Theater and Politics: Examining U.S.-China Relations Through Performance with Derek Goldman
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How does theatrical performance tie-in to geopolitical phenomena?
Georgetown’s Derek Goldman sits down to share his exposure to global theater and art-making in Shanghai, explain the roots of his "In Your Shoes" methodology, and discuss its application to U.S.-China relations. Although the current tensions in U.S.-China relations were the backdrop and part of the emotional foundations for the pilot program, Goldman says the experience provided a safe space for participants to encounter difference in their connections to the United States and China and to share their sense of being “betwixt and between.”
Eleanor M. Albert: Today, our guest is Derek Goldman. Derek is Chair of the Department of Performing Arts and Director of the Theater & Performance Studies Program. He is also a Professor of Theater and Performance Studies at Georgetown University with a joint appointment in the School of Foreign Service as a Professor of Global Performance, Culture and Politics.
You are the co-Founding Director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, an award-winning international stage director, producer, festival director, playwright, teacher, and published scholar. You are also the creator of the In Your Shoes methodology. Your work has taken you around the world, from places such as Australia, Cambodia, and Peru, to Poland, Russia, South Africa and of course China. Welcome to the show!
Derek Goldman: Thank you. Nice to be here, Eleanor.
Eleanor M. Albert: So performance and politics. Let’s start with some background. How did you get to where you are now? What led you to forging a career path at the intersection of theater and politics?
Derek Goldman: I’d say like many things it’s been mostly a series or serendipitous, happy accidents and organic trajectories. I was fortunate, relatively early on in high school… I was from Brookline, Massachusetts and I went to Brookline High School, which is a large public high school, and there was a mentor of mine who had established something called the Brookline Educational Theater Company and the model was, instead of just putting on plays and musicals the way many high schools would, we were creating plays in the community around social issues. So the students would get together with adults and we created plays around freedom of expression, around drugs and alcoholism and I thought it was really cool and I don’t think I really understood how radical in a way it was to be exposed to that at that age.
That really led me on a journey that took me to Northwestern for undergraduate and graduate school and the AIDS epidemic was very central in my own familial history and own trajectory and when I was in college as an undergraduate there were many of us who were going through this sort of surge of and incredible loss in terms of that. So what we did, again very reactively and without really knowing what we were doing, is created an original play at the time, this is before Angels in America and other AIDS pieces -- about the AIDS epidemic in our midst and that ended up having a lot of traction and being able to tour a bit and going into communities.
So from there I was really sold on the fact there was something kind of inseparable about the core of the art form of theater and its capacity to bear witness, to humanize, just literally that we are breathing in the space of other human beings whose story we are witnessing, who may come from a really challenging or different point of view than our own or who may be affirming things that we have sort of privately held. And so I got exposed to that early and I feel that the rest of my life in different forms has been about learning, exploring, adventuring, and kind of trying to imagine or participate in projects around that that would be meaningful.
Eleanor M. Albert: You gave us such a taste of the domestic environment in which you were exposed to these ideas politically. Clearly, your work now has also taken you internationally. You’ve had work that has brought you to China in the past – I wondered if you could talk about… You went there in what capacity? What was something that you learned from that experience? And then extrapolating, given the current political climate, do you think these types of opportunities are still available?
Derek Goldman: I came to Georgetown about seventeen years ago to open the Davis Performing Arts Center and to establish a theater and performance studies program with colleagues and the great and rare opportunity of that was that at an institution like Georgetown, there had had been lots of meaningful groundwork laid and lots of incredible arts work on campus but there hadn’t been an academic program, there hadn’t been a building, and so to imagine what we could do that would be additive and specific to Georgetown
So it was very natural. I had always had an interest, a curiosity, and fascination with global and international work but it was really that moment and sort of starting to understand what makes Georgetown special and what it is to shape that in Washington, DC that was kind of the catalyst for thinking about that.
Eleanor M. Albert: Kismet!
Derek Goldman: Yeah, kismet, exactly. And that ended up leading to the founding of the Lab which again was not some huge, big idea of mine or of anyone else’s but really grew from the passions of students and the intersectional work that we were encountering.
In terms of China, I started becoming very interested in the global landscape of theater making and arts marking and quickly realized that there was a lot going on that very few Americans were participating in. So through a couple of, again, serendipitous relationships with colleagues… there is an organization that is actually now based in Shanghai called the International Theater Institute (ITI), which is the largest performing arts organization in the world, it is a UNESCO organization, was originally based in Paris near UNESCO and moved to Shanghai.
They host these world congresses and I showed up at one, twelve, fifteen years ago and what happens is you quickly form deep bonds and relationships and connections in this kind of United Nations of theater artists, people from all over the world. So that framework, yes it’s about project development and cultural diplomacy, but really so much of it is simply about relationship building, and about connections and affinities.
