In the background: A rainy night in New York City in late spring. In the foreground: a live stream broadcast of Thais Flaitt’s Portuguese translation of my play The Way of Water from Cia de M.A.T.I.L.D.E University in Sao Paolo, Brasil. Four professional actors are seated on folding chairs at simple table with microphones in front of them and scripts in their hands. A voice, unseen by the camera, reads stage directions. For two hours, I am immersed in the world of my play, listening to the forceful, impassioned, precise line readings of a cast I have never met diving headlong into this new translation for viewers somewhere in cyberspace who may tune in or will tune in later (the broadcast is now archived here). The generosity of these performers is wondrous to behold. Their choices, bold and immediate, surprise me, and re-awaken me to the text, despite the fact that they are reading what is now an old draft of the play in progress, and that I don’t understand Portuguese, save for a few words here and there. Another actor in New York City emails me during the broadcast. He has just been in a reading of the play here in the city and remarks how he can follow along where the Brazilian actors are in the script, despite his inability to understand Portuguese. We chat a bit as we watch and listen. We let the language envelope us in its rhythms and follow the cadences, sometimes gentle, sometimes brusque, as the actors discover the play in front of our ‘virtual’ eyes. Thoughts of presence rise up as the rain beats upon the windowpane – the presence of performance, of text, of the materiality of language and the somatic qualities that convey meaning across translation.
In midst of a theatre career spent traveling between many borders – liminal, cultural, virtual, disciplinary and physical – as both playwright and translator and editor and activist, the sonorous call of witnessing work live in translation should seem, I suppose, second nature. Yet, on this rainy night, as I click the volume upwards on the speakers of my laptop so I can better hear the Portuguese translation and follow the emotional map the actors are charting with their encounter with the text, I am newly marveled by the humbling sight and sounds that emanate across the miles that separate me from these actors in a room in Sao Paolo. The fact that they reading a play set in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill and playing American characters makes this trans-cultural exchange – a natural part of a translation process – even more radiantly present to me as the piece’s originating artist.
Translator Flaitt is familiar with my work. A doctoral student in theatre at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, she has played a character in my play Alchemy of Desire/Dead-Man’s Blues as part of a staging of the play for the Great Plains Theatre Conference, and she also played the character of Rosalie in a reading of this same play in its original English language version in a reading at UNO directed a few weeks earlier by Professor Cindy Phaneuf. Flaitt’s desire to translate my play came about through a quick flurry of emails with a Brazilian colleague who teaches in Buckingham, UK who was directing a production of my English language translation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s The Public and who wanted to do a reading of The Way of Water in Rio de Janeiro as part of the NoPassport theatre alliance international scheme of readings of the play in April and May 2012 to mark the two-year anniversary of the oil spill and to raise awareness to the ongoing health and environmental issues. The concentric layers and levels of translation in which we were all immersed as practitioners and scholars during the email correspondence were humorous, spirited and engaging. Only in the era of globalization could such an exchange occur! Flaitt offered to translate my play for the Rio de Janeiro reading that the UK/Brazilian colleague wanted to make happen, and in turn, suggested contacts in Sao Paolo who might be interested in taking the play on.
In the spirit of the reading scheme for The Way of Water, which by this point, had already received readings in Pretoria, South Africa, Aberystwyth in Wales and Waterloo in Canada as well as, closer to home, in Austin, Ithaca, Minneapolis, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, San Diego, Tampa, Waterford, Los Angeles and more, the possibility of furthering this grass-roots endeavor with a live stream broadcast of a brand new translation of a work in progress seemed a strange and beautiful gesture toward the kind of open-minded inclusiveness from which the scheme had sprung. I said “yes,” and trusted Flaitt with the text, as the clock ticked away in a few weeks time for a reading in Rio de Janeiro and later in Sao Paolo.
Reports via email from the Rio de Janeiro reading came in a day after its presentation. Dialogue around the table had been focused on the issues the play raises regarding the long-term environmental damage to the US Gulf region in the wake of the disaster and the toxic legacy on human health as well. Discussion also focused on use of Sao Paolo slang in the translation, which seemed unusual to actors in Rio de Janeiro. My translator and I sifted through the reports along with my dramaturgy team (Heather Helinsky and R. Alex Davis), as we imagined what the reading had sounded like in Rio. No audio recording had been made available as of yet.
Whilst conversation about the play’s Portuguese translation rose to the surface, another report came in via email from the presentation in Tasmania, Australia, where the play had been presented accent-adapted and US food and occasional geographic references in the text had been substituted for those that would resonate with the Tasmanian actors and audience. The play, coincidentally, contains a running narrative thread wherein one of the four central characters dreams of going to Australia. The fact that the play was being read in the country almost seemed too good to be true: as if it the inner realization of the characters’ consciousness was suddenly coming true to life!
Swirling about the constant theme, by now, of translation and how the play was being, in effect, figuratively translated, but also emotionally, spatially and locally translated to other venues and cities and towns across the US and abroad, was the theme of presence. How does a play that deals with the tangible presence of disaster as well as its intangible forces present itself in a reading process? How is a play that is so deeply rooted in the sensual lives and behavior of its characters battling illness, economic disparity and their own rage and melancholy against the conditions into which man-made damage have placed them become palpably present in the slippery and watery world of reading aloud? How does a play set in the US South speak to an audience in Sao Paolo or one in Tasmania?
