hotINK at The Lark Play Development Center

Having served as an apprentice at The Lark Play Development Center last year, I was eager to return for the hotINK Festival this spring, because I trusted that it would expose me to a group of vibrant, visionary, international artists who were benefiting from a week-long translation residency. As usual, I was not disappointed. This year’s festival featured four international playwrights: two from the Middle East and two from Romania, who were paired with translators and directors to develop original English translations of their plays, which were then presented as public staged readings, free of charge.

The hotINK Festival was started by Kevin Kuhlke at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2002, and has been part of The Lark Play Development Center since 2011. Catherine Coray, who has served on the acting faculty of the Tisch School of the Arts Experimental Theatre Wing since 1991 and now teaches part of the year at NYU Abu Dhabi, and Lisa Rothe, Director of Global Exchange at The Lark, are co-curators of this year’s festival. Coray has been curating and directing hotINK since it started at NYU in 2002, bringing plays from over 50 countries to New York audiences over its thirteen year run. The structure has changed since the festival began at NYU, in accordance with the needs of the artists and the resources available. This year, Coray and Rothe each selected two playwrights; Coray focused on the Middle East, and Rothe, on Eastern Europe, due to The Lark’s longstanding relationship with the University of Arts, Targu-Mures in Transylvania. Last year, they approached translators first, asking them to select a play they would like to translate into English, and the year prior, they received scripts through an open submission process.

In conversing with the curators and the creative teams, I was struck by the idea that the community of international theater is one of the few networks that not even the internet and globalization have made widely accessible to public knowledge. Certainly, there is an increasing awareness of and demand for international theater here in New York, but that interest has been comparatively slow to develop, given our cultural isolationist tendencies and the competitive nature of programming. In the brief time I spent amongst these artists, I received a tremendous cultural, artistic, and political education, which, for me, is a large part of the appeal of seeing international work. For example, playwright Elise Wilk shared that when her play, The Life Expectancy of Washing Machines, had its first production in Romania, the director cut and replaced so much of her text that only 19 pages of her original script were left in the two hour production. As it was her first produced play, she did not have much control over the changes to the script, which included large additions of musical numbers, and laughingly confessed that she “wanted to go have a beer” about twenty minutes into the production. Although playwrights in Romania have much less control over their scripts than American playwrights do, Wilk says she learned from that experience to be more assertive in keeping tabs on the rehearsal process, and finding directors who respect her vision.

John Clinton Eisner, Elise Wilk, Ioana Ieronim, Judith Hawking, and Christina Pumariega in the development of The Life Expectancy of Washing Machines. Photo by Jake Schwartzwald

John Clinton Eisner, Elise Wilk, Ioana Ieronim, Judith Hawking, and Christina Pumariega in the development of The Life Expectancy of Washing Machines. Photo by Jake Schwartzwald

Thanks to the care The Lark takes in organizing the festival, the exchange works both ways. Not only did American audiences have the opportunity to observe contemporary drama from around the world in their premiere presentations in English, but the playwrights and translators had the opportunity to meet American audiences, fellow playwrights and translators, and literary managers, agents, and artistic directors of New York theaters, in order to lay the groundwork for potential future collaborations. As eager as every playwright is to have their plays produced at home and abroad, the value of a developmental workshop is immeasurable, both for their plays and for their personal creative relationships.

The Lark has been working with partners in Romania since 2001, and with the MFA playwriting program at University of Arts, Targu-Mures since 2009. Since 2010, they have held a summer Playwriting Camp at the University of Arts where two American playwrights work with MFA students to translate their plays into Romanian and Hungarian.  Playwright Saviana Stanescu, creator of the Romania-US Exchange at The Lark and now a professor at Ithaca College, is gratified to see Székely and Wilk invited to this year’s hotINK Festival, since they participated in the pilot Transylvania Playwriting Camp five years ago. In addition, Coray has longstanding ties to the community of Middle Eastern playwrights from which she was selecting, having brought Middle Eastern writers to hotINK a few times since 2006. In fact, she commissioned the translation of Abdullah Alkafri’s Mrs. Ghada’s Pain Threshold and has been involved in its development since 2013, bringing translator Hassan Abdulrazzak to Abu Dhabi. For this year’s hotINK Festival at The Lark, she brought all the Middle Eastern artists to New York, with the support of NYU Abu Dhabi. This investment of time into creative relationships is one of the most valuable lessons I learned over the course of my apprenticeship at The Lark, as it is the only way to build the bedrock for a sustainable partnership.

