XIAMEN, CHINA and PARIS, FRANCE:  The International Theatre Institute (ITI) – the world’s largest organization for the performing arts – is holding its 33rd world congress at the Xiamen International Conference and Exhibition Centre in Xiamen, China, from Sept. 19 to 24, 2011.  Held under the auspices of UNESCO, the congress will have a strong education and artistic focus, as well as offer a sumptuous showcase of xiqu, the generic terms for Chinese music theatre.

Cover of the French edition, "Le Monde du Théâtre." edited by Nicole Leclerq

On this occasion, ITI will celebrate the book launch of the newest edition of The World of Theatre, an account of the world’s theatre seasons 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, for which I contributed a critical essay that sums up and critically evaluates the state of U.S. theatre from coast to coast.

The U.S. Center of the ITI invited me to publish an essay on USA theater, summarizing the 2007-2010 seasons.

The period which my essay considers coincides with dramatic unraveling of the Aught Decade, which resulted in a worldwide economic recession, and a political transition that brought about the rise of an African-American as the 44th president of the United States.

The 2011 edition of The World of Theatre is a major biennial ITI publication that contains articles by ITI national centers and provides a vast panorama of theatre productions and recent developments in each country over the past two theater season.

The book will be published in two English, French and Arabic languages.  Published for the ITI by the Bangladesh Centre of ITI, the English edition of The World of Theatre is edited by Ramendu Majumdar and Mofidul Hoque. (For orders contact: ITI General Secretariat at info@iti-worldwide.org or +33 (0)1 45 68 48 80. The cost is 20€.)

Portrait of Ramendu Majumdar, a leading figure of Bangladesh theatre

A leading figure of Bangladesh theatre, Ramendu Majumdar is the general secretary of the Bangladesh Center of the ITI and is its current president. He is also vice president of ITI (Worldwide).

The French edition, Le Monde du Théâtre, is edited by Nicole Leclerq, is a collaboration by Laurence Pieropan and Laurent Rossion, and is available through Peter Lang Editions (ISBN 978-90-5201-729-7 br., www.peterlang.com) at a cost of 39.50€.

Here are the opening words of my essay on the state of U.S. theatre in The World of Theatre:

We had had enough.  We had endured eight years of a lame-brained war-mongering president.  We were worse off then than we were after the rubble of the 9/11 attacks had cleared.  Our country, both domestically and abroad, took such pounding, so many hard body blows, that our minds reeled at the question:  How could the first years of the 21st century have come to such naught?

Intriguingly, the two theatrical seasons in consideration here coincided with two extraordinary events in U.S. history.  The 2007–08 and 2008–09 seasons marked the dramatic unraveling of the so-called Aught Decade, which resulted in a worldwide economic recession.  Those two seasons, moreover, spanned a major political transition in the White House that began with a closely fought contest for a viable Democratic candidate, set off an intense and wrenching reevaluation of core American values, then concluded with the rise of a seemingly mesmerizing and path-breaking African American as our country’s 44th president.

The so-called Nought Decade—or the Noughties (to borrow a theatre critic’s 1904 appellation for the “00s” of the previous century)—left the vast majority of Americans weary and worried, feeling bruised and disillusioned.  With a right-wing president at the helm, our list of grievances were large and embarrassing: fighting two wars in the Middle East that dragged on and couldn’t be won, two financial meltdowns at each end of the decade, a free-market economy that slid from happy-go-lucky to the brink of collapse, a wave of Wall Street frauds highlighted by Enron and WorldCom, the cardiac arrest of the newspaper and book publishing industries while the bumper-crop promise of new media failing to legitimately catch on, an endless proliferation of political sex scandals, the self-destruction of Detroit’s automobile industry, a housing-industry bubble that got double-whammied by the shrinkage of household income and excessive borrowing, the alarming rise of unemployment, plus (don’t hold your breath) grave environmental problems sparking scientific calls-for-action and public concern that for complex reasons did not inspire world leaders to work together and craft a workable global strategy of green living and ecological protection.

It was a sordid decade. Looking back, Time magazine shrieked, “The Decade from Hell.” In the theater, we openly asked, “Have we entered a new Depression not seen since the Great One of the 1930s?”  Exact statistics for 2009 might not have been available as of this writing, and so the full impact of the economic recession will not be completely known until perhaps in late 2010, and yet there was no question that the economic recession took a devastating toll on the nation’s arts and culture industry, especially symphony orchestras, museums (many of which faced auction blocks and closures), and nonprofit theatres (a species that is historically undercapitalized and financially vulnerable).  Particularly in the states of Wisconsin, Idaho, Illinois, Minneapolis and Massachusetts, many small- and midsized theatre companies across the country laid off their employees, eliminated educational and audience-development programs, cut short their seasons, ceased operations entirely, or, facing severe cash crunches, embarked on emergency measures (such as “Save Our Theaters” campaigns using Facebook, MySpace and other social-networking media) to cover production expenses and pay critical debts.