And China’s been central to most of that trajectory for me because of relationships formed early on with Shanghai Theater Academy, many friends on faculty there, and the development of International Theater Institute in its recent incarnation has been very woven with artists in Shanghai and so as I got to know [them], there were just some core people and I was invited to do residencies and workshops in Shanghai. And then as ITI moved, I was one of the handful of people who was part of that. I’m actually a cofounder of a something called the Network for Higher Education in the Performing Arts. ITI was a great organization but was a little bit dusty.
So one of my interests coming from Georgetown was what can we do to make academies and young people around the world to put them in conversation with each other so we ended up founding this network and the founding of it really happened between Shanghai Theater Academy and Georgetown were the two core partners on that initial founding.
In a really beautiful way, my first encounters with China were all about interactions between student-to-student and being hosted and we brought a Hamlet production that was juxtaposed with a Beijing opera version of Hamlet… So it’s felt very comfortable to work in China and I’ve worked with dozens or hundreds of students from China and it’s been very moving and meaningful.
One of the things that started to emerge as I spent more time there, perhaps obviously in some ways… So much of my work is about getting people to share and to tell stories and to be personal and so one starts to realize how the framework for doing that is very culturally specific, right? I started to realize how different an experience and in some ways maybe how radical an experience that was for some of the students from China who were doing that than it was for students from the United States.
And that became kind of moving and fascinating to me and anyway I think it’s interesting now full circle because just recently has been the first really intensive In Your Shoes collaboration… the kind of climate has shifted but in a way the work has always been person-to-person work. The work ends up being political by virtue of how personal it is, because it is political to allow people the space to think and imagine themselves and to encounter difference but we’ve never set out self-consciously to “let’s have this particular geopolitical conversation or tackle this particular issue,” we’ve really been doing this more intimate person-to-person work.
Eleanor M. Albert: Turning to the “In Your Shoes” methodology that is such a dominant feature of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics. I was wondering if you could unpack what that is? What does that entail? And can you provide some examples of this methodology at work? Different places in which this has been used?
Derek Goldman: This work came out of really what were classroom and rehearsal techniques: “How are we going to build trust in this space? How are we going to get to know each other?” And so some of this is group work that a whole group does together and the values are really about deep listening, mutual respect, and noticing what is already present in any space.
One thing through doing this work now for so long, I’ve come to just really feel that such a tiny fraction of who we all are and what we know in many circumstances ends up even being allowed to come to the surface. Because the topic is “x” and so nobody even gets to realize “oh, we have this in common” and so in a sense the point of this work is to shift that from saying “we’re here to talk about x” to “what’s already in this room.” A lot of it is group exercises, call and response. We really believe in the power of even things as simple as one’s own name, your whole name, where it comes from… standing and saying it and having it repeated back to you, and “actually you inflect this phrase this way.” And of course when I’m doing this in cross-cultural settings this can actually be very emotional. I’ve had many people as we go just around in an initial circle and people respectfully repeat back their full name, they burst into tears they say “I haven’t heard my name, I’ve told just tell people call me this, call me that, you don’t need to do it.”
And there’s just a power in just naming and from naming we look at things like places of significance, people of significance to you. It’s not really storytelling at this point. And it’s a kind of ritual of building a space of human connection.
And then what that work allows us to do is lay a foundation then for smaller group work or what is typically pair work where people go off and have conversations off of prompts. The prompts tend to be again quite encompassing and inviting. So one we use a lot early on is just “home” and what does home mean to you. On one hand it can be very personal and private, and people talk about parents and domestic structures and rooms and meals, but also we’re living in a time of incredible migration and about so many other things come up in those conversations.
They are not interviews. We really see them as two-way conversations. We ask people to be recording them. Everyone’s got a device. Then they go away and listen back to the recording and they curate a section of the other person’s words that they transcribe every precisely in what we call an entho-poetic way, so it looks like a poem, it’s like you’re creating a little art work out of someone’s words. And it includes all of the funny things we all do with ums and ahs, it’s all there…
Eleanor M. Albert: The idiosyncrasies.
Derek Goldman: Exactly. And then they perform the other person’s words. Another thread of this, as we spend time together that we are developing… I work with collaborators who focus on movement and body language is something about the development of our critical capacities to not only pay attention to text and words but to body language and other things but to do it respectfully. Because you quickly get into “someone has a dialect, someone has an accent. How do we navigate that?” So we really are very conscious about not ignoring it, but being like well what are the things that you are noticing. If we are as effective as we try to be at creating a kind of safe, nurturing space. It’s vulnerable but in the best sense.
