International(ist) Collaboration and Beyond

by Garret Jon Groenveld

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.)

In May of 2012, I was awarded the Internationalist Global Playwrighting Prize for my play, “The Hummingbirds”, which included six presentations in six different countries.   These presentations led to an ongoing tour in Romania, a full production in Zaragoza and a production and subsequent remount in Mexico City.  I was able to travel to five of the presentations or productions and witnessed a lot of other material via technology.  Further, the award led to more readings in the Bay Area, New York, Singapore, and a collaboration with PopUp Theatrics in New York and Edinburgh, Scotland.

So here’s my thoughts and experience with collaboration across borders.

Skype/Facetime/What’sAp/Viber – all these sources of technology are bringing the world closer, but being there in person also makes a huge difference.

The final interview for the Internationalists took place over a Skype conference call with 8 people all over the world at 8:00 am on a Sunday Morning.  I only saw one or two people, so it felt a bit weird and I was a bit surprised by the final question, “how do you feel about collaboration?”

Of course, I’m all for it, maybe other people aren’t, but collaboration is the most fun part of being a playwright, if I didn’t like it – I’d go write novels or something.  I write plays so I can hang out with cool directors and actors and talk to them about ideas.  I guess it was the right answer, because I won and it turned out to be true, that these presentations would be significant collaborations.  And while the Internationalists prize had no money attached (and I knew that going in), I gained an invaluable learning experience, leading to a broader network of collaborators than I could ever have expected.

So in that spirit, and because the play is more open to interpretation (written for two actors of any age, race or gender and not tied to a specific location in time), I just decided at the outset to have the default be: “Yes, let’s talk about it first and then try that crazy idea, either if I like it or if I think it would not be right in any way for the play.”  My collaborators needed to try different things to make the play work for the language and culture they were in.  Also, they were expending a tremendous amount of energy, time and resources to present my play, so, let’s try it for the presentation.  And if it turns out it doesn’t work, let’s modify if we go to production.

The best example of this is that several presentations added dancers.  After seeing it, I’m still of the mind that adding dancers doesn’t work for this play, as it distracts from the story we are trying to tell and takes away from the imagination of the audience.  But the story still got told, and in the end, it was a good experiment and I’m happy to have seen it.

The necessity of translation was also an interesting collaboration.  I worked very closely with Beatriz Cabur to get the Spanish language translation correct.  We Skyped often to go over analogues to the jokes in the script, our biggest debate being over the challenge of pronouns for the word spouse.  In my draft, in English, I chose the word spouse to give the gender of the character’s partner anonymity.  In a language with gendered nouns, this isn’t so easy.  We ended up giving it a gender, because in Spainish, there is no way to avoid gender.

I didn’t collaborate as closely on the translation for Romania or the Netherlands.  In Bucharest, they kept most of the text, but edited and reshaped it to work in Romanian.  The Mexican production, took Beatriz’ translation and moved some of the scenes into stunning videography.  Jake Witlin did the presentation in Berlin in English (at the English Theatre of Berlin and in collaboration with an international theatre festival in London).  But we did go forward with a translation into German, but it seemed to delete the sense of humor from the play.  If we’re able to go to production, we are going to work on adding the humor back in through improve and during rehearsal – and no jokes about if Germans actually have a sense of humor.

I was proud they used the script and the presentation in Bucharest as a protest of the take-over of Green Hours (the landmark Independent Theatre in Romania) by less than reputable “businessmen.”    I was already scheduled to come for the subsequent premiere of the tour (still running by the way), so I just watched the presentation at my kitchen table on YouTube. This protest certainly raised the profile of opening in night in November at the Godot, and I seemed to have met every famous Romanian in the Romanian theatre scene.  The actors, Daniel Popa and Lau Baniescu, and director, Florin Persic Jr.’s stage craft in interpreting the end of the play made me gasp and I was told that for weeks people would use throw the word “stripperu!” out into conversation.

Each country took the play and focused on an element that spoke to their country.  In a country like Spain, where the unemployment rate is over 20%, or in Mexico City, with a vast income divide apparent, the theatres emphasized the employment element of the play.  In Romania and the Netherlands, the play took on more of the themes of government manipulation of our lives.  There was a reading in Singapore for a London based theatre company, and they cast an ethnic Chinese woman and ethnic Indian male, little knowing that several weeks after – there would be the first race riot in Singapore’s 50 year history between the ethnic Indian male workers over an ethnic Chinese woman’s decision.