A majority of larger nonprofit theatres, by nature of the annual season subscriptions being sold in advance to audience members, narrowly staved off financial hardship during the 2008–2009 season and began to brace for the full brunt of the economic downturn to potentially hit during the 2009–2010 season.  Although Broadway remained as star-studded as ever (partly due to a Local One stagehand strike in the fall of 2007, the first one in the union’s history, which pushed back preparations for Broadway openings, as well as a Writers Guild of America strike in November 2007, which hit mainly the movie and TV industries—both of which freed some famous names to pursue stage work), by January 2009 an unprecedented number of commercial productions (“Hairspray”, “Young Frankenstein,” “Boeing-Boeing,” “13,” “Grease,” “Spamalot,” “Gypsy” and “Spring Awakening”), many of which had had long runs, immediately shuttered.  A couple of Broadway favorites (the satirical puppet musical “Avenue Q” and the Alfred Hitchcock whodunit “The 39 Steps”) downsized and decamped to smaller, less expensive digs.  Such Off-Broadway-to-Broadway transfers in the same season have not been seen in the commercial theatre since at least the early 1980s.

Criticism and arts journalism were dealt with the severest blow.  In many cities, including Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco, newspaper cutbacks and closures resulted in painful job losses, layoffs and buyouts of arts critics and reporters.  Chain owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times filed for bankruptcy; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer went online-only, while the Christian Science Monitor and Detroit Free Press started printing fewer editions and morphed their content into cyberspace; the New York Times, Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle went through several rounds of staff reductions and deep cost-cutting.  A triumvirate of artistic leaders in California published a letter to their hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, decrying the elimination of critical voices and defending the importance of public critics in the civic and cultural life of the city.  “If we let these voices slowly and quietly disappear, the consequences are simple and inevitable,” the letter stated.  “Fewer people will know about the productions, fewer people will purchase tickets, and, eventually, fewer theatres will exist.”

The performing arts had gotten shafted—stuck with the lousy end of the stick.  After 20 years of the Bushes and the Clintons, angry American voters wanted sweeping change with Obama—the promise of a break with the unhappy past or of a new style of politics or, perhaps, a novel racial transcendence.  But exactly what kind of change could be realized after the November 2008 presidential elections?

Why hold an ITI world congress in China?

Beijing Opera is but one of xiqu’s over 300 forms

According to an ITI press release, this is the first time an ITI world congress takes place in China, and the choice of Xiamen as host city was no accident. Xiamen, China’s main port in the 19th century for exporting tea, was also one of the original Special Economic Zones set up in 1980 to attract foreign investment.

In September, this historically international city, aspiring to become a cultural destination of world renown, already committed to music theatre and dance, will shine the spotlight on the larger field of the performing arts, opening its doors to over 300 congress delegates from 70 countries, including a 92-year old renowned actor from Romania, as well as 500 participants from different parts of China.

Image of Xiamen, China

The congress will be formally declared open by Zhao Shi, general secretary of China Federation of Literary and Art Circle, and Ramendu Majumdar, president of ITI Worldwide, in the presence of the mayor of Xiamen city, the director of the Art Department of the Ministry of Culture and prominent Chinese leaders.

Among the delegates journeying to Xiamen from afar is Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah and member of the Supreme Council of the United Arab Emirates, who will be receiving an ITI Medal for his outstanding contribution to the global performing arts sector as the main benefactor of ITI. This prestigious medal is awarded to exceptional artists and patrons of the arts to recognise the critical role they play in shaping the international performing arts scene through their creativity, generosity and vision.

In addition veteran Chinese artiste, Shang Changrong, will be honored as the new World Theatre Ambassador of ITI.

Portrait of Tobias Biancone, director general of ITI General Secretariat

Says Tobias Biancone, director general of ITI General Secretariat, “As a non-governmental organization with centers and cooperating members in more than 100 countries, ITI has a vast network of performing arts practitioners. However, many of them from developing countries, especially in Africa and South America, are struggling for survival. It is only through the deep generosity of supporters like Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi, that we are able to ensure that less fortunate nations do not end up being under-represented at significant events like the world congress.”

The theme of this congress is “Empowering the performing arts: A journey to xiqu,” a term often erroneously equated only with Beijing Opera. In fact, Beijing Opera is but one of xiqu’s over 300 forms, which the journey to Xiamen aims to showcase to the international delegates. Reflecting on this theme of strengthening the performing arts by increasing awareness and raising public support on a larger scale, ITI is intent on using the congress to challenge preconceptions and better acquaint performing artists and aficionados around the world with the full spectrum of the organization’s work, goals and aspirations.

ITI will also be taking the opportunity to invite representatives from the respective Ministries of Arts Culture in neighbouring countries with a view to opening new centres in the region, and engaging them in a discussion on how to strengthen performing arts training and exchanges regionally and globally.

The International Theatre Institute ITI was founded in 1948 by theatre and dance experts and UNESCO. The NGO advances UNESCO’s goals of mutual understanding and peace and advocates the protection and promotion of cultural expressions, regardless of age, gender, creed or ethnicity. It works to these ends internationally and nationally in the areas of arts education, international exchange and collaboration, and youth training.

Logo of the 33rd ITI World Congress in China

Since 2008, the ITI has been undergoing a rigorous process of modernization, revitalising the organization and reclaiming its role as the most important international performing arts network. It has attracted new members ranging from Puerto Rico to Qatar and Australia, and launched new initiatives including the ITI World Member Card.

For more information on ITI, please visit the ITI website: www.iti-worldwide.org.

For more information on the congress, please refer to the ITI World Congress website: www.iti-congress.org.

One thought on “Essay on the state of U.S. theater in “World of Theatre” published in Bangladesh and Paris, with book launch in China

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