When Theater Meets Foreign Policy: Cultural Diplomacy
MR. KOJO NNAMDI
He discovered the play on the internet, "9 Parts of Desire," a one-woman show about the lives of women in Iraq. Now the theater professor from Baghdad is making his own mark on this drama translating it into Arabic and directing it onstage tomorrow at Georgetown University before taking it back to Baghdad. The performance is the centerpiece of a conference exploring an oft-debated question in foreign policy circles, how far can cultural diplomacy go in improving relations between countries.
MR. KOJO NNAMDI
Skeptics around the world question the motives of countries including the U.S. that take their music or theater abroad. But veteran diplomats say there's ample evidence that cultural exchanges pay off, that exposing other nations to American culture and nurturing cultural institutions in other countries are important elements of foreign policy. Joining us in studio to talk about this is Cynthia Schneider. She is distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University. She's a former U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands. Cynthia Schneider, thank you for joining us.
DR. CYNTHIA SCHNEIDER
Thank you very much for having me.
Also with us in studio is Derek Goldman, artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center and professor of theater and performance studies at Georgetown University. Derek Goldman, thank you for joining us.
It's nice to be here. Thanks.
And Waleed Shamil is a professor of theater at Baghdad University. Waleed Shamil, thank you.
DR. WALEED SHAMIL
Thank you. Thank you.
Well, I'll start with you, Waleed Shamil. Tell us about the role that theater plays in Iraq today.
Today. Yeah well, the theater is very important art in every culture and especially it used to be in Europe. But right now there is difficulties -- some difficulties of buildings, I mean, house. And also the difficulties of the security, even though the security is improving these last three years. But still theater is not as normal in Iraq. Excuse my English but I'm trying to explain the -- what I can.
What theater is now especially in the Baghdad University, we have festivals every year. And we have -- like, we just finished in May 15 plays. And also the national theater sometime do some plays. But, you know, it's not popular right now because it's limited for intellectual, for theater people and for students. But to say we have a main theater, no, we don't have that. Those are the difficulties.
It's not the kind of vibrant theater scene that you would want. You are leading a five-person delegation from Iraq that's spending three weeks at Georgetown University working with the theater department there. What prompted this visit and what are you hoping to take back from your time here?
Well, I think it's kind of an experience to make a communication with Georgetown University. Georgetown is one of the best in the world. And just history of Georgetown 223 years, that's enough for me to -- and I -- it was my inspiration to come to Georgetown. And a year ago I met Professor Derek and also I met Cynthia. And we worked to arrange some kind of working together. And we really -- it was like a work of months. And I really thank them for this wonderful occasion.
And now I feel like I achieved with them something I was dreaming of, translating a play from English to Arabic and presented here. And working together and meet this beautiful community in Georgetown. And this is something -- it was like -- I don't know -- I can't...
Well, our listeners will be hearing more about that specific play shortly, but in case you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think is the proper role of universities when it comes to interrelating with foreign policy or influencing public opinion about foreign countries? 800-433--8850. Or you can send email to email@example.com. Derek Goldman, how do you think theater and the arts can be used in diplomacy, if you will, to do more than just expose people to other cultures?
DR. DEREK GOLDMAN
Sure, great. I think one of the things that's been really exciting about the opportunity to be at Georgetown specifically is how much energy and momentum there is about the intersection between the arts and, in my case theater specifically, and international politics. I think there's been a change in how we understand cultural diplomacy. The idea of not just bringing something that is emblematic of a culture to a place to demonstrate or show that culture in a monolithic way, but to work more collaboratively with exchanges like this. And theater -- of course, all the arts do this, but theater is especially good at this because of the embodied narrative nature of it.
