Thursday, March 23, 2017

TURKEY: World Theatre Day

Ancient Roots: Theatre at Ephesus, Turkey

As World Theatre Day 2017
approaches on March 27, thoughts of theatre artists and critics turn increasingly to global concerns over freedom of expression. In Nigeria recently, theatre critics hosted a forum aimed at examining the boundaries that face critics (and artists) when the political grounds on which they stand, to paraphrase the great playwright August Wilson, seem to undergo tectonic shifts daily.

Recent events in Turkey, a country that the West has long celebrated as a significant example of how democracy may work amid the pressures of encroaching theocratic impulses, have raised concerns about the lengths to which those in power will go to maintain a status quo. Turkey is also a physical crossroads of the ancient world where theatre has deep roots and a powerful claim on the imagination and spirit of the populace. Istanbul alone, which literally bridges east and west, may be the truest expression of the cosmopolitan in the dozens of languages and dialects spoken in its streets, and in the scores of cultures across millennia that have been inscribed on its urban landscape. The Theatre Critics Association of Turkey, a constituent group of the International Association of Theatre Critics (AICT-IATC), has issued a clarion statement that is filled with passion and a hopeful outlook for the future of the art form. It is brave, bold, and an inspiration in these times of uncertainty. (The translation below has been edited slightly for clarity.)
Turkish National Declaration for World Theatre Day 
We are at the threshold of twilight. The art of theatre, however, is the essential medium to lead us through the threshold and into radiant days. 
At present, academics who act for peace in our society, have been exported from their university. As a result of these actions, one of the oldest and most prominent theatre departments in Turkey is about to be closed. One of the private theatre schools, which has graduated many young members of the Turkish theatre scene, has been sabotaged by arson as the theatre supported the secular, parliamentarian republic of the present. Other private theatre groups are deprived of necessary state financial support. Theatre artists who stand in protest and call for support of environmental rights are exported from their municipal or state theatre companies. In these times, it is incredible to celebrate World Theatre Day and to perform the art of theatre, yet there is hope as well. 
We, the workers of theatre, never doubt the power of the theatre to change lives and transform people. The theatre is our sine qua non. 
Despite all obstacles it must face, theatre will continue to raise society’s awareness, to guide audiences to critical thinking, to defend freedom of thought and basic human rights, to conceive truth and to help the masses conceive it, too. 
Our word will never end, our curtains will never be closed by force, our limelight will never be extinguished, and our "fine voice" under this "dome of many colored glass" will never surrender to darkness.
In this time of rising insecurity for free expression, when a Pandora's Box of hateful ideology has been unleashed across the globe, one is forced to pause and consider: Will I be so bold when it is my turn to speak truth to power? Our colleagues in Turkey point the way.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

WOMEN: Actors in Afghanistan

Activist Director: Anneta Papathanassiou
Do you think being an artist is difficult? Banned under Taliban rule (1994–2001), Afghan theatre has been making a comeback with many women at the forefront. Playing With Fire: Women Actors of Afghanistan (2014) by Anneta Papathanassiou exposes the ongoing erosion of Afghan women's rights in this powerful film. The director's timely, eye-opening documentary perfectly captures art’s transformative power and the dangers faced by these courageous women artists. It is a stark reminder that every day is International Women's Day.

This story is certain to inspire those who support the creation of living art and freedom of artistic expression. Everyone who cares about the performing arts in the evolving global milieu should see this film. In the coming week, there will be a free, public screening at the Spurlock Museum on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign at 7 p.m., Tuesday, March 14.

Iranian theatre critic, director, and playwright Katayoun H. Salmasi will introduce the film and lead a post-screening discussion. Salmasi is former vice president of the Iran Theatre Critics Association who currently advises the Iranian Cultural Association at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

AsiaLENS Presents
Playing With Fire: Women Actors of Afghanistan (2014)
Directed by Anneta Papathanassiou
Afghanistan (58 minutes)
In English and Afghan (Dari), with English subtitles

AsiaLENS is a series of free public film screenings and lecture/discussion programs—organized by Asian Education Media Service (AEMS) and the Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies (CEAPS) in collaboration with Spurlock Museum—presenting recent documentary and independent films on issues reflecting contemporary life in Asia. All AsiaLENS screenings are free and open to the public.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

NEWS: Lagos Critics' Conference

Conference Home: National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos
Our friends in the Nigeria section of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) recently hosted a theatre critics' conference at the National Theatre, Iganmu, which received a keynote address from playwright, critic, and 2016 Thalia Prize laureate, Femi Osofisan. The conference topic of "Theatre, Criticism and Politics — Where Are the Limits?" arose, according to Emmanuel Dandaura, president of the Nigeria section as a response to events occurring throughout the globe. In a statement to the press, Dandaura noted that