The volume on the laptop speakers goes in and out, as the live-stream broadcast occasionally freezes on my screen. Flaitt has been working on the translation and emails me that the experience of hearing it out loud miles away in Omaha is as thrilling for her as it is for me to hear it in New York City. Chilly spring has met Omaha as well, and we trade notes about the weather while the actors in Sao Paolo sweat through the play’s emotional arcs, giving it its due, even at a first read, albeit one happening in the public eye.
I go to bed that night with the sound of Portuguese in my ears and with the sadness that often accompanies the end of a reading. The quick rush to hear the play, the wild, beautiful, vulnerable connection with actors, and then the words “end of play” are uttered and it is all gone. On the screen for the broadcast the table is now empty and another reading of another play perhaps is waiting to begin. Yet, the presence of those four actors – Carlos Gimenez, Maura Hayas, Marcos Horta, Malu Salotti – remains very much in mind, as I think about what it would be like to be in a practice hall with them, to actually begin a process, and to take those initial bold impulses in their first reading and discover the origin for those impulses and the manner in which they can be re-translated into the physical life of the play.
The following morning my inbox contains several messages from the actors in Brasil and from translator Flaitt. There is genuine affection across the cybernetic lines of communication. We chat about these four characters, about the way the play shifts from the poetic to the rough in its language quite readily, and how the reality of the lives of the people depicted in the play hit home, despite Sao Paolo’s less immediately conscious relationship to the 2010 BP oil spill. We speak a bit about how the lay has resonated in the readings it has sustained in other venues in other cities and towns. I send Flaitt and Carlos Gimenez, the actor who played the lead role of Jimmy, and who was responsible for putting the reading together in Sao Paolo, the current draft of the script. We all remark about how we are in the middle of a process – as actor, translator and playwright, respectively- and how vulnerable we all feel and yet how grateful too for having taken the leap to work with each other, in at least Gimenez and his fellow actors’ case, sight unseen. Warmth radiates from the messages, staving off the last remnants of the previous day’s rain.
A colleague posts on Facebook about how she wants to send me a video of the rain in her neighborhood – the clearly toxic rain that she feels as she walks through it. She says it reminds her of my play. I sort through other messages, other tasks, and click again on the archived link for the Sao Paolo reading. I yearn to listen again to the play in Portuguese. Something about listening to it in another language frees me to think about how present the play and these characters, after two years of research, have been in my life, and how the decision to take action and implement an international reading scheme for it out of outrage, deep activism and compassion for the people and situation in the US Gulf region (one that affects us all) – an act of intervention, applied theatre, grass-roots activism – has yielded and continues to yield, as the scheme is still in motion, thoughts about the ineffable beauty of theatre-making, the mad faith one need have to even do this crazy thing in life, and the audacity it takes to make play.
I wonder at how truly miraculous it seems to receive a text message from a colleague in Wales whom I’ve never met who has just read the play through the recommendation of another colleague and has decided to text me to express his profound connection to the material. The presence of the play itself in the imagination of another practitioner, another reader, has suddenly taken shape. Surely this happens all the time, I think. That’s how many of us come to plays in the first place. On the page. And yet, the wonder remains at how presence can make itself manifest, at how language and languages (theatrical, emotional, spiritual) can translate across many waters in a mysterious chain of shared passion, solidarity, and humility.
A friend remarks after hearing the play at one of the US venues that it is “fragile,” and that it is also about the fragility of human lives and an eco-system torn apart. Her remark makes me think about the fragility, of course, of human experience, and about theatre-making itself, which demands so much of all of us in the field, and yet whose rewards are often unseen and tied to, inevitably, unless one is extraordinarily blessed and lucky, by financial strain, personal sacrifice and loneliness. Dreaming up a play, even one inspired by life, is a mighty fragile thing, and its enactment, even in a reading, is one too. The actors in Sao Paolo who made their way through a new translation of a new play were utterly exposed before the relentless eye of a camera to the momentary betrayal of an impulse, a misread or misunderstood line, and to the presence of those of us who were watching them in the moment or would watch in future in the aftermath of live-ness.
How present are we in our theatre when we step into a practice hall and begin rehearsal? How present is the dreamt of rehearsal in the mind’s eye during a reading? How do we even, as practitioners, re-imagine that first day when we were born into the theatre?
In a week’s time, The Way of Water will sustain readings in London, Berlin and Glasgow. Different accents. Different bodies. Different venues. All of them meeting the same text, while I ready for other presentations in New York City and Chicago later this month and briefly into the next. I am eager to learn how the nexus of artists that have bravely come together to make all of this happen – in and out of many translations and in solidarity with the belief in a sustainable present and future – will, if ever, re-meet again after the scheme, but not the play or the activism to which it is tied, is over.
A colleague drops me a line late in the afternoon, as the sun’s rays filter through the rainy, persistent clouds of a strangely cool spring. He says he wants to have the play heard in Oslo. Maybe sometime in the fall. I write back “Sure,” while I dream about what kind of presence the play will have there, and how the currents of this Water, which began in the glimmer of an imagination connecting to the hard and soft earth and humid air of the US Gulf, will take shape.
Caridad Svich is a US playwright. Her play The Way of Water will be read at Rosemary Branch Theatre in London and English Theatre Berlin, respectively on May 13, 2012, and at Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City on May 29th. It will be heard at Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago in June. For more information go here.