Link to PDF version of article in Postcolonial Text journal, co-authored with Giovanna Buonanno and Christiane Schlote on British Asian theatre – best time I’ve ever had writing an article!
After years of work and a roller coaster of will-I-or-won’t-I manage to finish and publish it, my book, Immigration and Contemporary British Theater: Finding a Home on the Stage, was published in April by Peter Lang.
I now have an author page on Amazon, with this book and a poetry anthology that I edited in 2004. It feels a bit like the field of dreams — perhaps the page will invite the ghosts of other books in me to come out and play.
I told myself that once this book came out, I would turn back to the theater blog, so I’m hoping that this post will be the first of other, more DC-theater-centered posts. But for those of you who enjoy a bit of transatlantic perspective, I will post links to the few articles I’ve done on British theater that are available online, in addition to this link to the book.
The book is now available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and through the publisher directly — please get your local public or college libraries to order a copy.
THANK YOU, to past and future readers!
More to come soon from the delinquent blogger…but in meantime, two quick recs from the Fringe and Over the Line festivals. The first is Forum Theatre’s Church at Round House in Silver Spring is an immersive experience of an evangelical service, acted with sensitivity and conviction by a quartet (and the musical metaphor seems apt) of young and thoroughly engaging actors. There are only six more performances of Church (http://forum-theatre.org/church). The second, Dog and Pony DC’s Beertown, is an interactive town meeting for the twentieth “Quinquennial” (five year) opening of and debate about the town time capsule. The title of this post refers to the items placed in the time capsule, four of which are declared “the Eternals” and are never to be removed, while the nine remaining “Ephemerals” are fair game for removal and replacement with alternative items, which is the primary purpose of the play’s town meeting. The play engages the audience in the debates and decisions about the proposals and the items, punctuated by pageant-style presentations of episodes in the the history of Beertown. Beertown is on this Tuesday through Sunday at Woolly Mammoth Rehearsal Space [http://www.dogandponydc.com/current_show ] and is well worth the baking time (a dessert potluck is part of the interactive fun of the show)! Both shows prompt their audiences to consider what matters most to them, and how their personal experiences and memories might connect to something larger than themselves – whether the collective history of their town or a spiritual realm they may or may not believe in. Both plays feature testimonials by individuals and acts of faith expressed through rituals. Seeing them in the space of three days, as I did, might have brought home more sharply the parallels in their themes and structure. I plan to explore these connections more deeply, but for now just want to urge you to go see Church and Beertown and share your thoughts on them with me!
No, we are not in the world Creedence Clearwater Revival sang about. You might find the disparate worlds of The City and The Bayou, as imagined by British theatre company 1927, seem more like the hybrid visions of Edward Gorey and Tim Burton set to the music of Kurt Weill. This show was pure wicked joy. I wish it would linger in DC for longer, but if you hurry, you can catch the final weekend of The Animals and Children Took to the Streets at Studio Theatre, before it takes off to other streets. Here’s an article about the company founders and their quirky vision: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/in-1927s-weird-animals-and-children-took-to-the-streets-a-parallel-yet-familiar-world/2012/06/26/gJQA6ySP5V_story.html
And here’s a taste of the show in a trailer produced by Melbourne’s delectably-named Malthouse Theatre and the British Council: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6ROpUF4ra8
I am already looking forward to future visits to DC by 1927.
There’s a conversation going on right now in DC between local theater artists and programmers and their counterparts from other countries, and I’m hoping it catches fire and spreads. I’m still digesting so much of what I heard from all the speakers, and what followed in the hours and days since has made for a very busy head. One might say it started with the arrival of a visiting delegation of Baghdad University theatre artists for a residency at Georgetown University, but that would belie the prior work done by Theatre Studies professor and director Derek Goldman and his colleagues at Georgetown, and the many other artistic exchanges this city has seen in past years.
