'Cultural Translation in Four International Collaborations' (USA with Denmark, Iran, Ireland, Jordan)

Cultural Translation in Four International Collaborations:

US Artists Dance with Theater-makers from Denmark, Iran, Ireland, and Jordan

By Kim Peter Kovac and Megan Alrutz

Many of us in the field of theater for young audiences are working on “building bridges and crossing borders” across real and imagined international lines.  Throughout this work, theater-makers and presenters are engaged in processes of “cultural translation” that encourage, if not require, us to consider issues of language and theme, as well as the transfer of multiple cultural contexts to the rehearsal process and to our audiences at large. International collaborations invite us into each others’ worlds – both artistically and culturally – offering exciting new ways of imagining theater for young people and reminding us of the complexities of making art in an age of globalism.

For this article, we invited a US playwright, artistic director, director, and presenter – all women, all extraordinary—to talk about their efforts to grow cultural dialogue, energize their work, and inspire their audiences through international collaborations.


Laurie Brooks, a playwright and young adult novelist living in Tempe, Arizona, collaborated with Graffiti Theatre in Cork, Ireland to develop The Riddle Keeper, Deadly Weapons, The Tangled Web, and The Lost Ones. For this interview, Brooks reflected on the process of developing those pieces during the years 1995-2005.

Linda Hartzell, artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theatre, has pursued many international partnerships on behalf of her theater. For this interview, Hartzell shared her observations on some of this work, particularly the collaboration with Iranian writer/director/actor Yaser Khaseb which resulted in the 2009 production of Mysterious Gifts: Theatre of Iran.

Deirdre Kelly Lavrakas, co-founding director of the Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices, has directed or conducted master acting classes in twelve countries.  For this interview, she talked about her experiences co-directing Walking The Winds: Arabian Tales, which was co-commissioned and co-produced by the Kennedy Center and the Performing Arts Center of Amman, Jordan in 2006.

Mary Rose Lloyd, director of programming at the New Victory Theatre (New Vic) in New York City, sees an average of 250 performances a year all over the world, spending ‘what seems to be half my life on the road in search of wonderful performances’ for the children and young people of New York.  For this interview, Lloyd spoke about the New Vic’s 2007 Danish Festival.


LAURIE:  The connection [with Graffiti] happened quite by accident. A grad student friend at New York University had an internship at Graffiti Theatre Company, one of Ireland’s top producers of theater for young audiences (TYA). She took with her a copy of my first play, Imaginary Friends, because she hoped to direct it. As it turned out, Graffiti toured it throughout Southern Ireland and presented it at the Scottish International Children’s Festival in Edinburgh.

Since this play was already written, our devising process, which is traditionally used at Graffiti, was focused on exploring the educational implications for Irish children. The basics of the play remained the same but our devising discoveries included further developing the symbols in the script and the use of rhymes and riddles.

DEIRDRE:  In 1991, I found myself crossing over the Jordan River, on foot, with acting exercises, bilingual scripts, and a book called Arab Folktales in my rolling suitcase.  Having just finished my second State Department residency with the Palestinian National Theatre in East Jerusalem, I was off to a residency in Amman.  A few hours later, I met Lina Attel, now Director General of the National Center for Arts and Culture.  We immediately began a conversation that has yet to stop: how do we as artists work best with and for young people?

I was fortunate enough to do four more residencies in Jordan, which culminated in the translation and adaptation of the Kennedy Center Theater Training Program for Young People’s curriculum for use in Amman.  Throughout it all, Lina and I dreamed of doing a production together, which became a reality in 2006 with Walking the Winds: Arabian Tales.  She and I co-directed a story-theater musical based on Arab tales, legends, and history – a production which was co-written, co-composed, and co-designed by artists from Jordan and the US.  We are proud that it was, and still is, (we believe), the only production for young audiences collaboratively created by a US theater and a theater from the Arab world. 

And, to come full circle, one of the first sources of material for Walking the Winds came from the same Arab Folktales book which walked across the Jordan River with me fifteen years earlier.

LINDA:  Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) had been collaborating with Dutch artists in the field of theater for young audiences on a project called ‘Connecting Stories’, with a major goal of teaming up with theater artists from the Middle East.  At a meeting in Amsterdam, I was urged to check out the work of the 27-year old writer-director-actor Yaser Khaseb, who had performed to acclaim in Europe and Asia and was also visiting the Netherlands.  I first saw his work through grainy little videos--one shot with a friend's cell phone.

