Among the events of this year’s National Theatre Festival in Romania, alongside theatre performances, has been a conference tackling a topic that is both conceptual and highly down to earth: “Integrating artistic practice, learning and engagement in the lives of the entire community”. The speaker was Emil J. Kang, Executive and Artistic Director at Carolina Performing Arts at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A teacher of music, arts management and artistic entrepreneurship, Kang has held positions at various orchestras in the U.S., is on the board of the Martha Graham Dance Company and, for the past six years, has been appointed to the U.S. National Council on the Arts.
Performing arts, theatre and culture projects are about creativity, sure, but also about discovering and nurturing inspiring human connections. Such one brought Emil J. Kang to the NTF this year, through Ana Maria Lucaciu, a Romanian-born contemporary dancer currently active in the U.S. (who presented “Slightly Off Stage” in this year’s NTF). “I have built our performing arts program at the North Carolina University around personal connections with artists and arts leaders around the world. Thus, the opportunity to come to this Festival was, from this point of view, too good to miss, even more so as I already knew many of the international artists invited here. Also, I am interested in understanding the intention, the motivation, the energy of the artistic creation in Romania, what the challenges and the ambitions of people here are. As a curator, this helps me decide what kind of work to bring back home, but on a personal level it helps me feed my own curiosity too, which is an important feature in arts” says Kang. In his view, curiosity is (or should be), at the core of… well, of everything: the way young people approach culture and arts, how artists and arts managers create their projects, and ultimately how we all tackle art, other people and society.
Far more than just an intellectual endeavor or a form of entertainment, performing arts are of paramount importance in the education and development of young people, and actually in the development of society. “The main difference between performing arts and visual arts is that performing arts only exist with other people, in a community. They are an intangible form of sharing ideas. In this age, when everything has a price, performing arts go back to this idea that we can learn from others and share our values with them in abstract ways too, and this helps us understand each other and build empathy.”
Many people have kind of an obsession about understanding “the right thing” from an artistic experience. We all are on a constant race to avoid ‘the wrong answers. Art is not about that dichotomy, Kang says. ”The beauty of art is that there is no right or wrong answer, there is only your own answer. My mission, as a teacher and curator, is to show young people the difference between a so-called right response and a thoughtful response to art. Often my students will ask ‘what did this performance mean?’, and then I always ask them back ‘what did you think it meant?’, and then they don’t know what to say because they are afraid to give what they think would be a wrong answer. But actually, one’s own individual journey with art and encouraging each person’s response to art are what matters, that is my goal.”
Do art and particularly performing arts have a real power to influence our contemporary, troubled society, for the better? The key here is, again, curiosity. “If people are not curious about other people and ideas, if they don’t leave their own bubble, then this is a source for troubled times. In my view, curiosity can help cure the world, generally speaking but in art and theatre as well. Simply being interested in another one’s identity, customs and thoughts is highly important and beneficial. Also, finding joy in the discovery of new things is also important. This can make us seek out those who are different from us, as opposed to feel discomfort in that difference.”
Theatre and all performing arts nowadays, albeit increasingly innovative and creative, often share a common problem: a fluctuating, if not often low interest from the audience. Emil Kang is not quick to blame the audience, but rather feels that “in a way, there is a problem with artists and arts leaders, somehow, we have lost our own way. We often lament that nobody cares about our art while they should care. It’s a rather arrogant and unidirectional view, a victimization. A better question, instead of the “why don’t people care about art?” is whether there is meaning in the art we make, and whether we give audience members the chance to create their own meaning too, instead of maybe imposing our meaning on them. I think we need to value more the role of first-person experience, the personal act of creation and of learning. We also need to create a dialogue with the audience about their individual art journey.”