Goldman has partnered with Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service Professor of Cultural Diplomacy Cynthia Schneider to produce both a conference on “Global Performance, Civic Engagement, and Cultural Diplomacy,” held at Georgetown June 14-16, and livestreamed on Howlround [http://livestre.am/3Ybia]. The conversations within the conference panels extended into coffees and meals and evening performances of an Arabic-language adaptation of Heather Raffo’s Nine Parts of Desire that was written, directed, and performed by two of the visiting Iraqi artists. A further collaboration between Georgetown theater students and professors and those from Baghdad University was planned for the days following the conference. Many of the artists involved in the residency expressed their desire to build alternative relationships to those built through the labels of of occupier, insurgent, liberator, Shia, Sunni, refugee, or soldier. Such relationships, they argued, are vitally important to sustain among Iraqis as well as between Iraqis and their international partners.
At a welcoming reception for this delegation, the artists kicked off the conversation by posing questions like: “how do you define freedom?” or “what forms and sites of performance allow us to know and transform ourselves?” They went on to describe performances that took place in various sites in Iraq and then to discuss the exchanges that led to their bringing their work to the United States and the logistical and political challenges posed in doing so. This theme was picked up later in the conference by Ajoka theatre director Shahid Nadeem [see June 8 post about Ajoka], whose hugely popular comedy Burquavaganza takes place in a visa processing office in the US Embassy in Pakistan.
In an interview with WAMU-DC radio host Kojo Namdi, Goldman, Schneider, and Nine Parts director-translator Waleed Shameel discuss their collaborative work on the conference and residency: http://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2012-06-13/when-theater-meets-foreign-policy-cultural-diplomacy
Thursday’s panels took the conversation from DC-based theater directors and programmers at such places as Theater J, Forum Theatre, Busboys and Poets, the Kennedy Center, the Studio Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, and Woolly Mammoth, to their counterparts in Pakistan, Australia, Britain, and elsewhere in the US. Nicolas Kent, Sharon Memis and Nicholas Cull recounted their process of bringing The Great Game to Washington, DC [See May 28 post]. This set of twelve plays was commissioned by Kent, then the Artistic Director of the Tricycle Theatre, from multiple playwrights who were each tasked with writing about a different assigned period of Afghan history. The production first arrived in DC under the radar, with interest slowly building but not resulting in immediate popular success here. Mims, the British Council’s executive director in DC, worked with Kent, Shakespeare Theatre’s Michael Kahn and Chris Jennings, and others to bring the play back to DC for a second run and for a special performance for the Department of Defense’s senior staff members in the Pentagon’s in-house theater. As panelists were eloquently praising this event as a high-water mark for cultural diplomacy and the direct political influence of the arts, running through my head the whole time was this: “there’s a theater in the Pentagon?!!” I was also struck by the irony that in spite of the involvement of the Pentagon and the support of veterans’ welfare organizations such as the Woodruff Foundation, the artists involved in The Great Game production still had visa issues!
Tensions seemed to emerge when the model of a presenting theater’s handful of performances by an invited theater was contrasted with that of egalitarian cross-cultural partnerships that are sustained through collaboration for longer stretches of time. Some argued the greater value of the latter, others argued that these models are not mutually exclusive, and can in fact be mutually reinforcing. This discussion led to more involved conversations about the challenges and the potential gains of exposing DC audiences to non-English language theater, and of inviting and championing politically and/or aesthetically edgy work. The director of the women’s human rights advocacy and empowerment group Vital Voices spoke about their commissioning and production of a playwriting project that generated huge support for Vital Voices and its programs. Cynthia Schneider reiterated in response there and in her account of The Great Game how vitally important “leveraging” the influence of performance is to diplomacy. Her emphasis on the political utility of theater prompted others to warn against approaching the arts as an “instrument” of diplomacy.