But I was immediately intrigued by his imaginative amalgam of mime and dance, of traditional Iranian stage idioms and modern motifs.  As a result, we brought Yaser, two other performers in his company, and Farin Zahedi--a prominent Iranian dramaturg, writer and professor from the University of Tehran, to Seattle to work on a new show called Mysterious Gifts: Theatre of Iran.  The performance was like nothing we’d ever had at our theater – one of the newspapers described it as “ethereal, dreamlike playlets with puppet figures and billowing smoke effects.”

The artists came to perform, to teach, and to educate.  One of our major goals was to to expand how we in this country see Iranians and how they see us – to enable extended conversations among artists from both cultures, as well as with the whole of the Seattle community.  It was especially amazing for us in the theater to learn more about the Iranian community in Seattle.

 MARY:  The idea to create a festival, if you will, around the creations from a specific country was borne out of initial trips to the festivals in Denmark, coordinated by Peter Manscher.  There were many remarkable Danish companies whose artistry we admired and we began discussions with the Danish Arts Agency and the Consulate General of Denmark to host a Danish Festival in New York.  For years I have been attending international festivals looking for wonderful work to bring to New York.  In many cases, the productions I encounter abroad are intimate in scale.  The New Victory has 499 seats with two balconies.  However, the New Vic is one of several historic theaters under the purview of the New 42nd Street and we were able to expand our programming, a few weeks each season, into the New 42nd Street Studios and the Duke on 42nd Street Theater.  These spaces more appropriately house small and precious works and really allowed us an opportunity to host the Danish Festival and introduce our audiences to a different way of seeing and experiencing theater.


LINDA:  Since our first international collaboration in 1991 with the Children’s Theatre of Novosibirsk from the Soviet Union, some things have changed about working with foreign companies.  While the Soviets were here then performing The Firebird, we joined them in witnessing the change of regime at home; we experienced with them the joy and fear they were feeling because something so tumultuous and momentous was happening back home while they were so far away.  This was before the internet and cell phones so you had to wait, worried, to make a long distance call, hoping you’d get an operator to put it through. 

This is in contrast to our recent experience in 2009. To my knowledge, Yaser and his company were the first Iranian artists to perform in the US in thirty years.  While these artists were all in rehearsal, I was able to watch the happenings in Tehran and in the UN General Assembly in real time on TV.

DEIRDRE:   As we built Walking the Winds, we were always aware that it was only a few years after 9/11, and that our institutions were the national performing arts centers.  We wanted the production to be pan-Arab, including seven stories coming from different parts of the Arab world; we also wanted things to be positive, but not simplistically so.  Our Jordanian partners really hoped the show would change some perceptions in the US about Arabs.  At the end of the day, though, most of the concerns about political correctness were left behind and we all became like artists everywhere--just putting on a show.

On a smaller, more personal note, one of the young performers, of Jordanian heritage, said that being in the show was ‘an amazing and really fun opportunity, to show [my classmates] that along with being American, I’m also part of the Arab world.’  And he said that for the first time, he was able to be proud, in public, of his roots.

MARY:  We work really hard to find bold, thought-provoking, imaginative theater works that might become transformative experiences in people’s lives.  Presenting these works from various cultures, representing disparate points of view, is key to providing a well-rounded artistic experience for the young people of New York and, we hope, serves to enhance their global citizenry.

LAURIE:  My plays are driven by characters and relationships, not necessarily by issues, but it is crucial to connect the personal journeys of the characters to concerns of the larger world.

The main character in The Tangled Web is a teenage girl who finds herself poor, pregnant and alone.  In Ireland at that time, abortion was illegal and even discussing the concept was, in many circles, culturally taboo, so as the character considers her options (ultimately deciding to have the baby), she uses the common phrase for an abortion: ‘to go over to London’.  Additionally, embedded in the set design was specific information about where young peple who saw the play could get help – phone numbers and websites of actual social service agencies. 

The Lost Ones is set in a post-apoctalyptic world and explores the consequences of war in the lives of two young brothers.  They’ve lost most of their language but have a battered copy of the book Peter Pan.  On the set, primitive drawings were sketched on the walls, like one might see in a prison, telling parts of the boys’ past, as they build an “escaper” to go to Neverworld, even as the enemy invades their space.


