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Interview with Derek Goldman and Cynthia Schneider by Jojo Ruf

The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University is a joint initiative of the Theater and Performance Studies Program and the School of Foreign Service. Led by Professors Derek Goldman and Cynthia Schneider, the Laboratory leverages Georgetown University’s distinctive strengths in international relations and theatrical performance to develop new interdisciplinary approaches to studying the power of the performing arts to advance peace, social justice, and increased understanding and collaboration across peoples and cultures.

In addition, the Lab is a generative creative space to foster, nurture and realize collaborative artistic projects that epitomize these goals. Finally, the Lab is a hub and a resource center that, in actual and virtual spaces, brings together an expansive global network of artists, policymakers, scholars, cultural organizations, embassies, faculty, and students.

Jojo Ruf: Derek and Cynthia, the two of you have founded the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University. This exciting initiative has been building and gaining momentum on campus for several years, but it will officially launch with the weeklong residency of celebrated playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith and acclaimed cellist Joshua Roman. You’re both professors at Georgetown, but in two seemingly separate spheres: Derek, you’re the Artistic Director of the Davis Performing Arts Center and a Professor in the Theater and Performance Studies Program, and, Cynthia, you’re a Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at the School of Foreign Service. What brought the two of you together initially? How did the initial idea for the Lab come about?

Cynthia Schneider: It all started with the miracle of Derek and me finding each other on campus. Several years ago, I became aware that Derek was hosting these extraordinary international companies at the Davis Performing Arts Center—companies like Belarus Free Theatre, Dah Teatar from Belgrade, Ping Chong & Company’s Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo—that dovetailed perfectly with the courses I teach on Diplomacy and Culture.

Back in 2009 I assigned my class to go see Belarus Free Theatre, but was out of the country and unable to go myself. When I asked them about it the next week, one of my students had tears in her eyes describing what she had seen, and said she had wept while watching the performance. So I said, “I have to meet this person who is making this happen at Georgetown.” Coming from the perspective of international affairs and diplomacy, I am very interested in the role culture can play in diplomacy, and not just in the way that it is traditionally construed (i.e., Country A sends cultural representatives to Country B to tell a story about Country A). While that has a place—I think a more limited place—in today’s world of 24/7 communication, I’m much more interested in how culture intersects with politics and societal change, as I believe culture and all its different manifestations play a huge role in this change. I feel its potential for positive social change is underutilized in diplomacy and in international affairs. When I was serving as US Ambassador to the Netherlands (1998–2001), I discovered that culture tends to be separated from policy in the realm of US diplomacy, even though, in fact, culture and politics are inextricably linked here, as well as around the world.

Derek Goldman: It became clear to me in arriving at Georgetown in 2005 and working with Professor Maya Roth and other colleagues to open the Davis Performing Arts Center and to develop a new Theater and Performance Studies Program, that something really unique is going on here in terms of the relationship between performing arts and politics and the dual passion that many students bring in those two areas. The fast growing Theater and Performance Studies Program was founded with the vision to tap into the political and international character of Georgetown, to build relationships in the DC professional world and beyond, and to develop new work. From the beginning there was a palpable sense that we had this unique opportunity here because we’re sitting at that nexus or threshold with so many students from both the School of Foreign Service and the college. We’ve been building relationships, hosting residencies, and developing work with so many artists both international (Dah Teatar, Ping Chong & Company, Belarus, Timberlake Wertenbaker), as well as domestic (Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theater Company, Danny Hoch, Heather Raffo, and others), and I think Georgetown has something particular to offer to these artists because of the conversations that are transpiring, the energy of the students, the way that the students and faculty are engaging with exactly these questions that Cynthia is talking about. About not just how to do the work, and the artistry of the work. But how is the work operating in the political sphere? What is its capacity to actually engender real change? Or, at the very least, to generate impactful dialogue?

Jojo: So it’s a symbiotic relationship that may not have happened at other institutions?

Derek: What typically happens most places is that the artistic work and the policy conversations take place in these parallel spheres. Georgetown is uniquely well positioned for this convergence because of its identity and larger mission, its location here in DC, and the many partnerships we have built here and its overlapping strengths in these areas. The most exciting thing from my perspective has been just to witness that momentum.

Cynthia and I are co-teaching this course right now called “Diplomacy and Culture: Performance, Film, Media.” The nature of the range of the students who are coming together, coming at these questions about performance and global politics, feels combustible. Explosive in a beautiful, beautiful way. We’re nurturing a rising tide that is happening anyway, and now we have these forty-two undergraduate students who just presented creative projects from six different parts of the world on pressing political and social issues, using performance as a way in to look at those issues. It certainly felt to me like they really owned the sense that they could do this. Whether they identified themselves as creative people or analytical people coming into the course, they are now really seeing how those two can’t be opposites, how their own interests and work and agency to engage the world is made stronger by the other.