As the conference participants settled into their dinner and viewing of Nine Parts of Desire, I headed off to join longtime family friends for dinner and for our own conversations about theater, global politics, and engagement. Gathered around the table were educators, economists, artists, and activists, all of us captivated by the stories of a recent benefit performance for the Barenboim-Said Foundation, an organization that embodies the very kind of cultural collaboration and political engagement called for in the conference. The story at the heart of it all, however, was that of Wadad Makdisi Cortas, who went from student to principal of the Ahliah School for Girls in Beirut, and who was the mother and grandmother of the women telling us the stories. The collaborators in the performance were Wadad’s daughter Mariam Cortas, the actress Vanessa Redgrave, and actress Najla Said, granddaughter of Wadad and daughter of Mariam Cortas and the late writer-scholar-activist Edward Said. http://brightonfestival.org/event/455/a_world_i_loved/
The conversation took me back in my mind to my first reading of Beirut Fragments, Jean Said Makdisi’s memoir of her life during the Lebanese civil war. It is heartening to see the writing and the stories of the women in this family emerge into the spotlight, as their lives and their writings offer unique perspectives from within and outside of Lebanon through world war, nationalist and anti-colonial struggles, civil war, and now, distressingly, a shaky post-war cooperation threatening to give way to violent conflict.
A remark made at the conference by Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets Café, also struck me– he said that his inspiration for establishing the Peace Café in partnership with Theater J was the idea that feeding people would make them nicer to each other and less hostile to the provocative ideas they encountered in the plays. During our meal, someone also remarked that Arab-American plays about food are far more, er, palatable at the moment. Maybe it is a mark of the mainstreaming of Arab Americans, as hummous goes the way of tortillas and ramen, or perhaps it’s a highly charged indicator of power and privilege within the Middle East, as in The Arab-Israeli Cookbook [http://www.food-travels.com/index.php?id=44&no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=29&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=2 ] or even Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons [http://www.canadiantheatre.com/dict.pl?term=Mouawad%2C%20Wajdi ]. But maybe it could also be a conduit to a friendlier dialogue about divisive subjects, as in Andy Shallal’s vision. That brings me around to the other critical question running through the conference: access. When we call theater transformative and influential because it has reached the policymakers at the Pentagon or the State Department, that speaks to the question of theater’s access to the “corridors of power”. But what about public access to theater? Many of these companies are increasing public access to their work by performing it in public venues or holding free performances in private spaces like schools, factories, and community centers. Others are participating in free or discounted ticket schemes or partnering with local organizations. The challenges they cite in such projects lie in building sustained relationships with their audiences. And again it comes back to food and resources: what kinds of relationships, and what kinds of transformations, are possible in the face of material impoverishment and hunger? How can we make theater and food nourish more bodies and voices?
One heartening response to this question: http://www.liveitlearnit.org/index.php
I’m sure there are many others – please share yours here!
Just a quick post on a play seen last week at Gunston Arts Center in Arlington, Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All. The production, by American Century Theatre under Joe Banno’s direction, does its best to wring the wit and poignancy out of a script that takes very broad shots at the Catholic Church and its hypocrisies. The marvelously inventive design of the production, from the school desks and portraits of Kennedy, the Pope, and Jesus on the classroom wall to the composition book formatting of the program, makes you feel as though you have stepped back into your own childhood parochial school (even if, like me, you never attended Catholic school). The info on the play is here (http://www.americancentury.org/pr_mary.pdf) for those of you who are diehard Durang fans (not me). I will still be looking out for future productions by the company. In meantime, please let me hear your suggestions and thoughts on what to see, what you think I should write about, etc…
June 13, 2012
Decades ago, when I was a curious but shy teenage theater fan, I sat in on the rehearsals for the season finale of a small theater company called Woolly Mammoth (then in its sixth season), and it blew me away. It was a play written in 1964, but was entirely new to me. I remember being mystified, but also electrified, and I was entirely at a loss for words when I got the chance to meet with the actors and directors. I’ve never seen And Things That Go Bump in the Night since, and nothing else by its author, Terence McNally, has ever had the impact on me of that experience. Fast forward twenty years, and Woolly Mammoth is no longer a fledgling company in a theater with a leaky roof, though it has kept its reputation for unpredictability, risk, and joy in its newer theatrical home. This is a company that now brings Washington audiences world premieres (Stunning, Antebellum, Eclipsed) and has become a welcoming and revitalizing environment for a diverse mix of contemporary work.