That’s the model. And then out of that, they come back and perform each other for the group. It’s very moving and lots is revealed but it’s also iterative, it’s generative. People want to then have the next conversation because things are surfaced. Once I started realizing that students and others who were doing this were really having a rewarding and meaningful time, we started thinking about different applications of it beyond just a group of people who were already taking class together, getting to know each other. The initial big one was really to looking at how polarized so many communities are but if this works this well, how might it be a model for bringing people together who really are struggling to have respectful conversations because of just such seismic disagreements.
So we piloted this program that’s now existing for several years between Georgetown and Patrick Henry College, which is a conservative Christian school in Virginia which on the whole has a very, very different population than Georgetown. Again, what you realize is as soon as you do this is that Georgetown is incredibly diverse and Patrick Henry is incredible diverse… But what that gave us the chance to do was to start to build through this methodology, relationships over the course of a longer period of time, over a year, of students coming together and see the journey that they could go on in terms of how deep and how complex those conversations could get.
That’s really become what the In Your Shoes model is. And then COVID has impacted like everything, but in a strange way this work does work on Zoom. There are different dimensions, different limitations, but also Zoom can be quite an intimate space for some of these encounters.
I’ve been doing this work with medical students who are learning to listen more empathically to their patients. We have been doing intergenerational work around climate change. Really trying to think about where an opportunity to have a conversation that in some way has difference in it as a critical element where this method can excavate conversations that might not otherwise get to happen.
Eleanor M. Albert: That’s really meaningful especially in a polarized American context where we are always told certain kinds of conversations are supposed to be off the table because there is difference.
You are working on a collaboration with the Initiative [for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues], In Your Shoes, and it’s this pilot program on U.S.-China. From your personal vantage point and from the conversations that have started happening in the program, how would you describe current state of relations between the U.S. and China?
Derek Goldman: A couple things. The first is just how genuinely grateful I am to the Initiative and to the team because I hoped that this would be productive but it’s really been incredible, the intensity of commitment and emotion and connection to this work. You think of a pilot, “let’s try something,” but this actually has really felt very, very moving and in some ways we are just getting started with the possibilities of it. But what it has revealed is very, very charged and powerful.
In an earlier vision, as we were trying to imagine and shape what this project could be, my first reactions and talking to others was “oh well we should work with Shanghai Theater academy, I’ve done this work at Shanghai Theater Academy, they’ve got students, we’ve got students…” So I reached out to colleagues there who are friends, proposed it and they said “yes of course, we’ll do it, we’ll do it.” And just to say with candor, that as we got closer to figuring out what it was, it became clear that that model wasn’t going to be possible in the current climate.
I don’t think I can speak with any particular expertise on U.S.-China relations, although I feel like I’ve been learning a lot from colleagues like Orville Schell at the Asia Society and talking to him about the current moment. But what I can say, is that for the students who have been part of this, how visceral it is for them that a space has been opened up at all. On the whole, and I don’t want to generalize at all, I think there is a feeling that these conversations and in particular the identities of these students, which are diverse but are broadly speaking largely connected to the Chinese diaspora in some way.
Some of these students are here from China and are going back, some these students are Chinese American and have families that have emigrated and there is a range, there is a sort of continuum. But all of them have a connection to the conversations about the [U.S.-China] relationship that [is] personal and all of them have expressed feeling in one way or another invisible, silenced, not being given a space to explore who they are in some fundamental way in relationship to what is happening and some of them have experienced out right hate and violence in one form or another.
So, I think the starting point here is the carving out of safe space for something communal. Within it there is enormous difference and diversity, but it’s a little more about revealing what’s already there that is shared. And, we really only just met with this group about over two months and in some ways the conversations were very, very deep and personal, but I think some of the journey and content and topics are just getting started. But in some ways I think the relationship to U.S.-China relations or the more macro political thing is just to say that people think there is huge prejudice, stereotyping, generalizing, projecting, and that as individuals, in one form or another, they are caught up in and implicated in and victims of those reductive misunderstandings. So, to me I feel like this work is about trying to almost reclaim the textured reality of lives and people.
To me there is even a question of how we imagine audience for it and the balance between private and public. In this work, we pay a lot of attention to community guidelines around consent. Two people can have a conversation and they may choose to reveal personal things to each other and then they can always say in this work at the end “that was great, but when we go back to the group, let’s just keep this part in and this part out.” And then even more common, in the group things come out and people say “that’s great here, but if we’re going to widen this and or show a video or have an audience come in, I would like this part in and this part out.”
And I think that’s always been a thing with In Your Shoes but that’s a very complex and nuanced part of this work for all the obvious reasons. I think that’s hard but it’s been an interesting challenge to think about In Your Shoes more broadly in that way as how can we balance everyone’s desire, including the students, to actually have this work be witnessed to not just have it be something that happens in a room with twelve people but to have others go “oh we can have these conversations” while actually keeping the content… I don’t think we’ve solved that but I think even just grappling with strategies for it has been really generative.
