The Global Role of ITI: Interview with Tobias Biancone

by Savas Patsalidis*

Tobias Biancone is a Swiss citizen residing in Switzerland, France and China. An award-winning poet; his poetry and story books have been published in Germany, Switzerland, Russia and Bangladesh. After being active as a member of ITI in the Swiss Centre and worldwide, he accepted the position of Director-General of the International Theatre Institute (ITI) in 2008. In 2013, he initiated the creation of the ITI/UNESCO Network for Higher Education in the Performing Arts, of which he has served as President since 2015. The Network consists of 63+ higher education institutions, including universities, departments, faculties, academies and research institutions. Tobias Biancone has also received the title of honorary professor of the Central Academy of Drama, in Beijing.

Tobias Biancone strongly advocates the use of the performing arts for mutual understanding and peace and for social change. Through his positions in the ITI/UNESCO Network and the ITI he promotes international exchange, know-how and knowledge transfer and initiatives so that education in the disciplines of the performing arts and the performing arts productions is accessible to everybody. He also promotes the development of respect for the performing arts, performing arts education, artists and educators, independent of ethnicity, country of origin, religious belief, gender, sexual orientation and age.

Tobias Biancone at the Central Academy of Drama, Beijing, 2015. Photo: Courtesy of Tobias Biancone and the ITI

You lead a major performing arts organization. For those of our readers who are not familiar with your organization, can you please give us some information about the International Theatre Institute (ITI).  For example, how did it get started, and how large is it? How many Centres now operate around the world?

What is important to know about ITI is that the ideas of such a global performing arts organization already were voiced decades before ITI was founded. Two British personalities were key in the development that finally resulted in the founding of the organization: the first Director-General of UNESCO, Julian Huxley, and the playwright, J. B. Priestley. Under the strong leadership of the first DG of UNESCO, a conference was held in Paris in 1947. At this event numerous discussions were held regarding the founding of a global performing arts organization. The list of participants looks a bit like a Who’s Who in the theatre world at that time. One key personality was Jean-Louis Barrault, the French mime, who emphasized that such an organization needed to include theatre but also dance, music theatre, drama and similar forms of the performing arts. During the conference of 1947, a group of professionals created the vision that was realized in the foundation of the International Theatre Institute. A major point of discussion was whether or not the ITI should be part of UNESCO or a separate body. A strong statement was issued that ITI should be an organization for performing artists run by performing artists. From the eight Centres that were functioning at its inception, the ITI has since grown to include ninety Centres around the world, all of which are members of ITI. If someone is a member of ITI, they are also a member of their country´s ITI Centre.

Jean-Louis Barrault emphasized back in 1947 that such an organization needed to include theatre but also dance, music theatre, drama, and similar forms of the performing arts. Photo: Wikipedia

In terms of volume, which is the largest Centre?

While I think statistics are important, they are usually based on quantities not qualities. In ITI, there are three levels that define how a Centre is performing: Centres that work very well, Centres that are adequate and Centres that are struggling. If I look at the achievements of any one Centre, the size is not that important for me. Some Centres sponsor large International Festivals, some focus on a conference, some are engaged in conflict zones or plan events with migrants, indigenous cultures, emerging practitioners, traditional performing arts, dance, monodrama, playwriting, new music theatre and so on. And sometimes, a few dedicated members of a Centre have a great impact on the larger community of which they are a part.

International Theatre Institute ITI Overview

I see your point. Thank you for the explanation. On a related point, which were the first Centres to join the organization?

Eight Centres came together in Prague on 1 July 1948 and represented the countries of Austria, Belgium, China, Czechoslovakia, France, Poland, U.K. and Switzerland. If we are pressed to identify the driving force behind the creation of ITI, it was clearly the Director-General of UNESCO, who was a strong advocate for its establishment. This is why the leaders of UNESCO and members of ITI consider UNESCO to be the founder of ITI.

International Dance Day. Shanghai Conference, 2017. Photo: Courtesy of Tobias Biancone and the ITI

In your opinion, has the ITI realized its original vision after 73 years of operation?

