University program creates groundbreaking plays via live stream technology

Next performance: Thursday, March 14 at 10:30 a.m. | Theatre B

Theatre B
Theatre B at the University of Iowa Theatre Building

“Five American dollars will cure you of your ANGER! I am your Punching Bag!”

So begins Subway, a humorous short play by Qian Jue wherein two street hustlers–one Chinese; the other Japanese–squabble over how to best procure cash from distracted subway-goers, and with their status as immigrants in America.

Qian Jue is one of the many young playwrights commissioned by the International Writing Program (IWP) for Book Wings 2013 a collaborative theatre project which aims to connect theaters in America, China, and Russia through state-of-the-art videoconferencing software. The first performance, which debuted last night at Theatre B in the University of Iowa Theatre Building and in the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, will be followed by another collaborative performance, one between Iowa City and Russia, this Thursday at 10:30 a.m., also in Theatre B.

Live streams of the events are also available to view online.

Initially conceived by Anatoly Smeliansky, director of the Moscow Art Theatre, and Christopher Merrill, director of the IWP, as an extension of the Bilateral Presidential Commission to reset relations between Russia and the United States, this year’s Book Wings includes additional work from Chinese playwrights after the success of 2012’s performances with Russia. Plans are already underway for a collaboration with Iraq in 2014.

“Book Wings commissions literary works on a common theme from young, distinguished writers in both countries, translates the commissioned works and stages them in partnership with the UI Department of Theatre Arts, the Writing University, Informational Technology Services, UITV, and the Moscow Art Theatre,”

-Ashley Davidson

With real-time broadcasts between partner stages that are thousands of miles away, the aim of Book Wings is the creation of a “unified bilingual dramatic performance,” said Ashley Davidson, program director for the IWP.

The experience created is similar to one that many people have while chatting on the internet or streaming a video. In the case of Book Wings, however, entire audiences are allowed to interact and collectively observe the same events as they occur. The high-resolution videoconferencing software used to establish the two-way connection with Shanghai, Jabber Video, is akin to the popular consumer video-chatting service, Skype.

Here’s how it works: Book Wings commissions writers to produce new works on a common theme, translates these works, and then uses high-definition videoconferencing technologies and projectors to digitally connect sister stages at theatres thousands of miles apart, creating a single collaborative bilingual performance, open to the public and accessible to viewers around the globe via a live stream.

“The Web is an amazing resource, and Anatoly and I wanted to see what might be possible,” said Christopher Merrill.

Book Wings’ use of Jabber marks the first time that the University has employed such software to synchronize theatre performances in entirely different countries, a fact that raises eyebrows not only for its technological intrigue, but also for the innovative risk involved.

“Any genuine creative enterprise carries risks, and the risks of Book Wings are enormous,” said Merrill. “But the possible rewards, which come in the form of new plays, performances, illumination, and connection, outweigh the risks. This could be not only lots of fun but very productive.”

Unpredictable computer errors aside, what truly defines the goal of Book Wings is a playful and creative approach to a task far more daunting than attempting to reestablish one’s Wi-Fi signal: it is, in Merrill’s words, the task of “genuine cultural connection.”

Appropriately, the two guiding themes for Book Wings 2013 are “Contact” and “Migration.” Provided to the commissioned playwrights as points for inspirational focus, the themes are dealt with in a variety of fascinating ways.

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Alan MacVey, Director of the Division of Performing Arts. -via
Alan MacVey, Director of the Division of Performing Arts. -via

Lead Director, Alan MacVey, notes that many of the plays can be characterized by “a sense of underlying anxiety and loneliness,” such as award-winning playwright Dan O’Brien’s Kandahar to Canada, which chronicles the struggles of a young Afghan refugee whose father is killed, and who later hears voices hissing in her cell criticizing her use of the internet.

MacVey admits, “there are exceptions, of course.” Most notable among these may be Maksym Kurochkin’s The Vorski Are Near, But Not Enough, which features a talking hamster, and the dark, paranoiac humor found in Victoria Stewart’s Planet X.

The theme of “Contact” rings through in all of the plays, and is the perfect metaphor for the tribulations surrounding the Book Wings project, and its attempts to reveal not what divides us, but what brings us together. It is no coincidence that one of the most integral aspects of Book Wings is it’s embrace of the connective power of the internet.

“We have watch parties set up from Hawaii to Kuwait to New Zealand where theatre lovers will tune in to watch the performances live and be a part of the project,” said Davidson. What Book Wings realizes is that with today’s technology, the whole world can be the audience to a single event. Being in the same audience, however, is only the first step towards our collective understanding and appreciation of our differences.

It is with a similar lesson that Qian Jue’s Subway ends. As the play resolves, the Chinese character, enraged and befuddled by the Japanese character’s stubborn adherence to honor, takes him up on his money-making gimmick and begins striking him. Only when she realizes that he, like her, is also destitute as a result of immigrant prejudice, does she transform her volley of fists into a bittersweet embrace.

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