“I thought it was going to be a hobby, but it has become a lifestyle”, says Roberta Levitow about Theatre Without Borders, the organization she co-founded in 2005. And well she might say that – our phone interview comes in the middle of her busy preparations for TWB’s upcoming conference, ACTING TOGETHER ON THE WORLD STAGE: Theatre and Peace Building in Conflict Zones. Running from September 23-26 in New York City, the conference will brings together international theatre artists to share their experiences with artists, activists, educators, policy makers, and the general public.
“We are an information portal with a human being at the other end”, says Levitow of the vibrant network she leads. This volunteer, virtual community shares information and builds connections between individuals and institutions interested in international theatre exchange. That work began to gather momentum when Levitow heard Cynthia Cohen of Brandeis University speak at an early convening.
Cohen’s publication Creative Approaches To Reconciliation altered the direction of TWB’s work: “We’re working primarily in what some people call the Global South, and this distinguishes us because the areas we’re dealing with have greater civil violence, and so the artists are more activist oriented.” Cohen’s work linked a healthy society to creative expression, focusing on regions that “tested artistry – what is the place of an artist in Rwanda after the genocide?”
The ensuing five year partnership between Brandeis and TWB has born significant fruit: a soon to be published anthology of case studies exploring theatre as peace-builder, a curriculum dedicated to creativity in peace-building, a documentary film in development, and the conference that “brings together artists who share a common cause but rarely get to meet.”
“We believe artist to artist diplomacy is essential, especially between artists whose governments aren’t talking to each other.” Inspired in part by the non-partisan mission of Doctor Without Borders, Levitow seeks to connect artists from places like Sudan and Iran with other artists regardless of political affiliation.
That community has responded enthusiastically, with “artists from Afghanistan and Pakistan coming on their own dime – they feel this compulsion to share their work for healing.” Given the challenges peace-building artists face, they rarely get the opportunity to trade tactics, share work and engage in self-reflection. The Conference allows this essential activity to occur while raising awareness of the work in the larger theatre community.
Levitow knows these challenges first hand, most recently developing the Sundance Institute’s East Africa program. “The really important thing to me – and I’ve been going to the region since 2001 – is for others to recognize the capacity of local voices to tell their own stories. Sometimes we feel it’s best for us to write those stories for them, but what they need and want is a bridge to share those stories with us directly.”
Part of those travels were made possible by a 2007 TCG/ITI New Generations International Fellowship, which Levitow called essential. She also was awarded TCG’s Alan Schneider Award for Directorial Excellence in 1990, an award that had a major impact on her confidence: “You think, ‘oh, I should just believe in myself’, but the truth is as an artist you don’t always have that; and the Schneider Award helped me find it…the people of TCG are the stewards of confidence.”
Now Levitow is a steward of confidence herself, shining an important light on the cultural diplomacy and peace-building work of artists across the globe. Be sure to follow the events of the Theatre Without Borders Conference on Twitter at #TWBConf10, and here on the TCG Circle.
Roberta Levitow is a director, dramaturg, and teacher; Co-founder Theatre Without Borders, www.theatrewithoutborders.com; Co-creator TWB/Coexistence at Brandeis University “ACTING TOGETHER” Project: Artistic Associate Sundance Institute East Africa. Fulbright Specialist Makerere University, Uganda; The National University of Theatre and Cinematography, Romania; Chinese University of Hong Kong. Honoree 2003 15th Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. Accomplishments and writings are featured in The New York Times, AMERICAN THEATRE Magazine, Theatre in Crisis?: Performance Manifestos for a New Century, The South Atlantic Quarterly, and Writing the World: On Globalization. A graduate of Stanford University; faculty UCLA and Bennington College. Presently Fulbright Ambassador.