“This is the power of art” -Amnesty International

  • November 18, 2011 12:21 pm

Bari Hochwald, President & Artistic Director 

When the opportunity arose, in the support of the Belarus Free Theatre, for us to take our model of theatrical international engagement and apply it to essential issues such as human rights and free speech, I knew that I wanted to expand the experience by involving an organization that I have respected for years. I am thankful that they immediately understood and embraced what we were doing back in February.  And now, with our upcoming project, we have the opportunity to deepen and expand that relationship in a variety of ways all in one evening.  I am deeply grateful for this and feel sure that, as time goes forward, we will be creating innovative and exciting events together that are creatively, intellectually and spiritually provocative and that engage not only our artists but our audience into a participatory experience such as we will be doing in Association with Amnesty International on December 11th.
 
We asked Amnesty International Representative Jessica Farley to share why she’s involved with The GTP.
 
Amnesty International

JF: Amnesty International (AI) was founded 50 years ago to speak on behalf of prisoners of conscience, those who have spoken out and been detained, tortured or killed for their political or personal beliefs. Anna Politkovskaya was a heroic human rights defender and a prisoner of conscience. Her courageous investigative journalism in Russia and Chechnya did what AI activists all hope to do, be a voice for the voiceless and hold people accountable for human rights abuses. It is for this reason she won the 2001 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. The Global Theatre Project uses artistic expression to draw awareness to human rights issues around the world, now on behalf of Anna Politkovskaya, and those of us at AI supports this important work on behalf of human rights and are excited about our relationship with The Global Theatre Project. 

Amnesty has maintained a strong relationship with artists because it is easy to make the link between creative expression and freedom of expression. I grew up studying theatre and became a member of AI when I was 14 years old. I am an artist and a human rights activist. So, I know theatre has the potential to create an experience that provides us a deeper understanding of what it means to be human and live in the world. I love that The Global Theatre Project urges us to understand not only some of the darker human experiences that we must not forget, but also offers us the opportunity to be touched by the lives of incredibly courageous people.  

Q: How is Amnesty and The GTP’s work similar and how is it different?

JF: Amnesty and The GTP share underlying values. AI has over 3 million members in 150 countries. I believe most of our members consider themselves to be world citizens. Part of The GTP’s mission is to build and promote creative cross-cultural relationships. AI and The GTP advocate for human rights and global understanding with the participation of an international community. AI members and staff may spend more time writing letters and issuing reports whereas The GTP is primarily an artistic organization, but activism can take many different forms, though our vision for a more humane world is the same.

Q: Why is Anna Politkovskaya’s voice important to be heard?

JF: Amnesty International’s emblem is a glowing candle encased in barbed wire. This symbol represents those that shine a light for others in the darkness. Anna Politkovskaya was, and remains, a light for those in Russia and Chechnya. She sought the truth in the midst of a terrible war and then shared this truth with the world, knowingly risking her life. Human rights abuses are often justified by those who commit them, but Anna Politkovskaya reminds us that such abuses are never justifiable and should never be hidden. Her work is a stand for human dignity and reminds us to have the courage to speak out, even when governments or society would have us stay silent. Her voice reminds us that we are all responsible for each other and have a say in the kind of world we share.

Q: How did you feel after the first read-through of the script?

a theatrical memorandum on Anna Politkovskaya by Stefano Massini

JF: I felt both excited to be part of this project and saddened by the reality exposed. I have heard many stories about human rights abuses, often first-hand. It is never easy. The script is moving and evocative. It gives us a glimpse of what Anna Politkovskaya’s life was like, what she discovered and the challenges she faced. This is the power of art. It brings things to life. The script brings Anna Politkovskaya to life along with those who were victims in the war between Russia and Chechnya; this is difficult to experience, but I feel it makes us better people.

Q: What about the panel interests you the most?

JF: We live in strange times. Amnesty has worked on many human rights abuses in the USA and abroad. However, we have the freedom to host a panel on human rights, and not everyone does. I am interested in the expert voices on the panel and the diverse perspectives they will bring to this discussion about freedom. I am interested to hear the questions from the audience because I imagine everyone attending will be part of a community interested in expression and humanity. 

Q: Can you please describe an Amnesty Action?

