Experience the Difference: The American Anti-Torture Play “Another Life” Goes to London

by Karen Malpede

in Global Connections,In the Trenches

Post image for Experience the Difference: The American Anti-Torture Play “Another Life” Goes to London

(Photo by Beatriz Schiller: Christen Clifford (Tess, in box), Abbas Noori Abbood (Abdul), George Bartenieff (Handel)–Handel’s loft Soho)

In the late winter of 2010, while I was researching and writing additional scenes for “Another Life” (which had been published in the Kenyon Review as a one-act that fall) I sat in the public meeting hall at the Open Societies Institute and heard the lawyer, Susan Burke, talk about her efforts to sue the American private contracting firm L-Caci for the torture of 375 innocent Iraqis. She spoke not these words, but words that made me write these words: “I believe we are a nation that stands for something. That our country is founded upon laws. I felt the truth matters–that the truth does matter.” (Later, when she saw the play, she told me she was proud to have been the inspiration for that final speech.) The fictional character is Lucia, not a lawyer, but a physician caught up as the attending medical officer in a particularly brutal, and well-documented, torture of Abu Zubayda at the Bagram air force base black site. By the final scene of “Another Life”, the only American play to tell the story of our torture program, Lucia has become a whistle blower and is testifying before Congress about her leak of a Red Cross report. In a previous scene, Lucia voices the experience of an actual Iraqi torture victim whose testimony Susan took and would soon give to me to be turned into dramatic form: “the American interrogator said I would be run over by a tank…that after my death my wife would be given a stipend…I said: I know nothing. I know nothing to say. I have done nothing.”

Now it was July 2, 2013, Edward Snowdon was living in the Moscow airport transport area, Bradley Manning was finally on trial, and over 100 men remained on hunger strike in Guantanamo, 86 of them already cleared for release by our government as being innocent of any crimes. I sat in a rehearsal room at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art with Cori Crider, a young American lawyer working for the British human rights organization Reprieve, co-leading a talkback after what may be the final performance of my play about how the nation veered to, and remains in, lawlessness in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. “You know more about the Global War on Terror than most Guantanamo lawyers,” Cori said to me in front of the 30 or so audience members, who forwent the bar and the gathering of actors downstairs, to talk about the issues in the play. They were a mix of American ex-pats and British citizens; political activists, two psychoanalysts from the Tavistock Institute, the brother of a British young man currently being held in solitary confinement in Connecticut awaiting trail on unspecified crimes, Zena Choi, an American rights agent with Samuel French who so highly praised the play and its production she has recommended it to England’s National Theatre. Brendan Lawlor, an environmentalist who found out about our next production “Extreme Whether” on the internet, drove down from Hertfordshire for the previous day’s performance. He hugged me in person, emailed me the next day: “Thank you for inviting me to see your play. I feel inspired and full of praise. The actors did you proud, too.” Kika Markham, the actress and widow of Corin Redgrave, Lydia Styk, the American playwright, Barbara Stone, film producer, Dylan Stone and Thomas Gosebruch, artists, Anthony Timmons, American ex-pat and organizer for the Bradly Manning defense, and unknown others, offered similar praise. Philip Bergson, BBC film commentator, wrote to our colleague, film director Arsen Ostojic: “Karen’s play is very well written, poetic, florid, engaged and engaging, and the cast were brilliant all excellent actors.” For all that, the one London theater venue actually in attendance curtly turned down the play. This makes our London reception nearly identical to that in New York: highest praise from audiences, human rights experts and other artists—except that in New York not a single institutional theater producer bothered to come.

“How does the success in London translate?” asked a friend who lives in a parallel universe to mine where good, hard work is rewarded, often financially. Our small not-for-profit Theater Three Collaborative took three and a half years to carefully develop and refine a new play about an important unresolved American issue—the use of torture in the so-called Global War on Terror. Both script and production are replicable. Ought there to be wider institutional support and producing interest for such work? Or have we stepped outside the bounds of what is permissible to put on stage? Have we risked offending the powerful for the sake of the powerless? Have we dramatized a public policy dilemma citizens would rather ignore? Are there limits, that is, to the free artistic expression of difficult truths, and are those limits enforced by economic constraints that have become effective censorship?