Eleanor M. Albert: On that note, I was wondering if you could share some of the prompts that you have created for some of these conversations to have an idea of the starting points? What that has led to? Can you share any insights from the experiences, whether its people who are from diametrically opposed versions of the diaspora, talking about what some of the lessons learned and insights have been?
Derek Goldman: We did one on home. It always surprises me how deep and complex that gets so it’s definitely not just a starter kit. We did one on belonging. One of the arts of this I think is actually to take their temperature, “you’re now in this group, you’re forming these relationships” we don’t do surveys on it, but part of the art is almost like a tuning fork, what is this group wanting to talk to about with one another, even in the discussions they are having. That came up a lot, a little more specific or different than just home. This sense of “I’m home but I don’t belong,” “I’m betwixt and between,” and I think that sense of feeling betwixt and between even though there is a real spectrum within this community of how they define themselves but they all feel that and that was very moving.
And I think just bluntly, that it led to a lot of, it’s more complex than confessional, but I think what you start to have is people having conversations that they have not had, period. So what many of them comment on, they are not being forced to do it, they trust to do it, but they are allowed to actually start to form thoughts and feelings in a way they haven’t done.
And then the other thing that this process does is that it is really a huge process of self-discovery, as much as discovery of the group because of that. Because when you hear yourself reflected back by someone else is what they often say is “I never knew I felt that way, that doesn’t even sound like me,” or sometimes they’ll even say “I can’t believe I said that a few days ago, I don’t have any memory of saying that.” But then it’s also being affirmed by the group and someone is going “oh that connects to my experience.” A lot of times these are experiences that they’ve really just not had the space to be let out. I think the idea of belonging, which again I think it’s easy to think of that as just personal and on an intimate register but it’s not. And so what happens especially with these very brilliant Georgetown students, many of whom are studying international relations, is that the move between micro-and-macro implications tends to happen pretty organically as part of the conversation.
We also then had quite an incredible round towards the end of the experience on hope, just hope, where do you find hope, what does hope look like. And then again, what happens is, on the surface that can sound like it might be a tiny bit, in a time where there is so much darkness, a little bit facile or redemptive, but in fact, I would said what the conversations, the richness of it, what that is was less about individuals saying “oh I find hope still in this that despite everything…” but it actually was more about the status of hope in our world. What it takes, so people were talking about it relationship to climate and the environment. So it just becomes a different kind of space that is moving across things.
This work doesn’t really end up being so much about working out political difference. To me that is ok. That’s not actually the goal but it’s allowing us to surface and excavate, with respect, a range of perspectives and have people go “oh I see where that is.” And to do so in a way that is not shallow, but that’s actually really dimensional and just has to do with how incredibly articulate and brilliant the students are.
Eleanor M. Albert: Keeping in [mind] the tenor of U.S.-China dynamics right now, I wondered if it contrasted the conversation, if it was the elephant in the room, or if it was more of a permissive condition that allowed different conversations to come about. You were talking about belonging and I think about how dynamic the U.S.-China relationship is, right? It often ends up being essentialized as an executive-to-executive relationship but it’s so much more than that, it’s so much more than the economy, it’s the diaspora, it creates all these networks.
You were just talking about the relationships that all of your students have, belonging can be to your university, to your family, to a geographic place, to social groups, to interests that unify you, it could be to food…
Derek Goldman: I think the honest answer, Eleanor, is that the [U.S.-China] tensions were a backdrop and that the experience was in contrast to those tensions. Those are real and those are part of the emotional foundation.
We had a student talking from a very, very worried and emotional place about their family members in lockdown because of COVID in Shanghai and not being able to get food. Current events. We did this while a war broke out. There was the implications and ripples of that geopolitically and personally and just the visceral experience of “we are processing that that is happening in the world.” It came up a lot but it came out as the sort of subtext for personal reflections and processing and experiences. And I feel like the next step then, a next iteration can, instead of just being a restart, actually enable some of the folks who’ve begun with us to continue.
In some ways it’s almost like the macro implications of the backdrop allowed for something really radical to start to happen that included those but was really personal. Then the next step would almost be to reapply two sets of perspectives which these students are certainly having and have insights about. That’s where I feel also different kinds of expertise and facilitation … What different sorts of experiences we could have together? We had meals together, we went to the movies together. Each of those things brings out different aspects. You have a meal together you talk about food and how it lives in your world and learn about family members in a different kind of way. So, the relationships built here could sort of then be really applied to other sets of circumstances.
Eleanor M. Albert: They can be a conduit to creating some type of peace that can shed light on the kind of differences at work.
Derek Goldman: Exactly.