The new agenda

At its 99th congress in January, ISPA delegates will be grappling with the concept of Currents of Change: Arts, Power + Politics, topics that couldn’t be more timely. Maria Roberts catches up with CEO David Baile ahead of the upcoming gathering in New York

In this era of social discontent no one could accuse the arts of being ‘fluffy’ because creative practitioners, thankfully, are more than happy to place themselves at the heart of the matter: Belarus Free Theatre’s Burning Doors is one such glowering example.

Disparities in equality, perceived identities, and the global realities of climate change, migration and terrorism will all be on the bill for discussion when delegates pour into ISPA’s regular haunts at the Times Center, Bryant Park Grill and 230 Fifth from 10 – 12 January 2017.

How likely is it that the arts can affect any form of political or social change? ISPA CEO David Baile remains confident that the arts can inspire progress. ‘The tides of change session talks about the role of presenters and challenges whether they have a responsibility to present work that addresses contemporary society and a session on the role of identity and how we are constantly stereotyping groups even today,’ he tells me over the phone from New York.

‘The session on theatre and empowerment, moderated by Panti Bliss [the famous Irish gay rights activist and drag queen] will consider theatre from the 80s to today. The panel will be discussing how what we used to think of as political theatre played a role in change, even if the artistic quality wasn’t particularly strong.

‘During this era, early lesbian and gay theatre, as well as feminist work, evolved and empowered those movements, and in fact continues to empower movements.’

Have the tables turned on the disenfranchised? ‘I think the increased right-wing movements prevalent almost everywhere prove conclusively that we have not turned the table for the disempowered or disenfranchised,’ he says. ‘On the contrary, I think there is a huge amount of work to do on the acceptance of differences. I do think the arts, and for that matter pop culture, play hugely important roles in continuing to raise awareness, break down barriers and identify injustice.

‘Everyone has a right to their voice,’ adds Baile. ‘In fact, I think it’s critical we hear all the voices because how else are we going to understand other positions and work towards solutions? I may not agree with a far-right position on immigration, but it is important that I understand the rationale so that I can address the concerns.’

Yet as we try to move forward, how hard is it for the performing arts to find its cultural context in contemporary society? As an industry, we have a habit of holding on to the past – millions are spent on UNESCO heritage sites, and Shakespeare is everywhere – should there be an arts agenda that equips us for the future?

‘Work in the canon, be it classical or modern, still serves to reflect who we are as a society and where we have come from,’ says Baile. ‘Many of today’s issues have been experienced in the past and certainly the arts continue to reflect this. I think there is lots of appetite for preserving the past, while simultaneously exploring new work and artists.’

Set to celebrate its 100th congress in Montréal in 2017, ISPA’s enthusiasm is greater than ever. With around 500 members from 56 countries in its network (70 per cent from Europe or North America), there are plans for additional satellite-style events to take place throughout the year. One such event was held in Edinburgh in 2016, whilst an invitation to Cairo in 2017 will see ISPA consider the potential for further events in the Middle East in 2018.