Wednesday, December 10, 2008

US Invades UK or UK Invades US?

The London critic, Michael Billington, recently ruffled some feathers with his article entitled ‘United Stages of America’. In it, he laments that there is an American takeover of British stages, singling out the Royal Court who has had 24 of its 36 playing weeks this season dominated by work from U.S. playwrights.

Later, Dominic Cook, the RC’s artistic director, concluded in a letter by saying, “You might even argue that the considerable American talent that exists is underrepresented - this year only 16 out of 44 playing weeks saw American plays in our main auditorium. In our second house, none of the seven plays was American. According to its founding mission statement, the Royal Court exists to ‘create the conditions for writers, nationally and internationally, to flourish’. To stage plays from beyond our own borders is our obligation and I am proud to do so.”

To complete the triumvirate, Karen Fricker, an American lecturer in contemporary theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London and deputy London theatre critic for Variety, posits on the Guardian blog that “What makes London one of the world's great cultural centres is the multiplicity of art forms available from every corner of the globe… Few would disagree that if London's arts scene were less international then the city's liveliness would start to wither.”, and then asks, “Is there a pressing need for London-based theatres in particular to prioritise plays that interrogate the state of the English nation? Are issues of national identity still of paramount importance in a 21st-century global city?"

What’s so wonderful about this discussion is that it’s nearly identical to the one being had in New York, except it is the complaint that the British have staged a takeover of American theatres, with Billy Elliot being the most recent invasion. Of course, this debate is rather moot, because it’s just re-enforcing the entire Anglo-American worldview. The upcoming Bridge Project at BAM is the prime example. Cross-cultural exchange and collaboration is incredibly important, and The Bridge Project is an important first step, but it is still the safest choice on the block. Sure, they are taking a victory lap around Europe between NY and London, but that doesn’t really amount to real engagement; only spectacular star-worship.

The real question that needs to be asked is, ‘Where are all the plays that weren’t written in English?’ (and staging Chekhov or Ibsen doesn’t count). There are clearly dozens of remarkable playwrights out there from every country offering unique stories that transcend national and linguistic boundaries. No doubt translation is an issue, but it is too often used as an excuse. How about the U.S. and U.K. settle their arguments by agreeing, for a season, to stage works by writers who aren’t from English-speaking countries? You want to talk about a true global explosion of stories and ideas? Let's try it.

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