U.S./México Playwright Exchange

by Jessica Lewis

in Global Citizenship,Interviews

Post image for U.S./México Playwright Exchange

(Playwright:  Xavier Villanova. Director: Mariana Carreño King)
So many thoughts are rushing through my head as I walk into my interview with Andrea Thome, Director of U.S./México Exchange, and Lisa Rothe, Director of Off-site Programs and Partnerships, at the Lark Play Development Center. This marks the sixth year of their  program, where U.S. playwrights translate the plays of Mexican writers (and, sometimes, Mexican writers translate the plays of U.S. playwrights), culminating in a 10-day residency and free public readings November 4th-14th. As I was browsing the twenty some odd plays you can read in the Lark’s online play library, I was thinking of the monumental task they’ve set upon themselves of bringing plays to our country that otherwise wouldn’t be seen and translating them to English. Mostly I was thinking about how these stories written by Mexican authors could/couldn’t be seen as our own stories when a show like National Geographic’s “Border Wars” exists, border fences are erected and debate over illegal immigration persists. The perception that a story written by a Mexican author doesn’t represent “us” in the states is what disturbs me, which is why it’s exciting to see programs like the Lark’s and made me doubly honored to ask Andrea and Lisa about how their Playwright Exchange came to be and where they see the program going in the future.

To begin with, Andrea spoke with me about the mechanics of how the Lark’s international collaboration and partnership with Mexico’s state arts agency FONCA, the National Foundation for Culture and the Arts, was able to form.

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Andrea Thome: Before 2004, which is when we had started conceiving of this program, the Lark had already worked with Sabina Berman, Carmina Narro, Silvia Pelaez, several Mexican playwrights on their works and sometimes on a translation of their work…Throughout these encounters, John Eisner and Michael Johnson-Chase, who had taken care of international programs at the Lark, thought that a relationship with Mexico could be interesting to develop more formally, because there is a lot of incredible work going on in Mexico and too little conversation about a dialogue artistically between the theatre community there and the theatre community here…And because of these encounters that the Lark had had with individual playwrights, I think this awareness started to grow…

John [Eisner] asked me if I wanted to go to Mexico with him and Michael Johnson-Chase and explore ways to develop work more formally. So we went down in September 2004 and we met with several people down there…And Silvia [Pelaez] spoke [on our behalf] with Victor Hugo Rascón Banda, a playwright who passed away a few years ago, who was head of the writer’s union in Mexico (SOGEM). Victor hosted a lunch. He really believed in the program, he himself was from the north of Mexico, [and] really believed in the necessity of dialogue between cultures…I call him one of the “godfathers” of our program because he held this lunch to which he invited several playwrights, many representatives from different theatrical organizations and the head of FONCA at the time, Mario Espinosa, a theatre director…[that] is now running Centro Universitario de Teatro at the university there, UNAM. John and Michael had talked about what they had done with Mexican writers and [that they were] looking at how to make this a more regular thing. Mario was very interested and asked us to come to FONCA and we had a conversation with him. He was very open and pretty immediately said let’s see how we make this happen.

We spent probably a year and a half working out, remotely and there, what it looks like, how we would do it, what would FONCA put forth, what would the Lark put forth and Mario was very proactive on this. I know that Victor Hugo’s faith in the idea and, as head of the writer’s union, was huge in vouching for us. Basically we came up with an agreement by late 2005-early 2006. We decided it would start in October of 2006, and the structure that we have now for a ten day residency, four Mexican writers to work with four US writers. It was very important to us that it would be playwrights translating playwrights- people who understand theatrical language. The point was to create a space for dialogue. To get playwrights talking to each other, to get directors and actors here talking to playwrights- and directors and actors from there. The hope was also that this would become a reciprocal program. That we could bring four Mexican writers here and bring four U.S. writers there…The reciprocal part is something we’re still working on.

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Translating playwright Susana Cook, playwright Xavier Villanova, director Mariana Carreño King. Rehearsal for Xavier Villanova’s ACHERON: THE RIVER OF TRAGEDY (Aquerón, Spanish title).

There have been two reciprocal Mexican Exchanges for U.S. playwrights, which allowed Chantal Bilodeau, Rajiv Joseph, Samuel Hunter and Henry Guzman to go to Mexico to work on Spanish translations of their work. Andrea describes one of the exchanges.

