Our perceptions of distant countries most often come to us through the news, and that’s a problem. News reports will not typically tell us much about a people — who they are or what they feel — but they will record their pain and suffering when disaster strikes or violence breaks out. The old adage for news reporting is “If it bleeds, it leads; if it thinks, it stinks”. Hardly a recipe for promoting cross-cultural understanding.
I spent some time in Southern Africa at the tail end of the apartheid era. Shortly after I returned home, the long-standing struggle against apartheid began to boil over, and images of angry street confrontations appeared every night on Canadian TV. There were no signs of the culture or way of life that I’d become familiar with — none of the music or humour or plays or oratory skills. I wondered what Canadians were supposed to make out of the skewed media images of people who have political troubles but no apparent culture.
All that was soon to change though, with the World Music phenomenon. To my utter amazement, musical acts that had caught my ear on South African radio — Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Juluka — would one day perform for enthusiastic audiences right here in London. Here at last was some of the culture behind the political movement.
What about theatre?
One group dedicated to a global dialogue in the performing arts is the International Theatre Institute (ITI), which was founded in Prague in 1948. In their mandate, they recognize that development cannot be a matter of politics and economics alone, but must also include artistic creation. They also maintain that such expression is essential for the deeper understanding needed in the ongoing efforts to strengthen peace and friendship among peoples.
On March 27, 1962, ITI held the first World Theatre Day, with an International Message written by Jean Cocteau. Since then, there has been an international message from a playwright or theatre artist of note each year. The writers that I recognize are the westerners, of course, including Arthur Miller, Eugene Ionesco, Edward Albee, and Vaclav Havel. The one Canadian asked to write the international message was Michel Tremblay, in 2000.
The 2004 message is by an Egyptian woman, Fathia El Assal, and it can be found on both the Theatre in London and the ITI websites.
Every March 27th, a wide variety of events happen around the world, especially in the nearly 100 countries in which there are ITI Centres. These range from special performances in the Philippines to festivals in Japan to a parade through the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, comprised of over 1000 actors and actresses in full costume.
We have nothing so extravagant here — at least not yet. But everyone is encouraged to get out and see a play on March 27th — in London, the possibilities include My Way or Frankie (Grand Theatre), Jigsaw (Theatre Soup), Lagooned (Original Kids) and Godspell (Saunders Secondary School) — in honour of World Theatre Day.