Interview with Carol Becker and David Henry Hwang: International Play Reading Festival
June 4, 2018
The Columbia University School of the Arts International Play Reading Festival is a new Festival organized by Dean Carol Becker and Playwriting Concentration Director David Henry Hwang. The Festival will be held at Lenfest Center for the Arts June 15th, 16th, and 17th and will present public readings of three plays by living international playwrights: Time Bomb by N. Riantiarno (Indonesia), Shaitan Lake by Rinat Tashimov (Russia) and Where Can I Find Someone Like You, Ali? By Raeda Taha (Palestine).
In addtion to the reading, the festival offers two discussion panels: Playwrights N. Riantiarno, Rinat Tashimov, and Raeda Taha in discussion with David Henry Hwang and a Translator Discussion Panel, with Bela Shayevich (translator of Shaitan Lake), Cobina Gillitt (Indonesian theater translator and dramaturg), and Mais Taha (who oversees the translation of Raeda Taha’s plays), who will speak about the challenges of bringing each of the Festival’s three plays into English. This panel will be Moderated by Writing Translation Director Susan Bernofsky.
We sat with Dean Carol Becker and David Henry Hwang to discuss this exciting new festival.
How did the idea of the Festival start? What was the motivation?
Carol: I always thought that one of the things we needed to do with Lenfest was to find ways to bring theatre that would never come to New York. We had a Palestinian play reading festival that was sponsored by the Center for Palestine Studies that worked out so well and I’ve been in several readings in the past so I mentioned to David that it would be interesting to see this as a Reading Festival. Because David also wanted to do something similar, it worked out as a great collaboration.
David: With the opening of Lenfest, Columbia School of the Arts has a world-class arts center, so the idea of presenting great work from around the world seemed serendipitous. Both Dean Becker and I have long been devoted to international cultural exchange, so when I proposed a play reading festival, she was immediately enthusiastic and has given this project her generous support ever since.
Carol: There are so many plays that will never come to New York. New York is still pretty provincial in what people get to see and it's very expensive to produce a play. There are voices from all over the world that we are not hearing. The reading is such a great format because you don’t have to do a full production, but you can have music, great actors, and get a sense of what the play is about. We can also invite people who might be interested in producing these plays, so the reading could lead to something more. If not, at least the reading could lead to increased interest in the voices from these countries.
David: International artistic exchange has been neglected ever since the end of the Cold War. In early-2000, I attended a White House Conference on Cultural Diplomacy where Madeleine Albright asserted that she wished they’d done more on that front. I believe theatre to be one of our most effective mediums for achieving empathy and understanding, yet American theatre has only grown more myopic over the past couple of decades, generally limiting itself now to works written in English. If such exclusion had existed in the past, would we know the work of Ibsen, Strindberg, Brecht, Pirandello? Hopefully, this Festival can prove one means of helping to fill the current vacuum.
Is this a long-term Festival? Do you see this Festival growing?
Carol: I would love to have it every year, but it would depend on resources, of course. I thought that we should just jump in and do it this year because it's easier to find more support once you’ve done it. During the summer, the Performance Space is not used by the theatre program and space is one of the most valuables resources in New York, especially for artists. If we have space available we have to start thinking about what can we do that can help young playwrights, young artists and theatre people. To have a theatre and not use it I think it would be criminal in New York. Our goal is to figure out how to keep that space alive because the city needs it. It’s a service to the city and to the world.
David: We would certainly like this to become an annual event. If it grows in visibility, we may be able to present more performances of each play, and perhaps even expand to workshop productions.
David, tell us about the pieces. What about these particular plays stood out?
These plays were first nominated by American theatres and institutions which continue to do international work. Then the Selection Committee chose each of the presented plays based on factors such as originality, artistic merit, craftsmanship, and emotional power. Though obviously just a small sampling of work from around the globe, these plays all open our eyes to vital new worlds.
Carol, do you have other ideas for Lenfest in the future?
For the Theatre space, I think we should do Residencies. If the space is open during July, for example, small companies could apply to use it for 3 to 4 weeks. My idea is to keep the space open and alive and try new things. This is our first Summer with it, so it's the first time we can think about something and start building a program.
All festival readings and events are free and open to the public. Registration can be found at the links below.
International Play Reading Festival Events:
International Play Reading Festival: Time Bomb
By N. Riantiarno (Indonesia)
Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar
Translated from Indonesian by Barbara Hatley
Friday June 15, 2018, 7:00PM
This is a story about those who are marginalized. A story of those living under bridges and in foul sewers, who can only stare up at the moon and speculate on their fortunes, daydreaming about the luxurious lives stowed away behind bright shop windows. When the state comes to raze their small riverside town in order to develop the land, these villagers—forgotten, abused, oppressed—find their bodies and spirits in danger of being buried underneath the demolished rubble.
International Play Reading Festival: Shaitan Lake
By Rinat Tashimov (Russia)
Directed by Brian Kulick, Theatre
Translated from Russian by Bela Shayevich
Saturday June 16, 2018, 7:00PM
In a small village between a river, a forest, and the cursed Shaitan Lake, a mother, Latifa, is visited by her youngest—and only living—son, Marat. Marat, recently returned after two years in prison, has buried a stack of money outside of their small home, and insists on seeing Rimma, the woman Latifa blames for the death of her fourth son. In this town where even the water is cursed, Latifa and Marat find themselves threatened by their own choices as much as the supernatural.
International Play Reading Festival: Where Can I Find Someone Like You, Ali?
By Raeda Taha (Palestine)
Translated from Arabic by Fayez Kanafani and Ismail Khalidi
Sunday June 17, 2018, 2:30PM
This monologue is the narrative of a Palestinian family that was left behind, a journey that deals with grief and loss from various perspectives. The crux of the story is portrayed in the heroic acts of Suheila, who’s illiterate and labeled as Antigone of Palestine. Suheila makes an oath not to sleep covered—in sun or rain—until she brings back the body of her brother Ali from the coldness of an Israeli morgue.
International Play Reading Festival: Translator Panel Discussion
Sunday June 17, 2018, 3:30PM
How Did This Play Get into English?
Translating for the stage is a special skill, and sometimes plays pass through several hands on their way from their original language (such as Arabic, Indonesian, or Russian) into English. In this brief conversation, Bela Shayevich (translator of Shaitan Lake by Rinat Tashimov), Cobina Gillitt (Indonesian theater translator and dramaturg), and Mais Taha (who oversees the translation of Raeda Taha’s plays) will speak about the challenges of bringing each of the Festival’s three plays into English. Moderated by Susan Bernofsky, Writing.