“Watching that performance [the immigrant children’s performance of their family stories] I realized how important it is for the kids to really claim their identity and be proud of it and be able to speak about it…The act of telling these stories actually gives value to the kids’ identity. Theatre gives us permission to talk about who we are and it helps us to come to terms with ourselves and also to present it to others.”
-Torange Yeghiazarian, I AM THEATRE
Torange makes an extremely important point: we validate ourselves to others by appearing on stage with our stories. They resonate with the audience. Who doesn’t have family conflict? Who can’t figure out what that strange food is in that strange store? Whose family hasn’t experienced, some time in their history, war, horror, racism? Good theatre is empathetic. As Torange says, we come to terms with ourselves, who we are today, who came before, and perhaps where we will be.
I grew up the second generation of Russian/Polish/German Jews escaping the oppression of Tsarist Russia by coming to New York. I was fully encouraged to be American, culturally and educationally, but kept religiously and foodily Jewish. I spoke only English, with smatterings of the mother tongue thrown in for emphasis or flavor. Never hearing a story of the “old country” or the family back home (they had all emigrated or been exterminated). Only a few anecdotes about Cossacks, typhoid fever, and poverty. So I pretty much knew nothing of where my ancestors had lived for over 600 years in the Eastern European Pale of Settlement.
I have a terrible craving left by my personal lack of family stories. So when I decided to form a theatre company, I wanted to tell everyone the stories of immigrants I had never heard and give a voice to those who, like Torange’s kids, feel excluded and shunned. I produced and directed professional well-crafted new plays by new immigrants and self-identified new immigrants who, like me, became artists, bucking their family’s dreams of lawyer/doctor/MBA-dom. These playwrights, along with the immigrant actors and designers I work with, tell stories about Georgian peddlars, Korean businesspeople, Trinidadian caterers, Romanian beauticians, Indonesian aunties, Haitian laborers and teachers, Mexican farmworkers, and more. They write stories, like Torange’s kids, of culture shock, adaptation, assimilation, rejection of and embrace of the American dream, recovery from war and torture, intermarriage (horrors!), prejudice, celebration, legalities and the entire potpourri of that portion of American society that is the immigrant.
In the American salad bowl (as it is known these days) of our society, we all have these stories. We have all come from somewhere else, willing or forced, we have had to live together in a remarkable multicultural intercultural experiment. And we have the magic of theatre so we can share our stories.
Where do you come from and how has it made your work in theatre what it is?
Do you think that theatre artists have an outsider sensibility?
Can theatre make you change your mind about something or somebody?
Marcy Arlin is a freelance director and Artistic Director of the OBIE-winning Immigrants’ Theatre Project. A member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, Theatre without Borders, League of Professional Theatre Women, No Passport, and Fulbright Scholar to Romania and the Czech Republic. She recently directed The Farnsworth Invention for Oddfellows Playhouse in Connecticut. Current projects are the readings series Eastern European Playwrights: Women Write the New; and East/West/East: Vietnam Immigrants Out of War, a binational, trilingual (Vietnamese, Czech, English) theatre project based on interviews with American and Czech Vietnamese, in collaboration with Firehouse Theatre in Richmond, VA, and Divadlo Feste, in Brno, Czech Republic. Directing venues include: 59E59, QTIP, LaMama, Vineyard, Oddfellows, Artheatre/Koln, Nat’l Theatre of Romania/Cluf. Created Journey Theatre, working with survivors of war and torture. Co-Editor Czech Plays: 7 New Works. Lecturer in theatre at CUNY; taught workshops on community-based theatre at Yale, University of Chicago, Brown, and NYU.