COLUMN: Martha and the evolution of cultural connection

I met Martha Coigney while in my first full-time job out of grad school, working in fundraising at Theatre Communications Group.

Eleanor Stacey

Eleanor Stacey

I met Martha Coigney while in my first full-time job out of grad school, working in fundraising at Theatre Communications Group (TCG), a New York-based publisher and service organization for American theatre.Martha came to TCG at around the same time as I did, when TCG brought the US Centre of the InternationalTheatre Institute (ITI) under their organizational wing.

I was sad to hear of Martha’s passing last week, and have been thinking a lot about her and her passion for theatre around the world. When I met her, Martha was in her late 60s. She was a tall, slim frame, always in long, Isadora Duncan-esque flowing scarves in brilliant colours. Conversations with her were fascinating she talked about great artists of the world like old friends (and in fact, I think they all were her friends) people like Edward Albee, Paul Newman, Lee Strasberg. She once washed dishes with Marilyn Monroe. Her stories were peppered with casual and genuine connections with artists from around the globe and over decades of experiences.

At that time, Martha had been the director of ITI in the US for more than 35 years (and president of the global ITI network of 90-plus centres as well). I remember how she told me about ITI: that this nonpolitical network has been started by UNESCO but was free of government intervention so that it could be an ongoing bridge between countries despite political lines, originally in response to the Iron Curtain. Her love for this mission ensured that despite dangerous politics, surveillance, and censorship in many places around the world, ITI continued “to advocate for the protection and promotion of cultural expressions, regardless of age, gender, creed or ethnicity.”

This mission is huge, but today it may not seem as profound or monumental. After all, it’s not so different from many statements that we see on the Internet these days. Facebook’s mission is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Skype aims “to be the fabric of real time communication on the web.” Amazon endeavours “to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

The difference is that ITI was founded in 1948, in a very different era of communication technology. The efforts to nurture international relationships would have been massive, requiring long and sometimes dangerous travel for in-person meetings, posted letters, and telephone calls, where possible. Put into that framework, the founding and ongoing continuation of ITI for more than 60 years shows an astounding and tenacious will to be connected.

How fortunate we are today. We have the ability to connect instantly with people around the world. Certainly,there are many countries where censorship and surveillance continue to intervene, but the opportunities available to us to reach others are spectacular.

Taking advantage of this is at the heart of why Nelson Civic Theatre Society is on the path to bring fibre opticInternet to our venue. With it, we will be able to facilitate real-time collaboration between local and distant art makers, and show live events on screen with exceptional reception and clarity. We plan to create opportunities for live educational, professional and cultural exchanges through two-way connections. Our goal is to not only show movies, but to be a home for much more than movies, and a place where members of our local community can confidently engage with the world through digital technology.

It’s a great era to be a connector and a facilitator. We look forward to continuing to build our role in these areas to meet local needs in this marvellous age of online collaboration and sharing.

Eleanor Stacey is the executive director of Nelson Civic Theatre Society.