Acting Together On The World Stage, Part 1

by August Schulenburg

in Interviews

Ruth Margraff in JUDGES 19 at Moscow Art Theater, Photo by JR Delia

(Ruth Margraff in JUDGES 19 at Moscow Art Theater, Photo by JR Delia)

In our recent interview with Roberta Levitow, she talked about Theatre Without Borders’ recent conference, Acting Together On The World Stage. For those who couldn’t be there (and for those who wished it didn’t have to end), we asked some of the participating artists to talk about their work as peace builders.

This post is the first in a series that asks a single question to several of those artists, offering a window into their work.  First up: Ruth Margraff, Gulgun Kayim and Joanna Sherman talk about the unique process of international collaboration and peace building.

How do you develop your work as an individual/ensemble?

Gülgün Kayim: As a site-specific theater artist, I tailor my work to the location in which it is set. Locations have many possible interpretations and meanings depending on individual emotion, viewpoint, history, context etc. For this reason each site-based project I create has different characteristics and methodologies in its research, creation and implementation. However, as a loose structure I describe my development process as based on field research and interviews of my subjects, devised work with actors (based on a combination of psycho-physical actor centered methodologies developed with members of Tadeusz Kantor’s theater Cricot 2 in Poland, Grotowski training in the UK  and Asian martial arts training in the US) and close collaborative text development with a playwright. As my performances are always in a non theatrical sites and are therefore unpredictable, the actual nature of the written material and the research must always remain adaptive and flexible.

'Untitled #1' site specific performance (1998) at the Drake Factory, St. Paul MN photo by Gulgun Kayim

The Self Portrait Project is a trilogy of biographical site-specific performances exploring themes of conflict, memory, and migration on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Two communities – Greek and Turkish – currently exist in opposition to each other on Cyprus, separated by a UN demilitarized buffer zone that physically divides the island. This partition represents 80 years of conflict between the two ethnic groups and effectively divides two political entities. The southern, Greek side, known as the Republic of Cyprus, is internationally recognized as a member of the European Union; the northern Turkish side, controlled by the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, has attempted to make an illegal, unilateral accession. Years of remembered violence and animosity by the residents and displaced citizens of Cyprus continue to re-inscribe the physical boundary of the buffer zone across generations and in claims to citizenship and belonging.

Self Portrait is framed by the stories and feelings of Greek and Turkish Cypriots about how they find meaning on an island decimated by war, divided by conflict, and partly invisible to the international community. In 2005 and 2007, I asked locals to describe the particular places to which they still felt attached on the island. Their stories communicate the search for identity, place, home, and belonging within the context of a ruptured and scarred landscape. As a Cypriot, my life circumstances navigate similar concerns: What is the meaning and location of a “Self” who has no tangible existence because all the places connected to birth, ancestry, and future are either located within the DMZ or dislocated through migration and exile? I feel no allegiance to a seemingly stable identity or the political spaces of a state. I only long for those places of my origins that no longer exist in real time, but survive within the boundaries of memory.

Scene from SEVEN at Hudson Theater (NYC)

Ruth Margraff: I usually start with the music of the voice as a palette for emotions.  Even when I was co-writing for SEVEN, I wrote from the lyrical way that Farida Azizi spoke to me as she told her story.  I could feel the rhythm of her walking in the night wind across the border of Afghanistan where she grew up, and her strength struck courage in me.  For many years, I was inspired by the cry of some voices – like my Aunt Pearl or a man named Sa’di who sang Bedouin songs that seemed to call to me in a way that changed my life.  I wrote in cry-pitched carrolls, electrified hysteria, black lungs exhaling, and a vampyre who sang with two hearts in her throat.  More recently, with HARLEQUIN I challenged myself to write for two characters without music.  I wanted to write from a volatile place of truth and intimacy between a member of the Iraqi opposition and a poet who meet in 1994.   Anna’s voice is emotionally immodest while Qasim’s voice is sensual, growing more dynamic as he is catapulted into world leadership.  With my CAFÉ ANTARSIA ENSEMBLE I have been working on the ornaments of my fingerings on the accordion and the flourishes of the way I sing and write.  I am interested in a sort of lyric portraiture for a song, in adorning a moment or a gleam of character, even in a backdrop of darkness.  I have been most inspired lately by thinking of my voice as cubist.  So that there is a residue of the other collaborators’ points of view that shifts my own singularity of vision.  This can abstract what is usually figurative.  There is a blurring that is not only pictorial or “realistic” in the way time moves.  If I try to decenter my very American self-centered point of view, there is the form of what I see–but there is also formlessness in the multiplicity of other points of view which leave their imprint also in what I make.  And I believe this is actually more honest and more dangerous.