LINDA:  What is appropriate to present to young people and what is taboo are very different in different countries.  With most of our collaborations, there is the process of finding compromises around acceptability of themes, language, and mores that are shown on stage.  We have had to make adjustments in terms of our personal comfort levels as we discover what works and doesn’t work for the audience. It can be a challenge to both accommodate the sensibilities of our audience and push them to understand and accept something that stretches the usual boundaries.  Interestingly, and in part because the show was for teenagers, with Mysterious Gifts, we asked Yaser to perform exactly as he had in Iran, with no changes.

An interesting cultural difference arose in how audiences from our two countries interpreted the end of one of the playlets.  This particular piece closes with Yaser engaging in a fight with a puppet which represents his ‘other’ self, a puppet which is on his own hand.  In an amazing piece of physical acting, the puppet character ties a rope to one of the legs of the human-Yaser, who is then lifted up into the air.  Many of our audience members thought this was a violent ending--that he had somehow died.  Yaser explained that in Persian culture the ending is hopeful because it represents an opportunity to begin again. 

DEIRDRE:  In the building of the script and production, issues of cultural translation came up in many areas.

As one example, we ended up negotiating the degree of realism (which is very common in Arab theater) versus less literal staging that I was used to. Arabic is a densely poetic language full of complex images and metaphors, with a tradition of poetic language going back thousands of years, so Jordanian theater tends to rely heavily on words and less on image.  We were creating a piece more in the model of American musical theater which is, of course, not a traditional Arab art form.  What ended up in the script was relatively sparse language, but an emphasis on some poetic flourishes and insertions.

Costumes and movement also became points of discussion in our process; we wanted to remain respectful to parts of Arab culture that are more modest, while still reaching a contemporary US audience. Conversations around music also became important and we talked about how far we wanted to stretch away from traditional Arab forms into more popular and musical theater idioms. Luckily, I had been working with Lina since 1991 and with choreographer Rania Kawhawi almost as long, and our shared experiences and deep friendship dominated all these cultural and artitistic negotiations.

MARY:  First, it was quite extraordinary for us to see how deeply the Danish government supported the arts and specifically arts for young audiences, not at all what we in the US experience.  We also hit up against differences related to cultural contexts and what is acceptable to show children. Gruppe 38, one of the Danish companies we collaborated with for the festival, had created a theater-installation piece called Hans Christian, You Must be an Angel that is still touring today (the festival took place in 2007).  Their show was commissioned to mark the birthday of Hans Christian Andersen and included references to several of his works.  One of those references, to The Emperor’s New Clothes, included the title character on film runing on a loop, dressed completely in his “new clothes.”  To the amusement of the Danish, nudity in shows for kids in the US is not so common, but the artists were wonderful in engaging in a “cultural translation” that involved a film effect which, in essence, blurred “the goods” of the emperor, so to speak.  This solution worked for everyone as it did not take away from the artistic intent of the footage (it was clear that he was nude), but also was sensitive to the US American school and public audiences’ outlook on appropriateness.

LAURIE:  In the US, strong language can be an issue in plays for young audiences. Gatekeepers, school officials, and parents are uncomfortable with certain four letter words in popular use.  In Ireland, the language of teens, including four letter words, is EXPECTED in a play for that age group. And so I found myself, for the first time, unhampered in expressing the everyday language of teenagers. I don’t have this luxury in the US.  For example, The Tangled Web contains a scene in which a girl and boy talk about whether or not to use a condom.  I wrote the scene without using the word condom because I knew it would not be accepted in the US in a play for young people.

Slang words and expressions are different as well.  For example, in 1997 the word ‘deadly,’ was widely used in Ireland to mean ‘cool’.  I had never heard that usage in the US.  Names of characters in the plays reflected popular names in Ireland in the original productions but were changed in the published versions in the US.

DEIRDRE:  Arabic calligraphy is so beautiful that our set designer’s preliminary design used Arabic writing – verses from a classic ghazal poem, I think – as a decorative element on the floor of the set.  However, I immediately felt this was culturally inappropriate.  Why?  Because the Koran is of such importance to the Muslim culture that there would be an assumption that any Arabic writing was from the Koran, and of course, one does not walk on any scripture.  The designer ended up creating a lovely giant abstract shape on the floor, something non-Arabic speakers could assume was an Arabic letter, but those who knew the language would know it was not.


LAURIE:  Graffiti and I developed four plays together and each process was unique to the play. As Emelie FitzGibbon, artistic director of Graffiti, puts it, we ‘allowed the play that wanted to emerge to emerge.’ During the four processes, I was a sponge, soaking up the novelty and excitement of working collaboratively, discovering elements that would define the plays. 