In the US, there’s been a better balance between the all the themes.  The Internationalist presentation at Playwrights Horizons with Julia Brothers and Colman Domingo (directed by Doug Howe), definitely felt like a great coming home and in a recent developmental workshop with Alfredo Narcisco and Olympia Dukakis at the Lark (directed by Dominic D’Andrea), we’ve been delving deeper into the relations between the two characters, opening up the play for me all over again.

I also was able to travel to five of the countries presentations or productions (including the one in New York), and got to know my colleagues in person, because despite the wonders of technology, there’s nothing like being there in person.

In Romania – we had goulash from a bread house, and I got to learn how the independent theatre scene works there (as opposed to the State supported theatre).  I was able to witness a musical act from the Grotowski school in Poland (absolutely beautiful voices) and drank copious amounts of Palinka (a gorgeous plum vodka).

Serres Communes had a tremendous presentation in Mexico City led by Alfonso Carmaco and actors Diana Lien and Guadalupe Damien, lots of tequila before, lots of tequila during (at least for the audience) and one of the most amazing conversations about my work (over tequila), almost two hours, covering gender politics, significant employment and the Mexican class system.  I felt like I was in the UN, because the very talented Naomy Romo sat by my ear and translated Spanish into English and then my comments back into Spanish.  I think this deep dissection was one element that made their production quite special, as there was a deep engagement in the work with the whole company, not just the two actors.  And I was so glad to be a part of that discussion, I try to look at the notes from this discussion before I go into a reading.

And no, I don’t speak Spanish, I should, living in California, but I chose (and enjoyed) French in Middle and High School.  I don’t understand Romanian at all.  It may be surprising, but I’m actually pretty good with Dutch, as my father is an immigrant, and I was raised listening to it.

Which leads me to the question so many people ask me if I understand what’s going on in the when I hear the play in a different language.  Of course I do!  I wrote the play, so I’m familiar with what’s going to happen, and I can basically tell when they are doing something significantly different, or if a difference in language may not make a joke land.  But it’s all a part of the collaboration, it has to work for the country and language it’s appearing in.  And frankly, the many interpretations gave me inspiration to take more chances and be braver with my own choices.

Here is another new-fangled way you can collaborate internationally – for the production in Zaragoza, Beatriz not only updated me via Skype, she directed the cast in Madrid from Milan where she was living for the year via Skype.  This worked well because she had developed a strong working relationship with the actors during the preparation for the presentation almost 10 months earlier (and the dynamic charm of Bea, of course).

Sometime in the middle of all the Internationalists presentations, I was asked by Pop Up Theatrics Ana Margineanu and Tamilla Woodard to participate in their project Long Distance Affair.  This is a cool one, as they pair teams of writers, directors and actors from different countries, and the audience comes into the actor’s home via Skype, sitting through three 10 minute pieces in three different countries (imagine the logistics and time zones involved).  I had the pleasure of working with Tamilla and Eric Robertson from Edinburgh, Scotland.  We set up a Skype to all meet and ask questions, I got to see his house and meet his wife and adorable children.  I decided I might like to do a love story, because it was being done in New York around Valentine’s Day, and Eric is so charming and it would be easy to fall in love with him.  I also added a spy/sci-fi element.  And threw in a line about Glenn Fidditch, as it’s his favorite drink.

A very special element is the post cards from the audience which they can write to the characters they just met.  Since it’s one on one between an actor and audience member, these postcards are a great way to gauge what an audience is feeling – replacing that collaboration the playwright has with an audience.  We were able to fine tune it for the second run, actually in Edinburgh, so we had to rewrite for the daytime, and were able to use the light from outside to almost make theatre almost filmic.

I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and I’m always looking to build more theatre with the collaborators I have and look forward to gaining more as I travel through my career.

Garret Jon Groenveld is a poet and playwright living in San Francisco. His play “The Hummingbirds” is the winner of the Global Age Project from the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley (2012) and winner of the Internationalist Global Playwrighting Prize, with productions in Spain, Romania and Mexico and in workshop at the Lark with Olympia Dukakis. His other plays include Missives (59E59 2008), The Empty Nesters and The Serving Class.