Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Culture Clash: TeatroStageFest 2011 conference

(Left to Right) Danilo Santos de Miranda, Larry Rohter, Margaret Ayers

Although Brazil was not cast for any performance role in the production of the 5th annual TeatroStageFest, it was chosen as the star of TSF's conference which took place at the Americas Society on June 13th.

TeatroStageFest, hosted by The Latino International Theater Festival of New York, is a two-week event of non-stop performances from New York, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Spain. I haven't yet been to a TSF performance, but I will definitely try to make it to one after attending last night's conference. (Shows are running through June 18th).

According to TSF's program, the objective of yesterday evening's conference was to discuss:
"the need to develop new arts funding mechanisms... that will further international exchange amongst artists and audiences of all backgrounds. It will also provide an introduction to the unique and successful practices of the Social Service of Commerce (SESC) model which incentives and democratizes access to a thriving arts and culture movement that is enjoyed by millions of Brazilians annually."

I would not have know about TeatroStageFest's conference, let alone the two-week long festival, had it not been for a Tweet by The Brazil Foundation. They were likely interested in the event because one of the two panelists was Danilo Santos de Miranda, Regional Director of SESC-São Paulo. The other panelist was Margaret Ayers, President of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, which is providing a grant to the International Cultural Engagement Partnership between SESC-SP and the Latino International Theater Festival of New York. Both of the panelists' names were new to me, but I recognized the moderator, Larry Rohter, culture reporter for the New York Times and author of Brazil on the Rise. For me, Rohter was the main attraction, but soon into the conference, I new I'd take away from the event much more than his autograph in my copy of his book.

As soon as I entered the room in which the conference was to take place, I guessed I was the youngest member of the audience. The event was public, but I had a hunch I was the only person in attendance who was not associated with TSF, SESC, or a diplomatic mission from Latin America or Spain. I was hopeful that my interest in Brazil and in the subject matter at hand would help me to blend into the crowd. 

A woman in her sixties sat next to me in the second row. After she commented on the good looks of a Brazilian Consulate official who was introduced during the opening remarks, I thought we would become fast friends. I smiled back at her and nodded in genuine agreement. But after the first panelist finished her overview of the current state of International Cultural Exchanges coming out of the United States, I quickly learned that despite our shared appreciation for attractive, middle-aged diplomats, my seat-mate and I came from different cultures. I had been live-tweeting throughout Margaret Ayers' presentation. Truthfully, I hadn't thought much about the implications of my actions and was just doing what I thought any one of my Twitter role models do on a daily basis when they live-tweet a Bernanke, Obama, or Netanyahu address. Apparently, I had deeply offended my silver-haired friend.

"Were you texting during the whole thing?" she asked me disdainfully.

"Actually, I was tweeting," I replied kindly. "It's great publicity for the organizations involved in this event."

"Well it's very rude and distracting," she scolded.

I apologized, explaining that my intentions were not to distract her or anyone else and added in vain, "It's a type of reporting."

I felt horrible and desperately wanted to reverse the bad impression I had just made on this woman, so I tried to redeem myself with small talk while the organizers were setting up for the next panelist.

"Do you work with one of the organizations involved in the partnership?" I asked innocently. When she said she didn't, I quickly responded that I also wasn't professionally involved but was simply interested in the Brazil-US exchange. She then immediately justified her attendance by mentioning her 14 years working in International Cultural Exchange and added, "But I can't imagine how you could have been paying attention to anything the panelist said, anyhow." She was referring to my "texting." At that point, I gave up.

I realize how the combination of my bowed head and the bright screen of my of iPhone could have been interpreted as disinterest and disrespect, and I didn't want to further irritate my seat-mate. For those reasons I put my phone away for the rest of the discussion. Still, my intentions had been pure. I was doing only what I thought journalists do when they tweet live events. 

Soon, it was Danilo Santos de Miranda's turn to speak. For 27 years, Danilo has overseen the SESC-SP's cultural initiatives that have touched the lives of over 15 million residents of São Paulo State. SESC stands for Servício Social de Comércio, or Social Service of Commerce. To give you a thorough understanding of SESC, I will again quote directly from TeatroStageFest's program.

"Brazil's unique arts funding model was institutionalized in 1946 when a mandatory tax law was passed, which dictated that every company pay 1.5% of its total payroll into the SESC Fund, in order to develop cultural centers across the nation. Today SESC- São Paulo has an annual operation budget of, approximately US$598 million and there are over 500 SESC centers and mobile unites throughout Brazil that provide arts and culture, sports, education, and recreational programming."

I was smitten with Danilo five minutes into his presentation. He could easily be mistaken for Santa Claus. His smile, which peaks through a short white beard, is contagious, and his eyes light up when he speaks about his work. Instead of giving children presents one day a year, Danilo gives the gifts life long learning and development through free or subsidized arts and entertainment, physical activity and other informal education programs. When Danilo described SESC's emphasis on programming for "idosos" or elders, including computer literacy courses and digital media presentations, I thought of the woman sitting next to me. Maybe she would have appreciated my use of New Media had she participated in one of Danilo's workshops. 

After Danilo finished his presentation, Larry Rohter entered center stage as moderater. His provocative questions pointed out key cultural differences between Brazil and the United States. You may have trouble believing the numbers in the TSF's description of SESC above, because it's hard to imagine American firms paying such a significant portion of their profits into any public service program, let a program focused on the Arts. 

Rohter asked Margart Ayers if she thought Brazil's hugely successful public-private partnership in the form of SESC could ever be copied in the United States. Her short answer was NO. Her long answer included mentions of Republican law makers from Wisconsin and the general negative attitudes of certain growing conservative movements towards public programing of any kind. Danilo also pointed out that the Brazilian business sector is able to recognize the connection between cultural programming and a growing a consumer base. Healthier and happier citizens are more likely to already have, if not work towards, the means to buy products and services from the private sector. This holistic and socially-minded perspective is most definitely not yet shared by institutionalized American business interests.

When Mr. Rohter opened up the discussion to questions and comments from the audience, half a dozen hands shot up in the air. The one reaction I remember most vividly came from a cultural minister from Spain. He prefaced his question with a statement to the tune of  "I first just want to say..." and thanked all the Wall Street executives for their self serving financial dealings that have left the global economy reeling. He also instructed everyone in the room to see the documentary, Inside Job, if they hadn't already. Most people in the audience, including myself, broke into applause before the diplomat could continue. He then transitioned to a question for the panelists about the lack of U.S. funding for North American performers to take their art abroad to countries like that form which he came. It was a good question, but his opening remarks that so rawly expressed the sentiments of many foreign governments towards North America are what stayed with me. 

I had gone into the evening with few expectations other than to hear some Portuguese and shake hands with Larry Rohter, a feat which I accomplished during the post panel reception. Soon into the event, however, I was overcome with a profound sense of being in the presence of something much bigger than myself and my obsession with Brazil. The theme of the evening's discussion was cross-cultural arts exchange, yet there were so many other politics being played out at the feet of the featured panelists. Among the thirty or so people in attendance, some of the most contentious themes surfaced and stormed: young vs. old, mobile communication vs. print media, socialism vs. capitalism. And I, unexpectedly and luckily, found myself in the middle of it all.

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