Writing uncertainty: A new Mediterranean drama (and why we should care)

by Aktina Stathaki

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

The nearly 4 years that I have been working towards cultivating awareness on contemporary Mediterranean performing arts in NYC and artistic exchange between both sides of the Atlantic, have been very enlightening:  my initial hypothesis that the region’s artists are very interested in  showing their work in North America and feel there is not enough opportunities to do so, has been affirmed. The shortage of institutions in the US promoting and supporting the idea of a connected Euro-Mediterranean cultural space (as they exist and proliferate in Europe) and the subsequent lack of financial support for Mediterranean-American exchange demand that we, as independent presenters of Mediterranean work, have to cultivate our donors and supporters from zero and need to engage in a work of educating audiences, funders and institutions to understand and embrace the idea of a Mediterranean culture that deserves its own space and recognition. Add to all this to the difficulty that all presenters, regardless of their size, admittedly  face when it comes to attracting NYC audiences to see the work of international, independent companies and I have to repeatedly ask myself the questions: how can we educate audiences to be curious about international work?  Why adopt a pan-Mediterranean approach as opposed to the work individual countries or sub-regions currently do for their cultural products? And why should Americans care about the work of Mediterranean performing artists?

I will answer quickly, though not adequately, questions one and two because my focus here is on the last question. I am convinced, and surely I am not the only or the first one to state this, that a coordinated effort is required from presenters, producers, programmers and marketing departments to cultivate  interest for international performance.  We, small independent companies, that share an interest for international work should actively support and promote one another’s work and share resources that will allow us to continue doing this work. More mentoring programs for internationals running international cultural programs in the US ran by institutions or consulates will be valuable to facilitate  the already hard and time consumming process of understanding and navigating a production system unknown to them. We should represent ourselves collectively inside and outside the US, in Europe and the MENA region, voicing to funding bodies and institutions, the need to invest in international exchange not on a case by case basis, but as a coordinated long term strategy towards culture in a globalized world– a strategy in which we can be key players.

As far as my second question is concerned, it is my convinction that coming up with a common cultural strategy can give the Mediterranean countries a far more powerful presence in the world scene as opposed to what each country separately can do and can build on and promote the region’s existing long history of interconnectedness and its enormous human, natural and economic potential.

But I want to return to my central question which is why should Americans care about the work of Mediterranean performing artists?

As a result of the cataclysmic events that have shaken the region in the last 5 years, Mediterranean artists are at the forefront of negotiating, through their work, major social and political questions  focused around key issues of democracy, freedom, governance, economy. These are the ‘grand narratives’ that constitute the backbone of much of the region’s artistic creation, whether it focuses on the personal stories of everyday people and how they live their lives in the midst of uncertainty, or looks at larger questions of history and nationhood; whether it takes place in national theater buildings or in small street festivals; whether it is told through traditional forms and structures or invents new and unpredictable aesthetic vocabularies.  How these political questions — democracy, freedom, governance, economy — translate into artistic creation and how the personal and the political are reconsidered in the work of Mediterranean artists,  is something that cannot be irrelevant to an American context: different as our everyday realities and social context as it may be,  our lives are currently affected by and organized around the exact same questions.

At this year’s Between the Seas Festival, we decided to look into contemporary playwrighting and try to identify how the region’s profound crisis inscribes itself into the work of Mediterranean playwrights. We want to argue for the emergence of a powerful, new Mediterranean drama, a body of work whose characteristics and themes are shaped in dialectical relation to the current sociopolitical circumstances that the entire region is living in. This is not an attempt to reduce the plays or the particular contexts of their creation to generalizations for the sake of arguing for a new ‘genre’. Rather it is an argument towards trying to listen what is that all these different voices are trying to tell us about the world.

At this year’s Between the Seas Festival’s 4×4 program we have invited four American directors to work on four new Mediterranean plays which, in our opinion, are representative of the emergent Mediterranean drama.  Jeton Neziraj’s (Kosovo) One flew over the Kosovo theater, a satire on national independence and theatrical institutions directed by Doug Howe; Lena Kitsopoulou’s (Greece) The Price, a dark  piece about a young couple in a supermarket wanting to buy a baby; Mohammad Al Attar’s (Syria) A Chance Encounter, where two men of different generations and political sides confront each other on a Beiruti beach directed by Noelle Ghoussaini; and Esteve Soler’s (Catalonia) Trilogy (Against progress/ Against democracy/Against love) a series of absurdist vignettes where any convention about human relations is twisted, negated, turned upside down directed by Ana Margineanu and Tamilla Woodard.

There are some very interesting common threads among these very different plays: the surface ordinariness of circumstances that is undercut by radically absurd events or radically absurd ways that the characters deal with them; a profound violence permeating intepersonal and quotidian relations; an artificial ‘poverty’ of language, terse, matter of factly and cruel (or satirically heightened and embellished beyond realism); the non linearity of structure or, even when there is a seeming linearity that is constantly negated by the improbability of events.

In these works, the playwrights have managed to capture, thematically, structurally, aesthetically,  the prevalent feeling in the region: uncertainty.  The uncertainty of unemployment, of war, of environmental catastrophe, of policing and surveillance, of economic crisis, of elections, of relationships, of what tomorrow’s day will bring. But this feeling, and the behaviors it produces, is, a global or at least a western world phenomenon that has afflicted an entire generation. And this is why we should care.

[4x4: NYC meets the Med will be presented on July 26th and 27th as part of this year's Between the Seas Festival. The readings are free and open to the public. The program is supported by a grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Additional support by the Institut Ramon Llul in New York. ]

Originally from Greece, Aktina Stathaki is an actor, director and producer. She is a graduate of the National Theater of Greece (Acting) and of the University of Toronto (PhD in Theater). She is the founder and Artistic Producing director of Between the Seas, New York City’s only festival with a focus on Mediterranean performance. She is an alumna of the Women’s Project Theater Producers’ Lab and a 2013 United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Fellow. Her interests lie in the intersection of culture, politics and identity and devised, intercultural and interdisciplinary performance.