Project Alo? An International Mobile Video Play

by Torange Yeghiazarian

in National Conference

Post image for Project Alo? An International Mobile Video Play

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Theatre | Technology} blog salon, curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton.) 

JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, please tell us a bit about yourself and your organization.

TORANGE YEGHIAZARIAN: My name is Torange Yeghiazarian, founding artistic director of Golden Thread Productions. Golden Thread Productions is a theatre company based in San Francisco devoted to producing plays from and about the Middle East.

JL: Next, please share the title and description of your breakout session.

TY: Project Alo? An International Mobile Video Play.

JL: Now, what inspired this breakout session?

TY: To circumvent political and financial obstacles to international artistic exchange, particularly with artists in the Middle East, we launched a pilot project to create a series of video dialogues between theatre artists based in the US and the Middle East, using a cell phone.

We chose cell phones because of their wide availability, ease of use and immediacy. But also because there was precedence using cell phones as a tool of political expression. Much of the news from Tahrir Square, for example was communicated in real time through videos captured on cell phones and posted online.

We teamed up 5 US-based theatre artists with 5 Middle East-based theatre artists and asked them to create one-minute video dialogues using their cell phones. To ease communications and address technical issues, we had a Golden Thread artist facilitate the exchange. To help guide the dialogue thematically, we suggested a list of locations and elements for each exchange. To limit the dialogue to only the content of the videos, we did not share the partners contact information. The video clips would be exchanged through the facilitator. We were concerned that if the partners conversed directly, they would plan their video production and the exchange would be less organic and spontaneous.

The artists did not know each other; we matched them based on shared aesthetic and or language. To kick off the dialogue, we asked each participant to create a one-minute video introducing themselves to their partner. After that, we flipped a coin to determine which partner would begin the dialogue. The project manager had scheduled two weeks for each video. It seemed very long to me. Initially, I imagined the five rounds of video exchange would be completed within two weeks. But things turned out differently.

Let’s start at the beginning. Who begins the dialogue is an important decision. The person who begins the dialogue sets the tone; is in control, is the leader. Under ordinary circumstances, this may be perceived as a minor advantage. But through the lens of US-Middle East relations, it looks a lot like “first world” privilege and entitlement. This is why we decided to flip a coin but as luck would have it, in four out of five teams the US-based artist began the dialogue. To make matters more complicated, one US-based artist would only initiate, not respond. This frustrated the Middle East-based artist but the facilitator mediated and confirmed that both participants had a lot of leeway in creating their work. The facilitators were invaluable in communicating the spirit of the project to the participants when such questions arose.  They reminded the participants that the goal of the project is to have a dialogue, which requires listening, or watching, as the case may be, then responding.

The facilitators also helped translate online communications and project guidelines. On occasion, phone calls had to be made to track down delinquent participants. Much to my surprise, people actually took weeks to create a one-minute video, on their cell phone which they carried in their pocket every day. It was difficult for me to understand the reasons for this delay. Did they lose interest in the project so quickly? One person commented that the exchange felt less like a dialogue and more like homework they had to turn in to a teacher, i.e. the facilitator. Had we inadvertently created distance between artists when our intention was exactly the opposite? Were we micro-managing the process? Weighting down the exchange with administrative BS?

I began questioning my own motives. Had I been infected with the American disease of always having to be in control? Why didn’t we just let the two artists send their video clips to each other directly? I asked our project manager in an accusatory tone. “How would we know if they sent it?” she asked calmly. Well, obviously they would copy us on their email. “What if they didn’t?” she continued. Well, we could easily check in with them. “We wanted to help them communicate better.” I know, but are we? Or are we just getting in the way?

Fatima, our project manager is very soft-spoken and level-headed. She saw the reasons for the delays differently. Someone on her team was experiencing artistic block. Another one was so impressed by his partner’s video that he feared not meeting his standards. In that case, Fatima simply shared a couple of other less glossy video examples to calm the artists’ competitive nerves. But still, the exchange was happening very slowly. Some of the artists would take at least a week but often two or more to complete one clip.  I could not understand why.

Then it occurred to us, video is permanent. Once it has been created it will remain floating in the not so ephemeral world forever. We described the project as a spontaneous and low tech but the artists were very aware that they are creating a permanent piece of plastic art, not a transitory improvised live theatrical moment. A theatre artist can act free and spontaneous in front of the camera but it took a lot of planning and thinking to produce a video clip, even a one-minute one.

In speaking to the artists, I realized they actually plan the shots, search for the right location, gather props and costumes. This is a mini film production not a spontaneous conversation. Or is it?

It’s interesting that in doing this project I was expecting some grand political obstacle to present itself that we would heroically and cleverly overcome. But instead we found vulnerability. We found a deep sense of responsibility towards the work and the other partner. I realized how seriously everyone takes their work. The participants took the parameters seriously and felt obligated to follow our guidelines. They took the dialogue seriously and really watched and listened to what their partner sent them. Then they invested some time in planning and creating their response. There were no grand gestures in this project. The participants were creative but also pragmatic, leaders but also followers. In an odd way, the exchange was more than I expected. It was very human.

JL: Finally, what do you hope participants learned from this breakout session?

TY: Project Alo? is not complete yet but already it has shifted our conversation about theatre, technology and artistic exchange. It has reminded me that no matter what the perceived obstacles are that a project attempts to tackle, the most fundamental aspect that requires attention is the artistic. In a way, the technical, geographical, political and cultural challenges faded to the background and Project Alo? invited us to actually look at the essential of the artistic exchange. How did it feel for theatre artists to communicate through video? How was creating a permanent piece of plastic art different than creating live theatre? How was it to collaborate with an artist you don’t know?


Torange Yeghiazarian is the Founding Artistic Director of Golden Thread Productions, the San Francisco theatre company devoted to exploring Middle Eastern cultures and identities. In this capacity, Torange has produced numerous world and American premieres by playwrights of Middle Eastern heritage, including such writers as Yussef el Guindi, Betty Shamieh, Denmo Ibrahim, and Mona Mansour, and launched the REORIENT FESTIVAL OF SHORT PLAYS from and about the Middle East, now accompanied by the REORIENT FORUM, a weekend of panel discussions, presentations, and workshops. Torange has designed a number of groundbreaking programs at Golden Thread including MIDDLE EAST AMERICA: A NATIONAL NEW PLAYS INITIATIVE (in partnership with the Lark Play Development Center and Silk Road Rising), which awards $10,000 to an American playwright of Middle Eastern heritage for the development and production of a new play; KIMIA, inspired by the process of alchemy, facilitates the creation of new plays through innovative collaborations and artistic exchange; NEW THREADS, a staged reading series to support the development of new works from and about the Middle East; ISLAM 101, an initiative to create dynamic plays inspired by Islamic arts and philosophy; and the FAIRYTALE PLAYERS, a touring ensemble that performs children’s stories from the Middle East at schools, libraries, and festivals, which is the cornerstone of Golden Thread’s innovative and robust theatre education program. To highlight women’s voices from the Middle East, Torange curates and produces WHAT DO WOMEN SAY?, an annual performance event featuring poetry, performance, and polemic celebrating International Women’s Day.


conf13_jacqueline_lawton

Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com