DR. DEREK GOLDMAN
So when people come together from different cultures in a space and have to reckon with what story do we want to tell together? What do we have in common when we look at each other? And it's not just here's our concert, here's our musicians, here's our play but it's really a deeper exchange. That's the kind of -- you know, we're fortunate at Georgetown to have many students for whom theater and international politics are joint passions. And so those students really inspire us to think about how those things are really -- can be linked at a very deep level in terms of the process of how work is made, how relationships are built.
DR. DEREK GOLDMAN
So I think there really is a role to play, but it's not just a quick visit kind of role. It's a role about lasting relationships and lasting collaboration.
You've certainly given a better synopsis of this conversation than I have. I'm glad you did because it brings me to Cynthia Schneider. What are the roles of cultural diplomacy? And you made an intriguing statement in a pretty interview about the role of the U.S. using cultures to understand what is going on in other countries. If we'd done that in Egypt, we probably wouldn't have been surprised by the revolution that emerged there.
Yes, thank you very much, Kojo, for mentioning that. I think to follow up on Derek's comment that we need to look at a new model for cultural diplomacy. You know, the model of sending the jazz musicians in the 1950s and '60s worked so well. It was absolutely fantastic and brilliant to send people who truly embodied freedom and who also, by virtue of being African-American and undergoing segregation in the United States and speaking honestly about it, embodied descent and criticizing government. So they embodied free speech. They embodied freedom of expression. That was perfect to send them around the world in the 1950's, '60s and '70s.
But we live in a different world. You know, we live in a world of 24 hour communication where so many people have access to information in so many ways. So I think, as Derek said, we need to think of much more collaborative models and we need to think of culture as a way to understand other cultures. And in countries such as Egypt unfortunately now, just as much as then, countries in which the government does not represent the people but rather suppresses the people, you can't find out what's going on from talking to the government. You will get, as we did from the Mubarak government, a picture of stability, the same guy for 30 years. No change there.
If you talk to the people -- I don't speak Arabic so that's kind of limited for me -- or you read the novels such as, for example, "The Yacoubian Building" translated into English or see films of that or read blogs -- you know, the State Department sends out a whole lot of social media. I'm not sure how much is on the incoming end there -- then you would know that Egypt was a pressure cooker, was a total pressure cooker. And the surprise is that it didn't happen sooner.
We had recently, in Washington, a wonderful example of how theater can play this role. And that was in the performance of "The Great Game," which was a trilogy of plays done by a British company The Tricycle Theater about the history of foreign occupation in Afghanistan from the 19th century to the present. And I’m very happy that we'll have Nick Kent from Tricycle and Sharon Nemis (sp?) from the British Council who brought them here and (unintelligible) who's written about it all coming to our conference to share that experience.
But that was so amazing because when that trilogy of plays performed there were a number of people from the Pentagon who saw it in its first run at the Shakespeare Theater. And they were so moved by the way those plays grappled with the issues of what Afghanistan was, the challenges of being there as a foreigner, what it meant in the 19th century, what it meant in 2010, that they brought that theater company back nine months later for two days of performance exclusively for the Pentagon community, for veterans coming back to grapple with that experience and veterans going out to understand better.
That -- those days, again organized by the British Council and Tricycle Theater and Shakespeare Theater are to Derek and me and to our guest Waleed kind of a model of what we hope to achieve in our conference, which is bridging the gap between theater and policy and bringing the two together to really leverage the impact of each.
You feel that those things can provide the kind of insight into the mood of a country that policy papers or strategical conferences cannot.
Well, let me ask you the question, Kojo, and I'll ask your readers. You know, really how do you live your life? You know, you don't live -- the first thing you ask someone is not, you know, what did you think of what was the latest debate on Capitol Hill? I mean, for some people in Washington of course -- we're all kind of crazy -- that might be true. But for most normal human beings that's not how you live your life. You know, your -- our lives are stories and we -- what we relate to and what moves us are stories, are narratives. That's how we understand the world.
