World Theatre Day needs more than actor John Malkovich

March 19, 2012

Next Tuesday March 27 is World Theatre Day. You didn't know? You mean you are among the tiny minority of 7 billion people unfamiliar with World Theatre Day? How strange! After all, it's been celebrated for 50 years.

Truth be told, you won't get any robo-calls about World Theatre Day, but maybe you should. Because in terms of public awareness it ranks up there with Global Don't-Step-on-an-Aunt Day and International Mashed Potato Week (we mean the dance, of course). Still, it's been going on for a half-century, thanks to the International Theatre Institute (ITI), a global NGO established by UNESCO in 1948. Believe it or not, the ITI is the world's largest performing arts organization.

Each year, the ITI declares World Theatre Day, names an international spokesperson and solicits its various national sections to come up with ways to celebrate and publicize it. In the United States, that means coordinating numerous local celebrations, as theater always is a local phenomenon as opposed to a nationwide one. Unlike movies, which can be released everywhere at the same time, live theater is one production at a time in your own city, or even in your own neighborhood.

For us, the League of Chicago Theatres is the local agency promoting World Theatre Day in partnership with the Chicago Cultural Center, and several free public events are planned, some involving international theater artists who happen to be with visiting the Windy City just now.

There will be programs at the Cultural Center at 4 p.m. (panel discussion, "Artistic Dialogue Across Borders"), 5:30 p.m. (lecture/demonstration by Jaroslaw Fret of Poland's Teatr ZAR, "Pneumatics of the Actor: Theatre Out of the Spirit of Music"), and 7 p.m. (British-born playwright/director/singer Kwame Kwei-Armah in an untitled talk). These events, all in the Claudia Cassidy Theater of the Cultural Center, will be followed at 8 p.m. by a World Theatre Day Reception in GAR Hall. More info is available here.

This year there's an even stronger local tie-in, as the ITI has selected John Malkovich as author of this year's World Theatre Day Statement, "Reflections about the Art, Craft and Value of Theatre." Born and raised in Downstate Illinois, and still a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble, Johnny joins the likes of Judi Dench, Arthur Miller and Vaclav Havel as World Theatre Day spokesperson. His words will be translated into 20-some languages.

In his statement, Malkovich addresses his brief message "to my fellow theater workers, peers and comrades." I guess that leaves audiences and critics out, which is most of us:

"May your work be compelling and original. May it be profound, touching, contemplative and unique. May it help us to reflect on the question of what it means to be human, and may that reflection be blessed with heart, sincerity, candor, and grace. May you overcome adversity, censorship, poverty and nihilism, as many of you will most certainly be obliged to do. May you be blessed with the talent and rigor to teach us about the beating of the human heart in all its complexity, and the humility and curiosity to make it your life’s work. And may the best of you – for it will only be the best of you, and even then only in the rarest and briefest moments – succeed in framing that most basic of questions, 'how do we live?' Godspeed."

So, OK, World Theatre Day is all well and good and I'm all for it and it occurs to me that even, maybe, probably, Rick Santorum could support it 'cause it doesn't advocate anything political or even anything specific, just theater, and it doesn't cost the taxpayers a penny.

But it could be better. A lot better.

First of all, what the hell is it doing on Tuesday??!! It's a day when thousands of theaters around the world are dark. The only theaters with shows on Tuesdays are BIG commercial and institutional enterprises. The majority of small, local, neighborhood, youthful and experimental theater troupes only operate three or four nights a week, and Tuesday ain't one o' them. World Theatre Day should be an occasion on which theater folk, in their natural habitats, should be able to make a little curtain speech to their audiences and maybe pass out something with Johnny Malk's warm words. Tuesday is stooopid and the ITI needs to think hard about this in the future.

Next, why the hell March 27? If the ITI must pick a date arbitrarily, it should be—as I say above—a day when far more theaters are up-and-running. But why pick an arbitrary date? Why not leverage awareness and public interest by making it, say, Shakespeare's birthday, April 23? He won't mind, you know. Or perhaps the birthday of some other great theater artist, living or dead. Samuel Beckett's is April 13, for example, and Sarah Bernhardt's is October 22 and Wole Soyinka's is July 13 and he's still alive!!! Hey, there's an idea, honor the birthday of a great, living theater artist by making it World Theatre Day and having that artist as Statement Maker!

Finally, John Malkovich always has been a man of few public words and recently he has been a man of little theater. He hasn't done a play at Steppenwolf in seven years and that was only his second since 1999. Indeed, I'm not aware that he's acted or directed in live theater in quite some time. He is a great actor, a fine artist, a singular and riveting presence on stage . . . but there are many other artists of his stature who ARE still engaged as theater artists. An obvious American candidate who jumps to mind is Kevin Spacey, who remains engaged in live theater as well as film.

So, World Theatre Day, next Tuesday, y'all pay some attention! Theater is a Good Thing. World Theatre Day is a Good Thing.

But there's definitely room to improve.

PS. I'll be celebrating World Theatre Day in truly global fashion: I'll be in Warsaw, Poland as one of three U.S. delegates to the World Congress of the International Association of Theatre Critics which, like the ITI, is a UNESCO-established global NGO. Watch for my blog post from Poland!