(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

So, what’s new? I really mean it. If we are talking about Artistic Innovation (yes, with capitals), we need to define our terms. And what’s artistic? Does Artistic Innovation equate to what’s new in art? Philosopher Morris Weitz has claimed that attempting to define art would necessarily restrict the inherent creativity involved in its coming into being – it would certainly restrict its newness, which gives me the impression that true art is always innovative (though not all innovation is artistic, as Caridad explained in her blog-post). So perhaps the question to be asked is not what is new or innovative in art, but for whom?

When I was little I remember learning about Columbus and his 1492 “discovery” of the Novo Mundo, the New World. Though what came to be known as the American continent had been around for quite a while (geologists assure me, though creationists might dispute it) and had been home to millions of people by the time the intrepid Genovese arrived on a Spanish ship, it was still treated as “new” by European (and Eurocentric) historiographers and geographers until well into the late twentieth century, in an attitude that was reflected in my own primary-school education in Brazil. And what to say of Oceania, the Novíssimo Mundo? Newness indeed.

Why write about history and geography? Avant-garde artists at the turn of the twentieth century looked for the new not only in the old, but also on the foreign: Yeats and his Noh plays, Artaud and his Balinese theatre are just two of a number of innovators for whom the encounter with traditions alien to them and to their audiences caused the shock of the new. Contemporary Western theatre makers, from Brook to Mnouchkine to McBurney still do it. As Caridad pointed out, “[i]t’s all about the moment. The moment of contact.” Newness does not come into being in and of itself. It happens between agents. So for the new to happen in art, artists need to meet. In conferences, virtual or real, and in festivals, but also and importantly in universities and in that in-between space created by translation.

I’d like to pay attention to these last two – I am after all, a lecturer and translator. These roles are uniquely privileged. As mediator between cultures and languages the translator is always bringing something new into existence. To stay with playwriting: plays reach new audiences or, switching the perspective, audiences see new (to them) plays. Artists from one country are able to read and watch plays from another. Dramaturgical forms and practices are shared and disseminated. More, the translator straddles two linguistic worlds, where semantic fields don’t overlap, and words do not necessarily correspond with one another. She needs to create neologisms, invent new ways of saying, expanding the realm what is known and knowable within a language, allowing for discovery. Translation allows for an encounter with otherness, with an Other displaced geographically and historically. Thanks to translation, we understand more about ourselves, and in our ability to read and watch Chekov, Aristophanes or Fermín Cabal (I am randomly looking at my bookshelf) we find inspiration for our own creativity. But again, it is not only the viewer/reader who is enlightened. The play itself becomes new, seen and read in new contexts, written afresh and re-inscribed in a new culture. Translation is not only a bridge, it is a launch-pad for innovation.

The other launch-pad is of course education. Universities have been under sustained attack from policy-makers, both in the UK and in the US, with the closure of departments and the casualisation/adjunctification of academic staff in both countries being symptoms of a market-led conception of education. These symptoms, however, are also potentially the cause of an important loss. Relations between faculty in different departments, conversations over coffee, time spent in the office talking to students, engaging as human beings, present, in dialogue, are lost when departments are shut and staff are not in permanent employment.

2500 years ago, Socrates already knew that learning happens best in conversation. Universities are uniquely set up as permanent fora where such conversations might happen. Theatre-makers with engineers, linguists with computer scientists, tutors with students. Yes, that moment of contact again.  Because it is not only high-end, funder-friendly inter-disciplinary research: teaching within your discipline is also creating the new – and not only for the student. I cannot count the amount of times I have seen or read extracts from or essays about Waiting for Godot. Every time I talk about it with a student, or watch even a small section being performed by first-year undergraduates, I learn something – about me, about theatre, about the world. Something new comes into being.

Universities are spaces where this happens every day, and artists would do well to engage with them. There is a critical mass of young artists (i.e. students, future and present innovators) meeting and producing work, watching and responding to it, encountering and creating the new. It provides inspiration in many ways: showing students work-in-progress, testing out ideas, discussing them in a safe forum, where experimentation and critical questioning is part of the job. Conversely, more universities should invite artistic residencies, if they are to become leaders in innovation, even in a market-oriented sector. Conversations and encounters, generating “unintended learning outcomes”, to use the jargon of eduspeak. In other words, the new.

So support your universities, campaign for them, engage with them. And read a foreign play or two. This is where the new is at.


Pedro de Senna is a theatre practitioner and academic. He was born in Rio de Janeiro, where he started performing in 1993. He is a lecturer in Contemporary Theatre at Middlesex University and his research focuses on translation and adaptation, the relationship between directing and dramaturgy, and disability aesthetics. His play A tragédia de Ismene, princesa de Tebas, based on the Theban myth of Oedipus, is published by Móbile Editorial. www.pedrodesenna.com