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Michael Kaiser And the Quest For a New Global Theater

Michael Kaiser and Ramallah theater owner George Ibrahim. Kaiser is teaching arts programs how to develop without state support.
Michael Kaiser and Ramallah theater owner George Ibrahim. Kaiser is teaching arts programs how to develop without state support. (Photos By Ilan Mizrahi For The Washington Post)

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By Noga Tarnopolsky
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 22, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- One weekend earlier this month, Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center's workaholic president ("it doesn't matter where I am, I am always at work"), flew briefly to Michigan to visit his sister, who had been unwell, then turned around and flew, via Newark, to Tel Aviv. From there, he made his way to Ramallah, where he stood, like so many other American emissaries, in a tidy suit and tie, foreign but at ease, on a sidewalk amid the dust and bustle.

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Kaiser, the turnaround virtuoso who rescued from financial ruin the Kansas City Ballet, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Foundation, American Ballet Theatre and, before coming to the Kennedy Center, London's Royal Opera House, has developed an almost messianic urge to teach the art of arts management to struggling cultural institutions around the globe.

"I am very anxious that the cultural ecologies of the countries of the world be healthy," he says. He sees the Kennedy Center as "the national cultural center" and as such, believes it has both national and international responsibilities. Among the other initiatives undertaken during his tenure, which began in 2001, Kaiser has established the Kennedy Center Arts Management Institute, which provides advanced training for young arts administrators. He's also set up the Capacity Building Program for Culturally Specific Arts Organizations, which offers mentoring services to the leaders of 35 African American, Latino, Asian American and Native American arts groups from across the United States.

It is this compulsion (plus a major Kennedy Center festival of the arts of Arab lands, planned for early 2009) that took him last March to a Kennedy Center-sponsored symposium in Cairo at which he presented a workshop to 140 arts administrators from 17 Arab nations.

"One thing we learned," he says, laughing lightly, "is that not all Arabs like each other that much."

Kaiser's spiel to foreigners includes an admission that most countries get their fill of American culture, be it through TV, movies, popular music or computer games. It also includes a brief history lesson: "The Puritans founded the United States, and they were not big fans of the performing arts, so we never had central government support, and we've had to develop alternate sources. That kind of expertise is something we can export."

What kind of expertise is he talking about applying overseas? One example: During his brief tenure at the Royal Opera, he raised $100 million in 18 months, thus delivering the dangerously debilitated institution a robust future.

At the Cairo symposium, George Ibrahim, the director of Ramallah's Al-Kasaba Theater and Cinematheque, posed a challenge. Kaiser recalls: "George is very sophisticated and stood out among the group. He challenged me: 'How much of this do you really think can work in Palestine? I would like you to come and see our reality.' And I said, 'Fine, I'll come.' I'm not sure he believed me."

He should have. When Kaiser accepted Ibrahim's dare, he was simultaneously involved with major long-term projects in China and Mexico, planning a Latin American symposium in Buenos Aires for next April, and continuing to consult for any number of arts institutions, including South Africa's Market Theatre (not to mention the Arab arts festival, which will bring artists from 22 nations to the Kennedy Center). So it was that on a recent Saturday morning, Ibrahim, a genial, barrel-bellied actor, scriptwriter, translator and theatrical impresario, picked Kaiser up at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport and drove him the short geographical distance and long conceptual voyage to Ramallah, the cultural capital of the Palestinian territories.

The day before had been spent getting to know the landscape, both human and topographic. Kaiser was driven around the town, so that he could get to know the place. He met with a number of arts leaders to learn about the challenges they face.

Ramallah is a low-slung desert city sprawling over innumerable soft hills and valleys, flooded with light. If anything, it resembles Jerusalem, its neighbor about nine miles to the south: Jeans-clad men amble its dusty streets with cigarettes dangling from their mouths, hot roasted peanuts are sold from carts in huge piles, and schoolgirls in uniforms and hair-coverings march obediently behind their teachers. A majority Christian city, it is both traditionalist and ready for change. Most of the few women seen in the downtown crowds are covered by headscarves, but the Ramallah city council recently voted a Christian, Janet Michael, as its first female mayor.

Kaiser held individual assessment sessions on Saturday with almost everyone associated with Al-Kasaba, from actors through administrators to members of the board, each for about 45 minutes. The sessions were all in English. By the end of the day, he had four pages of densely and methodically scribbled notes. One example, "Why only 1,000 people on e-mail list?"


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