Heather Raffo, Angelina Fiordellisi, Yannick Trapman-O'Brien, Daniella Topol, Abdullah Alkafri (Mrs. Ghada's Pain Threshold) Photo by ake Schwartzwald

Heather Raffo, Angelina Fiordellisi, Yannick Trapman-O’Brien, Daniella Topol, Abdullah Alkafri (Mrs. Ghada’s Pain Threshold) Photo by Jake Schwartzwald

The Lark is a unique resource for all writers in the way that it puts them in the driver’s seat and focuses on serving their needs. Amahl Khouri, Jordanian playwright of She, He, Me, now based in Beirut, says, “The great thing about the USA is people are overwhelmingly positive and supportive, but that leaves little room for critique, which sometimes a playwright needs. I was expecting a barrage of negativity, since in Beirut you’ll have censorship, general negativity, and aggression [when you present a new play], and it didn’t come. It’s unusual for me to get so many positive responses, and a bit confusing, but I see the value of giving space to breathe, reflect, be yourself, and experiment.” Khouri and her director, Lina Abyad, explained that in Beirut all public plays have to be submitted to the government for censorship, at the expense of the creators, and it is a battle every time to determine what will and will not be cut from the official version. Abyad says, “I never get used to the censorship. I feel it as a profound insult, more than that, annoying, degrading. My blood pressure goes up every time I have to go to the censorship office.” International artists in residency at The Lark not only have the opportunity to craft the translations of their plays, but also to learn from one another and to experience The Lark’s development model.

Amahl Khouri, Lina Abyad, Lameece Issaq, Ethan Hova, Madeleine George, Hadi Tabbal (She, He, Me). Photo by Jake Schwartzwald

Amahl Khouri, Lina Abyad, Lameece Issaq, Ethan Hova, Madeleine George, Hadi Tabbal (She, He, Me). Photo by Jake Schwartzwald

As for the plays themselves, they varied in style from documentary theater to farcical living room drama, each author’s particular voice and vision shining through, thanks to the prodigious work of their translators and creative teams. Despite the diversity of their origins and styles, all four plays shared universal themes of individuals struggling to assume their own identity, often in conflict with the pressures of their families.

Khouri’s documentary play, She, He, Me, interwove stories from three gender identity questioning characters, two of whom have transitioned from their biologically assigned gender. She and Abyad, her longtime mentor and collaborator, have been working on it for three years, and playwright Madeleine George served as dramaturge over the course of the residency. The true stories veered from the intimately personal to impersonations of dinner party chatter, punctuated by comical snippets in which one character models outlandish accessories or tosses dill pickles onto the stage, deadpanning, “Dill with it.” Khouri clearly states that she hopes American audiences will not watch this play and think, “Oh, those poor Arabs, oh, those trans people are so oppressed,” because discrimination against trans people is a global problem. She cites the fact that eleven transgender people have been killed in the United States already this year, and the average life expectancy for a transgender woman of color in the United States is 35. Abyad says, “This is totally unexpected subject matter for an American audience, coming from an Arab country, since it’s not about headscarves or ISIS or jihad. Instead, it’s a story where audiences can identify with how people are searching to be what they are.”

Abdullah Alkafri’s play, Mrs. Ghada’s Pain Threshold, translated by Hassan Abdulrazzak and directed by Daniella Topol, deals with similarly unexpected subject matter, coming from the Middle East. It tells the story of a middle aged woman trying to restore her body to its previous shape, in order to reconnect with a happier version of her self. Abdulrazzak calls this play “a metaphor-fest, truly, a prophetic, metaphoric lament.” The play also deals with the influx of social media in Syrian culture, which Alkafri thinks of as a “platform and a space of shelter for Syrians to express themselves.” He began developing the play by creating a Facebook page for the fictional protagonist, Mrs. Ghada, and posting in her voice for just over two years. Alkafri says, “My generation [of Syrian playwrights] is thinking about redefining social topics through a personal perspective, asking how we can realize changes in our society and our country.”

Syria has a rich tradition of playwriting, largely due to its Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts, founded in Damascus in 1977. Due to the turbulence Syria is currently experiencing, arts and culture have lost some of their prominence, but Alkafri believes they are an essential part of rebuilding the social context in Syria. (Alkafri is currently living in Beirut, where he is completing his PhD.) When he wrote this play in 2012-13, he says he was thinking about the Syrian audience, and trying to dig inside his society in its present state, rather than focusing on the “trendier” conflicts. While Mrs. Ghada tries to relocate her sense of self and her capacity for love, she struggles with an estranged father and a well-intentioned but abrasive mother, depicting the gap in understanding between the generations, as well as the difficulty in accepting change. Abdulrazzak says, “The vulnerability of everyone is the tragedy of the middle class in Syria.”

