Interview with Douglas B. Wilson

by August Schulenburg

in Arts and the Armed Forces,Interviews

Post image for Interview with Douglas B. Wilson

The Fall Forum kicks off tonight with a keynote address from Douglas B. Wilson, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. We had a chance to talk with Asst. Secretary Wilson before his address about veterans, military families, and how theatre organizations can better serve those who serve our country.

1.  How can theatres better tell the stories of those serving in uniform? And what are the stories you think the civilian population most needs to hear?

It’s important first to understand that at the moment you have less than 1% of the American public serving in uniform serving on battle fronts and 99% are not. The men and women in uniform who are serving are parts of our community – it’s almost become a cliche to say they’re our brothers, our sisters, our husbands, our wives – I think their stories are remarkable; they are some of the most impressive individuals I have met. For those who are playwrights, those looking for the subject matter of our time, they would do well to look at those serving in uniform because they have some amazing stories to be told.

By the same token, I think that our men and women in uniform and their families are as much a part of our communities as the butcher, the baker, the grocer, and the banker; and value the opportunity to engage in the arts and certainly with the theatre. It is worth reaching out to those who are serving in uniform, not just for their stories but for their participation in your audiences, because going to the theatre is a transformative experience.

2. You’re speaking at the U.S. Summit for Global Citizen Diplomacy, a ten year initiative to double the number of American volunteers in international activities. What role do you see theatre artists and cultural diplomacy playing in this effort?

An enormous role – in 1952 President Eisenhower called the first Citizen Diplomacy Summit and challenged the American people to get engaged in the world on a people to people basis…and (now) there are literally millions of Americas from all walks of life who are engaging daily with counterparts overseas.

I think theatre and theatre exchange is seminal…(at the Fall Forum) we’ll be talking about The Great Game, a cycle of plays  on the history of Afghanistan, initiated by The Tricycle Theatre….No less a leader than General David Petraeus has said that he was grateful for being given the tapes of this and would love to see it personally because it does provide the kind of understanding and context of the situation in which he operates, that I think theatre is uniquely capable of doing.

Theatre takes you out of your world and puts you into another…to give you better understanding of people and culture. So I think what the Citizen Diplomacy Summit is doing is very relevant for theatre.

3. You were recently the president of The Leaders’ Project, a non-profit initiative to bring together successor generation leaders from around the world on a cross-disciplinary basis, to promote new networks and new thinking on international issues. What lessons did you learn from this work that might have an impact on cultural practices?

I learned a lot in reaching out and meeting with what I call the Successor Generation Leaders of countries around the world including the U.S. We define that as not just youth but people who have made it in their field and who are likely to rise to the pinnacle of power in their field in terms of shaping opinion and policy in ten to fifteen years. In all of these conferences we reached out significantly to the arts communities, and learned that the formative experiences of Succession Generation Leaders are different than those who formed the views and opinions of the leaders of the World War II, Korea and even Vietnam generations; and those formative experiences, combined with culture and cultural differences, affect how people look at the world in ways that we are not paying enough attention to.

The arts can serve as catalysts for attitudes and also bring together people from those vastly different parts of the spectrum to really coalesce a discussion. Theatre and film are catalysts to bring together people and opens people’s eyes in ways that newspapers and, with all due respect to you sir, blogs can’t. These are artistic mediums that change people’s lives.

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Thank you to Assistant Secretary Wilson for speaking with us, and see you at the Forum!