We Are The Diplomats

by Ellen Joffred

in Global Citizenship

(Video of Megan Wanlass, Executive Director, SITI Company presenting Martha Coigney with the 2011 Visionary Leadership Award at the 2011 TCG National Conference)

I want to be Martha Coigney when I grow up; seriously, Martha is one of the coolest ladies I’ve ever met. From starting out as a self-proclaimed “secretary-janitor” at the Actors Studio, she later served as Director of the U.S. Center of the International Theatre Institute (ITI) from 1966 to 2003. From 1987 to 1995 she was President of Worldwide ITI. In 1995, she was awarded UNESCO’s Picasso Medal and was made Honorary President of the ITI for life. Currently she serves on several Boards, consults and participates in international theatre projects. This past June, Martha won the Visionary Leadership Award at the 2011 TCG National Conference (see video above).

I recently had the honor to sit and talk with Martha, Dafina McMillan (Director of Communications and Conferences at TCG) and Kevin Bitterman (Associate Director of Artistic and International Programs at TCG). Martha hasn’t missed an ITI congress since 1967; so as a group we asked her questions about the upcoming ITI World Congress in Xiamen, China.

Dafina: Why do you think it is important that this Congress happen in China now?

Martha: Because I don’t think any of us, speaking as an American, none of us know enough about China. And we have not had the opportunity to find out what it’s really like, and what the energies are, and what the restrictions are, and by now there might not be that many restrictions, they seem to be coming around to capitalism at a great rate. But I think it’s one of the theatre giants of the world, culturally one way or another, and we haven’t been there for an ITI congress except for one sort of special event in 1991.

ITI in started in 1948, the same week as the Iron curtain dropping on Prague, and the beginning of the Cold War. The organization always had a mission to keep artists in touch with one another in spite of the very real animosities between countries. ITI had an extraordinary opportunity to grow because we were under the radar.

Dafina: So what do you enjoy most about going to these congresses?

Martha: People. The buddies and the fact of the gathering-it really does make a huge difference if theatre people in one country get to meet occasionally.

I stayed at ITI because of the parade of people that kept coming in. The one person at a time traffic at ITI was the thing that, to me, set it apart. American artists and actors and directors- our country had more nomads as theatre artists than people that have a home.

To me, the best thing that ITI can do is to allow theatre people to meet one another. Theatre saves lives, by showing our stories and letting people know who we really are. People that do theatre have an extra chromosome about them, knowing that connection is life-saving, certainly that is in the work.

Kevin: If this was your first time at the conference what would be your advice?

Martha: Oh just say hello to everybody. And go to everything and say hello to everybody and if you get worried, go find another American and go together.

Ellen: Are there any favorite congress memories you have?

Martha: One of my favorite anecdotes is when everybody at the ITI Congress that wanted to went to the UN to watch the emergency debate and the general assembly about the Six-Day War. The next morning the head of the Soviet delegation, Mikhail Ivanovich Tsarev, got up and said: “all this week we have been arguing and debating and discussing and questioning the work of our theatre and the work of our organizations, and yesterday many of us went to watch the diplomats fight and storm out of the room.” And he did sort of a long Russian actor thing about what they were doing at the UN, and we were sniggering and giggling, and he said finally, “we are the diplomats.” And we all screamed and yelled and carried on. So that I remember, because it was a micro-definition of ITI.

I just hope that ITI keeps going and remaining available to individuals so that they can bring people together for the first time -to me that really was the blood supply of ITI.

Ellen: Any final thoughts on the congress?

Martha: I’ve never written it down or said it out loud to many people but Congresses should always be an enormous amount of fun.

Ellen Joffred was this past summers’ Artistic/International programs intern at TCG; she is a third-year MFA Dramaturgy candidate at Columbia University. Her interests include investigating theatricality, the beauty and futility of language, cross-cultural collaborations, mash-ups, and theatre transcending language. www.EllenJoffred.com