(Pictured left: Cynthia Cohen)
Continuing our series of interviews with the artists who participated in Theatre Without Borders conference, Acting Together On The World Stage; we asked theatre artists and peacebuilders Cynthia Cohen, Ayat Najafi, Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, Lisa Schlesinger, and Marcy Arlin a single question:
How did you begin your work in this area of theatre?
Cynthia Cohen: On one level, I began my work in “this area” when I directed a community oral history center in the Boston area in the 1980′s. The Oral History Center was a collaborative effort among people of various ethnic communities, scholars and artists who created ways projects where people built relationships of respect and understanding across differences of all kinds — by eliciting each others stories, and then working with artists to re-present them. We created quilts, murals, slide shows, plays, books, ballads, exhibits of fabric and stories. I spent ten years listening to the amazing stories of the lives of people in my community, and came to understand in a very profound way that everyone has a story to tell, and that all of these stories are equally valid, and that the arts create openings for people to interact with others and perceive the world in new ways.
Ayat Najafi: Theater for me is a personal journey to discover the world I live in. After having worked as an actor, assistant director, and set and costume designer for almost four years, my professional career hit a roadblock in the winter of 1999 when a fundamentalist group brutally attacked a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which I served both as an actor and assistant director. I went on to establish another theater company, which, banned from official theaters, rehearsed in the mountains and at private houses, as well as in the parking lot of a local fire station.As these faced intense official resistance, no more than three performances of any piece were possible. I was forced underground, giving strictly private performances.
Then I moved my stage into the urban spheres of Tehran. The new project was to create a living documentation of the behavior of the city and of the pressures acting to create that behavior, using as a platform my individual experiences and my places within the very patterns that I would be describing. The goal was to create a public access point to the private. All efforts to try to present the work publicly in Tehran were fruitless, and the project had to be presented at my flat leading to performances in Europe in 2004 and later at the Fajr Theater Festival in Tehran.
I ended up living in Berlin, Germany. In the summer of 2009, I produced my last theater performance called Lady Tehran, which was inspired from my Tehran experiences. Together with an international ensemble I further developed this piece. The ensemble researched themes of the underground of Tehran, in following the detours, depths and crevasses of ambivalent gender roles. It was performed in Berlin in Fall 2009.
Mahmood Karimi-Hakak: What attracts me to the theatre is the amazing ability of this art form to communicate and teach. Theatre is an art based on dialogue. As an artist I chose to practice theatre because it allows me to share my ambitions and desires with my audience, and learn of theirs through a spontaneous, live and interactive dialogue that is inevitable between the stage and the house. As a teacher I chose theatre to help facilitate dialogue between a younger generation that is less experienced but more passionate and enthusiastic, and an older one that is expected to be more seasoned and balanced, though, perhaps, less irrational and unconfirmed. As a social activist I maintain that global peace and justice is the only path toward human health and prosperity. I insist that such lasting peace could only be achieved through understanding, communication and dialogue; the basis of the art that I have dedicated my life to.
It is, therefore, the ambition to use theater as a social education tool that has dominated my theatrical productions of the past three decades. During this time I have often addressed the issues of peace, tolerance and co-existence through traditional performance, contemporizing classic plays, stories and myths for the modern theater, and by creating new works in collaboration with artists from other cultures. My literary creative writings, scholarly research and publications have also been informed by these goals, which I strive to infuse into my teachings whenever and wherever possible. Thus, for over a decade I have practiced and taught peacebuilding through the arts.
I believe that theatre is what happens in the minds of the audience as they leave the building. I have strived to expand this dialogue from the stage and the actors to the house and among the audience with anticipation that they would spread their discoveries throughout the community and the world at large.
Lisa Schlesinger: I stumbled into International Theatre with my dear friend Orla Cashman in Dublin Ireland one summer –we were 17 or 18- when we worked with and learned from a fringe company called Platform Theatre run by Jacqui and Daniel Magee. Orla was an actor and I was secretly writing my first play but working at anything in the theatre that I could. Dan Magee was from Northern Ireland and he was writing about his political experiences there. While we were with them, Platform toured a production of Liam Lynch play VOIDS , which addressed the relationship of violence and poverty in the Irish family and culture and we performed it in venues in the inner city where we stayed after to talk with audiences about what they experienced in the play. When VOIDS went to the Dublin International Theatre festival, I saw The Negro Ensemble Company perform August Wilson’s Fences from an outside perspective. It was impossible not to see a similar oppression at work. In the North of Ireland, the history of the conflict is palpable every moment. The work Platform did and the conversations we had were tinged with the sense of mystery, loss, and danger that permeates the Irish landscape, history, and culture. When I say mystery, I don’t mean a romantic or manufactured notion, but rather a space of unanswered and unanswerable questions generated by the injustice and violence inherent in life under imperialism.
