor and personal charm, Polivka depicts the life of a clown in service to a queen who requires him to make her laugh whenever she commands. In this exploration of the relation of art and power, Polivka, who can perform in English as well as a number of other languages with equal ease, makes points about theater, directors, Brecht—and life. He shows us how his magic works, particularly a wonderful flying bit done with a mirror, and explains why he does certain things before he does them. These revelations do not diminish the way his material delights and even stuns the audience.
In another example of virtuoso solo work, San Franciscan Fred Curchack premiered his Inquest for Freddy Chickan at Theatre of Nations. In what he bills “A Sci-Fi, Horror, Romance, Mystery, Musical, Comedy, Improv . . . ,” Curchack played all the characters in a search for popular TV comedian, Freddy Chickan, who had mysteriously disappeared. The performance actually begins in the lobby as Curchack, in the guise of a hard-bitten New York detective, baits and rails at the audience. He frequently returns to the audience for his comedy, which often fell flat at the opening performance, and even directly confronted the camera team from Maryland Public Broadcasting covering the performance. Using masks, wigs, recorded and electronically enhanced voices (his own), and some unusual lighting and shadow effects, Curchack becomes, among others, the detective, Freddy’s lover, his agent, a space visitor and, of course, Freddy Chickan himself.
Most striking in the 90-minute performance, however, is Curchack’s use of light and shadow. When he retreats behind a white curtain to transform into one of the characters, he has an uncanny way of manipulating the shadow of himself changing costume that gives it a life independent of the artist. He uses floor-level electric lights, candles and even a flashlight to create some bizarre shadow-and-light effects that include flashes, flares, floating bodies, and others that defy description.
We in America need to sponsor more international festivals like the Theatre of Nations. It’s an education none of us should deny ourselves —or our fellow artists. As Philip Arnoult sees it, as reported in the Baltimore Sun, “This gathering . . . will change the face of world theater.” In an article in the Baltimore City Paper, David Bergman sums up the event by quoting Percy Shelley: “‘Poets,’ by which he meant all artists, ‘are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ For two weeks in June they were making new laws in Baltimore.”
[The first Theatre of Nations (Théâtres des Nations) festival was in 1956 in Paris, the headquarters of UNESCO, the parent agency, where it remained based until 1975. These early biennial Paris festivals, where dozens of international theater companies perform in their native languages, hosted the introductions of Beiing Opera, the Berliner Ensemble, Kabuki, and the Moscow Art Theater to Western audiences. In 1975 the International Theatre Institute, the UNESCO organization, founded in Prague in 1948, that runs the festival, decided to site each TON in an applicant city at 2-year intervals. Held first in Warsaw in 1975 and then in a series of other cities, the Theatre of Nations has moved around the world to nearly every continent (though the 1986 Baltimore festival remains TON’s only North American appearance). In 1998, the ITI established the Academy of the Theatre of Nations, which offers workshops for young performing artists. Currently, a TON designation is awarded by ITI when an approved application is made to the institute.]