Chicago & The World Stage

Kerry Reid, Performink

"Before the Chicago International Theatre Festival took off in the mid-’80s, audiences here seldom had the opportunity to experience work from abroad. But even though the festival is now defunct, its spirit lives on with several Chicago institutions that are making international work an increasingly prominent part of their mission.

Since moving to Navy Pier this decade, Chicago Shakespeare, under artistic director Barbara Gaines, has inaugurated its World’s Stage Series to bring in diverse artists, ranging from commedia icons Il Piccolo Teatro di Milano to the venerable La Comedie-Francaise, from the Shaw Festival’s Saint Joan to French circus artist James Thierree. Most recently, Chicago Shakespeare presented Urwintore, a Rwandan ensemble, in a new adaptation of Peter Weiss’ Holocaust docu-drama The Investigation.

Meantime, Goodman Theatre, whose international focus in recent years has been on the biennial Latino Theatre Festival, broke new ground this winter with the mammoth “A Global Exploration: Eugene O’Neill in the 21st Century,” which brought in the inventive Brazilian troupe Companhia Triptal with adapter/director Andre Garolli’s brilliant re-imaginings of three of O’Neill’s early “sea plays.” Next up in the O’Neill celebration is Amsterdam’s Toneelgroep with acclaimed director Ivo van Hove’s staging of Rouw Siert Electra (Mourning Becomes Electra).

The Museum of Contemporary Art includes a wide array of international performers in its season, which is put together by Peter Taub, the director of performance programs at MCA. And small plucky venues such as the Chopin Theatre, run by Polish native Zygmunt Drykacz and his wife, Lela Headd, also bring in under-the-radar experimental groups from Europe, particularly with the theatre’s annual I-Fest, which focuses mostly on solo artists, many presenting work in their first language.

But presenting such work isn’t without its challenges, and without exception, everyone I spoke with for this article immediately identified the biggest one: September 11.

Drykacz is bluntest about the impact of the terrorist attacks and the subsequent establishment of the Department of Homeland Security on the visa process: “It’s a new equation after 9/11. Artists equal anarchists equal terrorists.”

Others don’t see it quite that way, but everyone acknowledges that the new reality creates additional paperwork and the need for more “lead time,” as John Collins, the Goodman’s associate general manager, points out. Comphania Triptal, based in Sao Paulo, had never been out of Brazil before the Goodman shows. Says Collins, “It raised some eyebrows because we were bringing in so many. Over the course of three weeks, we brought in 38 Brazilians.” Goodman executive director Roche Schulfer notes that the Performing Arts Alliance, a national coalition of arts presenters and advocates, “has been working with Congress with some success so far to expedite the process.”

For theatre companies, another hurdle can be working with Actors Equity. Chicago Shakespeare executive director Criss Henderson says, “Equity has a longstanding issue with what they call ‘aliens.’ I’ve been fearful sometimes that that terminology and fear-based handling of how art moves around the world is going to be an increasing problem in a world that wants to be seen as one world. To protect our borders from art is a big problem. On Kathy’s [Equity Central Regional director Kathryn Lamkey] behalf, we are in conversations regularly about it.” The World’s Stage Series presentation of Tim Supple’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream this past fall involved non-union street performers from Mumbai. Schulfer notes that LORT theatres and others who operate with Equity contracts can be at a disadvantage compared to universities and other presenting organizations who do not fall under Equity rules.

For Taub, whose MCA season encompasses a broad array of international artists, including musicians and dancers, “The biggest qualitative hurdle is that you have to demonstrate that the artist provides something that is distinctive, that isn’t available in the U.S.” But Taub notes that, “It’s typically not an issue with us, because the artists we present are very distinctive.”

American foreign policy has, according to Taub, played a role in whether or not some international artists choose to perform here. “For certain artists, we were definitely encountering some who no longer felt the need to come to the United States.” Though neither Henderson nor Schulfer pointed to any groups that declined the opportunity to perform at their theatres on political grounds, Henderson says, “The companies and the artists we work with certainly have strong attitudes [about the war] and most of them are quite negative. Comedie-Francaise came in at a very awkward time in American and French relations [during the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2003]. That said, I think everyone behaved well.” Henderson, who was in London on Nov. 5 this past year, noted “an immediate turnaround with the election of Obama.”

Aside from the headaches of dealing with tighter immigration policies and sometimes-tense international news, another reality for those producing international artists is the fluctuating exchange rate. Most artists from abroad prefer to be paid in their home country’s currency, and Henderson frankly admits “The pound nearly killed me on a few occasions.” Taub notes that he booked an Italian group when the euro was at $1.40, but that by the time the company arrived, it had gone up to $1.57.

A larger trend noted by Drykacz is that European artists, particularly those from Eastern Europe, can make more money touring in Europe than in the states. “I look like a poor cousin to them now,” he says. One French actress that he wanted to bring in for I-Fest a few years ago wanted 15,000 euros—far out of reach for a small operation such as the Chopin. “That illustrates what we’re competing with,” Drykacz says. I-Fest tends to focus on cross-cultural artists, as in last fall’s Yasser, by Moroccan-born, Netherlands-residing author Abdelkader Benali, performed by Egyptian-Sudanese-Turkish actor (and current UK resident) William El-Gardi, which traced the conflicts faced by a young Palestinian actor preparing to play Shylock. In Drykacz’s view, the polyglot nature of the work can limit the support they get from cultural organizations that are more “nationalistic” in their focus.

