'Identity and Influences: International Perspectives' (from Australia, Croatia, Germany, Kosova, Mexico)

Identity and Influences: International Perspectives

Compiled by Courtney Blackwell

Theatre artists bring their own life experiences, their own personal and cultural histories, to the stage. Whether subconsciously or outright, in the forefront or in between the lines, the identities and influences of theatre practitioners are exhibited through their works. Interested in the nature of these identities and influences, TYA Today spoke with five international TYA practitioners who candidly reflected on how their cultural identities influence and affect their work. This conversation includes Mexican playwright Amaranta Leyva, Croatian playwright/director Lana Šarić, German playwright Lutz Hübner, Australian artistic director of Circa Yaron Lifschitz, and Kosovar playwright/director Jeton Neziraj.

How is the identity of your country or culture being used in either your TYA work or the TYA work of your country?

Leyva: When André Bretón visited Mexico for the first time in 1938, he said that it really was a surrealistic country where you live and feel the mix of time periods and cultures. Living in this mix of cultures as Mexico is, without noticing or analysing it but just living it, has a lot of influence on my work. I also grew up in a theatre family so I mix fantasy and reality without analysing or questioning myself too much. Another influence is that in Mexico, Family, as a figure, has a solid base in society. Relationships between parents, children, and grandparents are very alive and strong. Playwrights and theatre companies use this bond not only as a starting point to develop their characters and stories but also as source of conflict.

Šarić: In Croatia there are not many TYA theatres, but those that are profiled for young audiences use the country’s identity primarily in choosing topics that are specific for our country, such as patriotism or war, social problems, or popular novels written by Croatian writers. I usually find the inspiration for my plays in observing reality. Very often I use newspaper articles as a base for my texts. I suppose I do treat some of my country’s realities and issues in my work, but I usually write plays that are more of “universal speech” plays that are not necessarily set in what would be recognized as my country or city.

Hübner: My approach to TYA is more or less political. I try to tell stories that have to do with the problems in our society, with the taboos, fears, and expectations young people have in Germany now. I’m writing “local stories” that have to do with my country, and it’s very interesting to see how they are transformed to other countries. In every good local story should be a global story.

Lifschitz: Circus has a reputation for being inherently a TYA medium – families and kids often love it. In Australia, this has led to a wonderful, broad, larrikin tradition of new circus. Our work is different – it is kind of posh. Our house style is neither especially Australian nor classically TYA. This means there is an elemental tension between the work we make (sophisticated, contemporary) and the universe it inhabits (circus, funny, family). This is great terrain to inhabit – it means we can be subversive, playful, authentic and challenging, all at the same time.

Neziraj: Kosovo is the newest country in the world. Therefore, I see myself very lucky to be living in this period of time when my new country is being “shaped.” I get very much influenced by the identity of my country but also, with my work, I do hope that I am contributing to this identity too. I do talk about post war chaos, bureaucracy, corruption, chaos of the daily life, war traumas, love, identity crises, revenge and ways to reconciliation, religion, politics etc.

What is a major influence on your work that came from another country or culture - such as an artist, seeing a work or a body of work, reading a script or book?

Hübner: I’m influenced by the British way of playwriting in terms of dialogue, rhythm, and the speed of the story. And, of course, the English sense of humour (it’s a pity, but there is not a very big tradition of German comedies). I am also influenced by American writers like Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth and Raymond Carver with their precise descriptions of psychological mechanisms.

Leyva: Since I was little, my approach to TYA has been through Puppet theatre. I come from a 35 year old family Puppet Company, so puppets and objects are an inherent part of my creative universe. What I try to do in my plays and with my company is to mix both styles to tell stories. I loved the work of companies, such as Granse Loes from Denmark, which tell stories mixing objects, puppets and actors to develop deep childhood characters. There are also international playwrights and writers who influence my work, including my mentor Suzanne Lebeau, a playwright from Montreal, Quebec. Dominique Richard (France), Ana María Machado (Brazil), and Patricia McCormick (USA) also have what I am looking for—they tell powerful stories using different narratives where the power comes from the children’s universe.