Stories presented through the arts and their relationship to foreign policy. We're talking with Cynthia Schneider. She is distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University, and the former U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands. Derek Goldman is artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center and professor of theater and performance studies at Georgetown. And Waleed Shamil is a professor of theater at Baghdad University. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Has a movie, book or play changed your viewpoint or given you new insight into another country or another culture? Tell us about it, 800-433-8850.
Waleed Shamil, tomorrow night you're directing the World Premier of the adaptation of the play "The 9 Parts of Desire" by Iraqi American playwright Heather Raffo. How did you get interested in this play about the lives of Iraqi women?
Well, I was -- last year, I was navigating the internet and I saw something about Iraq culture. So I was, like, very anxious to know how American playwright think about Iraqi. And I saw some in the YouTube and I was invited last year to come to the United States to attend TCG, Theater Communication Group. And I met the playwright Heather Raffo. And I expressed my admiration to her work and she was very interested. And I get -- she gave me the text. And after I came back to Baghdad I start to translate it to Arabic.
And I find like she touches a lot of the problems of women -- of Iraqi women and she really felt the true struggle of these women. So but still it is not Iraqi 100 percent. What I tried to do is make it 100 percent Iraqi and make a little bit changes, but now no one can -- especially if you are Arab or in Iraq and watch this play, you will never see that this is written by an American.
So this, you know, this movement, gesture, idioms, little things (word?) the play, and wanted to see how the other look at my culture and how I look to the -- how they see me in their eyes. So it is a way of interchange and exchange views about each other, and that I think, as Cynthia said, is building the gap, if there is any gap, and bridging this understanding. And I think now our world needs much understanding the others, and accepting the others. So I hope tomorrow people -- audience will enjoy this experience, and I am confident I did a good job.
The playwright of course has an Iraqi father and an American mother. You're planning to take it back to Baghdad where it will be performed. How do you think Iraqis will respond to it, and I'd like to ask both Cynthia and Derek how important is that response likely to be, but you first.
Yes. I think -- I did some dress rehearsal, but not before the broader audience in Baghdad, before I came here, and I saw a very good reaction about it. I made it like happen today. It's written not for the Iraqi, the original text.
It's written for the American audience. But I made it, and I put some other -- some here and now blood to the piece, and the audience reacted because it says a lot of things happening now today in Baghdad.
Derek Goldman, it gets to the essence of what Cynthia Schneider was talking about earlier. Here you have an American woman with one Iraqi parent, one American parent who's writing about women in Iraq. It's played before American audiences. It will soon be playing before an Iraqi audience. How important is it to observe the reaction to that and whether the Iraqi audience in fact sees itself in the character?
I mean, it's a beautiful layered kind of cycle that way, a particularly beautiful example of that. I think we've been privileged at Georgetown to have a long-term relationship just coincidentally with Heather Raffo, who is a remarkable not only playwright, but performer in her own right. People who remember the production at Arena Stage will remember her virtuosic performance of it. What's been exciting about it in this new moment with this -- with Layla Mohammad, this extraordinarily virtuosic Iraqi performer coming to Georgetown is it kind of -- it feels almost like for me knowing Heather's work, it harmonizes with Heather's work.
I almost can still hear and feel Heather as a writer and a person who imagined this world, and now as all great art is worthy of, it is opening itself up to other interpretations and other historical moments, and I think that has to do with quality, actually. The quality of the writing, the quality of Heather's eye and ear and imagination, and then of Waleed's artistry as an adapter being inspired by Heather's work but transforming it and then other artists like Layla who come into it, mean that it then has new resonance in the context of now seeing it at Georgetown with an Iraqi performer, and we'll have a very different and new resonances when it returns to Baghdad.
What, Cynthia Schneider, in some small way can the foreign policy expert sitting in the State Department or elsewhere learn from watching this play performed in Iraq in Arabic and the audiences response to it?