Mr. Burns, Woolly’s current “post-electric” play, has found such a home in the theatre, from now until July 1st (http://woollymammoth.net/performances/show_mr_burns.php) Even more than my first foray to Woolly long ago, this one hit me with delight, perplexity, and fascination. And yes, I’ll jump at the bad pun, I was electrified. Mr. Burns will provoke countless arguments about and many different interpretations of “what happened” both before and in the play, but for me it so strikingly and precisely captured he ways we understand ourselves and connect with each other through stories. Both the characters’ and the actors’ performances show us how, when we experience devastation or loss, we also remake ourselves through stories. Act III (this is no spoiler!) invites us to laugh at this need through a hilarious spoof of the inventions of creation myths and historical misreading.
Interestingly, that need to comfort ourselves through the retelling and reinvention of our histories is simultaneously being poignantly dramatized across town at Forum Theatre. This weekend is your last chance to catch The Illusion, a beautifully moving and delightfully antic production of Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Corneille’s 17th century drama (http://forum-theatre.org/the-illusion ). The two works spring from distinctly different eras and worlds, yet both depict characters at the ends or at least the edges of their respective worlds, seeking to recover from loss or reclaim their pasts through reenactments. Both productions encourage a collaborative experience of the plays, whether through post-show conversations or interactive lobby installations. Go see these two plays if you haven’t – you won’t be sorry!
June 8, 2012
Bachelorette, on through July 1 at the Studio Theater, is a champagne, pill and coke-fuelled long night’s journey into revelation. The travellers are a trio of “hot” bachelorettes whose envy at the good fortune and happiness of their friend and unhappiness in their own lives bubbles up in increasingly corrosive ways. The play, the “gluttony” segment in a play series on the seven deadly sins, lays bare the forces that feed female self-loathing and insecurity and makes passive-aggression practically a blood sport. Playwright Leslye Headlund manages to make witlessness hugely entertaining. The horrifying cruelties and preoccupations of the privileged white women of Bachelorette might draw similar criticisms as those of HBO’s Girls, but that’s a comparison I’ll leave to those who have HBO.
Oddly, thinking about Bachelorette prompts me to sit down to write about an entirely different theatrical world, one navigated by the Lahore-based Ajoka Theatre Company. It’s an odd pairing, but not totally inappropriate. On May 25th, the Atlantic Council hosted Ajoka’s founder and director, Shahid Nadeem, for a riveting lecture on activism and theatre and then a discussion of theatre’s socially transformative potential and what is required to achieve such potential (for description and audio excerpt: http://www.acus.org/event/activism-through-theater ). The company, founded in 1984, provides free performances to audiences of diverse backgrounds throughout Pakistan, India, and elsewhere. Their plays range from historical drama to satire to musical/dance theatre, and often draw threats and attacks for their treatment of politically charged issues such as the veiling of women, US policies in the region, dictatorship at home and abroad, and Muslim-Hindu relations. The company draws no government support for its productions, and faces continual violent attacks on its actors and performance spaces.
Bachelorette’s (and possibly Girls’) depictions of insecurities and anxieties around female empowerment, pleaure, and sexual currency suggest conditions of oppression that are certainly distant and differently felt from those Ajoka Theatre Company confront, but they are not wholly disconnected from them. The audience is invited to sympathize with the maligned off-stage character of Becky and then to delight in her power over her reprehensible female friends, but I still felt a twinge of empathy for even the most vicious of them. Their unrestrained tearing at one another – aided by their intimate knowledge of each other’s vulnerabilities – seemed a symptom of a toxic mix of shame, envy and a false sexual empowerment. The “gluttony” or excess depicted in the play is inseparable from the emotional and bodily self-control demanded of women by the arbiters of reputation, taste, and respect. But who and where are these arbiters? In our heads? In the heads of those around us?
