50 is a significant age. It is old enough to have engaged with tremendous changes, shifts and developments, and it is young enough to hold its own history in living memory.
We have been talking of one of the hallmarks of ASSITEJ today being its inclusivity – something which has been hard won and has been developed over the past decade at least as a trend. However, we cannot be complacent about inclusivity… We have not “arrived”. We need to keep working at an inclusivity which embraces different cultures, languages, positions, priorities and approaches to making work for young audiences, and which recognises cultural contexts and diversity of all sorts. This has become ever more urgent in the world as we see growing intolerance, bigotry, polarisation, the effects of cultural imperialism and at time the violent reactions these induce.
Children and young people need to feel that they are welcome in the world, wherever they come from, whatever language they may speak, whatever their abilities or interests. Theatre as a live communication happening in this present time and space – with the capacity to recognise them, validate them, challenge them, move them and celebrate them has become more vitally needed than ever before… Theatre needs to reflect the multiple realities that children and young people are faced with, while also allowing a space in which their imaginations can take flight – where they can feel the power of making the invisible visible. Theatre needs to be diverse to suit these very diverse needs and contexts.
One of the ways that ASSITEJ has been able to create more diversity and inclusivity within the organisation is through the networks. This is very much a 21st century phenomenon of ASSITEJ. We see these networks as being of vital importance to the growth of the organisation into the future, as it is through these networks – ITYARN, Write Local Play Global, IIAN, Small Size and Next Generation – that important ideas about theatre for young audiences are disseminated widely and often in unexpected ways and directions. The nature of networks is a greater looseness and inclusivity which allows for more random connections to be made, something which allows ideas to literally jump from one continent to another and take seed there. We have seen how ideas related to theatre for the very young have managed to spread very rapidly across Europe and now across the world through the efforts of the Small Size network. We see new networks developing which may in time become members of ASSITEJ and which allow their members an intense inter-cultural dialogue around the focus points that attract them to the network in the first place.
As we become more global and inclusive, so we also become more aware of all those who may be currently geographically, culturally, linguistically, or economically marginalised, and for whom access to the arts is not a certainty. I believe that if ASSITEJ is to be true to its conviction that all children and young people have a right to the arts, we need to work harder to bring people into the association and to find ways for artists to also become advocates and activists for the rights of children to this access. It is only through multiplying our voices and demonstrating the value of what we are saying through work of the highest quality in every country, that we are likely to make a significant impact. I hope that in 50 years time we will find that there is no country which is not represented in some way in ASSITEJ and which is not engaged in the work of theatre for young audiences. The international exchange and dialogue that ASSITEJ allows is not about a travel club for the lucky few- rather it should result in the nurturing of theatre on local soils, in local contexts.
One thing that you can always be sure about with the future is that it will not be what you expect. Change is the only certainty, they say. We cannot know what the next 50 years hold for ASSITEJ, but I think that if this association is to follow the principles of design that nature teaches us, we will perhaps have better models for survival, adaptation and flourishing… Strength in nature is not about rigidity, but about flexibility. Trees break open concrete; water weathers rock. Within all natural things is an intrinsic energy, a desire for fulfilment, a reaching towards the natural imperative, whether it is plants reaching for the sunlight or water responding to gravity to find the sea – I believe that it is this intrinsic energy that we need to be fostering within ASSITEJ. The structures we create need to foster and hold this energy, and can suggest a sense of direction.
What can this sense of direction be, when the future is so uncertain? In my view it is our audience, the crucial point that distinguishes our network from any other, who will tell us where we need to go and perhaps even how to get there. We need to reach towards, listen to, confront, embrace and explore with our audience in order to find the true potential in the expressive medium of live performance. In the world of theatre for young audiences we are constantly challenged by our audience to stay present, in the now, and not to rely on our ever more unreliable memories of our own childhoods in order to determine how to work successfully.
ASSITEJ has selected the theme “One theme beyond” for this three year term of office. We are looking at aspects of what ASSITEJ has achieved and asking ourselves how do we take these one step beyond where they have been in the last 50 years. This year, here at Augenblik Mal! we ask this question with relation to intergenerational exchange, next year it will be inter-disciplinary exchange and in 2017, when the first ASSITEJ Congress will be hosted on the African continent, we will consider inter-cultural exchange.
Nelson Mandela said that “The purpose of freedom is to create it for others.” I believe that ASSITEJ has created a space of freedom for exchange, dialogue, creativity and renewal. It is our purpose to create that freedom for others – in our artistic communities, in our national networks, in our audiences. So let us take ourselves into the future – one step beyond where we have been. Let us take our first steps into that future with a sense of authenticity, with a sense of direction – together.