Well, first let's hope they go. Let's hope the realize how important it is. We're very pleased that we have wonderful representatives from the foreign policy community, including the State Department, coming to our conference. I hope that they will urge their colleagues in Baghdad to attend. I'm gonna talk a little bit about what both the foreign policy person might think and what the Iraqi person might think. For the foreign policy person, I think he might experience what Nigerian novelist Wole Soyinka said, which is that culture humanizes while politics demonizes.
Think of what we know about Iraq. We know that there was a bombing yesterday. Do we know anything about the lives of the people who suffered that? We know nothing. Our news has very strange things, so I think what this play will do for American audiences is humanize Iraqi people. They are people going about their lives just, you know, as anyone else, and we never hear about that.
For the Iraqis, I hope that they will realize that we care about them, and that we notice them, and that we want to hear their voices also. That's so important. And I think they will experience both audiences, something of the commonality that Waleed spoke about.
Cynthia Schneider, she's former U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands. She's currently distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University. She joins us in studio with Derek Goldman, artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center. He's also a professor of theater and performance studies at Georgetown, and Waleed Shamil is a professor of theater at Baghdad University. His interpretation of the play will be performed tomorrow night here in Washington.
We're going to take a short break. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think cultural diplomacy is money well spent, or do you think it's a waste of time? Do you think it's simply propaganda? Share what you think. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Welcome back to our conversation about cultural diplomacy, theater, and foreign policy. We're talking with Cynthia Schneider. She is distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University. She's former U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands. Derek Goldman is artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center and professor of theater and performance studies at Georgetown University, and Waleed Shamil also joins us in studio. He is a professor of theater at Baghdad University.
This week at Georgetown you, Derek Goldman, and Cynthia Schneider are among those convening more than 50 theater artists, policy makers, government officials, activists, scholars from around the world to talk about cultural diplomacy. What was the impetus for this gathering, and what do you hope to accomplish?
Great, thank you. I think the impetus was really a sense of a kind of rising tide that we felt in Georgetown and that we've sort of sensed in the field. We've had the opportunity to host a range of really interesting international groups, Belarus Free Theater, Dah Theater from Belgrade, Ping Chong & Company, Peace Voices from the Congo, pieces that have really opened up really, really deep dialogues about what's happening in other parts of the world in relationship to policy and to politics through the arts.
And it felt as Cynthia and I were experiencing, so many students both in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, and in the sort of college and so many students with this dual interest I was mentioning in theater and the arts and in international politics, that there's -- that it's time to kind of take stock of how -- what is already happening and what systems and organizations are already in place, what are some great projects and models that have been effective, and how might we at Georgetown given the location of Washington D.C., the nature of the faculty and the students there be positioned to be a resource for this kind of field.
What -- whether that's true training programs, the kind of work that we can bring here, there seems to be a rising tide around global performance and collaboration, and so -- and what's been extraordinarily gratifying is we just got this grant to do this in the spring and never anticipated the depth of response and the energy of response from so many colleagues. So we've actually been sort of having to manage the size of it because so many people have wanted to join us which has been wonderfully gratifying.
I would just add that my hope is to bridge this gap which nobody, you know, is not of any intention, but foreign policy tends to exist in a different world from culture, and these incredible efforts going on around the world are so many trees falling in the forest. And you have theater groups, individuals engaged in the Congo, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, you name it, all over the world, making a real difference in terms of peacemaking, in terms of reconciliation, in terms of dealing with issues of minority rights, and recovering from conflict and moving forward, envisioning the future.
And that could be so helpful to our policy makers. And, you know, for whatever reason that they don't tend to know about each other and so we're gonna literally bring them together in the same space, and hope to do the same with our students and create a habit among them of working together and understanding and building off what each other does.
Glad you mentioned reconciliation because, Waleed Shamil, after years of war between the United States and Iraq, what do you see as the possibilities for cultural diplomacy between the two countries helping to reconcile some of the ongoing tensions?
Well, theater I guess, or I assume, is a man-to-man...