Neziraj: Living in a country where theatre culture has a very short history, where theatres were closed in the nineties, where there are so few opportunities as a theatre artist, all you can do is try to get to know as much as you can from outside your country. I am lucky to be one of the few theatre artists who is able to travel abroad to festivals and other theatre events. I sincerely believe that because of this opportunity, I got to profile myself as a playwright whose work is influenced by other international authors (mostly Europeans) and international theatre works/productions that I have seen in so many festivals.

Lifschitz: Yeats wrote that we make rhetoric out of our quarrel with others and out of our quarrel with ourselves we make poetry. I see our work as poetry—its sources are deep, intimate, and un-named. Our true selves are another country, and it is through their distant voices that our work emerges. For me the work of art emerges because it must—it is compelled into existence by something that needs to be articulated. It is activated by questioning and infused by our craft, skills, and influences. But ultimately it is personal and hermetic. I read lots of books, listen to lots of music, and eat lots of food, all of which fuels my art. But at the end of the day, as an artist, you stare into the void, into that place beyond words and marketing blurbs and collaborators, you exhaust all that you know and have done before, and then, maybe, you are ready to create something.

Šarić: I do not have any particular influences or preferred authors, but talking about authors who produce for young people, I admire Tim Burton’s work and his ability to speak and to teach us about problems such as intolerance, justice, being different, and using the wide possibilities of artistic media and imagination to provoke our sensitivity.

Is there an exciting new form or style you'd like to work in?

Lifschitz: I already do! The particular take on circus that Circa presents is utterly unique, and it is a privilege to have the opportunity to develop it with our talented team. We cause beauty. We make a kind of physical poetry from the languages of Circus. Where other companies tend to add elements (story, character), our work is a stripped back circus of the heart. It finds new emotional landscapes inside what is generally considered to be a spectacle. Our work has toured to 18 countries across 5 continents in the past 3 years.  It works across cultures, audiences, and venues.

Neziraj: I like to experiment with form and content. In a way, my “style/stylistic identity” is still in progress. My style of writing is changing from play to play! By not [restricting] myself to a specific “style” or “form,” I believe I have many more chances to tell stories in more interesting ways. For me, every story has only one good way to be told. I mean: one good way to be told.

Leyva: I would like to explore this new form of theatre for little ones, but I am trying to find out where kids begin to follow a dramatic story with plot and characters that involves emotions and not only sensorial experiences.

Šarić: If I could live and work in a richer country with bigger cartoon production (like Pixar), I think I would try to write and produce cartoons, not in order to enable my audience to escape in a fairytale world, but in order to put my stories into a magical, poetical, fictional world where every story can take place, where all the characters and creations are possible, communicating messages that are important to this world. I am also interested in documentary, in film as well as in theatre, because documentary is not about imagining stories, but in finding a way to turn our attention to stories that are everywhere around us here and now.

Is there an artist or artistic style from another country or culture that you would be excited to work on, perhaps intertwining it with your own style?

Leyva: I would like to work with the style of companies like Graense Loes and Modern Hotel that experiment with media, puppet, objects, actors and other artistic forms without losing what they want or need to talk about. From the United States, I would love to explore creating a musical mixing puppets and objects as well as learn from America’s way of making shows as clean and well done as they do it. Like the Handmade Puppet Dreams [short puppet film series], I would also like to explore how TV and film animation can be applied to theatre.

Hübner: There is a very interesting combination of theatre and dance in the Belgium theatre scene (e.g. Theatre Kopergietery Ghent) which has a lot to do with the special style Pina Bausch created with her company. That means: not dancers and actors that show alternately what they can do (that’s always boring) but creating a new blend of both genres to tell stories in a more physical and associative way. 

Šarić: I am very impressed by the possibilities of dance and the acrobats in contemporary theatre. As some recent productions in Croatia showed, those theatre techniques could be used in TYA in very interesting ways. Globally, theatre becomes more and more an interdisciplinary art, using various artistic praxis in order to stage a performance. So I would be interested to learn something from acrobats, street performers, and dancers. My play “Skyscraper” was in some ways inspired by the “yamakasi,” the group of boys from Paris, France, that jumped from one building to another, from roof to roof, using nothing but their own bodies. Their story inspired me to [write a play about] fear, about breaking the limits, about “jumping” into unknown. 

Neziraj: There is no “good artistic style” [that] you can just simply copy or use in your own work. My intention is that I create my own “style,” which might not be the perfect one, but at least is mine.

