It’s not every day that you have an opportunity to sit down with one of the major forces in American theater. Last Friday, however, I had the honor to meet with Philip Arnoult, a prominent voice for American theater on the global stage, to discuss the projects he is currently working on and what brought him to Austin.
Arnoult is widely recognized, nationally and internationally, not only for his efforts to nurture and present new theater and dance from throughout the world, but also for his commitment to long-term, international projects that put artists together in collaborative projects.
In the early 70s, Arnoult founded the Baltimore Theater Project. In the 20 years under his artistic direction, the theater became known for its production of experimental national and international presentations. This year, Arnoult and co-founder Buck Jabaily will launch a new theater, The Baltimore Open Theater, which focuses on making theater accessible to new audiences and artists by providing free admittance to all productions and funding artist’s work in alternative spaces.
Arnoult is also the founder and director of the Center for International Theater Development (CITD). It is his work with CITD, the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission and his long standing relationships with the Russian theater community which brought Arnoult to Austin on this warm January weekend.
"The purpose of art for me is the sense of wonder: Who I am, who you are, who we are, what this is?" - Philip Arnoult
Arnoult is laying the foundation for his Four Cities Tour this coming May. "The project is simple," says Arnoult, "create an encounter between a new generation of Russian cultural animators and the landscape of American theater — not in the usual spots, but in small, unique performance cultures across the country."
To explore the diverse landscape of American theater, Arnoult will be traveling with a handful of young Russian theater artists from diverse regions of the country. In total, the contingent will be visiting Baltimore, San Francisco, New Orleans and Austin.
Although I will confess I am in love with the dynamism and energy of this city, I wondered what got the Austin theater scene on the list. Arnoult says he decided after visiting Austin last year to witness the inaugural season of Breaking String Theater’s New Russian Drama Festival.
Olga Mukhina’s Flying, produced in association with the Rude Mechanicals, was the centerpiece of the festival and part of the CITD’s New Visions/New Voices Initiative. Says Arnoult: “Why I am here and what excites me about what is happening here is a larger and longer obsession I have had professionally with the relationship of art to place.”
It is hard to deny that Austin has a culture all its own. Being the capital city of a state known for its feisty independence, Austin has become a place where artists and creatives of all sorts find an opportunity to explore their work on a deeper level. Many of the audience members here are artists themselves, so they understand and are interested in process, in what feeds work. What Arnoult finds most interesting “[is] the notion of how to engage the audience in a longer conversation."
“It’s about starting conversations,” Arnoult says. "The purpose of art for me is the sense of wonder: Who I am, who you are, who we are, what this is . . . At its best, art for me is not about answers, and that’s where the wonder pops in. It’s okay to say 'I don’t know but I have this window into something.' That could lead to somebody taking that moment of wonder and questioning the way they are living right now.”
Perhaps that is a piece of what makes Austin so unique: Its desire to embrace wonder, to keep asking questions and seeing what comes of it. When our new Russian friends come to town, they will undoubtedly receive a big helping of Texas hospitality. I look forward to the wonders that come from it.