Fulbright Stories: Roberta Levitow

by Jaki Bradley

in Global Citizenship,Interviews

Post image for Fulbright Stories: Roberta Levitow

(Photo: Roberta Levitow in Istanbul)
March 27th is World Theatre Day, but TCG is celebrating the values of WTD throughout the month of March. Leading up to the 50th Anniversary of World Theatre Day, TCG is launching Fulbright Stories on the TCG Circle. In this series, we’ll be speaking with theatre practitioners who received a Fulbright grant to live and work abroad. The Fulbright program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, offers opportunities for artists to undertake research, teaching and study and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. In exploring TCG’s core value of Global Citizenship, we hope this series can inform and inspire theatre-makers to deepen and enrich their work globally.

To introduce the series, we’ll be talking to Roberta Levitow, co-founder of Theatre Without Borders and former Fulbright Specialist. As a Fulbright Specialist in U.S. Studies/Theatre, Roberta worked at Makerere University (Kampala, Uganda 2007), the National University of Theatre & Cinematography (Bucharest, Romania 2005), and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (2003). Since being tapped as a Fulbright Ambassador in 2010, Levitow has made it her job (or, one of her many jobs) to encourage artist-practitioners who are curious about international travel to consider participation in the Fulbright program.

What can a Fulbright grant offer an artist?

To my knowledge Fulbright is still the most reliable, long-standing mechanism to support international exchange for American students, scholars and artists. I don’t believe that there’s a comparable funding source. It gets you over there. Wherever you want to go in the world. There are longer-term Core grants, from 2-9 months, and those are ideal for research, teaching, study or collaboration projects. Those grants give people rare opportunities to build deep and lasting relationships with artists and communities within another culture. And there are short-term Specialist grants, for 2-6 weeks, which are great for people who want a shorter, intense exchange. For many professional artists, people who are deeper into their careers, leaving home for longer than 2-6 weeks may not be feasible. Specialist grants can work for those professionals who are ready to share their expertise about American theatre. Fulbright welcomes diverse applications based on the goals of the applicant. There’s really no determining mandate outside the artist’s proposal, except that you create a mutually acceptable and desirable grant proposal with your host country— that’s key. There are other great grants, like TCG’s Global Connections grant, but there are many, many more people who apply for those grants than get them, so what else is available for people who have an interest in international exchange? Fulbright is a singular way to have a life-changing experience, personally and professionally.

What got you interested in the Fulbright?

I was at Bennington College and I was teaching a really bad class on world theatre. I was at “a certain age”, and I wanted something renewing. I had lost some of my own enthusiasm for the work I was doing. I taught a really bad class on world theatre because I knew nothing about world theatre—I’d been in American new play development for 35 years, so I really knew nothing. On the day that we were studying African theatre a student turned to me and said ‘Wouldn’t it be great to go to Africa?’ And I thought ‘It would’. So I started looking around for opportunities and was linked up to a project through Martha Coigney and Philip Arnoult. And after I did that project in East Africa in 2001, I came home thinking ‘I really have to find ways to continue engaging internationally’. I found the Specialist Grant opportunity on the Fulbright website and applied. In less than two years, I was an artist-in-residence at Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Photo by Roberta Levitow from her Fulbright experience

I feel like the Fulbright is an underutilized grant for artists; we see the word ‘scholar’ and think that it’s only for academics or researchers. What do you think holds artists back from applying to the grant?

You’re right, it doesn’t announce that artists are eligible the same way it announces scholars- which is the history of the program. It doesn’t announce availability to artists the way most artist grants do. So if you’re used to looking at Guggenheim or MacDowell Colony or TCG or Sundance, you’re used to being talked to directly, artist to artist. But you’re not going to have that, so you just have to push on through and trust that we mean it, and that the Fulbright really does want artists and other professionals to submit applications. The other thing is sometimes people don’t know anyone in the place they want to go, they just know the name of a country or a kind of theatre they’ve seen and want exposure to. The distance between being there and wanting to be there is intimidating. Because it is a journey, and it does take time to build those relationships, to figure out what you really want to do. So some of the grants are not necessarily for tomorrow, they’re grants for the day after tomorrow, or next year, or the year after that.

And what do you think makes someone an ideal candidate for the Fulbright? What qualities prepare someone for the experience?

I just got another email at Theatre Without Borders, and I get them often, saying, ‘I’ve been thinking, I really want to go to, fill in the blank, India. Africa.’ These are big entities, the African continent contains over 50 countries. So, Africa–where? Or ‘I want to go to India.’ India’s a big country! There are many different cultural expressions there, so which style of Indian performance are you interested in? Traditional? Contemporary? Many times the interest is expressed in this very nascent way, it’s just like, ‘I have a feeling I’m drawn towards.’ And I think that’s actually a very positive thing. It’s that feeling that will create a good grant proposal. You have to have a feeling that you’re personally drawn towards something: an aesthetic, an artist, a place. But then I think ideally the person begins a journey of exploration and discovery and that journey opens the person to a universe of nation, culture, personality, language that is new and different. It’s also important for a person to have a sense of give and take, not just take and not just give. It’s important to go not as a teacher but as a learner. The inquiries that TWB receives are so often variations on this theme. Sometimes people want to go and help, sometimes people want to go and give, but the best is when people want to go and learn. Because really the great discovery is that it’s not only going to be you learning about another place and culture, it’s going to be you learning about yourself. You’re going with the intention of learning about others and you come home learning so profoundly about yourself and your own background. That’s the life changing part, isn’t it? That’s what changes you. You never see yourself in the same way and you never see other people -or the world- in the same way.

The Fulbright Program offers over 8,000 grants each year to U.S. and foreign students, scholars, teachers, artists, scientists and professionals. View a full list of Fulbright grant categories and programs. To learn more about Fulbright Programs for artists, click here.

Deadlines for the Fulbright Scholar program is August 1, and the deadline for the Fulbright Student program will be in the fall.

If you are a Fulbright alumni and would like to share your story, please email Kevin Bitterman at kbitterman@tcg.org.


Roberta Levitow is a director, dramaturg, and teacher; Co-founder Theatre Without Borders, www.theatrewithoutborders.com; Co-creator TWB/Peacebuilding and the Arts Program 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.


Jaki Bradley is an Artistic and International Programs intern at TCG and a 2010-2011 Fulbright U.S. Student grantee.