I’ve always said the real rewards for the work I do are the people I meet. In the three and a half years we have been co-producing “Another Life” first as an unrehearsed reading of Part One at Dixon Place, 2010, then as a staged reading of most of the script in Kosovo, and in full productions at John Jay College’s six-hundred seat Gerald W. Lynch Theater, 2011, (where we had but nine days of rehearsal), and at Irondale Center, Brooklyn, 2012, at Theater for the New City, 2013, and for two performances at the RADA Festival London, we have hosted over 50 preeminent lawyers, journalists and activists in post show events we call Festivals of Conscience. Every one of these experts in the field has praised “Another Life”. Not a single one has critiqued a factual error or made suggestion for improvement. Jonathan Hafetz was one of a panel of four lawyers for Guantanamo detainees who spoke before the premiere performance at John Jay. He wrote me: “I thought the play was terrific—incredibly insightful and powerful.” Darius Rejali, author of the definitive 800 page Torture and Democracy, who spoke on opening night at the Irondale Center, in March 2012, compared “Another Life” to “another brilliant work of art, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Mark Danner who published the leaked Red Cross Torture report, Ramzi Kassem, lawyer for Guantanamo detainees and professor of law at CUNY, writer David Swanson, lawyer Susan Burke, journalist Donovan Webster, and many others used the words “powerful” or “brilliant”. At Theater for the New City this past March-April, Michael Ratner, President Emeritus of CCR, said “I was captivated from beginning to end.” Jesselyn Radack, National Accountability Project’s National Security Director wrote: “this play should be required viewing for every American.” Thomas Drake, an NSA whistleblower, wrote: “WOW, stunning play…powerful, compelling, revealing.” Our Festival of Conscience exchanges between these guests and our audience often lasted more than an hour, immediately following an hour and fifty minute play. Audiences never seemed to need an intermission.

Our theater’s philosophy is this: our plays open hearts and minds by stimulating empathy. Festival of Conscience talkbacks allow audiences to learn more about the facts behind the story they have just experienced. In this way, theater becomes a necessary part of the democratic continuum, presenting in public the experience of difficult unresolved social issues most of us like to shield ourselves against but which we grow brave enough to confront together in an audience community, then, providing public forum for discussion. (We have already begun to do the same with our new play “Extreme Whether” about another difficult issue, global warming, read to an audience of 130 at TNC in April, followed by a talk with James Hansen, the nation’s preeminent climate scientist. Jennifer Francis, prominent Arctic ice scientist will speak to the audience after the next “Extreme Whether” reading at the Cherry Lane Theater, September 10, at 2pm, continuing our efforts to bring this new play to full production).

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(Photo by Beatriz Schiller: Di Zhu (Lucia), Alex Tavis (David Abbas) Bagram Air Force Base Black Site Prison, Afghanistan)

For all this, “Another Life” is a work of poetic drama and, therefore rare in the English-speaking theater—it is neither a realistic play nor a docudrama, though it is based on copious and careful research. Psychologically and character driven, it is a language play and one that grows increasingly surreal. Naomi Wallace, another poetic playwright, wrote to me “Your work with language is beautiful and challenging. And not happening much at all on the US or UK stage.” The play opens with a ten minute stream of consciousness monologue by Handel, the mogul, left alone in his fancy SoHo loft on the morning of the 9/11 attacks during which he recalls his origins as the son of immigrants and arrives at his resolve to make money off the coming war on terror: “A simple boy born to simpletons, born to become, to be, to do, to have, to take, amass.” At which moment the second tower crumbles outside his window. I think there is probably not another actor in New York who could play Handel, a part I wrote specifically for George Bartenieff, who as a RADA graduate is the reason we became eligible for their festival. For his character, Bartenieff, a physical actor who transforms himself in every role, drew upon moguls we all know, among them: Dick Cheney, Rupert Murdoch, even, as Handel’s megalomania drives him to increasingly bizarre behavior, Moammar Gaddafi. The actor Zach Grenier wrote of George’s performance: “No one does or could do what you do on the stage. You depicted the essence of those bad guys we all had to live with for eight long years. I will always remember that performance.”

Now twelve years removed from the attacks of September 11, 2001, it is difficult for young people, especially, to remember a time when we had the rule of law, before we turned to torture and began to detain people indefinitely. But “Another Life” remembers and as the play ages it seems to become more necessary. With no one ever held accountable, “torture once illegal has now become a policy choice,” as Mark Danner says and as the force feeding of hunger strikers (a form of torture, as is solitary confinement, according to international law) now proves. Yet the play remains unpublished in its entirety, and if its past is any indication, it is likely to go unproduced by any theater but our own.

