European theatre makers from eight EUNIC member states and are invited to participate in the one-week theatre residency “The Gathering” as part of the CrossCurrents performing arts festivals in Washington, D.C. Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum Eva Schöfer discusses the project in the interview.
“The more the public is talking about it the easier it is to influence the policy making level.”
The whole world meets in Washington making it one of the most interesting cities in the world in regards to politics and policy making. How does this reflect in the work of the EUNIC cluster in Washington?
All European countries here doing bilateral cultural work but also EUNIC work are very much influenced by the fact that we are in Washington. You can see that many projects somehow have a political aspect, be it a panel discussion, a film, or a theatre project. Examples for political discussion topics are the migration issue, environmental issues, now in particular with president Trump wanting to leave the Paris agreement. We Austrians for example have a focus on human rights and arts. EUNIC in 2016 organised a project on private data protection. You can also say that what the embassies are doing here nationally has an impact on what we are doing in EUNIC.
Tell us more about the festival and the EUNIC project “The Gathering”. Washington being a large city with a huge cultural offering, how do you capture the audience’s interest?
The whole idea of the project is about interaction between the artists and the audience. The European theatre makers are going to spend two days with each other in this residency workshop, and the rest of the week they are going to be part of this CrossCurrent project ‘The Gathering’. ‘The Gathering’ includes a lot of pop up theatre in the campus, because it is taking place at Georgetown University. Most of the artists we have invited work a lot with participation, so they are not the classical theatre makers but work more in this new collaborative approach which means that they don't have a lot of actors, they work with the audience. This project is something on-going: of course, Derek Goldman is the artistic leader, but a lot of things are going to happen and develop during the festival itself, and it is interesting to see what the outcome of the week will be. The artists were particularly chosen by the Lab because they work with civil society and audience engagement. The festival is free of charge for the public and it is in fact not in a format of a festival, but really a gathering.
One of the objectives of the festival is to humanize global politics and to reflect on critical topics like global refugee crises, climate change, and the rise of hate and polarization. Do you think that ideas or findings of the festival can be transferred to a policy making level, and if yes, what can be the mechanisms for it?
I think this is in the end what we all strive for. We all try to reach through art possibilities to really influence decision making bodies. I think we are still not there yet. But I am very much convinced that when we keep having the conversations then this is something people are talking about. The more the public is talking about it the easier it is to influence the policy making level, and Washington is a good place for that. As the EUNIC project is part of the bigger CrossCurrents festival I would say there are many layers. The European residency will deal with questions concerning participation and dialogue among citizens and will address the topic of how to overcome this ‘us against we’ that is currently so predominant in our societies. It is more a participatory exercise among citizens and would only indirectly influence policy decisions. The CrossCurrents festival deals with bigger questions, it has e.g. theatre performances addressing immigration issues or the story of the girls in Nigeria being abducted. In these cases, though the major goal is also more to create awareness in the public. Another important fact is that we are now cooperating as much as we can with the EU Delegation and they also have the possibility to get a little closer to the policy discussions inside. We have an interesting possibility because one of the co directors of ‘the Lab’ is Cynthia Schneider and she is also Professor at the School of Foreign Service at Washington DC. So, there you have also an overlap between culture and politics. In order to really influence policy makers, I think we still need to develop our cultural projects further and start to target politicians, lobbyists, and others by actively including them in the cultural projects, for example by inviting them to panel discussion etc. So still more to do for other EUNIC projects in the future.
Have you already selected the artists from each EUNIC member country? Can you tell us about the contribution from your country?
We have eight countries taking part in the projects and they are Italy, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Romania, Sweden, Spain, and Greece and all the artists are already chosen. We have three male artists and five female artists, and I think it’s a nice aspect that we have a majority of female artists. The artists were already in contact with each other and they started to share their work and to get to know each other a little bit better. They all seem to be very enthusiastic.
The Austrian artist is Philipp Ehmann, a great young theatre maker and a transdisciplinary multimedia artist who has been already curating internationally. He works a lot with the so-called episodic interactive theatres, he works with social media elements and to create gaming and he often includes artists on the streets. He works a lot around the topic of democracy. Philipp is also going to be part in the European month of culture in New York with the EU Delegation the week before the Theatre Residency in Washington starts, so we in a way combine our work and Philipp will already come to DC with the experience from New York.
You have been working on the project for a couple of months. What are you personally anticipating and what do you expect from this project?
What I think is great is that we have so many countries taking part in this project. I think that does not happen a lot. I love that all these theatre people are coming together under the leadership of Derek Goldman and as it seems they are very enthusiastic. I really hope that they will take something home and maybe create some more projects amongst themselves from their different backgrounds. What I also think is going to be interesting is to see how this collaborative aspect is working with the audience because this is something new. These are not ordinary theatre projects where you go and see a performance, but this is going to be much more interactive.
I also think it is going to be an interesting experience for the European artists together with the American public here to get an idea of how this intercultural exchange is going to work. What I also hope is that we will be able to build a relationship with the local theatres that we can build upon for our future work and to bring more European plays to Washington. This is at the moment not happening, so we see it as a door opener.