Lifschitz: There are a great many artists and styles I love but I love their distinctiveness and the diversity of art in general. In the age of the Internet, broad arts festivals and jet travel, the last thing we need is cross-pollination of cultural expression. I want to see distinct, local, authentic voices being supported and encouraged. Any artistic expression is an act of courage and passion, and this needs to be honored for itself, in all its individuality and uniqueness.

In your country, are there certain taboo topics for young audience? Can you work around those taboos? If so, how?

Neziraj: Every country has its own taboos, so of course there are taboos in TYA in my country too! In some cases it is not easy to work on them because of the refusal of the audience to face them. But still, this is our responsibility as theatre artists: to challenge society, every kind of society.

Hübner: The taboos are often where you don’t expect them. I had huge problems with a play that dealt with the situation of young Turkish immigrants in Germany. Sometimes issues aren’t a taboo when you discuss them theoretically, but transformed into a story, where you have the emotion and the potential of identification that you can feel, then you get very close to taboos. But that’s the big chance for theatre: to get very close the essential problems.

Šarić: In Croatia, taboo topics that are “slippery ground” for directors and producers have to do with sexuality, with being different, with aggression, with further perspective for young people, with the world’s reality that is very often different from what we would like it to be. I usually find the way of talking about reality by putting my plays somewhere in “no man’s land,” between imaginary and real, talking about topics I find interesting not in the most literal ways, provoking audience’s sensibility and forcing them to create their own meanings.

Leyva: Family is a strong bond that sometimes can be untouchable, so topics that could hurt its image become immediately taboo. We can talk about divorce or death if we do not touch family as the source of the problem. Mexicans are very warm and friendly but also very conservative and catholic. So we can be open minded to many topics, but if we talk about something apparently simple -- such as fear in children -- and the [symbol] of family is in danger, then it becomes a taboo topic. I also wonder if the problem of a taboo topic has to do with how playwrights approach or develop children’s emotions rather than the choosing of “taboo topics.” Maybe, as adults, we have difficulty believing in the power and capacity children have to live in the same world as adults.

Lifschitz: Taboos are vitally necessary to art. If there are no taboos, we can have no villains, no transgression, no moral order. The challenge is to find and skirt the right ones. The wrong ones are the insidious taboos that sanitize work for children and young people in terms of form. It is often dumbed down stylistically, with limited expectation of the capacity of children and young people to become immersed in aesthetically adventurous works.

Why do you think it is important, in today’s world, to continue to do live performances for children and young people?

Neziraj: I do not know if it is important or not, but at least us theatre artists believe in its importance! I am not the one who believes blindly that “theatre can change the society!” I believe that theatre generally, but especially TYA, has got some power that can be used to ‘moderate’ some sort of dialogue between people and societies.

Leyva: I believe theatre has a power and energy that, for example, TV doesn’t have. I think children feel that, and that’s why they don’t forget easily when they go to the theatre. It’s an art that involves human contact, something that we forget to do these days.

Hübner: Where else do we have the chance to be together in a room and see a story that has to do with our lives, to have the chance to talk about it later, and to be focused on a story [in ways] we never reach in cinema or while watching TV?  It’s the mixture between being together and being alone with a story that touches your mind. It’s a big responsibility for a writer, and it’s a great experience if it works.

Šarić: In the world of computer games, internet social networks, and growing alienation, it is crucial to insist on live performance, on being a part of live community that theatre always is. Theatre has changed in some ways, and it will change even more in the future, but I think young audience will always be able to recognize its beauty.

Lifschitz: It is important in exactly the same way that any live performance is important—neither less nor more. Performance can fill our eyes with wonder, our hearts with hope, our minds with questions, our souls with possibility. [It takes place in] the public room where our species projects its private fears and desires and makes these physical and actual. [Experiencing live performance] makes us more human, more humble. It causes us to admire courage and vulnerability. It demonstrates a world where people can grapple with difference, escape their past, risk themselves. It is a place of ambition, villainy, hope, and audacity. It privileges the diverse over the singular, the outrageous over the safe, the inventive over the procedural.

Courtney Blackwell has her BA from Northwestern University and a Masters in Arts and Education from Harvard. 

This article originally appeared in TYA Today, the magazine of Theatre for Young Audiences/USA