Devising has grown in popularity in the US since I first worked with Graffiti in 1995. Now many companies and individuals employ devising techniques, each with their own approach to the work. Graffiti has a long tradition of devising with actors and a director who are proficient in improvisation and comfortable working with playwrights, brainstorming and animating ideas and concepts. Sometimes the Education Officer or other personnel join the sessions. Everyone who participates understands that the ideas discovered in devising are the property of the playwright. The playwright writes the play and the director is “the shaper.”  

As a playwright who was used to working alone, it was a revelation to have so much intelligent attention focused on the play-in-progress.

DEIRDRE: The creation of the music was a fascinating blend of artistic and cultural styles.  US co-composer Deborah Wicks La Puma wrote the songs, including harmonies, and uploaded them to the internet, where Jordanian co-composer Wael Sharqawi orchestrated them with Arab rhythms and instrumentation.  Their communication was primarily, as you might imagine, via the music, and not words.

LINDA:  Performing with us, Yaser had opportunities not available to him at home.  He is used to performing in the streets in Iran, or is invited by a venue only a day or two before a performance.  He doesn’t usually have the luxury of advance planning.  At SCT we had a fully equipped stage, a professional staff, and the time to truly tech the show.  I asked him to add a lighting design that would transform work that usually lived in the streets into a fully realized ‘mainstage’ experience.  While of course there are lights when his show performs in theater spaces, having extended technical rehearsals to work out all of the moments slowly and carefully was new to him.  The whole process was really exciting for us too. We all shared war stories, expressions, moments from our lives, and laughter—lots of laughter. So many of our stories were the same and yet it was really fun to hear the differences as well.


LINDA: With all the international work we do, I want our kids to know what's out there in the world, to experience how we're all different and how we’re the same.

Specific to Mysterious Gifts - I was thrilled to find how intrigued and excited teenagers were by Yaser’s performance – they consistently gave him standing ovations.  We found that our audience had many preconceived notions about Iranians, and this project allowed us to open doors and minds.  We were also able to knock down our own rules around how long a post-play discussion should be - often the audiences stayed for over an hour after performances.  They wanted an in-depth conversation with Yaser and the other artists.  To see us really meet one another and “dance” in a poetic way and learn from and be touched by a common theatrical experience is really what this collaborative art is all about.

LAURIE:   Much of the TYA in Ireland is pared down, highly imaginative, and stylistically bold. Working with Graffiti raised my awareness of what theater can do that cannot be achieved in film or television. It taught me to explain less and take bold risks. Ireland has greater freedom with language and topics that are of crucial interest to teenagers. My work in Ireland encouraged me to write plays that truly live in the world of young adults.  I am grateful for having had the opportunity to work in Ireland with such a dynamic company, to have formed lifelong friendships and to continue exploring the techniques that grew from that work.

MARY:  Since the New Victory Danish Festival in 2007, we have collaborated with the Scottish government and the Imaginate Festival to present a Scottish Festival and Forum (2009) and will, pending funding, do the same with the Dutch government in 2012.  Along the way, we have grown our own New Victory family, if you will, to include local arts-makers who are passionate about creating theater for young audiences and who wish to enhance their own perspectives by sharing best practices with creators from around the world.  Officially named the New Vic Collaboratory, we are hoping to expand our concentrated international exchanges and to support the creation, development, production, and touring of outstanding performing arts for young people and their families.

DEIRDRE: My international work has changed me significantly as a director and acting teacher.  The secret of working with colleagues from other cultures is, for me, about listening and observing with heightened awareness and sensitivity to nuance.  Ears that are well-tuned and eyes that are focused can find what separates us and what joins us.  If there’s no common language and culture, though theater lives in both, everything has to be very precise – the exact gesture, costume, movement, word – the essence of the moment. 

After projects like this, I am left with big questions: How should we as artists work in this global culture?   Hopefully, boldly and without fear.  With strong hearts, artists must take a prominent role in using theater to build bridges between cultures.  Live performances, not the products of the mass entertainment industry, are what give our young audiences the most visceral connection to challenging, complex, diverse, and inspirational stories. This, in turn, provides tools for the future, tools that will invite our children and young people be the architects of their dreams. 

Megan Alrutz is a professor in the Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities program at the University of Texas at Austin.

Kim Peter Kovac is Producing Director of Theater for Young Audiences at the Kennedy Center, in Washignton, DC and vice-president of ASSITEJ International.