(At another International Theatre festival, I saw a piece by the Palestinian company El-Hakawati. I didn’t know it then, but my collaborator Iman Aoun was a member of the company.) When I went to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I was reminded of Belfast: the checkpoint soldiers, the tanks patrolling the streets and the general malaise – the constant sense of danger, the subsequent fear, and the rage that fear eventually invokes- of life under military oppression. Military occupation is very uncreative! I have, over the years, become more dedicated to the forms of theatre that resist the dominant narratives, that make space for the mysterious joy, hope and beauty that arises from that resistance. Political analysis and political dialogue do not address this mystery, it can’t. But art can. I’m not a proponent of “issue plays.” I love plays that foreground those often made invisible and seek to “raise the dead” so that we can remember them and their stories.
Marcy Arlin: It was the congruence of many events in the world and my private life that led me to found Immigrants’ Theatre Project in 1988. At the same time I had finished graduate school in directing and wanted to start a company. I was teaching at LaGuardia College (CUNY) where over 90 languages natively spoken by the students. I was fascinated by culturally specific non-verbal communication. And, I got a job teaching mime (!) in an alternative high school in Newark, New Jersey. where the kids had been assigned by the courts. We wrote a play, borrowing techniques from the San Francisco Mime Troupe, called ARSON, based on the arson for insurance troubles that were afflicting Newark and the students themselves. Like now, there was a strong societal backlash to immigrants and immigration, triggered by the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act. How to explain to Americans that we are all immigrants, in one form or another, excepting Native Americans. There are so many untold stories. If I could bring these stories to the stage, show the Russians that the Haitians were going through similar problems, that an Egyptian immigrant in love with an Irish American mimicked Romeo and Juliet, that parents of all immigrant groups were being driven crazy by their Americanized children (and vice versa), maybe there would be a glimmer of empathy between them. The company has presented over 45 plays, with artists from over 90 nations and ethnicities, and pioneered Journey Theatre, an 8 month project training and working with survivors of torture to write and perform plays about their lives, the good and the bad.
Ayat Najafi: Born in Tehran in 1976, Ayat studied scenography. He established a youth theatre company in college in 1995 and participated in a number of different theatrical productions as an assistant director, author, actor, and set designer. Since 2000, he realized his own directorial work. In 2003, he established the Arta Atelier, focusing on an interdisciplinary, multimedia approach to theater, as well as experimental short and documentary film. Ayat participated in “Shoot Goals, Shoot Movies” at Berlinale Talent Campus, 2005, with his short film, Move It (2004). “Football under Cover”, his 1st feature documentary, co-directed by David Assmann, premiered at the International Berlin Film Festival, 2008, has participated in several other festivals, winning several awards. (Including the Berlinale Teddy Award for best documentary film and Prix Europa IRIS Best Multicultural Television Programme, 2009)
He is a cultural-scientific alumnus of the University of Constance, Germany, where he presented his theater production, “Stories of Women with Mustaches and Men in Skirts”. (June 2009, writer and director) “Lady Tehran”, his second theater production in Germany with an international cast and crew, was performed in Berlin in 2009. Ayat Najafi works as a theater and film director, writer and set designer. He currently lives in Berlin and Tehran.
Mahmood Karimi-Hakak is a poet, translator, filmmaker and theatre artist who has created over 50 stage and screenplays in the U.S., Europe and Iran. He is the recipient of three international awards as well as Raymond Kennedy (2005) and Fulbright (2009). His literary credits include six plays, two books of poetry and numerous articles, interviews and translations in English and Persian. He has taught at CCNY, Towson, SMU as well as universities in Belgium and his native Iran. Mahmood presently serves as Professor of Creative Arts at Siena College in upstate New York. firstname.lastname@example.org
Lisa Schlesinger’s radio and stage plays have been produced Internationally and in the US. Her most recent project was a collaboration with Iman Aoun of Ashtar Theatre in Ramallah and with Bread and Puppet Theatre. She teaches playwriting at Columbia College Chicago.