EMMA MARY HALL STATE OF PLAY
KEEP GOING SISTER I WILL TRANSLATE FOR YOU
Reflections on the 11th Women Playwrights International Conference in Santiago, Chile.
BY EMMA MARY HALL
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I leave Melbourne excited to have my work presented at an international conference for playwrights, having never been sure if I qualify as one. I use words to tell stories, but in truth, I use text in limited ways and with limited reverence. Most of my writing is performed by yours truly. So I am looking forward to getting out of this solo rut, and talking to playwrights about how we might work collaboratively, with each other, the way that actors do.
At opening night drinks, Ana Luz Ormazábal and Camila Gonzalez approach me and ask if I'm Emma Hall. They recognise me from a picture on google, one I never knew had such a high SEO ranking, from a TV breakfast show I appeared on in Auckland almost two years ago. They tell me they are working on my reading. The script is very difficult, says Camila (Actor), but very true. She puts her hand on her heart. She asks me if I really believe everything I’ve written. They love the script. I love their clothes and their wit. We bond over our interest in the post-dramatics, political theatre, and our need to be 'authentic'. In Chile, says Ana Luz (Director), political theatre is expected to be about Pinochet and the dictatorship. This is very important, she says, but there is so much more “of the political” that we can talk about or, more importantly: do. I think about theatre trends in Australia and I relate, somehow. They ask me why I wrote the script. I talk about offshore detention. I'm jetlagged.
Cross-cultural communication is essentially a chaos, a jumble. No matter how hard you try, it’s easy to get it wrong. There's a model used to describe why; we might assume conversation is about A speaking and B listening, but a more accurate description would be to say it's A thinking, then encoding that thought into words. B hears those words, and then decodes them into a thought. This is what makes cross-cultural communication so tricky: we might understand the words, but it is a whole other thing to understand those invisible codes.
On the second day, a writer on a panel tells us that to be effective we must be collective. Only when we work together, does our work make sense, she says. She asks the room to raise their hands if they are racist. Nobody does. So why are there so few writers of colour here? She says. She asks us to raise our hands if we are homophobic. Then why are there no trans artists? If we are to overcome our fear of difference, she says, we must practice being close to bodies that are not like ours. This writer is Brazilian and she is speaking Portuguese, which is then translated directly into English by a woman sitting next to her, and also translated into Spanish by a professional translator transmitted via headphones. Every statement is followed by a noisy pause, as we wait for her words to be filtered through two other languages. This happens a lot during the conference, and often feels like listening to people speaking underwater.
Like the time I sit at the back of a crowded room, listening to an experimental performance with two actors speaking reverently into the avant-garde. One of them has a bell, which she rings intermittently. The audience laughs at regular intervals. The program tells me it is a French play about boat people and sailors, and the bell could (I guess) be indicative of a maritime scene, but the comedy seems odd for a play about refugees at sea. After it finishes, a Spanish speaker tells me they'd changed the order in the program. It was actually a play from Argentina, about motherhood.
Immediately afterwards, Grace and I get lost trying to find the reading of Desiree Gezentsvey’s play Nuclear Family. But the rooms have been switched at the last minute, and there aren't any signs. When we finally arrive, the usher won't admit latecomers. A playwright from New York, also lost in the corridors, is surprised to discover that not even English scripts will be read in their native tongue. "You mean they are ALL in Spanish?!" she asks, gently astounded, as if such a reality had never seemed possible.
In English, we put on ‘plays’. We also ‘play’. This double meaning is not universal. In Spanish, the verb to play is jugar, but the word for a play is obra, meaning work. Obra also means ‘building site’. The ‘building site’ I brought to WPI is a one-woman show about free speech. The text is simply a list. Of my own opinions, 621 of them, covering all manner of things: hot water systems, pop music, Russian diets, welfare. At the end, I list the names of every person who has died in Australian offshore detention since 2014 (currently 12).
Any author will tell you that people read the book they want to read, irrespective of what you write. In theatre this is even more true: your words pass through so many bodies before reaching an audience. Though I've written a solo, Ana Luz casts five actors. Only Camila speaks, but throughout the reading she variously shouts at, whispers to or ignores the others. Afterwards, they explain to me they'd decided to set it at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (there is nothing in my script that hints to Alcoholics Anonymous, but why not).
Meryl Streep once said that watching an actor in process is watching bad acting. As I watch Camila wrestle onstage with the emotion and confusion of someone else's opinions, I am reminded how difficult it is to ingest written words and make them your own. Ana and Camila aren't just reading my script. They want to make something new, and that's precious.
As Camila comes to the end of the reading, F.R. David's Words, an 80s hit, starts up. She dances with her eyes closed and arms raised, and another woman appears behind her holding a placard: ¿Qué pasó con Alejandro Castro? (What happened to Alejandro Castro?) . The room erupts into hoots and cheers. The moment is spontaneous and alive and even watching the footage now, I get goosebumps.
A week before the reading, Alejandro Castro was found dead in Quintero, a fishing village near Valparaiso. Alejandro was a 30-year-old Chilean environmental activist. A month before the conference he was leading a union of Quintero fishermen in fights against local industrialists. Around the same time, 1400 Quintero residents were treated in hospital for gas poisoning due to local factories. The police ruled his death a suicide, but no one is convinced: at least three environmental activists have died in mysterious circumstances in Chile since 2015; all officially reported as suicides.
My favourite piece at the conference is El Tiempo Sin Libros written by Norwegian writer Lene Therese Tiegen, based on testimonials by survivors of the Uruguayan dictatorship, including people from the director's own family. The acting is beautiful: fragile and immediate and immense. The Uruguayan ambassador and his wife sit in the front row. It is staged in traverse, so I watch the front row opposite me wipe away tears throughout the performance. Many of them are from countries with dictatorial pasts. The next day, the Uruguayan/Norwegian director hugs me when I tell her how moved I was by the performances. I enjoy non-acting she tells me. They are not actors? I ask. No, she says, they are actors. But they are not acting.
In Australia, they call my work 'contemporary performance'. They don't use that term at WPIC, although many of the ‘plays’ I see here are contemporary performances. The text is a starting formula, a set of instructions. A way of remembering or decoding our impossible lives.
We need new dramatic forms to talk about today's universalism, says another writer I meet in the pub. This writer had been working between Stockholm and San Paulo, and after the conference I write to her about Bolsonaro’s election. She tells me artists across the country are organising to fight, and she feels optimistic. She liked my list. She relates. She hopes we meet again.
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