JF: Amnesty members spend a lot of time writing to oppressive governments and authorities who are able to directly make a difference for those suffering human rights abuses. We write on behalf of specific individuals or groups advocating for human rights to be upheld. It might be hard to imagine that such action would have an impact, but it does. Prisoners are often released or we receive information that their treatment has improved. We keep in touch with many former prisoners of conscience and they tell us our support gave them hope when they were alone in a cell or that their interrogators specifically mentioned calls, letters and campaigns by Amnesty International before their release. Our work shows human rights abusers that the world is watching. 

Our Amnesty action on December 11th will be for Majid Tavakkoli. Majid was studying ship building in Iran when he was imprisoned for giving a speech at his university criticizing the Iranian government in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election. His charges included “participating in an illegal gathering” and “insulting officials”. He has been sentenced to serve more than eight years in prison. He is a prisoner of conscience who was jailed simply for expressing his opinion. Majid will be part of our Write for Rights Global Write-a-thon where we will join thousand of people around the world and call on the Iranian government to uphold human rights and free Majid Tavakkoli.

Permesso

  • September 2, 2011 6:23 pm

In my last post I spoke about the challenges of Italian doors and the lessons they provide for that initial moment when we are facing the unknown of a new culture.  The step just after we must ‘observe the door’ in order to discover how to open it is, of course, to walk through the portal. 

However, in Italy you don’t simply enter another person’s space without saying a very important word: ‘Permesso.’  In other words you are asking permission.  Clearly stated, and expected. . . whether you are entering an office or a home.  You can not enter and be considered a respectable person without this word.  Whether the person is standing right in front of you, or you are slowly peeking around an open door and announcing your presence, that word must be said.

I have to admit it took me quite a long time to feel comfortable with this expectation.  And often times early on in my Italian experience I didn’t do it.  But in not doing it I was putting my discomfort and embarrassment (as well as my cultural habits) in front of what my hosts needed in order to believe I held respect for them.

It takes a great deal of courage to let go of our self-identity when entering other worlds.  It is, of course, the one thing we want to cling onto most (either consciously or unconsciously).  But that is why, as artists, The Global Theatre Project is positioned to bring a level of awareness and risk-taking to the collaborations and entries we make with our international colleagues, partners and audiences.  However, at times, we don’t always see that initial situation of  ‘permesso’ clearly enough in advance.

On the very first evening of our Global Voices project with University of Texas, we had a special dinner at a very ‘local’ type of restaurant.  Mixed among the 15 Texas students and 2 professors were 9 residents and artists of Florence.  The evening was going beautifully, everyone getting to know one another with the intention clearly focused on integrating the students and professors as quickly as possible into the world of the city. 

Close to the end of the meal one of the professors stood up and suggested the students sing the UT song for their new Florentine friends.  And, that before they sing, they should ‘hook ‘em.’  What she was referring to was making the hand sign of the Longhorns (UT sports team) and the sign looks like this:

The reaction of the residents and owner of the locale was immediate and very strong.  They were shocked at seeing 17 hands holding a sign that they interpreted as offensive.  Clearly they felt the need to educate the newcomers that what they were doing had a very different meaning to Italians and that they should never ‘hook ‘em’ in front of an Italian if they don’t want to be offensive, insensitive or disrespectful. 

The sign that the Italians thought they saw looks like this:

Too close for their comfort and close enough to see what they registered as a vulgarity.  But the energy of the room at that moment was quite ‘collegiate’ and over-rode the definitive clues that were being given by the locals.

It was a perfect, and of course in hindsight, humorous moment of culture clash.  But it was also an opportunity missed to realize that …. even as we enthusiastically want to share our pride of identity with our hosts, when they open the door we must ask ‘permesso’ and if we forget, or do something incorrect, when they try to guide us in a direction right for their comfort….we should pause, take a breath and realize we are in their home.  They actually are the perfect guides for us to take those first steps over their portal with confidence and openness. And with a sense of belonging.  We need to allow our hold on our sense of identity to loosen a bit.

The project ended wonderfully with many friends made because, as the sensitivity of the students grew and developed during their stay, many doors opened to them.  In their own ways each of them learned their level of asking permission. 

‘Permesso’ goes far.  In Italian or any language. 