The original vision that was stated in the first Charter of ITI is astonishingly strong and still valid today. ITI collaborates with UNESCO in the field of the performing arts to support mutual understanding between nations, cultures and people so that peace is promoted internationally. Furthermore, ITI helps to raise the status of the artists, so that the professions of the performing arts are highly respected in all corners of the world. ITI, on a local and a global level, aims to develop a rich local culture in a given country and promotes the global exchange of performances. ITI also works hard to make education in the disciplines of the performing arts accessible to all populations in the world, from higher education delivered in universities, to training given to whoever intends to become skilled in the professions of the performing arts.

Education seems to be the keyword in the philosophy of ITI from the start, is this correct?

From the early days of ITI to the present, the issue of education has been extremely important, and this priority has not changed. However, the viewpoint of what comprises the theatre and the performing arts has changed over the seven decades of its existence.

In what way(s) has change occurred?

From my viewpoint hegemonic thoughts have coloured the focus on education from the very beginning:  the Western view of what constitutes theatre was extremely dominant. The roots of Ancient Greek Theatre were stressed, and Stanislavski and Shakespeare were emphasized, as were all their successors. But after a while, especially when the Theatre of Nations Festival of ITI began to initiate international exchange, this viewpoint changed. This shift was clearly visible when Jean-Louis Barrault became the director of Theatre of Nations.

Tobias Biancone with the President of ITI, Mohammed Al Afkham, 2017. Photo: Courtesy of Tobias Biancone and the ITI

Can you please elaborate a bit on that?

At that time two key initiatives were realized.  First of all, Barrault invited Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski to create laboratories, and secondly, ITI organizers offered students from all over the world an intensive course of several weeks duration which explored different forms of theatre and performing arts from around the world. Moreover, they raised student awareness of the interaction across the various performing arts disciplines, the heritage within the field of the performing arts and even the connections with other disciplines not directly related to theatre.

Coming back to your question, to address the role of higher education in the performing arts, ITI created a new UNITWIN entity with the help of UNESCO, the ITI/UNESCO Network for Higher Education in the Performing Arts. More than 63 higher education and research institutions are now connected through that Network.  It has engendered projects with a global focus that lead to innovative models of education, as well as improvements in educational programs for the performing arts, while reaching out to people independently of their socio-economic background.

ITI/UNESCO Network for Higher Education in the Performing Arts Overview

During this course of seven decades, which do you think were the most demanding and difficult periods for overcoming challenges in an organization with global aspirations like ITI?

When I took over the office in 2008, one of the challenges was to modernize the organization. I was fortunate that my predecessor, Jennifer Walpole, introduced me to the job over a period of several months. I remember that many times when she told me that I needed to follow a particular procedure, I would tell her I did not see any sense in continuing along those lines. My modus operandi is the principle that what functions well and brings desired results needs to be continued. What does not function and does not bring a desired result needs to be discontinued. What I was basically facing at the beginning was the presence of a heavy structure that had begun to inhibit the function of the organization. Function should define the structure and not the other way around; in other words, structure should never determine function.

How did you handle that?

I had to learn that this was not an easy task. Sometimes I felt like I was the captain of a large ocean tanker that should head to a beautiful island, but as much as I tried to change the direction, the tanker would follow its own route for a long time. Together with a specialist for strategic planning and structural change, and with the support of the Executive Council, it was possible to modernize the organization quite well. But I also learned that an organization must be fit for the present and the future. In order to achieve this, more changes for ITI definitely need to be conceived and implemented.

We all talk about joining forces, crossing borders and creating more inclusive third spaces. Two of the core values of ITI, clearly stated in its Charter, are inclusiveness and collaboration. Do you think ITI has thus far managed to promote these values appropriately?

I am aware that the current situation of the pandemic is closing borders, and thus joining forces to cross borders again is extremely important, but even more so after the pandemic is over. There is nothing wrong with pride in the cultural roots of one’s own country, taking care of them and developing them. Cultural diversity enriches this world, and dialogue with other cultures is what the world and the people of this world need.

For joining forces, ITI held a General Assembly Special Edition that invited all the 90 Centres and 15 Project Groups, or Committees, as well as the 20 Partner Organization, including IACT/AICT, to introduce themselves and establish communication. This initiative definitely boosted collaboration and communication and was very well received by the participants. Does ITI manage well? I do think so, and I think that the Centres are doing a lot of extremely valuable work during the pandemic. Proof of that is the strong participation in the celebrations of World Theatre Day on 27 of March, and International Dance Day on 29 of April, which were organized online in 2020 and 2021.

