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World Theatre Day: Looking Forward in Turbulent Times

By Jeffrey Eric Jenkins

Observed annually on March 27, World Theatre Day is a celebration of art that transcends geographical, cultural, and linguistic barriers. At its best, theatre is a beacon of freedom of expression in an era marked by rising authoritarianism and international discord. From the ancient Greek amphitheaters to the modern stages of Broadway, it connects us on a deeply human level.

As World Theatre Day 2024 dawns, the International Association of Theatre Critics is deeply engaged in preparations for the 30th World Congress on Theatre Criticism to be held May 20-26 in Brno, Czech Republic. This will be the first in-person Congress and General Assembly of the global organization since the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to rethink the nature of theatre performance, presence and absence, and the impact of being “in the room where it happens.”

In addition to conducting the business of the association, which includes the election of a new executive committee and officers, the gathered theatre critics will execute a plan of advocacy for the future of theatre and theatre criticism. During its Extraordinary General Assembly, the organization will review statutory revisions aimed at helping to find and promote the next generation of international thought leaders in theatre. In presenting its prestigious Thalia Prize to Erika Fischer-Lichte during the Congress, the IATC will also bring past and present together as we honor the work of one of our great global thinkers on theatre and performance.

As the organization looks toward the future, IATC will also examine the present through the lens of the past. In honor of the date marking the centenary of Franz Kafka’s death, the IATC will host a conference on “‘Truth’ in the Kafkaesque World of Theatre” as we explore the ways in which the Prague-based writer’s anxieties about identity and the human condition have become reality in a world of alienation and alternative “facts.”

Mirroring our collective humanity, theatre reflects our triumphs and tribulations, our complexities and contradictions. A collaborative art, it brings together artists of many types to craft stories that resonate on a personal level with audience members. Whether through the catharsis of tragedy or the relief of comedy, theatre enhances a shared sense of humanity, bridging divides and building community.

In these times of global tension, the adaptability and resilience of theatre become even more significant. The art form is evolving to address contemporary challenges, adopting new modes and narratives to stay relevant. The diversity within theatre—from classical to experimental—ensures that it remains a wide-ranging medium of expression, offering something for everyone.

World Theatre Day reminds us of the critical role of theatre in preserving cultural heritage and promoting genuine human connection in an increasingly digital world. The intimacy of live performance fosters empathy, understanding, and a sense of community, essential in countering the isolation created by screens and technology.

Theatre can be an important platform for the marginalized and the silenced. It challenges societal norms, confronts injustices, and stimulates dialogue. Theatre has the power to inspire change, from groundbreaking works addressing race, gender, and sexuality to productions illuminating forgotten histories.

World Theatre Day also calls us to acknowledge the hurdles facing the theatre community, especially highlighted by the pandemic’s devastating impact. The resilience of this community in the face of adversity—through virtual and outdoor performances—demonstrated the unyielding spirit of theatre.

As we look forward, supporting and nurturing emerging talent is crucial for the continued vibrancy of theatre. Investment in arts education and providing opportunities for aspiring artists will ensure the enduring relevance of this ancient art. Making theatre more accessible and inclusive will help dismantle barriers, making it a more universal embodiment of expression.

Let World Theatre Day stand as a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit. Let it reaffirm our capacity for creativity, empathy, and resilience. In a world fragmented by political and ideological divides, let theatre unite us in our shared humanity.

Jeffrey Eric Jenkins is President of the International Association of Theatre Critics (AICT-IATC), Professor and Chair of Theatre Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a Faculty Affiliate of Discovery Partners Institute in Chicago (Twitter: @crrritic).