 

Theatre In Protest and Community

  • February 6, 2011 2:47 am

 

[originally posted at www.culturalweekly.com]
As we watch the live feed from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, I am brought back to similar scenes last December, as the capital of Belarus erupted in protests against a presidential election that international observers said was falsified. Over 1000 people were beaten and thrown into jail. Among them were members of the Belarus Free Theatre, a theatre that began in 2005 during the second term of President Alexander Lukashenko as a way to protest the oppression and censorship of his Presidency.
Theatre producer Natalia Kolyada, her husband, playwright Nikolai Khalezin, and other members of the company staged their performances in secret to evade the state police. The Belarus Free Theatre was founded to give voice to non-government sanctioned playwrights, to reflect the modern day truths of Belarus and to connect with the international community through sharing contemporary Belarusian theatre. As a result they have been supported by such prominent figures as the late Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Tony Kushner, Steven Spielberg, Ian McKellen, Vaclav Havel and Mick Jagger.
The Belarus Free Theatre is a “project” which will be ended when the situation in Belarus changes from dictatorial regime to democracy (as they say on their website). Having fled the country the theatre members arrived in NYC, where they performed at Under The Radar Festival. As a result of this action, and the voice they have been giving to their disappeared colleagues and friends as well as the current situation in their country, return would likely guarantee them a 15-year imprisonment. Currently they are being given time to assess the situation by having been offered performance opportunities in Chicago through the end of February. Their next steps are unsure, but what is sure is that this is a group of some of the most courageous artists in the world who love their country so deeply they have risked everything to save it from oppression. This love has left them without a home, albeit with a growing concern and involvement from the international community. It would be hard to separate the fact of their very public cry in New York, their meetings with Hillary Clinton, and the rallying of the international theatre community behind them, from the decision of last week for the US to put sanctions and restrictions on Belarus.
“Being artists, we have a hunger to produce and perform again, but we also have a duty to speak for our country,” Ms. Kolyada said in the New York Times. “As moral people, we need to scream, and we appeal to artists, governments and people of good will all over the world to join us and scream on our behalf.”
As Artistic Director of The Global Theatre Project, I feel compelled to join the hundreds of artists in this country and abroad who are raising awareness for the Belarus Free Theatre. So we are holding an event in February – you can reserve a ticket here. The event will begin with a few words from Amnesty International about the situation in Belarus and what can be done, and be followed by a staged reading of Being Harold Pinter with a cast headed by James Cromwell and Ed Harris with a reception following.
As an American I will never personally know the “scream” Natalia and her company members express through their work. I recognize that, no matter how difficult we feel our position as artists in this country is, the freedom to express ourselves without fear of retaliation also defines the texture of our work.So what is the “scream” I feel as an artist and an American? For me it is a clear obligation: to be as insistent and courageous as the members of the Belarus Free Theatre in the creation of my work, to participate in shifting the conversation in this country to a more informed definition of the value of art and to assure that my work expands its impact deep into the heart of the communities worldwide.The situation in Belarus is a horrendous one. As we engage with the Belarus Free Theatre, the conversation which should be explored must not stop at bringing awareness to the circumstances, which are atrocious, but expand to an exploration of how did these circumstances arise in the first place? How did a small band of performers find themselves on the world stage and in self-imposed exile from a country that feels threatened by their work?
My simple response is because art has power.
We have been complacent in this country with regards to our relationship to our art and culture. We have accepted the arts being delegated to a corner of our national conversation and pulled out only at times when there is a threat to the NEA or a need to defend the work of individual artists from social attack. We have no idea how strong our voices are as a collective group or who our community allies are because we, generally, have a tendency to feel isolated and separated as “artists” with no “power” or because we don’t, frankly, have enough knowledge and respect for the communities in which we do our work.
This brings me to the center of my personal work and that of The Global Theatre Project.Which is community engagement. As we move forward into a world that is shrinking and becoming more volatile facing economic challenges and power shifts, what artists offer their communities becomes even more essential. But the work cannot be created from the position of “my work”.. “my art”.. There must be a “we” embracing artist and community for the process of creation and sharing. Theatre has the opportunity, right now, to become even more relevant in an age where technology brings us together even as it diminishing our capacity for true intimacy. Theatre’s relevance depends on engaging and involving that community in the creative process. I am not talking about the old definition of community theatre; I am talking about community engagement.. Asking more of our audiences and giving more to them.
I can only feel connected to the Belarus Free Theatre, and to the protesters in Egypt, when I allow myself to feel a connection to the community we share at this exact moment. Then I can “scream” in my way, as we join together to support human dignity.