“Goeth-Institut won’t support a show unless it’s a German playwright, performed in German, with a German actor,” says Drykacz. “The tricky thing right now is that in a time of globalization, you don’t have pure national identity. It’s all mixed. Many theatres are multicultural.”

Language differences come up all the time in presenting international work. Goodman used supertitles with two of the three Companhia Triptal shows. (Their ambulatory staging of Bound East for Cardiff made supertitles, well, superfluous.) “In talking to people [about the supertitles] it was sort of 50-50,” says Schulfer. “Half of the people loved them, half the people didn’t love them or didn’t feel they were necessary.”

Collins notes, “We spent a lot of time making sure that our dramaturg and their dramaturg felt that the translation we used was correct.” (This was made trickier by the fact that O’Neill’s original texts are in heavy dialect.) Henderson notes that Supple’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, in its first production in the English-speaking world at the Royal Shakespeare Company, didn’t use translations, and that Chicago Shakespeare decided to follow that lead. (The piece involved English and seven different languages from the Indian subcontinent.) Henderson says, “Every night we would lose about 20 people at the interval, and the lack of literal translation is what hung them up.”

Taub says, “For some audience members, there is an aversion to seeing foreign-language theatre.” For MCA, he consciously seeks out artists with “particular idiomatic language but also strong physical language,” and also work, such as Mexico’s Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes, who will perform Monsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati March 20-22, with “spectacular visual qualities.”

How much does it cost companies to produce international work? Schulfer says that the Goodman doesn’t break down their budget in that way, but Taub estimates that 25-30 percent of his budget at the MCA goes for international programming, and Henderson says that the World’s Stage series accounts for about 7-8 percent of the Chicago Shakespeare annual budget. For Drykacz, the costs vary wildly, though he notes that the fees associated with the visas often drive up the expenses—an “acceleration fee” to get visas expedited more quickly costs about $1,000 alone, according to Drykacz.

Of course, international performance is a two-way street, and Chicago Shakespeare and Goodman (and Steppenwolf, too) have sent work overseas, whether to the National Theatre, as with Steppenwolf’s Olivier-nominated production of August: Osage County at the National this past fall, or Chicago Shakespeare’s appearances with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon with Henry IV, Parts I and 2, a few years ago. The Goodman goes beyond touring this summer with Joan Dark, a collaboration between the theatre and the Linz Festival in Austria, which is the 2009 “European Capital of Culture.” Bosnian director Aida Karic, a resident of Vienna who served a 15-month residency at the Goodman, and Goodman literary manager Tanya Palmer are working together on this new version of the Joan of Arc story, featuring live music and movement. The show plays for one week in June in Linz, and makes its U.S. premiere with the Goodman next September. Schulfer notes that “it’s a different experience collaborating [rather than presenting]. The preparation time that European directors assume is available isn’t the same as in the U.S. There is a cultural difference.”

Though Chicago Shakespeare’s World’s Stage Series forms a sort of parallel season, Schulfer says that for the Goodman, “the artistic priorities drive the international producing, and not vice versa,” so the theatre probably won’t codify international work as a part of its season in the same formal way that Chicago Shakespeare has. Still, in addition to the Goodman’s ongoing commitment to the Latino Theatre Festival, artistic director Robert Falls has made it abundantly clear that he is interested in bringing more international voices to the Goodman stage on a regular basis.

Aside from the sheer pleasure for Chicago audiences in seeing work from around the world, everyone I spoke with expressed passion about the necessity of cultural ambassadorship and artistic dialogue in an increasingly globalized world. Says Taub, “We can get involved with international artists at the level of discussing differences in creative practice. We typically have roundtable conversations or even workshops that are free and open to the public. We make a special effort to involve Chicago-area artists and the dance community for there to be seeds of creative exchange.”

Goodman’s Collins notes that, though they don’t require visiting artists to participate in post-show discussions or other public events, many of the international artists are excited to do so, and that Garolli of Companhia Triptal “wanted to add more events where he got to speak to the audience and get their take on [the work].”

For Henderson, the joy comes from “playing very well in a very large sandbox with room for a lot of people telling a lot of stories with a lot of different perspectives.”

For Drykacz, even the financial limitations he has at the Chopin represent an opportunity—he finds himself bringing in many emerging performers, rather than “somebody who is established and has Vegas quality.” The fact that the work he brings in can fall outside the mainstream is a plus for Drykacz. “We need the strange shows,” he maintains.

Says Schulfer, “From a diplomatic viewpoint, without sounding high-falutin’ about it, Bob has talked about the fact that once upon a time, cultural diplomacy was a bigger deal for our government to engage in. In the days of the Cold War, this was how we learned that people behind the Iron Curtain weren’t monsters, and vice versa, they learned that about us. Cultural exchange has kind of fallen off the map in the last two decades, and part of our initiative is that if we wait for someone else to do it, it’s never going to happen. So hopefully there will be a renewed interest now with the change in the administration.” Home International Travel Key Issue in Upcoming CAT Contract Talks"