Human dignity can be eroded in myriad ways: through more easily identifiable overt oppression, but also more insidiously by the trauma of past violations of trust and dignity, which can erupt in both destructive and self-destructive ways. Bachelorette shows us how this can happen in intimate friendships and sexual liaisons, risking some audience alienation but sustaining a connection through humor. Ajoka takes far greater risks with its plays (while also relying heavily on humor to engage its audience), and devotes tremendous energy to repairing the breaches of trust that have riven the communities in which it performs. Ajoka makes a persuasive case for drama over drones! Ajoka website: http://www.ajoka.org.pk/ajoka/theatre.asp
Stay tuned for another post about Forum’s magical production of The Illusion and Woolly Mammoth’s Mr. Burns and more!
While so much of DC is monumental and static – especially seen from the drive along the Virginia side of the GW Parkway or stretches of Rock Creek Parkway- its urban neighborhoods and its suburbs are in many ways unrecognizable as the places in which I walked and biked and got myself lost throughout my adolescence. High-rises and traffic jams and urban loft condominiums seem to have sprung up in places where farms and dive bars and parking lots used to be. I am a child of the Adventure Theatre and Kennedy Center era, with parents who recall moving to the city before any stadium or arts center was named for a Kennedy. I’ve moved back to the city at a moment when it feels as though all the buildings have been renamed for Reagan (Yes, I stubbornly call it National Airport). In an age when sports events and venues are named for products (FedEx, Verizon, Tostito, QualComm), it’s refreshing to see DC’s theater venues have names that actually correspond to theater (Arena, Round House, Studio) or human beings at least. These names evoke sites of history, memory, confrontation and experimentation – what I often hope to find in the theatre. What’s in a name? What’s in a place? I wonder that when I look forward to watching plays in the new homes of theater companies like Studio, Gala, or Woolly Mammoth with memories of their older locations and productions in my head. What opportunities do the new Tivoli or Arena buildings offer the theaters that they house, and what possibilities do they foreclose? When I was living in London in a period of massive, largely Lottery-funded theatrical renovation and construction, it seemed the struggle to find spaces for theater companies was turning into a struggle to fill and maintain the newly-built spaces. The challenge seems to lie in finding the balance between devoting resources to the field of dreams and nurturing the talent and substance that makes the field worth visiting. This is not a Luddite dismissal of cutting-edge technology or of funding ambitious theatrical construction projects. Experiencing theatrical magic in an architectural marvel might be a means of remaking or revitalizing a community, but there might also be other, more sustainable means. Converting existing spaces or reclaiming neglected monuments is one possible route – here in DC and in many cities, such creative use of space can free companies from the overhead associated with the grander designs being built.
Yet some of these new designs offer exciting possibilities for theater artists. A recent NY Times article discussed several new designs for smaller theater spaces in venues like Lincoln Center and BAM, which will undoubtedly reshape the theatrical ecosystem in New York.
We can find such spaces in some of the larger theatrical institutions in Washington, and they are becoming more active sites for developing new playwriting and experimental productions. One very promising project here in DC is The Inkwell Theatre, not a physical site, but more of an agent or source and conduit for playwrights to develop their work from draft to production. They have partnered with established and aspiring playwrights, directors, actors, and dramaturges, as well as playgoers and readers, with the mission of developing the material, the voices, and the audiences essential for vital theatre. The blog for their project – http://www.inkwelltheatre.org/blog/ – is a fantastic kaleidoscope of insights on theater from macro to micro, and a great builder of community as well.
So DC now has its Arenas, Studios, Inkwells, and Round Houses – no Globe here, but happily a more varied and dynamic Constellation than in the “good old days”.
