All the world’s a stageTheatre is spiritual but its manifestation is outside
The adage spoken by Shakespeare’s character Jaques in the play As You Like It has gone down in the history of human wisdom as a linguistic noise made in countless moments of epiphany. The character famously announces, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances.” Never before had mankind contemplated on the dramatic avatar that this dear earth has assumed that since the fin de siècle, and the beginning of the 21st century. The people making exits and entrtances, the item they are carryingwhat stage props they are using for mise-en-scene, to use a theatre term, can be visualised, but not easily explained. Despite the great momentum for amelioration, mankind appears to be staging confusing, challenging and imploding dramas on the world stage.
A humanised creative culture
David Attenborough warned at the UN Climate Change Conference on December 3, 2018, in Katowice, Poland, “our greatest threat in thousands of years” has arrived. But those who are in charge of energy and political power do not have the will to avert the course. My narrative is about the 70th anniversary of the International Theatre Institute known famously all over the world by the acronym ‘ITI’ held in a beautiful island of China named Haikou from 22-26 November 2018. Personally, I was humbled as well as elated because I was invited to receive honorary membership from the ITI. A total of 160 theatre people of different age groups from 90 to 19 had gathered for the celebration and cerebral discoursal moments on the subject of theatre and drama. It was a revelation and joy to meet the theatre stalwarts whom I have known since 2000 at the ITI world congresses. Several of them have retired from institutional engagement but are active otherwise writing plays, directing and creating a culture of performance dynamism in different societies. They are people like Ramendu Majumdar of Bangladesh, who after retiring from the executive committee and president of the world ITI for two terms (2008-2014), has been playing central role in promoting Bangladeshi theatre culture; senior Korean Kim Jeong-ok who as the president of the ITI (1995-2002) established centre for dialogic relationship between museum and theatre; Manfred Beilharz of Germany, president of ITI (2002-2008) is working with large groups; Jennifer Walpole of Australia who lives in Paris, has been playing similar role as enabler of theatre activity. These are examples of some people who have been active in the field. Several young theatre activists from Zimbabwe, U.K., China, and Japan brought fresh thoughts about theatre works.
Opening the conference, the current Director General of ITI Tobias C. Biancone repeated his belief that theatre is a ‘noble cause’. In yet another session, addressing the young theatre activists he said the most important power in the world stage is dialogue. As the politicians and those in power are losing the inner strength and will for dialogue, the onus for that lies on theatre people. That dialogic solution struck me. But much of what he said comes from his vision of art that I have seen for many years in his poetry. In his book of poems in German entitled Spiel der Masken and translated into many languages, Biancone has used Japanese art to illustrate his poems, sometimes in the manner of colophons. These Zen monochromatic and beautifully coloured Japanese paintings that evoke Japanese aesthetics and their Chinese sharing, evince Tobias’s sense of ‘nobleness’. This vision and persistent faith in theatre, I guess, is shared by the ITI activists, including a brilliant Ugandan theatre person Jessica Kaahwa, to mention just a few. Such faith is the mantra of vibrant theatre and creative dialogue on the stage of the world that Shakespeare saw over four hundred years ago.
But the question demands much more compelling answers. In this brief essay I only want to allude to a few landmarks to forward my argument. ITI started observing World Theatre Day since 1948. Famous French playwright and poet Jean Cocteau was asked to give the first message. Cocteau was struck by two images of history and myth, which is so interesting. He problematised this juxtaposition in this manner: “… history, which, as time goes on, becomes deformed, and mythology, which, as time goes on, becomes established, have their only true moment of reality upon the stage”. What a prediction! Since he gave this message, we have been grappling with the changing history and burgeoning mythology. Cocteau said very clearly, the space to bring them together is the stage. Indian playwright Girish Karnad in his World Theatre Day message in 2002, stressed on the need to work for human and visceral presence in theatrical performance. He equally emphasised the role of audience or those “watching him or her”, and he saw that “fraught with uncertainty”. Today on the world stage, that tension between performer and audience is at the core of humanised creative culture. Maintaining balance is a ‘noble’ challenge.
Look inward, express outward
I would like to recall one more message given by Lakovos Kampanellis, playwright from Greece, who in his message for 2001 has reconfirmed the conviction that we should all share visions if we want to be performing meaningful drama on the world stage. Like Biancone’s faith in the nobleness of theatre’s cause, Kampanellis sees the need of theatre’s faith in life, to continue the creative and human side of culture, especially the performance culture. He says humanity has conquered outer space as well as the wide terrestrial space. Even then why are we continuing with the minuscule theatre? His answer is because we “… find ourselves in a space belonging to an art that has existed and functioned with the same simple means, ever since measuring time with a sundial was thought to be a great technical achievement”. And repeating his conviction in this simplicity, this nobleness and this art he says, “In my view, this evident, timeless relation between human beings and theatre is an eternal one”. I heard the same conviction echoing in the Russian director Anatoli Vassiliev’s presentation there—theatre is spiritual but its manifestation is outside.
I close with the hope that Himalchuli Gurung shared in her opening speech on behalf of the UNESCO that ITI continues to be a valued organisation for them.