Mine Water, by Hungarian playwright Csaba Székely, an alum of the MFA program at the University of Arts, Targu-Mures, was translated by Mari Albert and directed by Daniel Jáquez. It alsodepicts the vulnerability of the middle class, but this time, it’s the middle class of a small mining town in Transylvania. The widely held image of Transylvania in Romania is that it is the “garden of fairies” — a treasury of the traditional life style, where people like Prince Charles can find relaxation and isolation due to the lack of phone signal and internet. Mine Water is the third play in a trilogy by Székely, each of which follows characters as they struggle to stay afloat after the mine closes. Although the village in the play is fictional, Székely says there are many secluded villages like this one, lost in time, where people are victims of their circumstances. The town is riddled with alcoholism, suicide, nationalism, and corruption, but Székely is careful to underscore the beautiful things, too. Albert says, “We may think this is so exotic, but actually it’s about what we’re all going through in terms of our traditions and resources globally.”

Development process for Mine Water. Photo by Jake Schwartzwald

Development process for Mine Water. Photo by Jake Schwartzwald

The dialogue is repetitive and absurd in a ripple of Ionesco or Beckett, with the characters somehow managing to be both caricatures of themselves and sympathetic human beings. Székely said he wanted to make sure we also love the characters and don’t just hate them for all their flaws, and given the uproarious laughter throughout the reading and the tender confusion of sympathies expressed by audience members at the talkback, he certainly succeeded. Jáquez says, “Within the details, generality comes,” and indeed, the more specifics of the corruption and perversion and tragedy that the play evokes, the better the audience could identify with the coping mechanisms exhibited by the characters. As Albert says, “It’s how to get out of a black hole.”

The final play of the festival, The Life Expectancy of Washing Machines, came from Romanian playwright Elise Wilk, another MFA alum from the University of Arts, Targu-Mures. It was translated by Ioana Ieronim and directed by John Clinton Eisner, Artistic Director of The Lark. Wilk predicted it would appeal to American audiences because it is a love story, with each of the characters pining after an unrealistic love in order to distract them from their present reality. Also in keeping with American psychology, the characters have the courage to follow their dreams all the way to the bitter end (e.g. a father who is in love with Madonna and tries to run away with her, to no avail), and then to overcome the disappointment of seeing those dreams unfulfilled. The play is farcical in the way that characters slam in and out of rooms and the mother’s fanatical obsession with the home shopping network. The stagnancy of their situation (yet again representing the vulnerability of the middle class) is beautifully framed by opening and closing the play with an exploding washing machine.

Although these quotidian problems of unemployment, poverty, and crushed dreams are often addressed in Romanian theater, Wilk’s style is more direct and honest than most. Ieronim says, “I admire Elise’s approach to these problems. Whereas in previous generations, closer to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the problems were shocking enough to almost silence the story, now this new generation sees the consequences. Elise is attempting to really understand and put on stage a huge moment in our country, without artifice.” Wilk and Ieronim reported that one of the biggest gaps in cultural understanding that arose during the rehearsal process was regarding the twenty-five year old daughter in the play who still lives at home, and has the sort of contentious relationship with her mother that you might expect from a sixteen year old American. Ieronim says, “It’s the mark of inherited immaturity from the previous regime, and the inertia that establishes itself when the society is dependent on the government. Due to the present day poverty, people are less mature and less able to have initiative, as compared to the American culture of independence and impulse.”

Given the comments that audiences voiced at each talkback, it appears that the playwrights and their translators had tremendous success in conveying both the specificity and the universality of the themes in their plays. Albert says of the translation process, “It’s like walking through walls, sometimes,” and I felt tremendously lucky to have walked through these particular walls into the lives of these characters. Watching so many distinct individuals grapple with their circumstances to define themselves was a powerful reminder of the value of theater in conveying human experience. I learned more about the socio-political context of these countries from watching these plays and conversing with their authors than I do from listening to the daily news. As Abdulrazzak said, “culture has to lay down dams and foundations before the empathy appears.” In that case, hotINK at The Lark is one hell of a construction company.


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