The last thing I expected to be doing on a Tuesday evening at the Artscape Arena in Cape Town was watching a series of ten minute plays in America. But technology and an innovative collaboration meant that together with audiences in Iowa and other parts of the world, I did exactly that. Six short plays by American and South African playwrights, three from each country. Watched by audiences and linked by technology, streamed to the world via Book Wings.
Hosted by the University of Iowa, Book Wings is a performance initiative that brings together writers, actors, directors, and new media professionals from all over the world to connect in a virtual environment where they can share ideas and collaborate in real time.
The project kicked off in 2009 as a ‘cultural diplomacy’ project between the University of Iowa and the Moscow Arts Theatre. Since then it has snowballed, commissioning writers from countries including Russia, China and Iraq. The aim is to nurture cross-cultural conversation, spark new literary ideas and create an enduring and internationally relevant body of work.
The idea is simple. Writers from different parts of the world are commissioned to write on a theme for a year. Once auditions and rehearsals are held, performances are launched at local venues and can be watched by global audiences via the internet. This year three playwrights in each country, the USA and South Africa, were selected to write three plays, eight to ten minutes long, on the theme Contact.
Plays produced include Alan MacVey’s Sicawa Street, Keith Josef Adkins’ The Disappointment and Peter Ullian’s Waiting for Marcel to name but a few. Here’s a quick breakdown of the performances:
Sicawa Street is set in post 1994 South Africa and told the tale of tension between mother and a son who have very different attitudes to South Africa’s first democratic election. Keith Josef Adkins’ contribution, The Disappointment, dealt with the history of heartache by an African-American faced with the weight of reconciliation and kinship.
Peter Ullian’s Waiting for Marcel, directed by Geoffrey Hyland and performed in Cape Town tells the story of Samuel Beckett and his fiancée Suzanne Déchevaux Dumesnil who fled from Gestapo occupied Paris in 1942. And Mike van Graan’s play, What we wish For, directed by Amy Jephta was an intimate family story with a sharp unexpected twist.
Blood Pastoral was written by Wessel Pretorius, directed by Alan Macvey and performed in Iowa.It was set on a South African farm. Pretorius provided some coaching via the internet on accent and pronunciation earlier that the day, yet another aspect of the international collaboration. Mandla Mbothwe’s Invisible Eden was about family, music, time and pain which told the story of a mother and son on the brink of life and death.
The evening’s hosts in both cities, Fleishman in Cape Town and Christopher Merrill in Iowa City, provided a lively discussion about the interpretation of the theme by the playwrights and the choices made by the directors.
The digital connection was not just experienced by audiences at the two performance venues, but viewers around the world who were encouraged to click and watch the show that are streamed live on the university’s website, as well as take part in the post-performance discussion.
Given the connectivity challenges that we face in South Africa hosting the high –definition video-conferencing at the Arena Theatre at Artscape was no mean feat and required the installation of a dedicated connection, but the technological capability is exciting when considering how theatre can be made more accessible to remote communities using digital platforms.
Theatre projects that collaborate across national boundaries provide us with the opportunity to experience the global world we inhabit from a different vantage point, so next time you are invited to a performance in Iowa, I would suggest you say yes. And no, you don’t require a visa or a passport.
Photographs by Thabo Makgolo