The nature of the range of the students who are coming together, coming at these questions about performance and global politics, feels combustible. Explosive in a beautiful, beautiful way. We’re nurturing a rising tide that is happening anyway, and now we have these forty-two undergraduate students who just presented creative projects from six different parts of the world on pressing political and social issues, using performance as a way in to look at those issues.


Man holds a microphone while speaking at podium.
Derek Goldman. Photo by Georgetown University.
Woman looks at camera while five people speak to each other in the background.
Jojo Ruf. Photo by The Welders, a Playwrights Collective.

Cynthia: I’ve had students in our class say, kind of accusingly, “I signed up for this course, but I didn’t really know anything about culture and didn’t have a sense of the role it might play in global politics. But now that I see its importance I want to know, why isn’t there a global cultural representative? Why isn’t the UN doing more about this? What isn’t the United States doing more about this?” We have these brilliant students from so many different parts of the world, but the focus of the School of Foreign Service tends to be on policy and analysis and not on feeling things. But of course we all know that what motivates people in the world is emotions, not analytical thought. If we want to be effective internationally, we have to undergo a profound change of approach. What we need is for everyone to take the cultural diplomacy approach in whatever international work they do, and have it inform their actions in a broader way. In other words, we need to integrate the humanizing power of culture, to borrow Wole Soyinka’s phrase, into the inherently divisive world of policy and politics. Right now when those students ask, “How can I do this?” I say, “Be the change. You will be the change. As enough of you enter international affairs, eventually that’s going to bring about a change.”

Jojo: You’re describing this perfect breeding ground for all this collaborative work to take place because of the unique environment at Georgetown and the distinct strengths of the two of you. How did the confluence of you two meeting transform into actually creating the Lab?

Derek: The defining moment was our receipt of a Reflective Engagement in the Public Interest Grant here at Georgetown, with which we hosted a Convening on Global Performance, Civic Imagination, and Cultural Diplomacy in June 2012, centered around a historic residency of leading professional theatre artists and students from Baghdad University. Our vision for that Convening when we wrote the grant application was that we would get together a couple dozen of our friends and colleagues to try to have a conversation about work that was already happening, projects that seemed like model projects in this sphere, and get a sense of the particular role that Georgetown was already playing and then might be poised to play going forward. What ended up transpiring was that we were amazed at how much passion and interest there was in the convening from potential attendees, and we ultimately had nearly ninety participants and had to turn many away due to capacity constraints. We were determined to have the gathering not simply be a “show-and-tell” conference, although there was of course some talking about model projects that folks had done. With these amazing minds in the room, we really worked to have us all roll up our sleeves— leading artists like Ping Chong and Nick Kent, scholars like Marvin Carlson, folks from the policy world, folks from the funding world. And we tried to seriously pose the question “What is needed?” Marvin said, and I think Peter Marks quoted this in his piece on the convening in The Washington Post, “I’ve never been to a gathering quite like this one.” And I think that felt really true. Again, it was one of these happy convergences. Because Cynthia and I had found each other, and because of the energy already percolating at Georgetown among this interdisciplinary work, there was able to be this really energizing conversation. [You can read Derek’s opening remarks from the Convening here.] We did not go into that convening with any particular vision in mind of what was to be created out of it, but we came away feeling like we had a charge from colleagues around the world, to establish what we see as a real working space, a resource center, a laboratory.

Jojo: The Lab, as you’ve both described, leverages the distinct strengths in both international relations and theatrical performance to develop new interdisciplinary approaches to studying the power of the performing arts to advance peace, social justice, and increased understanding and collaboration across peoples and cultures. What are various areas of the Lab? What are its goals?

Derek: There are three components of the Lab: 1. Education and interdisciplinary course work. The students here are Georgetown are doing projects that will serve the field, as they are not redundant with other projects being done in other places. We are also exposing the students to incredible artists and thinkers, hosting Anna Deavere Smith, Heather Raffo, Richard Pena from the Lincoln Center Film Festival, and many others. But the presence of these speakers at Georgetown are tied to the presentation and development of their own artistic and diplomatic work—so the encounters are ongoing, substantive, and richly collaborative. We are working to build deep ongoing relationships with a wide range of figures from around the world that have a trajectory.

There’s something about the conversation at Georgetown that is motivating those speakers or artists to come back again and again and have this be a space for exploration. This is one of the two-way visions of the Lab, that it’s not just a, oh, you came once and sprinkled wisdom, but that the Lab is a space that can cultivate awareness around the work. These students are uniquely well positioned to take the next step with exactly what all of these folks want their work to be doing, which is inspiring other work and the next generation.

