Bridging continents through art: an interview with Thomas Engel, Managing Director of the International Theatre Institute

The role of cultural exchange in promoting mutual understanding and cooperation is more important than ever in today’s society, and the International Theatre Institute (ITI), with Thomas Engel at its helm, has a key role to play in this area. An experienced dramaturg and project manager, Thomas has dedicated more than two decades to furthering the mission of the ITI, championing a wide range of initiatives that promote artistic collaboration. In this interview, Thomas discusses his journey leading the ITI, the origins and goals of the Deconfining project, and the complex challenges of transcontinental artistic collaboration. His experience offers invaluable lessons on the power of theatre and the arts to bridge global divides.


  • Could you provide a brief overview of your background and journey leading the International Theatre Institute and steering the Deconfining project? What inspired the formation of the Deconfining project and its key objectives?


I’m a dramaturg by profession and have been working for many years as project manager in the ITI before I took over the position as Managing Director 20 years ago.

When DECONFINING was introduced, I felt that a project, focussed on the challenges and obstacles of transcontinental cooperation of European and African artistic partners within the framework of several Cultural Cities of Europe and their counterparts in Africa could be a remarkable step forward. We had been reached over the recent years by many single reports on visa problems for artists from outside the European Union, especially from the Global South. The dangerous connection between mobility and migration in European policy creates additional insecurity for artistic mobility. Analyzing the quality of cooperation and the political, financial, and cultural framework conditions of it by doing practical artistic projects – storytelling, artistic residencies, installations, readings, theatre productions, touring and guest performances on both continents – at once, is a unique opportunity. Our artistic practice within the project is the source for analysis, discussion, and public debate – which should feed the attempts to improve the framework conditions for artistic cooperation and exchange in general.


  • What have been the most significant challenges you've encountered in leading the Deconfining project so far? How do you effectively navigate and tackle these challenges within such an ambitious initiative?


The most significant challenge was to get the project operational. We are part of a new implemented system of fully digital administration by the EU. With some other dozen project coordinators, I got two online crash courses and was left to become clear. ITI agreed to take people from other partner organisations under contract for administration tasks, but VAT was not calculated within the budget. We had to pass the funding rates to our partner and had to set up co-operation contracts, but money washing rules and avoiding taxable exchange of services between the partner organisations was another issue since different national tax laws had to be considered. The additional workload to find paths through the administrative jungle took several months. With Alejandro Ramilo we have luckily a Project Officer at the EU-Agency who really tries to help us over the several unexpected barriers. On the other hand, we finally created a phantastic Core Group from Europe and Africa, which meets every month to discuss and solve all evolving problems.


  • Within the context of intercontinental cultural cooperation, there's often an emphasis on establishing a common language. In your perspective, how vital is it to openly address stereotypes and confined attitudes within these cultural collaborations? How do these discussions contribute to our ability to listen to and understand each other better?


Since we all are no native speakers of English or French there is nothing like a common language. We all try to make ourselves understandable, but all terms we use have different meanings and sounds in our different cultures and contexts. That means, if we understand the words we hear from another person, it does not mean that we are all referring to the same context. So, we not only have to listen to each other, we also have to actively search what is behind the common terms we seem to share. We are living in accelerated, very dynamic times and the picture we might have from another culture is only a part in a rapid flood of changing images.


  • Could you distill your extensive experience in international cooperation into a few practical recommendations and key guidelines of good practice that you believe are crucial for successful cultural exchange and cooperation between diverse regions and cultures?


Find out as much as you can about the history and culture of the country and region your partners come from. And be open to huge differences between your knowledge and reality. Know historical examples of how your own country has been involved in the region. Personal relationships are the basis for cooperation. Governance and governance principles behind partners should be transparent and known. A partnership is a safe space.


  • How does theatre serve as a medium to bridge the gap, challenge stereotypes, and facilitate dialogue among continents and diverse cultures? What specific role does theatre play in not only identifying but also actively addressing stereotypes, consequently fostering a shared understanding and a common language among diverse communities? Could you provide examples or insights into how theatre has effectively contributed to breaking down stereotypes and promoting cross-cultural dialogue in your experiences?


Theatre and dance, like music, are live performing arts. Artists and audience share a common space and a common time during the performance. Performance is a moment of full risk – to fail artistically, to be misunderstood, to have misdirected communication, to waste time and energy, to violate the established political, religious, or cultural framework. Performing artists take this risk with their bodies, as people. Both artists and audience of a performance can be targeted with violent attacks from outside. Artists and audiences can form a close community in which alternatives to the present are playfully negotiated. The knowledge of the risks makes a successful performance in a safe environment a celebration. We made a project series with partners in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Greece, Turkey, Sudan, Palestine, Israel, Egypt. It was called “My unknown Enemy” and tried in a series of theatre projects to uncover deep-seated enemy images in different cultures and to present them with the means of theatre and thus make them “playable”.


  • Looking forward, what do you envision as the potential impact of the Deconfining project and similar initiatives in promoting cultural exchange on a global scale? What aspirations do you hold for the long-term influence of such initiatives on international cultural collaborations?


The project is increasingly proving to be a stroke of luck. With the consequences of the pandemic and the multiple global crises that have permanently followed, with all the effects on international cooperation and the polarising echoes in the cultures, the foundations for transcultural exchange are currently under an enormous stress test. We are fortunate to have such a far-reaching project with so many different partners already up and running. Against all odds, DECONFINING has already created functioning artistic collaborations and continues to develop them, reflecting and evaluating the constantly changing conditions. The insights we are gaining now will prove immensely valuable in the years to come.


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