DONNA ABELA ET AL STATE OF PLAY
KEEP GOING SISTER I WILL TRANSLATE FOR YOU
Reflections on the 11th Women Playwrights International Conference in Santiago, Chile.
BY DONNA ABELA, GRACE PUNDYK AND EMMA MARY HALL
This is my third WPI conference, and the second time I would have a play in the playreading program. In 2004, in Manilla, my reading took place during the last session on the last day, too late to make connections through my work, or to culturally adjust to the fact that in the post-Marcos, very Catholic Philippines, an Australian satire which finds Mother Church in bed with a General was no laughing matter. But WPIC have scheduled my reading on day one, so I’m delighted, and looking forward to living and breathing theatre in another language in another part of the global south. I’m confident that the Spanish translation of the “fragment” of my play (to use the WPIC term) - crafted by my Argentine, English professor, poet, best friend - conveys, as far as possible, the meanings and intentions of the English original. I’ve sent what was required - the fragment, a character list, and a three-line synopsis - and have heard nothing more from WPIC, so I assume that all must be in order for my reading.
President Salvador Allende paid construction workers and artists equal wages to build and beautify the facility our conference is using as its main venue - now known as the Gabriela Mistral Metropolitan Cultural Centre or GAM. After the 1973 coup d’état, General Pinochet moved in, and the facility became the seat of his military junta. The raised fists an artist had embossed onto door handles were turned upside down, as if ready to be cuffed.
Each time I enter GAM, I’m aware that Chile’s dictator had walked through the same space as me, as us, as women writers gathering to speak up and speak out … and that he had done so with antithetical and monstrous intent. But Pinochet is dead, and his headquarters is again a popular gathering place. The vision and skill of the original builders and artists has been reclaimed for expression - instead of repression - and those embossed fists, set right, are raised again in solidarity and resistance.
My play Jump For Jordan is a comedy about a queer Arabic-Australian woman. The reading is at Gam, on the fluorescent-lit floor of a lecture room. The script has been cut. The presentation is frenetic, with caricaturing music and costumes, and some camp gender-wrong casting. Surreally, I see that my play’s intentions have not been understood, and I watch my expertly-translated play become the very thing I had set out to oppose - a piece of orientalism. Even in Spanish, our Peruvian friend could not make sense of it. I swallow my shock. I have to get through a Q & A. I focus on being gracious to my hosts.
Afterwards, I meet the director Amalá Saint-Pierrre. She works with a professional theatre company attached to a Catholic university. She is clearly proud of the reading, and keen to go for a drink. In a local bar, I ask a couple of questions to make sense of what I had seen - why did you cast men as the lesbian lover and elderly aunt? - before moving on to the safer topic of politics. Born in France to parents who had fled there after the coup, Amalá speaks about the particular challenges of being a “reverse exile”. We compare the Chilean and Argentine dictatorships and have an illuminating conversation that is all too short. When she leaves to resume rehearses for the new Argentine play she is about to open, I feel that we could have worked together really well.
Next morning, I am stunned. I nurse a brain-blanking headache. I feel flattened and deeply embarrassed before my international peers. I want to hide or leave. I never want to write another play again.
Seven days later, an artefact seers its image onto my mind’s eye - the charred and mangled remains of a typewriter pulled from the rubble of the Palacio de la Moneda which had been pulverised during the coup, and was the place of Allende’s death. It is on display in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights which commemorates the victims of human rights violations perpetrated during Chile’s seventeen-year dictatorship. I remember my reading, and think this blasted typewriter could have become the epitome of my conference experience.
Fortunately, the rest of the conference, and that feisty city, puts the reading in context, in a field of contexts actually, and shows me that the mishandling of my play - and others during that week - matters far less than my capacity to write a play in the first place.
Watching other play fragments in Spanish without much context, in presentations that vary widely in their rendering, often in darkened spaces that don’t allow me to follow the English version in my hands, makes most of the readings opaque to me. I know that this relegation of English is long overdue and hugely important, but I am disappointed that the content and form of the actual plays pretty much escape me.
However, in performances, in simultaneously-translated panels and Q & As, and in general conversation, I hear so many women speak about the constrained or oppressive circumstances in which their plays were written.
In Latin America, countries are still struggling with the trust-crushing legacy of dictatorships. In Eastern Europe, ultra-conservatives are cancelling the rights of LGBTQI people, and in Brazil, are fuelling homophobic violence and murder. In Chile, police deploy tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters demanding reproductive rights and affordable higher education. In Mexico, kidnapping by narco businesses has surged, and happens in the thousands each year, to rich and poor alike. Egyptian women calling for democracy in Tahir Square were sexually abused, African languages are disappearing, and gender-based violence in the Philippines is compounded by poverty, natural disasters and armed conflict. The number of times the word femicide is used, especially in relation to first nations women and girls, notably in Canada, is sobering, as is the ubiquitous inadequacy of political will to catch and convict their abductors and assassins. To varying degrees, from most countries, including our own, the footfalls of authoritarianism can be heard.
When a playwright from Concepción describes how a horrific rape made her an outsider to herself and to her sense of being a woman, she sums up what I know to be a first principle in my own practice - in writing, first I recover my freedom. Art is the way back; it is how we un-crush ourselves; it is agency in the making.
This is not to dismiss the well-intentioned mishandling of my play or the psychic wound this always causes. Nor is it to overlook the fact that had directors had access to the narrative and dramaturgical context of the script fragments, had directors and playwrights been able to work together, communication and exchange could have been better supported.
However, in the scheme of things, in the field contexts provided by the conference and the street-art-besotted streets of Chile at large, I am often reminded of the power and capacity of art, of what becomes possible when we put our ingenuity to superlative use. My capacity to create a play in the first place, “the urge towards art” as my Argentine friend would say, is deeply reaffirmed, is infinitely more important than the parochial issue of whether a reading of my play was good or bad.
The blasted typewriter on display in that spirited and generous once junta-controlled country offers me sustaining answers to the perennial questions … Why write? Why make art in the first place?
Because it is an act of creation that can recover and enact freedom. Because it gives us the capacity to reclaim and recreate when we most need it. Because it can dilute monologic hegemonies with voices full of neglected and much needed urgency and strength. Because - to borrow a phrase used by playwright Ines Margarita Stranger to describe the work feminists are currently doing in Chile - it can contribute to the task of preserving the species. Because what is typed can outlive the dictator, the censor, the copper, abductor, the bureaucrat, the legislator who tomorrow might outlaw your poverty, your race, your language, your union, your love for your wife.
At the closing ceremony, one of our ever-ebullient conference hosts, Sally Campusano Torres, says that the conference’s main aim was solidarity. Months later, I still feel a sense of solidarity with our international counterparts who are likewise working with words and actors and audiences to transform the territories in which they write and struggle, and to activate new propositions and possibilities that may recover and preserve their freedoms.
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.
Emma Mary Hall
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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Australian Plays series of guest essays from leading voices in Australian theatre.