End Cultural Isolationism Now: The Arts Can Bridge the Chasms between Nations, a Director Argues. (International Theatre Institute News)

Article excerpt

IT SOUNDS LIKE A JOKE, BUT WHEN THE east Kentucky theatre company that I direct performed in Sweden in 1981, audiences came expecting to see Jed and Ellie May Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies in the rape scene from the movie Deliverance, all set in the Texas of J.R. Ewing's Dallas. In fact, with one exception, our theatre's European tours to Sweden, Denmark, England, Wales and the Czech Republic have been received by audiences who had trouble believing that something like the real Appalachian story exists in America.

The one exception was the theatre's tour of Welsh coal-mining valleys. That 1989 tour was co-sponsored by the British Labour Party at the height of Thatcherism, and the Welsh working people had no trouble empathizing with our drama: Their mines were either being closed or privatized, and if privatized, the new owners were likely to be the same absentee corporations that owned our central Appalachian coal fields. As in Appalachia, dissenting oral narratives arising from suppressed histories are part of the Welsh culture--as they are for many cultures in the world.

If it is fair to generalize from our theatre's experience that the typical European has limited understanding of the complexity of U.S. social reality, then one can appreciate what must he the almost total lack of comprehension of this reality among people in those countries and regions of the world whose only contacts with Western culture are the stories, images and themes broadcast by commercial television, pop music and Hollywood films. If these were your only sources of information, imagine what the U.S. would look like to you.

All of this relates to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and ensuing events, which have brought home to us the fact that the U.S. is hated by many in the world. A lot of this hatred is based on an ignorance that allows the hater to perceive the U.S. only in monolithic terms, as a heartless materialist and imperialist state. In the longer term, our war with terrorism will be an ideological contest--if this was not the case, the terrorists would have surrendered immediately in the face of our overwhelming military superiority. To fight this war, the U.S. will have to step up its international cultural exchange programs.

Our cultural policy has been taking us in the opposite direction for the past 20 years. The Reagan Administration's withdrawal from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1987 announced our isolationist intentions to the world, while on the home front, the administration began refocusing national arts policy on a few select Western European traditions. …