Politics, theatre, and theatre criticism have long been interwoven and interdependent. In the highest peaks of its history, theatre and other performing arts have been a collective self-representation of society, its basic values, and beliefs, including mainstream political narratives.
When contesting these narratives, theatre has been more ironic, subversive and blasphemous than openly confrontational — although direct theatrical conflicts with society are also well known. 
When theatre criticism appeared as a genre in Western media in the 18th century, it fought the same battle as the (bourgeois) theatre itself. Theatre and criticism were important social platforms in the battle against conservative, aristocratic, and clerical states – even as they advocated a new and progressive bourgeois society. 
In the last two and a half centuries, the relationship between these three "players"—politics, theatre, and theatre criticism—has been fluid. There were periods in which all were going in the same direction—for good or ill.  
In some historical periods, (dissident) theatre was courageous, provocative, and challenging. Criticism, however, strongly controlled by mainstream political power (as with much of the media), could not support it. In some constructs, media demanded that theatre be more politically daring. 
The International Theatre Critics Conference (ITCC), therefore, will interrogate how global theatre and theatre criticism respond to current political events. 
Does theatre, internationally, address these challenging topics? Is there a new political theatre? Is there a growing trend toward the political or do individual cases arise on their own? How do critics react? Are we free (enough) to openly support theatre that dissents from accepted political and cultural norms? Is the social impact of this type of work more relevant than its artistry? How do we recognize a politically brave theatre in societies different from our own? If we recognize it, how do we communicate it to our readers?

These queries and proposed answers were also addressed by an international group of critics led by IATC President Margareta Sörenson. What role do you think critics should play in analyzing and interpreting the political impact of theatre? Does it matter? Is it a factor in your response to theatre?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

RESPONSE: Turkish Critics Engage

Something Rotten?: Müdjat Gezen Arts Center after presumed arson. Photo: AA
Theatre critics in Turkey report to us that, as theater academics were being expelled during the "state of emergency," a significant theater academy founded by Turkish actor and director Müjdat Gezen was burned. Gezen described the act as a "terrorist crime" and took pleasure in noting that the bronze bust of the hero of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was unscathed in the attack.

The Theatre Critics Association of Turkey responded with a document titled "Something is Rotten in the Turkish Republic." Parts of the following have been edited for clarity:
In Turkey, academicians who sign in support of social peace continue to be expelled from their institutions with a state of emergency decree. Prestigious professors of the Theatre Department in Ankara University's Faculty of Language, History and Geography, were also expelled after other recent expulsions. 
These academics, including members of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) Turkish Section, were unexpectedly and inappropriately removed from their duties despite their professional standing and long experience. With this decision, undergraduate and graduate studies are now suspended. Our greatest hope is that our distinguished professors will be reinstated and allowed to work at their universities following social pressure and implementation of the law. 
Arts Advocate: Müdjat Gezen
As this chaos unfolded in higher education, Müjdat Gezen Art Center, which was created by a private initiative and educated hundreds of actors and actresses, was burned in a presumed act of arson after being targeted by a media channel broadcasting ideas of the extreme right wing. The center, founded by Müjdat Gezen, was damaged tragically. Gezen is one of the greatest actors and directors of Turkish theatre and is well known for his Kemalist and secular ideals. Upon hearing news of the fire, hundreds of actors, actresses, directors, students, and audience members flocked to art center and stood guard outside. 
The Theatre Critics Association of Turkey, condemns this discriminatory and criminal behavior. We believe in the combined resistance of Turkey’s intellectuals, academicians, and artists. We will continue to work toward the restoration of social morality and the freedom of thought through the cultivation of the arts.
ATCA International will continue to monitor the unfolding situation as arts institutions throughout the globe respond to an apparent rising tide of artistic and academic oppression.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

REPORT: Theater Trouble in Turkey

#DoNotTouch: Protest Against Theatre Faculty Expulsions 
As the political situation tightens in Turkey, members of IATC have shared information with us in an attempt to raise awareness of what is happening to the arts and artists in what was once a society that prized democratic discourse.