We received early, absolutely essential support from Professor Seth Baumrin, Chair of the Communications and Theater Arts Department at John Jay College who created the idea of the 9/11 Performance Project where the play premiered, and got an early travel grant from TCG, a bit from Puffin and from OSI (we wrote so many grants we did not get). We ran two successful crowd-source funding campaigns on United States Artists, a dear friend gave $5000. We held in our home a Turkish rug sale; merchants we had met in Istanbul on the way home from Kosovo came to us with hundreds of beautiful rugs. On a cold day, George and I walked our neighborhood of Clinton Hill-Fort Greene to alert our neighbors slipping 400 flyers under doors; we made $4000 commission (and for two weekends the Victorian ground-through we rent was like a souk). When we performed at Irondale, George and I postered the lamp posts with our designer Luba Lukova’s arresting red graphic. I cooked the meal for the opening night party, bought and prepared Park Slope Coop food for each reception we held. Wrote and sent too many eblasts to potential audience. But all of this was a mighty joy because George and I believed we were making a profoundly important work of art. When we ran out of money, we raided our limited personal resources, selling our cabin in the woods, to get to the final, and best, incarnation (the one we took to London) at Theater for the New City this past March. We often said to one another, “it is our civic duty to produce this play.”

We are lucky to have worked with the same fantastic designers for 18 years. Sally Ann Parsons and Carisa Kelly costumed and re-costumed on a shoe string. Tony Giovennetti went from a large union house to bare bones TNC, each time creating beautiful lighting. Luba Lukova did our graphics and video, adding her images slowly, until at TNC we found a perfect, luxuriant balance, that enhanced but never overwhelmed the performance. Robert Egger’s simple set followed us from place to place, with the addition of a final, crucial element at TNC; the same was true of Arthur Rosen’s sound and music design (which like the costumes could go with us to London). Finally, the play stood in London, done in a tiny 60 seat studio theater, without our set, lights or visual design. It held through its acting and its language.

We were most lucky in our final cast. George Bartenieff and Christen Clifford, as his wife, Tess, remained with the play since its beginning. We found Abbass Noori Abbood, from Iraq, and Abraham Makany and they stayed with us through Irondale, TNC and London. And we found the remarkable Di Zhu and Alex Tavis for TNC and London. We had five young actors capable of holding the stage with George Bartenieff and these six comprised a seamless ensemble. At RADA one of the best surprises for the English was the quality of our American actors.

You will have to take my word for all of this as we have received no reviews. As “Another Life” continued to get tighter and better in each incarnation until in its month run at Theater for the New City it seemed quite as perfect as could be, and we determined to take the play abroad, we became more and more resistant to letting it be seen by the New York critics and we asked that they not come. Was this difficult decision wise or not? We shall never know. My previous play “Prophecy”, had been well-reviewed in London in 2008 (4 stars and critics’ picks), but was murdered in the New York Times in 2010, despite a stellar cast, and for reasons still unclear—was it the play’s antiwar sentiments, its inclusion of empathic Palestinians, its story of an Iraq war veteran who commits suicide or its language. We were afraid to be decimated, again, with a work we felt was even stronger and we determined to run “Another Life” solely on word of mouth, with lots of support from Brooklyn for Peace, other artists and audience members. (Rather, I think we did receive one uncomprehending review in TheaterMania at Irondale.) The decision not to be widely reviewed was a decision to protect the art. There is no way, if we had been destroyed in the New York press, that we could have continued to build the esprit of the company; no way, that is, once we had been savaged, that those perfectly executed, confidently spirited ensemble performances so admired in London could have happened.

Is there another life for “Another Life”? A kindly audience member posted on my Facebook after London “a great play never dies.” But I am not so sure. Without publication of the script there remains scant public record of this work. Yet poorer, older, wiser, and sad for the loss of a work of art to which we gave our hearts, George and I feel enormously enriched—very much so by the people we have worked with and the people we have met.

Karen Malpede is the author of 17 plays including “Extreme Whether” (public reading at the Cherry Lane Theatre, Sept. 10 at 2pm). She is co-founder, resident playwright/director of Theater Three Collaborative. She is editor of Acts of War: Iraq & Afghanistan in Seven Plays, Women in Theater: Compassion & Hope, and Three Works by the Open Theater. A Mcknight National Playwrights’ and NYFA fellow, she has taught dramatic literature, playwriting and writing at Smith College, New York University, the CUNY-Graduate Center’s Continuing Education program, and is currently on the theater faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

  • Alex Tavis

    This role, this play and this company will stay with me forever. It is that powerful. It is basically life changing. All the roles are so crucial to audiences because they take them to a different, but very real place.