A.C.T. in Sarajevo

Friday, October 21, 2016

By Nick Gabriel

In the second week of October, A.C.T. sent me to present at the European Theatre Convention (ETC) and to attend the International Theatre Festival MESS in Sarajevo.

The Bosniak Institute and ETC venue in Sarajevo. Photo By Nick Gabriel.
ETC is a yearly gathering of European theaters of all sizes, with a variety of aesthetic values. Comparable to America’s TCG conference—which hosts hundred of American theaters every year—the ETC convention is a place for member theaters to dialogue about challenges and to develop strategies for future success.

A.C.T. was commissioned by the Goethe–Institut, a German cultural institute with an international reach, to produce a ten-minute play exploring the theme of digital privacy. Philip Kan Gotanda was selected to write our play and I was selected to direct it. Because A.C.T. has an M.F.A. Program that is central to its artistic mission, we’re particularly curious about how our students are complicit in the exchange of sensitive personal data when using social media platforms.

While several other American and European theaters were also commissioned for this project, A.C.T. was the only American theater invited to ETC to discuss what drew us to the project, and to describe potential iterations of the project at theaters that weren’t initially commissioned.

After all of the scripts are written, a compilation of the plays will be published in English and German and available for use throughout the world. Why German? Because German-speaking theater is so prevalent in Europe, affording a greater number of theaters the opportunity to produce their own performances of these unique short plays.

My presentation about The Plurality of Privacy Project in Five-Minute Plays (P3M5) went well. Much informal conversation ensued about A.C.T. and about Americans' relationship to privacy. I discussed A.C.T.’s diverse aesthetic in great detail; the ways in which our productions reflect our immediate community’s artistic values, how we strive to challenge our audiences, and how our work incorporates a wide variety of global perspectives. I also discovered that many of the countries represented at the conference were already in some way trying to theatricalize their concerns related to digital privacy with projects of their own.

Sarajevo's Old Town. Photo by Nick Gabriel.
Attending the International Theatre Festival MESS was transformative for me. The city of Sarajevo is often described as the place where Eastern and Western Europe converge. That cultural confluence can be perceived throughout the city—particularly in the architecture, but also in the food, languages, dress, and perhaps most of all, the theater. My initial impression of Balkan Theatre was that neither Bosnians nor Serbians make theater primarily intended to entertain audiences. Rather, most performances interrogated the audience’s tacit acceptance of genocide. I felt personally implicated for atrocities perpetrated against minority groups in the Balkans.

In most of the performances I saw, the actors were living war onstage; there was little distance from the subject matter and virtually no metaphor. The guns they shot had real blanks and bullet casings flew everywhere. I wondered, at times, if this approach to theater-making was somewhat exploitative or superfluously sensationalistic until I realized on my plane ride home that the actors were working through trauma in the one place where they’re most protected: onstage. For these actors, performing was authentically cathartic. And dramatizing these particular narratives brings a level of awareness to circumstances that should be known more intimately to wider audiences.

These actors ultimately taught me about my own indifference toward important issues in this region. I didn’t find this approach to theater-making alienating in any way. It was occasionally difficult to witness, but in general I felt privileged to commune with the actors, whose courage was inspiring. There was one performance by the Croatian National Theatre that was reminiscent of Tracy Letts’s domestic melodrama August: Osage County that I thought might actually play well to an American audience. It was a distinct production because it was entertaining—the audience laughed heartily and cheered enthusiastically—but the subject matter was intensely political and trenchantly portrayed.

 
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