We received a declaration from the Theatre Department of Ankara University, disseminated February 12, 2017, which has been edited for clarity:

Exported: Prof. Dr. Beliz Güçbilmez
Ankara University, Theatre Department professors Prof. Dr. Selda Berk Öndül, Prof. Dr. Tülin Sağlam, Prof. Dr. Beliz Güçbilmez, Dr. M. Elif Çongur and the research assistants Ceren Özcan and Şamil Yilmaz have been exported from duty by the new Decree-law No 686. With Assoc. Prof. Dr. Süreyya Karacabey, who had been exported before by the Decree-Law No. 679, seven of our colleagues who form the majority of our department have been expelled from work in government offices. As a result, the undergraduate programs of our department have received an irreparable blow, and the post-graduate programs are almost out of the question.
Exported: Prof. Dr. Selda Berk Öndül
Exported: Dr. M. Elif Çongur
The exportation of our professors—who have created invaluable works and made undeniable contributions to the theatre world of Turkey—by the laws that pertain to only those who “are connected with or are members of or partake in terror organizations, groups, organisms or organizations or other structures which are claimed by the National Security Council as threats to our national security” is inexplicable and wrong as far as justice and conscience are concerned.
Exported: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Süreyya Karacabey
Exported: Prof. Dr. Tülin Sağlam
These exportations spreading in the Higher Education System, i.e., in the majority of universities in Turkey via new decree-laws has turned into a clearance or liquidation operation. Governance of universities, which are supposed to be institutions of freedom of thought and expression, by decree-laws can by no means be accepted. It is undoubtedly obvious that this attitude will bear critical outcomes and give an irredeemable harm to our colleagues’ and to our department’s future, as well as to our university, to the academia in general and to our country. We here resolve to blame the Ankara University rectorate and demand that our colleagues be returned to their posts immediately.  
— Members of the Theatre Department, Faculty of Letters, Ankara University
An update has been received from the Theatre Critics Association of Turkey and will follow.

Monday, February 27, 2017

BORDERS: Barba Barred From U.S. Entry

In a February 22, 2017, posting on their Facebook page, 2014 Thalia Prize laureate Eugenio Barba and his company Odin Teatret announced that they "had to cancel [their] tour to Miami because of immigration problems."

Persian Passion: Eugenio Barba and company attend a
performance of a "tazieh" play. Photo:
Tehran Times

This news came 12 days after Barba and other guests were photographed at Tehran's City Theater Complex while watching a performance of a "tazieh" play, which Tehran Times describes as an "Iranian passion play." Theater critic Alisa Solomon called attention to the immigration problem in a Facebook posting today. American theater artists are protesting the U.S. government action via social media outlets. ATCA International is monitoring the story.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

REPORT: Marie J. Kilker in Belgrade

When Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, vice president of the International Association of Theatre Critics and chair of ATCA’s International Committee, posted on Facebook a picture of me at AICT-IATC’s 2016 World Congress, I relived an experience I feel I should share with my ATCA colleagues. It was my honor to be shown in the distinguished company of critic Ivan Medenica, artistic director of BITEF (Belgrade International Theatre Festival), who had joined Jeffrey, Michael Howley, and me. BITEF, that very important European presentation and celebration of the performing arts, ran concurrently with IATC’s biennial congress.

Delegate's Delight: Michael Howley, Noura
Erica Jenkins, Ivan Medenica, Jeffrey Eric
Jenkins and Marie J. Kilker at the 2016 World
Congress in Belgrade. Photo: Katayoun H. Salmasi
Medenica noted the outstanding contributions of Jenkins, as the American was once again elected—by sizable numbers—to IATC’s executive committee. Ivan repeated his congratulations in the pictured conversation and warmly included in further conversation both my fellow ATCA delegate Michael Howley and me. We were so proud to realize the important contributions we made as critics and contributors to global theater as well as the reputation of American theater. Jeffrey had scored a big hit with his paper on the musical Hamilton in a final conference panel.

It so happened that “unofficial” interaction proved to me valuable not only professionally but personally throughout my days in Belgrade. Ironically, though I had cited Michael’s many accomplishments when I nominated him years before to ATCA’s executive committee, I hadn’t learned details about his Cambridge, England, theater and educational experiences until we conversed at a lunch first and later over a drink after a matinee. Michael at the conference made many friends for the American section and, I’m sure, more on his extended stay in Belgrade. (Those of you who know of my passion for theater in Paris will not be surprised to learn I stopped off for four days en route home to see four art shows—comped with my IATC membership card—at matinees and four theater pieces each evening in France. These included a Petit Palais exhibition on Oscar Wilde and a monodrama acted by Oscar/Les Clack for Dear Conjunction Theatre Company at the Théâtre de Nesle.)

“Newness and Global Theatre: Between Commodification and Artistic Necessity” was the theme of our International Conference with two full days of panels, papers, discussions involving critics from all over the world. I thought that these illustrated “Newness” more cogently than did the BITEF offerings I saw. At my age, I’ve been around long enough to have seen so many performances in so many countries and the United States that it’s hard to amaze me with anything astonishingly new. The nearest might be combinations, especially if executed in unusual ways, but these presume knowledge of what went before differently.