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Andrea: We did a reciprocal exchange piece hosted at Centro Universitario de Teatro (CUT) at the university UNAM…where we did this same process with translators, but working with student actors there…Mario Espinosa [who heads CUT] thought this would be a great learning experience for his actors. He also invited Boris [Schoemann who runs his own theatre in Mexico called los Endebles and curates a very well-known space in Mexico City called Teatro la Capilla] to direct one of the processes.

Jessica: Would you want to partner with a U.S. university in the future?

Andrea: I think ideally, yeah, as a second step I think it’s a really exciting opportunity for a university to host a Mexican playwright there for a month, two months. And also continue to work on the translation, if needed, or to take them through a production and explore the play with more production elements. Or to host a translation process. The students who were involved [in Mexico], and also the professional actors who are involved here too- people get very excited by this process because they’re empowered artistically as participants in it, as collaborators in it. A lot of discussion happens around the table, depending on what the translator wants or needs, there’s a lot of exploration and conversation about the possibilities for words or…discussions of what it means to do this gesture or to do this action theatrically in this culture versus in that culture. Or, how do we navigate this translation/adaptation?

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Throughout the years, artists have come to the Lark to observe the Playwright Exchange, and those artists have in turn produced readings and international collaborations abroad using the 10-day residency and the playwright-director-actor translation model.

Andrea: There have been different people who have come to the program to observe. Henry Godinez from the Goodman Theatre, who runs the Latino Theatre Festival there, has been an incredible advocate for the plays. He came and observed one year and said he wanted to create, for his next Latino Festival, a whole weekend where he invited different Latino companies in Chicago to do a reading of one of the Mexican play translations.

Lisa Rothe: And to expand on that, we had two women here from Moscow who observed the process last year. And they really fell in love with a couple of the plays and the playwrights, and they were like, we want to do something like this in Moscow. We want to do a translation in Russia. So, I just was there in September and brought three playwrights over there to Moscow and did a very similar ten-day playwrights translation residency with Russian playwrights and translators (they actually had both). They had someone who did the initial translation of the play and then they had a playwright there who took that translation-

Andrea: So they had a literal translation and a playwright version-

Lisa: They had a director and actors in the room as well. So they definitely followed that model, which they had never done before. [In the past] it was just a translator translating literally and then they would get to rehearsal and fuss with it. So [this process] was part of a new play festival at this theatre called Teatr.Doc which is a very small theatre but very very active. The new play community is not huge so I got to meet a lot of people very quickly. They fell in love with this play called “Alaska”. It was part of last year’s residency-

Andrea: By Gibrán Portela that Migdalia Cruz translated.

Lisa: Gibrán couldn’t make it to Moscow but his play was translated from the English translation into Russian-

Andrea: So like a two degree related translation.

Lisa: Those kinds of things that we can find ways to facilitate happening are pretty great.

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This year’s line-up of plays has a large spectrum of stories and themes. Immigration and identity, multiple generations of family in Mexico City, a kidnapping, and a dark comedy where characters stalk Samuel Beckett. I expect to see different voices, different styles and risk-taking.

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Andrea: We found three projects that we were excited about through the application process, but we decided to do a separate project that is a play by Victor Hugo Rascón Banda…largely because we were excited to work with Borderlands Theater in Tucson, AZ, and Barclay Goldsmith [the Artistic Director] was very interested in the program for a while and we were trying to find a way to work together on it…He’s worked with Victor Hugo before in the past and has done several of his plays and was excited to work on his play “Absence” or “El Ausente”…It’s a different model, the playwright isn’t here, but we were also working with Barclay, with someone who knows him well, who knew him well, who knows his work well, and, Caridad Svich, who’s translating, also knows Victor Hugo’s work.

Jessica: And this piece had not been translated before either?

Andrea: No, so it’s another opportunity to get these important works by veteran master playwrights in Mexico out there.

Lisa: And it’s also very hard to just get the script here in Spanish…We found it at NYU- it’s not actually in very many universities around the country.

Andrea: We’ve created this [online] library…of all of the translations so that people can access them. We really would like for people to teach them. Or student productions or professional productions… This new library is something that is more accessible to everyone…We want to think about ways to really let people know that there is this resource.

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For a further account of the Lark’s U.S./México Playwright Exchange, you can read Andrea Thome’s article in American Theatre Magazine, “On Memory and Imagination” and check out their website with this year’s events.


Jessica Lewis is an Artistic & International Programs Associate at TCG and a recent graduate of NYU’s MFA in Dramatic Writing.