As for the third spaces, performing arts spaces can serve to bring together people from different roots and walks of life, and definitely more such spaces need to be developed all over the world. But I think theatre also should permeate the first and second space—the family and the workplace.

The participants in the Traditional Performing Arts Experts Meeting Group. Shanghai, 2020. Photo: Courtesy of Tobias Biancone and the ITI

That said, allow me to add a kind of postscriptum to my previous question. To have good global theatre one needs the local community to provide the foundations and make the difference. How does ITI support this idea?

You are right, if one wants an interesting global landscape of theatre and the performing arts, local foundations are needed. But, as I mentioned before, to make the difference, one needs to be aware that there is a strong hegemony of Western thought about what theatre is. This thought easily sneaks into the minds of people. Having travelled all over the world and watched performances that were rooted in local traditions, I have seen a lot of inspiring and professionally presented performances that did not follow the traditional Western mantra of what theatre is. If I could conceptualize an ideal framework for the local foundations of a global scene, then I would envision that the ITI Centres let their members develop their own forms of performances rooted in their heritage and their creative representations of their performing artists. If that is achieved, the cultural diversity in the performing arts will flourish as a whole. And it will be a pleasure to exchange these forms on a worldwide level.

Ηaving travelled extensively and having been exposed to numerous and diverse theatre/performing arts traditions, you have developed  an expansive and impressive view of what is going on worldwide. With this in mind, I am just wondering: How does the ITI and its Centres handle the tremendous changes—environmental, ethical, and social—that have happened all around us during the last few years? 

What happens in society at a particular point of time is always mirrored in theatre and the performing arts. This can be witnessed in the history of theatre, and it can also be observed today. Most of the artists are sensitive to what is going on around them, and they integrate this input in their work. Playwrights incorporate changes in their plays, choreographers display change in their performances, and so on. This is something I was aware of, for instance when ITI Centres participated openly in online round table discussions during the pandemic. The performing artists presented their artistic work which included environmental, ethical and/or social themes. At the moment, a playwriting competition under the patronage of the Philippine Centre of ITI is in progress to address some of these issues, and the same Centre intends to organize a large event in December focusing on the United Sustainable Development Goals which include these three themes. 

Meeting of the Partner Organization of ITI in Shanghai 2018

You have been managing the ITI for some years now. From your long experience, which are the most pressing issues you have had to face and urgently resolve?

For a long time, finances were the most pressing issue. Moving the management to Shanghai in 2015 was a big step forward in the professionalisation of ITI. But I am aware that finance is an ongoing issue. The more we can fundraise, the more projects we can realize. At the moment, the pandemic is for sure a pressing issue. The members and friends of ITI need to be encouraged to continue to perform their art on stage and to never give up hope and never abandon their individual goals, as well as the goals of ITI and UNESCO. And this struggle is not over yet. But the light at the end of the tunnel is coming nearer.

Another kind of pressing issue relates to the goals set within ITI. One of these goals is the organization of the next ITI World Congress. This needs to be addressed in a manner appropriate for a performing arts organization. The participants need to be on-site, with performances and meetings. This means inclusiveness and guarantees the possibility of collaboration. Hopefully, in 2022 it will be possible.

At event in Ouagadougou, 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Tobias Biancone and the ITI

With the world getting all the more complex, how difficult is it to manage a big organization like ITI? Do you set yourself certain priorities?

When matters start getting more complex, I try to assess the situation, identify the issues most pressing and handle them first; that is always the priority. I am a team player, and I like to work with team members. My experience has shown me that while achievements clearly need a vision, they also need an excellent team to carry out the vision. And I am aware that a lot of achievements attributed to me must also be attributed to the different teams I work with, the General Secretariat, the Executive Council and also the members of Project and Working Groups.

If you will allow me to use two questionable terms, do you think the theatre gap between the so-called developed and developing countries has decreased?

I have to admit that I do not like this differentiation, as it immediately classifies from a hegemonic position. From my viewpoint, when referring to the performing arts I prefer to underscore the intention of a country to engage in the care of culture and the arts. And from the viewpoint of ITI, the important questions which arise are how we can assist the performing arts community of a given country to grow stronger and how the performing arts can reach more people.

The team of Secretariat. Photo: Courtesy of Tobias Biancone and the ITI

What does your experience tell you? Is this feasible?