Cynthia: We try to be creative, flexible, and opportunistic because that’s what cultural diplomacy needs to be. Some speakers we planned way in advance, and some we take advantage of their presence in Washington. We were very fortunate to have Ahmad Sarmast, the founder of the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM) come speak to our class for almost two hours when ANIM brought its youth orchestra to perform at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. These performances were a shining example of the intersection of culture with international affairs and diplomacy. Half of the students at that school are street children brought to the school from an NGO (their families are paid a dollar a day for them to attend the school) where they have a complete education and learn music. The school wanted to organize a tour to show the United States that there are things that are working in Afghanistan, and that Afghanistan actually has normal people who just want to go to school to get an education and build a life. For our students to hear about a completely different side of Afghanistan than the one they are exposed in their security courses was a shock and surprise. By bringing in speakers who embody the work that the Lab has been founded to foster, who embody this intersection of culture and politics, we are able to model what we’re talking about and inspire the students.

Derek: 2. We see ourselves as a true resource center. There is remarkable work that’s happening all over the world, often in remote corners and in diffuse ways, and we hope that the Lab can be a connecting thread and nexus for people to collaborate and become aware of each other. Some of this will be in-person, as we look forward to having other kinds of convenings and festivals here on campus. But we’re also actively exploring developing a virtual space, a living database and interactive center where this larger community of folks engaged around these questions can encounter each other and their work. We hope it can be a transformative way that artists, thinkers, policy makers, scholars who are engaging with this work can participate in this larger global community, and a space that students at Georgetown can both learn from and contribute to as a growing storehouse of information. DC is, of course, already a hub of this activity. The Kennedy Center, Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, the Shakespeare Theatre, Theater J, and many other organizations are all committed to some international and political programming as part of what they do, but there hasn’t been any type of organization to connect these efforts. We have wonderful relationships with all of these organizations, so part of our hope is to activate and strengthen opportunities and partnerships. To help strengthen the definition of what it means to be doing artistic work here in the nation’s capitol. Here we have access and opportunities to affect change and policy, or certainly to reach policy makers, in a different way than in other parts of the country. While there have certainly been instances where that influence has happened, there hasn’t been an organized space dedicated to thinking about how to cultivate the potential of those projects to spark that kind of exchange.

3. This is a place to partner with folks around the world to generate new work that contributes to this conversation in meaningful ways. We want our students and affiliated artists to continue to take these dual interests in theatre and global politics, and not just reflect on them and write about them, but to generate work that is emblematic of the potential for collaborative artistic projects and work to make a difference. And through a remarkable core faculty of dedicated artist/scholars like playwright Christine Evans; adapter/director/designer Natsu Onoda Power; and director/dramaturg/scholar Maya Roth and the many other professional collaborators we interact with, we have a unique opportunity to cultivate and produce artistic work that fosters the kinds of discussions the Lab is designed to enable. Each of these three components are already in motion, so in many ways the Lab is just a way of naming and organizing a lot of energy and momentum that is already happening here. This is a very inclusive, nonhierarchical space, less an institute than a laboratory, and we want it to be a resource not only for Georgetown’s faculty and students who are engaging in this work, but for the wider field, a place where all the networks and relationships can come together. We’re uniquely positioned to be able to get major figures from the policy world and major figures from the arts world together in one space, and that’s a really rare opportunity. One of the things that’s so inspiring is that while I have experience with international politics, I’m learning so much about stuff I’m deeply interested in from my students, and they are learning from each other. That learning is its own microcosm of the bigger cultural diplomacy work that we’re trying to foster and cultivate. This is what can happen when folks really come together, when they are open and listening and ready for some kind of change—personal change, social change, all happening through a cultural encounter.

Jojo: Anna Deavere Smith’s weeklong residency, which culminates with a public showing of her work-in-progress On Grace on Monday, March 18, is the public launch of the Lab. Why has Anna precipitated this launch?

Cynthia: Anna, perhaps more than anyone, embodies this fusion of culture and politics that we are talking about. When Anna was acting in and working on The West Wing she got to know a lot of political figures in Washington because of the way she approaches acting. She interviewed many, many people in the DC policy community at that time to understand better her position as the National Security Chief (her role in The West Wing). She spoke quite often with former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, with whom she is now good friends. It’s often challenging to get across to people in the policy community that they should be coming to cultural events and that they need to understand this connection between culture and politics more deeply. Anna has the unique ability to draw out the policy community. Her newest piece is called On Grace, grace as in the state we would all like to be in. Anna will bring to this tricky subject—tricky because it means different things to different people—her characteristic acute examination, analysis, and empathy as she embodies the voices and persona of different people who she’s interviewed on the subject of grace. They include the Reverend Peter Gomes, who was the Reverend at Harvard for many years, Imam Faisil Abdul Rauf, the Imam of the Mosque and Center that was going to be built on the site of the World Trade Center, and many others. She’ll be accompanied by an extraordinarily talented master cellist, Joshua Roman. The staged reading will be followed by a conversation between Anna and Secretary Albright that I will facilitate. Secretary Albright has written a book on faith and politics, so she’s deeply interested herself from her own perspective in this issue of the intersection of faith and spirituality and politics. Anna’s residency is the perfect official launch to the lab as it embodies everything we hope to achieve.