By the grace of a good friend, I was given the chance to be part of the most extraordinary event. Arts, Military + Healing was a festival held here in DC for one intense week of workshops in various forms of art, exhibitions, talks, and performances, all focused on finding ways to heal the trauma and other wounds of war through art. Preparing for this week was a massive scramble: for the festival organizers, it was a new form of X Games – extreme fundraising, accompanied by extreme logistical gymnastics and no-sleep-till-Corcoran installations and PR and more. My tiny part in all this was hectic in its own ways – finding actors to bring marvelous roles to brief life with little to no time for rehearsal – and juggling work schedules and other gigs to find that magic window when everyone could be in the same room together, and then making sure the room was free. And miraculously, it all came together and rough rehearsals turned into onstage magic. This was especially true of the Telling Project’s marvelous monologists – six veterans who took one week’s time to craft and learn their own stories and perform them beautifully off-book and with impeccable choreography – astonishing considering they had one week for a process the project typically devotes two to three months to. The play excerpt I was directing, of Kate Wenner’s powerful play Make Sure It’s Me, was meant to precede this in the closing event of the festival – and Kate and I were lucky enough to get to sit in on their Thursday morning rehearsal, before going to meet with the actors for our own rehearsal. The spaces in which these veterans were preparing were gorgeous reading rooms in the Library of Congress – with massive windows that looked onto the Capitol. We were all in awe of our surroundings. Each of our journeys to that moment and place would have made a hell of a story.
The performance space was also monumental – a chamber music hall in the ground floor of the Jefferson Building – with beautiful and strange acoustics that would pose some tricky challenges for the actors. I’d get caught up in the logistics and nerves and anxiety of pulling off the mechanics of the play, but then knocked on my ear by the emotional intensity of the stories and experiences being shared. Thursday night’s exhibit and screening at the Corcoran Gallery was narrative, like the plays, but used the art forms of film and illustration and papermaking to show us their veterans’ stories.
I was struck by something said by Kate, the playwright, said in her introductory remarks. She said that the festival shows not only art’s potential to heal those who directly suffer the wounds of war, but also to heal the communities in which they live. I agree with her when she says that there is an uncomfortable and possibly untenable divide between our military and civilian lives. In the case of those veterans returning from service, there is a need to bridge these divides between everyone’s experiences of war, whether it’s families of soldiers, survivors of combat, soldiers who do not see combat, or those who have no personal connection to veterans or military service.
I have spent much of my adult life protesting the “inevitable” wars waged by this country, and trying to keep that hatred of war and its justifications, its exploitations and consequences, from leading to my demonizing or sanctifying soldiers. This festival brought home to me how many of those most deeply involved in military service are struggling with similar internal conflicts as well as with others’ perceptions of them. Last year, I organized a campus visit to Dickinson by a playwright who so movingly and unflinchingly confronts exactly these struggles, and does so through her adaptations of Greek tragedies to contemporary, or more recent historical, contexts. Ellen McLaughlin’s play Ajax in Iraq houses this internal struggle in the mind of a US soldier in Iraq, a female soldier whose betrayal by her commanding officer triggers the tragedy. Other plays take up the stories of Helen, Iphigenia, Electra – female characters whose lives are defined in many way by war. Recently, she was interviewed by David Dower for Howlround, who mentions how her work focuses on veterans (including a recent adaptation of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway that I’ve not read, called Septimus and Clarissa and recently performed in New York):
It’s long, but worth it. It conjured and expanded on some of the compelling readings of her own work that she provided, and all that flowed out of her questions, the students’ questions, her responses, and our conversations.
Oh, and I’m not sure I understand the plus (+) in the festival title. I think it had something to do with the different communities involved in the festival – artists, veterans, and healers/therapists. It wasn’t quite that simple, though, as there were veteran artists, and art therapists, and doctors who were vets – and it all came together so beautifully.