Woman to woman.
And woman to woman...
Especially in this play.
Yes. It is like always they say that if you have a problem you have to talk and you have to face each other and you have to put on the stage what you want and what you don't want. I think the theater and the essence of theater is to say what you want to say, and to give your message and to -- in an artistic way, in an esthetic way, different than writing an article in the newspaper of course. So this human touch and I think that makes a lot of difference and a lot of warm touch between audience and actors, between even to come with five people from the university and meet with several people in Georgetown University and with the students and this -- it is some great experience...
New understandings develop.
I got to get Katrina from Laurel, Md., because I think she's interested in the production specifically. Katrina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
Hi Kojo. First I want to say I love your show, so thank you so much. I think this is really great what they're doing, and I wanted to know if they're going to take it on tour. I'm originally from Michigan, and I know that that's one of the largest locations of Arabs or Muslims there in Michigan, and also what they're doing reminds me of an exhibit called "The Black and White 1967" exhibit. It's a very famous exhibit that was dealing the racial tensions in this country at that time that really helped to bring about a better understanding between the two groups in terms of blacks and whites.
So I'd like to have them speak to that and if they're going to do more shows or also take this current one on tour, and that was my question. Thank you so much. I'll listen on the air.
Yes. We are moving to New York and we have one show there, and we are ready to go anywhere to do it if you invite us.
Thank you very much for your all, Katrina. We got a tweet from actprof asking "Please ask Derek Goldman to talk about his collaborations with Synetic Theater as a form of cultural exchange."
Oh, wow. That's a wonderful question. Yeah. I've had the privilege of working with Synetic Theater and I think as many of your listeners know they are a company originally from Georgia that have made a major mark in the D.C. theater community through a very singular style of physical theater work. So I felt very honored to be kind of brought in as an adapter, director, text-based person and work, you know, work within the esthetic that they've built, but also to sort of push that esthetic in different ways on a couple of productions.
I think Synetic is an amazing example of a resource here in D.C. that is truly an international resource. I was with Paata Tsikurishvili who is the artistic director of Synetic yesterday, in fact, and they're bringing after -- on the 20th anniversary, I hope I have this right, of the beginning of relations between the U.S. and Georgia dialogue, they're bringing this fall two productions back to Georgia. It'll be the first time that they've been there, and I think that that's an extraordinary example.
Here's this Georgian company who comes to Washington D.C., makes a huge national mark for themselves, and brings the work they've created in Washington back to Georgia. Part of what this conference is going to be about is D.C. is an incredible resource in terms of the number of companies and organizations already doing international work, and we're -- the opening panel is bringing together a range of them. I think the -- what we're interested in at Georgetown is are there ways perhaps to have more intersection and cross-section, is that something that in many ways can help that defines part of D.C.'s identity as a theater community.
Are there ways that Georgetown can be a resource for all the groups that are engaging international work? But Synetic is certainly one that I've been honored to be part of.
We're running out of time very quickly, but in terms of the role of cultural diplomacy in this post-9/11 era, Cynthia Schneider, you seem to emphasize -- I saw a piece that you wrote in the Huffington Post that it is the ability to interact with local cultures and to give voice to those local cultures that ultimately is likely to be most successful. Why?
Well, as I said, I think, you know, people know what the American voice is and, you know, they hear it in a variety of different ways, and really in this age, which is so exciting where there have been all these overthrows of old regimes, sadly still very much in transition with a kind of new version of the old regime in many countries, but still society's in change. The people have changed. That's what my friends in Egypt say. The regime may not have changed, but the people have changed.
So what they need, and where America can be helpful is for us to help them lift up their own voices and find a public way, a platform to express their own feelings about their future.
Cynthia Schneider. She is distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University, former U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands. Derek Goldman is artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center and professor of theater and performance studies at Georgetown University. Waleed Shamil is a professor of theater at Baghdad University. Thank you all for joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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