‘Europa’: Caroline Jester on Multilingual Collaborative Theatre

In this blogpost, ICCW Fellow Caroline Jester reflects upon her experience as the dramaturg behind Europa, a theatre project that brought together four European theatres: Birmingham Repertory Theatre (UK), Dresden State Theatre (Germany), Teatr Polski Bydgoszcz (Poland) and Zagreb Youth Theatre (Croatia) – and four leading playwrights from each country – Steve Waters (UK), Lutz Hübner (Germany), Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk (Poland) and Tena Štivicic (Croatia).

This revelatory piece of theatre set out to explore the possibilities of collaborative playwriting, to produce a single work that is multi-authored and multi-lingual. Drawing on first-hand accounts, including memories from the 1930s up to the present day, the playwrights have collaborated to overcome language barriers and weave their separate languages into one single dramatic entity.

Caroline’s blogpost follows up on the public seminar, hosted by the ICCW on 17 October 2013, in which those involved in the project came together to discuss its evolution, its methodologies and its cultural significance.

Gregory Leadbetter, Director of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing

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As a theatre practitioner I should feel disheartened when a piece of work I’ve initiated receives the reaction: ‘this is not a play’. On the contrary, however, this excites me. As a living artform, theatre is founded on change and having to find new ways of overcoming obstacles, whether in the form of a character having to find new paths to achieve her objective or a playwright having to rewrite his fourth draft.

Where are the rules, written in stone, to which we must adhere, to make ‘a play’? Believe me I’ve tried to find them. But if anything can be called a play, it is a piece of theatre that has a life of its own. It is something unpredictable, that allows us to discover something new by being part of an experience that allows us to see stories told in new ways. I hope we’ve moved on from checking Aristotle’s Poetics to decide if a piece of theatre lies within this framework.

‘Europa’ began in the unknown and I hope has ended without prescribing a fixed direction for where things should go. It was collaborative, not solely in the context of theatre as a collaborative medium, but collaborative in its story creation with four playwrights in four different languages. Europe itself can be described as a work in progress and when a play fails to offer a chance to change itself, when it is described as a complete play, then it might not be true to its own identity.

In 2009 I became aware of the growing rhetoric around national identity versus European identity in the run up to the last general election in the United Kingdom. This wasn’t unique to this country but could be witnessed around Europe and the increasing crisis within the Eurozone. Multiple languages were competing for their voice, seemingly fighting against a union that had been established, in theory, to stop the resurgence of such behaviour.

As a dramaturg I’m fascinated by finding new ways to tell stories and experimenting with form. The process of embarking on a new collaboration is where the fear of the unknown begins and ultimately where something new can be discovered. I had developed multiauthored work before but only in the one language. In a country that has over three hundred languages spoken I felt it was time to challenge the single language play through playwriting. Multilingual work isn’t a new phenomenon, and the methodology involved can be described as postdramatic theatre. These things had previously been applied to existing texts, however. Where this process differed from what had gone before was by using playwriting as the starting point for the collaboration.

Four leading writers – Steve Waters (UK), Lutz Hübner (Germany), Tena Štivičić (Croatia) and Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk (Poland) – indulged me in this idea and we embarked on a journey with four leading theatre producers: the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Dresden State Theatre, ZKM, Croatia and Teatr Polski Bydgoszcz, with support from the European Commission.

We were fortunate to have a seminar at the end of the project hosted by The Institute of Creative and Critical Writing and all four writers described the trepidation they felt at the onset. Lutz Hübner, who has written over forty plays and is the most produced living German playwright, asks himself what is different when he embarks upon any new play. He tries to have a new challenge with every project and with this process he saw four or five and felt it was a mission impossible because of its unpredictability. It was the very unpredictable nature of the idea that excited him, however. He compared the process to building Frankenstein’s creature and was interested to see if this was a monster others would want to see too.

All the writers visited each country – for instance leading workshops with elderly citizens in Bydgoszcz, Poland, who thought we were EU officials and demonstrated their skills in the fitness craze Zumba whilst demanding that Lutz arrange a bonnet demonstration by the Polish in Dresden. Wives of Nato officials from multiple countries described their feelings of isolation in Bydgoszcz in a country that doesn’t use English as the European cultural glue. In Birmingham Asian womens’ groups debated laws in different European countries and whether they would want to go to France after they’ve banned burqas. Dresden lies in the former East of Germany and different generations had vastly conflicting experiences of what Europe is. The writers’ visit fell on 14th February, the anniversary of the bombing in Dresden and a day when far right groups descend on the city. Solidarity is shown amongst its citizens as they take to the streets and turn their backs on the unwanted visitors – and were successful in peacefully stopping them entering the city. Zagreb offered a unique insight into the wider continent of Europe when remembering the former Yugoslavia as a multi-national country and whether it was a good idea for Croatia to enter a much bigger continental union after its very recent war.

Steve Waters felt that the play would have been impossible without this experience of visiting each country. He felt that at the heart of this project was something that couldn’t be achieved – and that this is what Europe is about. The process reflected the subject matter with people asking themselves how on earth we are connected to each other, especially when you are outside your own territory. Other languages make you question this too, even when you are in your own territory. They make you see your own world in a new way, through the lens of another.

Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk said she saw her own country through the other playwrights’ eyes. It wasn’t just a deepening understanding of borders that emerged,  but a glimpse into the world of new cultural practices. Playwrights are secretive by nature, not often willing to share or reflect on how the words are committed to the page – but this collaboration shone a light on how the theoretical becomes drama. Tena Štivičić felt the very human encounters with people she wouldn’t normally have met was crucial in facilitating discussion, especially in an era were public discussions are quickly disappearing in a digital age.

The ancient Greeks have a habit of knocking on the theatrical door though, however far you feel you’ve left them behind. Europa became the character that circled the multiple characters that populated the final play. Polish women searching for bigger breasts through the European gene pool colliding with an Estonian pyro artist intent on getting money from the Commission to fund her burning euros. Croatian film makers urging the funders to explore European history through the Croatian lens and a German man realising he was on the wrong side of every wall as his country was divided. Europa itself is baffling, as she’s the myth that reminds us to look closely or we might not like the look of our offspring – what we make of Europe. She envelopes the diversity and speed of the present with the past, urging us to connect yet not forcing us to follow her.

‘This is not a play’ was only one of many reactions to this work in the UK. Audiences booked twice and were made up of many different nationalities. In Croatia the Minister for Culture felt it was important that the President of Croatia saw this work and in Poland it was part of an international festival of work. In Germany the different nations collaborated after the performances too in the bar watching football, resonating with recent debates in the UK around whether Polish-born British citizens should support England or Poland in international games.

Europa lives on in the form of Methuen’s publication, their first multilingual play. Anna Brewer, Commissioning Editor at Methuen Drama stated that this was significant for Methuen as they were moving into new territory: they had never published a play in four languages before.

I hope this work continues to create a reaction as it challenges our preconceptions of the status quo and moves us into new cultural territories – questioning through collaboration what is real and what we’ve made up along the way to help us feel secure.

Caroline Jester, Dramaturg and Fellow of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing – Tutor in Scripting and Staging, MA in Writing, Birmingham City University

 

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