On one side of the stage, a coach is trying to direct a dancer into making correct movements. On the other side of the stage, a comedienne stumbles through a mildly amusing stand-up routine about fires. After thoroughly establishing their separate spheres, the dancer walks over to the comic and asks, “How do you think we’re doing?”
The comedienne tries to figure out the dancer’s meaning before answering, “We’re doing, I guess, what we’re doing. We’re doing what we can … We’re trying.”
This exchange from writer David Kranes’ short play How About These Fires … ?! was singled out by director Carol McVey as the overarching theme and purpose of Book Wings, an international collaboration between the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP), Department of Theatre Arts, and the Moscow Art Theatre School. Inspired by the Moscow Art Theatre School director Anatoly Smeliansky’s Skype conversations with his daughter in Boston, the project works to put on a live joint performance between Iowa City and stages around the world through online streaming technology.
According to IWP Director Christopher Merrill, the University of Iowa was involved in the initial conversations about the event in 2009. This year marks the third year of the university’s collaboration with the Moscow Art Theatre School. While last year’s event included performances in China, this year’s additional partner was the theatre department of the University of Baghdad.
Each performance (Iraq on March 11 and Russia on March 13) consisted of six 10-minute plays equally divided between each location. Each day had a specific theme that the plays embodied — “courage” for the Iraq performance and “contact” for the Russia performance. Cameras filmed each performance to make it viewable to the other location, as well as to online “viewing parties” around the world. Viewers tweeted questions about the performances, which were answered during post-show talkbacks with the writers and directors.
Attending both performances revealed differences in artistic approach between the two countries and their accompanying sets of playwrights, directors, and actors. The Iraq plays veered more towards abstract dialogue and raw, emotive acting style. The director of Shelter Drills, a play-poem by Heather Raffo about the difficulties parents face keeping their children both happy and safe, decided to stage it with movement instead of words. The plays spoke directly of war and conflict, of ancient traditions struggling in a new world. Later, Iraqi playwright/actor Ammar Ali revealed in the talkback that commercial theatres in Iraq usually refrain from discussing the “Iraqi calamity.” Book Wings was a rare opportunity to address problems on stage.
Questions for the Iraqi actors. Do you think Iraqi theatre is dealing adequately with the problems of the country? #bookw
— Hassan Abdulrazzak (@abdulrazzak) March 11, 2014
The plays for the Russian performance had more linear plot development and straightforward dialogue, as well as more humor. Interstitial sketches with American Moscow Art Theatre School graduate Adam Muskin gave the performance the feel of a variety show. Some of these humorous flourishes appeared to be out of necessity so that the plays could discuss material that has become controversial in the last year.
As playwright and IWP alumnae Ksenia Dragunskaya noted, “I’m not sure every play today was a comedy. They were funny plays about frightening things.” The most prominent example of this was Michelle Carter’s Lunch. In the play, a diner patron rails against a meal of bacon and grapefruit, calling it an “unnatural combination” and “a threat to the institution of lunch.” Everyone in the talkback agreed that the play was “about more than just tomato soup.”
A play about grapefruit that is secretly about gay rights. I can get behind this. #bookw
— Shawna Marie (@shawnochka) March 13, 2014
The streaming technology posed some issues, particularly during the Russian performance. Moscow Art Theatre School had to present their plays back-to-back because they could not see Iowa City through their video feed. Some of the movement on screen became choppy, and the on-screen subtitles often either lagged our outpaced the acting. (Iowa City still fared better than Iraq, which ended up having no subtitles for viewing the Iowa City performances.)
At best, online communication tools like Skype make the miles between people disappear. At its most glitch-filled, the technology made the audience feel as if they were viewing events on another planet instead of just another country. The talkback became challenging as translation issues made questions more difficult to answer in a satisfying manner. One viewer on Twitter noted that the Iraqi translator “politely omitted” some criticism about the plays.
I’m starting to think all of the technical difficulties are actually a planning theatrical Happening #bookw
— timothy why? (@timerella) March 13, 2014
That the performance is able to happen at all in spite of technical, political and artistic challenges is a triumph. Even Ambassador Stephen Beechcroft, the American ambassador to Iraq, filmed a greeting in which he emphasized the importance of this collaboration. Iowa City was able to connect with one country that is slowly coming out of one war, and another country that might be entering into a new conflict. The geopolitical implications, however, are not the sole purpose of Book Wings. It is about making it easier for artists around the world to share their work in ways that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
Merill said that next year, they will be working with artists in South Africa and incorporating dance into the performance. He explained, “Ideally, we are creating a model for a range of artistic collaborations, in every medium. Who knows where that will go?”