Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Opening A Door to International Discovery, On Stage and Off

“What is it like for you to act in a country so far away from your home?” an elementary school student asks the performer on stage, leaning forward in his chair. As the moderator for a post-performance talk-back of Stella Den Haag’s Rumplestiltskin, I was struck by the sincerity of the question, and the dialogue between artist and audience that followed. As I listened to the Dutch actors respond about their personal experiences performing abroad, I realized that the impact of international performance presented to a New York audience extends far beyond the content of the show. Don’t get me wrong, the latest international offerings at The New Victory from the Netherlands, the Zoem New Dutch Theater festival, represent some of the most exciting performances for young audiences in the world, offering imaginative storytelling and demonstrating innovation in both content and form. But in addition to the actual show, the international exchange that occurs between a New York City student and a foreign performer is an incredibly valuable educational and cultural experience in itself. These moments offer students a window outside of their neighborhood and a glimpse into the lives of people from around the globe, expanding their world view and breaking down barriers of language and cultural difference.

One of a Kind Photo: Eyal Landesman
Sometimes, the content of the actual performance allows the audience to understand the experiences of a different culture. A few years ago, Nephesh Theater’s One of a Kind told the often overlooked story of Ethiopian Jews and their struggle to find freedom by emigrating to Israel. The show was performed by actors who experienced this trial first-hand, adding personal meaning to the show. Both at the theater and during in-classroom workshops, the show struck a personal chord for students who made connections between the performance and their families' histories. During a reflection in a workshop, one student shared that the main character’s journey reminded him of his own grandparent’s struggle during the Holocaust. For a group of students at MS 324, the show sparked an unexpected sharing of personal stories of immigration in their own lives and the lives of their families, and their teacher was struck by their honesty and openness.

During the following season, Dodgy Clutch’s Elephant offered an African folktale performed by a cast of South African and British performers. The show was a mash-up of cultures and artistic forms that allowed the audience to experience the show on two levels: the emotional story and artistry of the performance and the cultural blending within the acting company. The student response at Manhattan International High School was particularly overwhelming. As a school that draws students from literally around the globe, and with many of its students brand new to the country, Manhattan International is a melting pot where students from diverse backgrounds collaborate. Not only were the students excited by the representation of African culture on a stage on 42nd Street, but the show’s creative team embodied the type of cultural exchange that is inherent in their school community. This experience inspired the students at Manhattan International to create a performance at the end of the year that reflected their own cultures and lives.

These profound connections don’t only happen around performances with strong narratives. Often the most exciting interactions happen without the need for language. While watching Untapped!, New York City students watched as an art form that originated in New York (hip-hop) was reinterpreted by Australian performers from the other side of the globe. The students not only had a blast at the show but recognized that a local art form had migrated all the way around the world and made it back to New York for this performance. In the multi-cultural landscape of New York City, these international associations are not always a foreign experience for our students, but rather a chance for recognition and reunion. During a recent talkback after Cirque Shanghai’s BAI XI, the performers were shocked when an entire section of the audience understood their native language of Mandarin, and they could communicate with these students without the translator. The students were so excited to speak directly to the performers and see their cultural history represented on stage.

Wuthering Heights, Restless Souls Photo: Joep Lennarts
Challenges can arise from cultural differences, especially in content, when bringing work from a different country to the United States. The cultural views on childhood and what young people can and should be exposed to in regards to their entertainment vary immensely from country to country. However, pushing these boundaries allows students to have rich cultural interactions and gain new perspectives. Navigating those waters can sometimes be tricky, and The New Victory Programming department often has to negotiate the integrity of the performance and the cultural views of the public and school audience. It can take bravery and belief in the sophistication of young people to weather the potential storm of criticism over presenting work with sensitive themes and content (like Wuthering Heights, Restless Souls by Theater Artemis). Touring artists allow our children to become citizens of the world and participate in a global conversation.

In our travels to scout work all over the world, it is clear that artists from the US are not as frequently represented at international conferences and festivals as one might hope. While funding is a constant obstacle, it is important for our community to understand the value of art as a vehicle for cultural exchange -  and do what we can to ensure that local artists are also bringing their work to young people in other countries. At the same time, international artists are struggling for funding in the realities of the economic climate and are having a harder time getting visas to perform in the US. How can we ensure that international exchange remains a vibrant and thriving part of our cultural ecosystem? “I want to travel the world like you,” remarks the student at the end of the talk-back with the Dutch performers, making me realize how important it is to keep this door open.

For more on Zoem New Dutch Theater, check out Dennis Meyer's blog posts on the state of theater for young audiences in the Netherlands.

Jonathan Shmidt is the Assistant Director of Education at The New Victory Theater. He manages the New Victory Education Partnership Program, which provides 30,000 students with access to school-time performances and in-classroom workshops. Jonathan is on the adjunct faculty for the Program in Educational Theatre at New York University. He has collaborated on Theater for Young Audiences initiatives with the Boston Lyric Opera, Theater Offensive and Immediate Medium. Jonathan is the co-founder of YEA: Young Educators in the Arts, a networking group for emerging professionals in Arts Education. He holds a Masters Degree in Educational Theatre from New York University. @jshmidt


  1. It's instructive how children's theatre has transformed itself due to international exchange. This isn't even a new phenomenon. The early days of ASSITEJ (the professional international young people's theatre association) bear this out. More reccently, the Danish experience had a profound impact on a few Scottish companies in the 90s. This became a catalyst that changed the cultural landscape in Scotland. It, ironically, encouraged the Scots artists to find a more authentic expression for their own culture. And what's true for the artists is just as true for our audiences, most of whom, let's face it, will not get the opportunity to travel much further than their neighbourhoods.To witness great theatre from other other cultures, to meet the performers, to exchange ideas (at whatever level) can be as life-changing for our young audiences as anything you care to mention.

    1. I totally agree, Tony. I am intrigued by what you said about the infiltration of international performance encouraging Scottish artists to make work more authentic to their own culture. How might international performance influence American artists, especially since we have such a diverse melting pot of cultural influences and no singular cultural identity? As the domestic movement grows, what does “authentic” American theater for young audiences look like?