(Aiste Ptakauske, Gabriel Gbadamosi, Linda Brogan and Chris Thorpe – Tampere, Finland 2005)
This is now a major part of my work, so Im going to characterise the network by giving you some of the story…
Twenty years ago I attended my first IETM in Vienna. I found it primarily a frenzied 72 hours of networking, with time for three or four focused sessions to exchange practice, thinking and experience. Aside from local involvement in the first play to be written collaboratively on the internet, the only new theatre writing interest aired at the Meeting, revolved around the promotion and translation of work from minority languages (which the following year resulted in Theater Instituut Nederland’s Texts Crossing Borders gathering in Ljubljana).
I remember feeling bewildered by the numbers of people and perplexed as to how I could facilitate playwrights’ engagement and participation. Critical mass yes, but how to move within the mass? Mobility was still a long way off becoming a Cultural Policy buzzword and I returned to London to the exigencies of domestic organisational turmoil.
Over the next ten years I worked extensively to diversify the talent pool of playwrights in the UK, through partnership with key organisations in every region of the country, in collaboration with Europe’s leading theatre company for people with sensory and mobility disabilities and via a number of initiatives focusing on cultural diversity.
As my non-UK experience grew through European collaboration via the EQUAL funded Creative Renewal project, it struck me that cultural mobility and cultural diversity, once you escape the tyranny of tick boxes, – pragmatically they are the same thing. Whether you cross borders and encounter different languages, systems, traditions, people – literally or metaphorically…cultural mobility is perhaps first a state of mind.
It is then about situating yourself within the wider landscape, but there is a danger that this new found fondness for mobility becomes a paean to the individual and our so-called freedoms. Nothing wrong in this per se, I hear you say – but does mobility really just equate to the extension of the marketplace beyond borders? If we let market forces do their thing (an economic, rather than political analysis of Europe – very British my Austrian colleagues tell me) it boils down too readily to “what do I get”?
So I wondered how I could try another approach. With playwriting the obvious nuts and bolts of mobility would seem to be the script and its translation; but what if these objects of transaction followed the development of relationships? before “what do I get?’ I ask “what do I bring?”… And I must first bring myself.
A Fence is both a permeable barrier and also a trafficker of stolen goods. This was the name given to our new network – the clandestine challenge. We first met in the UK some nine years ago as a group of 25, but intending to grow, of playwrights and people who facilitate playwriting from across Europe, so that we could speak and learn from each other’s contexts. At that time we met in John Osborne’s old house in the country and we really bonded, we really got to know each other, and as a group meeting each other for the first time. We moved from there to the IETM, in Birmingham which was vast: 500 people meeting together from the theatres and dance companies across Europe. And that was our baptism, not of fire, but of cold water. Suddenly we recognised that we were about playwriting, we were playwrights, and we don’t get together and we don’t do these power meetings. So, twice yearly since then we’ve been meeting, at the IETM and other festivals around Europe. The Fence made playwrights visible to each other and themselves within the wider landscape – and created a cohort, becoming visible to those producers, programmers, festival directors, administrators, policy makers and funders which largely constitute the membership of the IETM.
The Fence network then gave rise to the Janus project. Janus was the god of gates and doorways, depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions. His symbolism is also as the god of change and transitions such as the progression of past to future, of one condition to another, of one vision to another, and of one universe to another. Behind the project was the idea that through translation we meet ourselves. That playwrights have the chance to and experience of seeing their work (and themselves) in the context of another country.
So, from within The Fence, Alex Chisholm from West Yorkshire Playhouse, Edith Draxl from Uni-T, Riitta Seppala from the Finnish Theatre Information Centre, and Anja Krans at the Theater Instituut Nederland then became the institutional partners around which the Janus translation project arose. This was translation of playwrights not necessarily just in the network, but in that principle that the network has of saying “hey there’s someone over here, or there’s that play here, it would be good if people knew about it”, a series of plays were nominated, suggested, from writers we’ve never met or heard of before. Tampere, Graz and Leeds provided the three stops in which we saw a raft of plays that had been generated for translation in a way that brought the playwright into the process more fully, for example another playwright doing the translation.
Janus yielded several examples of how a network’s power can precipitate mobility; sometimes directly, sometimes as a bi-product. The Kurdish Turkish playwright, Cem Duzova who was culturally, geographically and systemically off the Turkish theatre radar has his play given a showcased reading at a festival in Leeds and the interest generated back home becomes palpable. (Its an arguably spurious imprimatur, but it does allow for a re-engagement). The Belarussian playwright, Andrei Kureichik denied his passport to participate in the staged reading of his play at a festival in Graz, nonetheless managed online video link-up to the audience. (In a pleasing twist, Austrian Director – Dieter Boyer – and Belarussian playwright subsequently met up at a Turkish theatre festival).
Portuguese playwright Jose Maria Vieira Mendes reflected: “I’ve learned practical things like how can I show my play to other people; how can I have an opportunity to have opinions from other people and this is by knowing people and talking with people. It’s not about sending your play to someone you don’t know….. I think its about communication, and understanding about with whom you get along….I am receiving plays from all these people I meet. And the ones I like I am showing to Portuguese people, theatre people, so this is a sort of exchange that will continue. Definitely.”
Greek playwright Andreas Flourakis explained: “Alex Chisholm, the director in the West Yorkshire Playhouse, had the idea of employing actors from the British-Asian community. I found the idea quite intriguing and it was a brilliant experience to hear the actors narrating stories of their lives so similar to the family tradition this play is dealing with. Antelopes is my first play. I finished writing it at the beginning of 2000 and never got a production in Greece, which had much to do with my faith in it. I was always afraid that the non-linear narration as well as the exclusive time and space I had invented for this play had made it more complicated than it should be. After attending the reading of Antelopes at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, for the first time since I wrote it I felt that this play could work very well on stage”.
Academics and policy makers might call these processes of developing engagement with playwrights and cultural operators in their cultural contexts, “intercultural kompetenz” (the English word doesn’t really convey what is required). Scottish playwright Peter Arnott encapsulates the ethos of The Fence more starkly: “our project is each other.”