Not So Free?: Maja Pelević and Olga Dimitrijević in Freedom:
The Most Expensive Capitalist Word at 2016 BITEF.
Photo: Sonja Zugic
Most of what I saw in Belgrade that claimed itself as “new” consisted essentially of monologues. They were, though, “set” in or backgrounded by projections or dance or film and often prominently featured music. Freedom: The Most Expensive Capitalist Word—featured two alternating monologues with untheatrical breaks for “interactive theater”—in this case, engaging the audience to buy things or donate for a cause described in a background film. The History of the Machine Gun combined an opening biographical monologue followed at length on the other side of the stage by an extended lecture about horrific experiences the speaker had in the first person’s African homeland, among other such besieged places. Its “new” feature consisted of the speaker coming downstage center and urinating. 

Hanging Around: Elfriede Jelinek's Nora! at the
Belgrade Showcase. Photo: Nenad Petrović
In a showcase of specifically Belgrade theater outside the main BITEF program, Nora! by Elfriede Jelinek at Yugoslav National Theatre and The Wizard of Oz by at the National Youth Theatre were the ones I reviewed. Though the showcase did not represent the BITEF and conference theme, The Wizard of Oz was a newly written version of the well known show and movie that “gradually moved away from the original precisely so as to remain to it as close as possible.” Nora! was not, like Ingmar Bergman’s, a new version of Ibsen’s play but a continuation of the story of its heroine after she left her husband. It was impressively configured in a Brechtian literary mode, though much more complicated than the kind of epic theater Erwin Piscator would have advised. I reviewed these and the other productions I saw for, where reviews and pictures are archived.

Thalia Laureate: Author and critic Femi
Osofisan of Nigeria
What I remember most are the things that do not appear in my reviews—my personal experiences. They started at a first breakfast when I was seated with Femi Osofisan from Nigeria. My studies didn’t go past Yoruba, so being able to get a few insights from Professor Osofisan was very precious. Later, he was honored with the prestigious Thalia Prize, which celebrates the honoree’s impact on critical thought. A reception with the ceremony was held at the estate of the German Ambassador. As a traveler, I usually head first in new places for cultural sites, predominantly of visual arts and theatre. That afternoon we critics were treated to the opening of an African arts museum on the ambassador’s estate. Had I not been a conference delegate but just a tourist, I would not have had the opportunity to peruse that collection.

From new critic friends from Turkey I received many samples of great Turkish confectionery, including two that I hadn’t eaten on two trips to Turkey. I also enjoyed a number of conversations with Greek critics. One from Athens who mostly reviewed opera shared his opinions that have since influenced my outlook. I also amazed him with information about Sarasota Opera’s having finished the complete Verdi cycle, for he had not heard about it! He does follow opera in a number of countries, and now he may include Florida in future reviewing. I’m arranging for him to get press information from our opera by mail. I’ll also be getting some posts from him and critics from other countries who whetted my interest in the fare there.

Of the papers delivered, I was able to get “backstage notes” from several of the presenters. The one I first followed up on when I got home involved an exploration in connection with new North African plays. I had asked about Mohammed Dib and Mouloud Feraoun’s work and found out how theirs was a transition to, not a part of, the new. I also gained added insights on deconstruction, on theater as a cybernetic machine, and what’s being done in Brazil and my favorite Argentina. Back home, I had almost immediate opportunity to apply the first of these insights reviewing a Gilbert and Sullivan musical in St. Petersburg.

As I accompanied an Indian critic to the theater one night, I learned enough to make me want to return to her country. Although I myself am not as physically agile as many of the people I met in Belgrade, there were so many kindnesses from them that I missed very little of the off-conference experiences. I wouldn’t have made it to one theater without help from Katayoun H. Salmasi, Jeffrey’s wife (and a presenter from Iran/USA), who walked me through “a short passage” that was at least a mile. (On the way, I did get to see some important sights at night.) Helpers brought me selections of drinks and pastry during coffee breaks to which I otherwise would have had to walk down several flights of stairs from our meeting room.

A waiter in our hotel dining room always rushed to help me with a breakfast or dinner tray. Later he told me he admired my fending for myself in getting food from the buffet and how I always seemed so cheerful. How nice! And who wouldn’t feel cheer at all that was gained by this delegate to the IATC International Conference and BITEF? Thanks to IATC and ATCA from the smiling woman critic in good company in that picture!

 — Marie J. Kilker