Bond Street Theatre's Workshop for Girls At Aschiana

Joanna Sherman: Founded in 1976, Bond Street Theatre creates original theatre productions that address social issues, and uses the performing arts as humanitarian outreach in refugee camps, areas of conflict and post-war environments. Current areas: Afghanistan, India and Burma (Myanmar).  The company is particularly focused on theatre-based activities that improve the lives of children, women and populations attempting to cope with human rights issues with few resources.  The ensemble provides creative activities that can contribute to trauma relief, give voice to the voiceless, and provide a safe environment to begin dialogue towards attaining peace and stability within a community.

The most important feature of our international work is peer-to-peer collaboration with artists in each location — to enjoy the benefits of artistic exchange of performing and teaching methods, and to present a unified voice to audiences rather than the voice of the foreigner. We dedicate years to each region in which we work and establish long-lasting relationships with our collaborators and communities.

To be able to create theatre that resonates across lingual and cultural borders, the ensemble has trained extensively in the physical, visual and musical arts of many traditions to develop a broad and flexible theatrical vocabulary. The ensemble selects the gestures, rituals and symbols which give life its shape and dynamics, and complements them with striking theatrical forms such as acrobatics, martial arts, masks, puppetry, dance, many types of music, and performance styles from many cultures.

Bond Street Theatre is an NGO in association with the United Nations, and is grateful to receive support from the US Embassies, the National Endowment for the Arts, the US Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, a variety of foundations, private donors, and the United States Institute for Peace.


Gülgün Kayim is a native of Cyprus, an interdisciplinary theater artist and  co-founder of Skewed Visions, a Minneapolis based, award winning site-specific performance collective. Her work investigates the cultural resonances of violence, conflict and trauma within the landscape, as they relate to memory and identity. She has created many site based and stage productions in the US and Europe  and is the recipient of 13 individual artistic grants, awards and fellowships including a Creative Capital grant, Archibald Bush Foundation Fellowship and  International Peace Fellowship. She trained in London and the US and is an affiliate faculty member at the University of Minnesota, Dept. of Theatre Arts and Dance.

Ruth Margraff’s work has been presented in the USA, UK, Canada, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Croatia, France, Sweden, Japan, Egypt and India and published by Dramatists Play Service, Kendall/Hunt, Backstage Books, Drama Review, Performing Arts Journal, American Theatre, Theater Forum, Playscripts, Inc., Applause Books, Dramatist, NuMuse/Brown, Conjunctions/Bard, Autonomedia, etc. Ruth is an alumnae of New Dramatists, member of Chicago Dramatists, LPTW and Theatre Without Borders and is Associate Professor at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Joanna Sherman is Artistic Director of Bond Street Theatre. The company works primarily in post-war areas and disadvantaged communities, collaborating with local artists, and working for the benefit of women, children and others through participatory theatre-based workshops and performances.  Current focus areas: Afghanistan, India and Myanmar (Burma).  She has directed and taught internationally, and is a frequent speaker and advocate for Theatre for Social Development.  She conducted a 3-year theatre-based conflict resolution project in India as part of the US Department of State’s educational and arts initiative, and recently received a grant from the US Institute for Peace to continue her ongoing creative work in Afghanistan. She has also designed and implemented arts projects for international relief organizations. Ms. Sherman has been featured on CNN, BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, National Public Radio, and international TV and news media, and published in American Theatre magazine. Ms. Sherman has a BFA in Fine Arts from Cooper Union, and an MA in Theatre & International Studies from New York University. Ms. Sherman also plays saxophone with the Shinbone Alley Stilt Band.