In my experience it is the individual intention and the teamwork that make a country develop. Not so rich countries sometimes do very well in this regard, and alternatively, being part of rich country does not mean that this country is better at developing the performing arts.

What I consider of importance in the development of the performing arts community is the creation of a common vision, followed by a strategic plan that shows the path to be followed to make things happen.

Let’s expand our discussion a bit more to reflect on issues that we all face now due to the pandemic experience. For example, there is a lot of talk about virtual theatre, virtual viewership and virtual theatre cosmopolitanism. Do you think that theatre and the performing arts in general can be an effective alternative to the innovative space that high technology has created?

Theatre and the arts on stage can and will always be superior. When I look at the power that is inherent in theatre, dance and all the performing arts, and when I assess this power against the many threats posed by new technical developments that have appeared on Earth, we can see the one key ingredient that has allowed theatre and the performing arts to survive the threat of radio, television and cinema. And this key ingredient can be called life or livingness that every performance contains.

It is the present-time dialogue between human beings. For me digitalization is not a threat, but a challenge.

Tobias Biancone with Chen Zhongwen and Carlos Celdran, 2018.  Photo: Courtesy of Tobias Biancone and the ITI

What is the challenge for you?

The question for me is whether or not high technology adds value to a performance, if it does or does not increase the intensity of the message. For instance, when South Korean artists presented a three-dimensional digitalized performance in Seoul, during the second UNESCO Arts Education Conference in 2009, the output was astonishing. A drummer who was on stage suddenly had a digital duplicate next to him, and then a second and a third one . . . It was difficult to differentiate which was the original and which was a digital creation. But the key question for me is whether or not the performance touched me, or anyone in the audience. In my view, this use of technology doesn’t really move me. Nevertheless, I like it when artists do experimental work. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it was simply a nice try, and nothing more.

Do you think theatre, the topos of “otherness” par excellence, matters at all in a world that becomes all the more “theatrical” and “spectacular”? 

Yes, Savas, I think theatre matters, especially if the performance is of high quality, and if it communicates to the members of the audience. This happens when you divide a performance down to the bare necessities of the interpersonal. Really authentic communication. Live. Onsite. From one human being to another. From a group of actresses and actors to an audience. When this happens, theatre brings more awareness, more life and more emotion into our existence. And it is this experience that billions of people may not have experienced. Cheap thrills and poor theatrical effects that the Internet offers to billions of people can never replace the live magic and the power of theatre. The challenge of theatre and the performing arts was and always is the problem of how to communicate with people, and how to reach out to those who never have been in a venue. This means that we have to do a lot of work to create interest in the theatre. We constantly and continuously need to reach out to the young, to the people in small traditional communities as well as cities, to the seniors, the disabled, the marginalized and so on.

At a press conference in Cuba, 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Tobias Biancone and the ITI

Tobias, let me raise my last question, which somehow summarizes the concerns of most of the issues we touched upon in this interview. Given the unstoppable imperialism of high-tech culture, given the fact that most people, especially young ones, are one way or another virtually connected, do you think, at the end of the day, virtual distance will inevitably develop into real distance? And if it does, what will happen to live theatre?

No, I don’t. Or if this were to happen, the world and the people of the world would decline, and the human race would become extinct on this planet. This is a horrifying scenario for humanity.

Performing arts needs closeness, it needs performers, it needs audiences, it needs life encounters. And human beings that inhabit the Earth need that as well. This is what I envision for the future. For this reason, I work with friends and colleagues now, and I will continue to work with them in the future.

I am convinced that life and work for theatre and the performing arts will be back soon and performing artists will create new work of high interest. Theatre and the performing arts are always in development. That is why we should not expect old norms to come back; instead, we need to work toward improvement, higher quality and the inclusion of more populations in individual countries as well as internationally.

Let´s not create a dark scenario in our minds for the future. Instead, let´s imagine a culturally rich scenario in a world of peace. And let´s work on it together.

*Savas Patsalidis is Professor of Theatre Studies at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the Drama School of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is the author of fourteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. His latest book-length study Theatre & Theory II: About Topoi, Utopias and Heterotopias was published in 2019 by University Studio Press. He has just finished a book on comedy (Comedy’s Encomium) which will be published in 2022 by University Studio Press. In addition to his academic activities, he writes theatre reviews for various ejournals. He is currently the president of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, member of the curators’ team of Forest Festival (organized by the National Theatre of Northern Greece) and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

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