In December 2013, ITI was invited to be part of an international symposium in Berlin, Germany, by the International Research Center on “Interweaving Performance Cultures” (Freie Universität Berlin), in which the actor training model conceived and developed by ITI was the main focus. The only full-time acting programme in the world which includes four Asian traditional theatre forms as core modules, ITI is driven by the late Kuo Pao Kun and current director T. Sasitharan’s founding vision to mould critically and socially engaged contemporary artists for the stage.
Kunstquartier Bethanien, the symposium venue, is an old hospital in Berlin that has been converted into an arts space, now containing various studios and a lecture hall. With high ceilings and arches sitting atop ornately carved pillars, its stateliness and sense of history seem to collide head on with its now graffiti-scrawled stairway walls. Yet Berlin is nothing if not shaped by conflict: rooted in the city’s war-torn history, today it is embedded in its architecture and embraced by the many artists who live here, and who have used it to shape the art they make.
It is in this context – this physical and social space – that we attempt to scratch the surface of intercultural training and pedagogy. The scope of this symposium is ambitious, and necessarily so. Its purpose in bringing together a diverse group of specialists (educators, practitioners, students, academics) from around the world is to begin discussion on various practice and training methods, many of which are in themselves influenced by different cultures. Apart from being an academic exchange, it is also an exercise in expanding the human spirit: most participants speaking and presenting in a language that is not native to them, meeting and connecting for the first time with people from parts of the world they have never been, learning how certain methods of training and schools of thought ostensibly clash with others
Yet like the city and building in which these exchanges were happening, the places of apparent conflict and stark difference are also where we might find the most surprising confluence and coherence. The seven ITI students themselves are a conglomeration of dissimilarities: two Singaporeans, two Indians, a Filipino, a Bolivian, and an Italian. What happens when this group is made to study and train in the practice of Kutiyattam, a 2000-year old traditional Sanskrit theatre form, under Master Teacher Gopalan Venu? Their demonstration of the navarasa (the nine basic sentiments in Sanskrit dramatic theory) showcased the technical discipline and ability acquired in daily practice of this form, but also surfaced a certain universality in what might otherwise have been perceived as a rigid and completely foreign art form. To witness a physical embodiment of what is other to us, and what more witnessing it happen in contemporary bodies that we recognize as similar to our own, is to see how we might fit in a space we previously never thought to call home.
Of course, there is always the risk of being reductive. How could questions surrounding the responsibility and ethos of acting be resolved within the span of a panel discussion, or the issue of appropriating cultures and histories not our own be adequately addressed, much less resolved? Yet we must take these chances where we can – this gathering is not a promise of answers as much as it is a compilation of questions; a struggle against the lesser alternative of silence. “We are inventing the world as we stand upon it,” said Robin Payne, ITI’s own Voice and Speech teacher. And the world we currently stand in is a conflicted one, one that necessitates constant dialogue about difference as the way to that ideal of shared humanity. “Post-race” or “colour-blindness” in the context of history and culture are concepts of a fantasy world, and have no room in this one. Just as an actor trains in the Suzuki method or makes Taiji a daily practice, discussion in itself becomes a kind of discipline: within its frame we learn respect, expand our vocabulary, and unlearn any preconceived notions we inevitably possess.
As Sasi summarises: “Theatre allows us to reimagine, reconstitute, and remake ourselves. And this re-imagination has to begin with the assumption that culture is a necessary fiction – something that is written, overwritten, and rewritten. Intercultural theatre then becomes one of the most effective instruments for this writing to happen, because there is no single overriding entity. For a brief moment on stage, performance can cohere.” The greater hope is that these moments will also carry into life beyond the stage – that more than simply training actors, we are also in the business of shaping humanity. To act, then, becomes more than just an artistic undertaking – it carries the weight and responsibility of action; of continually establishing understanding and clarity in a world governed by obfuscation and myriad voices.
Written by: Michelle Tan