People have said to me, “Playwrights aren’t particularly visual ” and I used to take offense. Painters or filmmakers—now they’re visual. But I guess we theatre writers are supposed to be literary and in our heads all the time. It’s true that I have days when I’m just the grown-up version of the geeky head-in-a-book child who was so confusing to her parents. But I like to see things. I create my plays from images—from things I’ve seen, things I’ve imagined, places I’ve remembered, from people I’ve encountered along the way, or gazed at from a distance, or people who mysteriously crop up in my mind. Either way, I like to see things rather than just hear them or hear about them. That’s why those audio-only language courses make me so nervous. Still, I try.
(Photo: Translation headset for the international conference.)
When I first learned that I’d be part of the Global Connections ON the ROAD program, I immediately wanted to at least get a taste of the language I’d be encountering everyday: Croatian. Or its Serbian variants. I was headed to The Balkans to do research on the trafficking of human beings and to meet with theatre people who make art in places that only recently were the scenes of hellish war. Most everyone, I knew, would speak some English, and the trafficking conference I was attending would provide translator-headsets—but it doesn’t seem right to me to go to someone else’s home and pester them with questions if you don’t even know how to say hello and thank you in their native tongue.
Two years ago, when SEVEN was going to be performed in Istanbul, I tried out Pimsleur’s 16-lesson Conversational Turkish—the $45 version—and it really helped. It’s true what they say about learning a language by listening, by learning how to respond to the spoken phrase, rather than using the crutch of staring at the words and translating. You really do learn how to answer naturally to questions such, How are you? Where are you from? Are you American? “Amerikalı mısınız?” “Jesu li američki?” But it was torture for me not to go to Google Translate and try to find the words I was saying. Was that an s or a z? Was that unfamiliar sound a y, or a double ell, or a j? This time, in my preparation for travel to the Balkans, I struggled with only listening. I resisted Pimsleur. If I could just see a phrase written down, I was sure I would know so much better what I was saying. I was wrong. My language studies suffered. All I can say in Croatian is: Hello. I am Paula. I do not understand.
Maybe it’s because this time I was going to another country to begin work on a new play, whereas when I went to Turkey, it was to see a play that was already finished? Maybe it’s because, at the beginning of a creative process, I really really really need to see?
When I first began thinking about the play I was working on as part of Global Connections, I was haunted by an image: It was an old onion-domed church in my hometown, Youngstown, Ohio—a rust-belt city fallen on hard times. Even when I was growing up, the churches were starting to decay. They were built in the early 20th century by steel workers who were barely a generation out of the peasantry; they contributed their precious pennies to raise money to build these basilicas in the style of their foreign homelands. But I could see, as a kid riding near the mills on my bike, that the churches’ old bones were crumbling. They were covered with iron ore dust and looked forlorn. Still, as I thought about my new play, one of those churches—with its Eastern Orthodox-style and named for some Balkan saint— just kept coming to me.
(Photo: Unrestored section of old Gothic cathedral, Zagreb, Croatia.)
As I started to look deeply into this image and what it meant to me, a word popped into my head: “sanctuary.” Maybe the church represents a moment’s peace for a character in my play? Maybe it’s an escape from the savage nature of being trafficked? But the onion-shaped dome appearing in my head didn’t seem like a sanctuary. It seemed like a wreck. So then I considered the hideous nature of families trading their daughters for money, of traffickers conning young girls—and boys—into a life of being an enslaved sex worker. Another word came into my mind: “salvage.” The people who are victims of trafficking are our leftovers, the unwanted in their families, the rubbish of the world, the salvage. This was all swirling in my mind, along with the sepia-tinted memory of the old church.
When I finally arrived in Croatia, but even more so in Serbia, the various buildings I saw there harkened back to the image of the Eastern Orthodox church I remembered from my youth. Suddenly the shape of the play began to emerge. As I talked to people, as I walked the streets of Zagreb and Belgrade—the words and images and ideas all began bubbling up, creating vivid notions of who would populate the play, explicit thoughts about story, even snippets of dialogue.
(Tireless translators providing on-the-spot translations in multiple languages.)
Seeing a place, up close and personal, does this to me. The new place ignites memories and links up with whatever is on my mind, taking me deeper into the unconscious. The ancient hooks up with the present day. Being able to go beyond memories of things past, to take in new colors, new landscapes, new things, face to face, rather than just through research in a book or on the internet, is fundamental to the way I work. When I am writing, I find myself returning again and again to the people I’ve encountered while on the road, the experience of seeing them for the first time, the way they express themselves, the way they surprised me. I find myself inspired by the simple process of being in motion, by not being around the familiar, having my eyes open. Being on the road offers a window onto the new geographies I need to see to keep myself growing and transforming so that I can create. Who cares if people think playwrights aren’t visual? I just know writing isn’t just words to me. I see something. I try to make it happen on the page. So that someone else can see it, too.
Paula Cizmar is an award-winning playwright whose work often combines poetry with important issues facing us today; her work has been produced in theatres from Maine to California including at Portland Stage Company, the Jungle, Playwrights Arena, San Diego Rep, and the Women’s Project. Her many plays include: The Death of a Miner, Candy & Shelley Go to the Desert, Pretty Places, Bone Dry, and Ghost Dance on Mulholland. She is one of the authors of the acclaimed documentary theatre piece, Seven, which has been translated into 20+ languages and performed in a multitude of countries including Argentina, Nigeria, and Sweden, as well as at the 18th Istanbul International Theatre Festival; the piece is often presented by the Swedish Institute, in conjunction with Swedish embassies in various parts of the globe, as an effort to promote human rights. Her many honors include two NEA grants; a Rockefeller Foundation Residency at Bellagio, Italy; and a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize Special Commendation. In January 2014, her new play JANUARY, was presented in Multistages New Works Festival. She is on the faculty of the MFA Dramatic Writing Program at the University of Southern California. For more information: See www.paulacizmar.com
The Global Connections program was designed by TCG and is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Learn more here.