Reflections on the 11th Women Playwrights International Conference in Santiago, Chile.



March 2019

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I’m initially ambivalent about attending the Santiago conference. It isn’t just the costs involved (the airfares, accommodation, translation and conference fees, and so on), or the long, non-stop schlep across the Pacific Ocean, or even the jetlag that is sure to be a constant for the duration of the week-long event. Nor is it my dread of what often transpires at conferences: hours upon hours of sitting in a chair, for days on end, listening to others speak.


The truth is, I’m really not sure how effective a 15-minute ‘dramatic reading’, in Spanish, of an extract of my play will be. Of what purpose will it serve? Who will witness this? Or, more importantly, how will they witness it? Translation is a tricky concept at the best of times, not least in the intersection between playwriting and performance. Even though this is a conference specific to playwrights, will these readings honour the text or will they be subjected to the whims of each director and ultimately become spectacles privileging performance over script? And, anyway, as a non-Spanish speaker, how can I benefit from a dramatic reading of an extract of my work in a language I don’t understand?


Thankfully, this initial and wary ambivalence about the conference, borne of a self-centred ‘what’s in it for me?,’ turns into a curiosity inherent to the possibilities – of translation, of interpretation of my script, not just in the alterity of language and the performative but also in the temporal, geographical, political and social constructs that shape each and every one of us.

Due to my location here in Australia, I was required to submit my play via the ‘Oceania’ chapter of WPI. However, Steppe: a journey of unforgetting isn’t set in Australia. Or in the present. In fact, contextually, there is nothing remotely Australian about it. Rather, it’s a story of the past, touches on a history that impacted millions (the Polish deportations under Stalin to prisons across Siberia), in a territory that is no longer. In this way, it’s more a play of dislocation. Of borderlessness. Of memory, rupture, and exile. Structurally, too, it relies more on poetics and rhythm than being anchored in dialogue (territory). Three women play the one; desperately trying to cling to a what-once-was happiness while her life unravels. As such, it helps if the actors also become one, finding a rhythm that will carry them along on this journey together.


This erasing of borders is also relatable to the script itself. Originally written in English (and first directed and performed in Melbourne with an Australian/ Singaporean cast), it contains Russian commands and Polish nursery rhymes. Translating the play into Spanish and then offering it up for ‘performance’ via a dramatic reading in Chile (with a Chilean director and actors) further confounds its identity. Not only in nuances of language, but also in the interpretation and understanding of a (his)story unlikely to be heard of. I say this with confidence; the story of Stalin’s Polish deportations, of which mostly women and children were subjected, is also little known in Australia. And, given Chile’s own recent traumatic past, where the good guys were the ‘communists’ and it was the fascist Pinochet regime that resulted in thousands of ‘disappeared’, it’s forgivable if aspects of Steppe’s narrative could be misconstrued.


Even so, Steppe is not so much about a history as it is a herstory. And it is this, in terms of its dramatic reading in Spanish, that I’m most interested in. Obviously, I’m close to the script; its rhythm and voice; its lilts and jars; its longing and desire; its hopefulness and hopelessness. I’m curious then, in not understanding Spanish, how much of this will translate beyond language, especially given the director and actors have only been given only a short extract to work with.


In the lead up to the conference, each playwright was required to submit a 15-minute extract of their play, in Spanish, which was then forwarded to the respective director and cast. I’d thought it odd that following this the director who’d been assigned Steppe didn’t get in touch. In fact, up until the moment the program was released, about a week before the conference, I had no idea who was working on my script. I wasn’t the only playwright this happened to. This lack of communication proved a disaster for some playwrights, who ultimately experienced the readings of their scripts as a betrayal.


During the conference’s opening night function, I decide that it might be a good time to go in search of my director, whom I still hadn’t met. Disculpe, I say to a woman, deep in conversation with another. Mi nombre es Gracia. Donde esta Mariana Munoz? My Spanish is pretty much exhausted after this so I’m relieved when she smiles and places an arm around the woman she’s been speaking with. This is Mariana, she replies. The three of us instantly fall into a group hug, the woman’s other arm gathering me into the embrace, delighted at such serendipity.


Your script, it is very difficult, admits Mariana, thankfully in English. I agree. There is lots of repetition. Yes. That’s intentional. I’ve had to cut out some of the lines. Oh? And this line you use ... She indicates with her finger the forward slash punctuation common in dramatic texts and which is used throughout Steppe. I’ve never seen this before. Oh dear. Fortunately, though, she then asks for the full script, in English. She still has time before the reading to work with the cast, she explains. Perhaps this will help me better understand.


To Mariana and her cast’s credit, the dramatic reading of ‘Estepa’, two days later, is beautiful. Not only in the way they find their own rhythm and poetics, or how they bring their own memories into the ‘story’, (the Polish nursery rhyme, for example, is swapped for a Chilean song Mariana’s grandmother used to sing her), but also in the stylised and aesthetic honouring of the brief to present a ‘dramatic reading’. The cast, which includes three actors, Mariana at the helm, and an accompanying cellist, sit centre stage in a thin, crescent-mooned line, scripts placed on music stands before them. At the slightest nod from the director, the theatre darkens and, in unison, small lamps atop the stands are switched on, a simple yet effective (and practical) form of dramatic lighting. With Mariana then announcing each scene and the few stage directions, the actors slowly become one – even pages are turned in unison – the softness of a summer remembering transforming into urgency; then to hope; then to despair.


But if Mariana hadn’t asked earlier to see the full script, or returned to the rehearsal space bolstered by the ‘whole story’, how would this reading have presented? And what would I have taken away from the experience?


I’m so glad I read the whole script in English, Mariana explains to me afterwards.  Those letters she writes, she says of the play’s protagonist Katarzyna and her constant letter writing. When they get returned to her at the end? That’s what drives this story, isn’t it? I understand this now; I didn’t before. I couldn’t.   


The experience of observing and of feeling and understanding my work beyond language, while it is paradoxically carried directly by language ultimately becomes an affirming experience that cross-cultural translation can work. But it also shows, yet again, the importance of communicating ideas; of how much can get lost in translation; of the necessity of making visible the playwright and the words she writes.


Above image © Grace Pundyk


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Dr. Grace Pundyk is a Melbourne-based artist, performer, author and playwright. Her inclination is to create work that often aligns with the forgotten and peripheral. She has performed inside a giant birds nest (to the sound of birdsong); danced kathak on a moving river barge, at 4am, amidst giant floating lotuses; staged a play inside a freight car at a disused rail yard; and also skinned marsupial roadkill from which she makes parchment. Books include the global travel narrative about bees and honey, The Honey Trail (St Martin’s Press, 2010), and Sons of Sindbad: the photographs (Arabian Publishing, London, 2006), which draws on the once forgotten work of Australian maritime writer and photographer, Alan Villiers. Appearances at various festivals include Ten Days on the Island, the Melbourne Festival, White Night, and the Sydney and Brisbane writers festivals. 

Steppe, Grace's first play, is based on ‘found’ letters written by her Polish grandmother. The play premiered at the 2015 Melbourne Fringe Festival and was short-listed for the Rodney Seaborn Playwrights Award 2016. Steppe was also selected for the 11th Women’s International Playwrights Conference, held in Santiago, Chile in 2018, and has been translated into Polish and Spanish.




                             Australian Plays series of guest essays from leading voices in Australian theatre.

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