Cultural Diversity and Cultural Identity in European Playwriting (Part 1)

Leeds, 2006

This open discussion as part of the Janus Programme was guest chaired by playwright Christopher Rodriguez. The session was split into three halves: an opening discussion including presentations from four speakers (Andrei Kuriechik, Milena Bogavic, Cem Duzova and Gabriel Gbadamosi), small group discussions, and finally, reporting back from those small discussions.

The documentation of this session has been split into two halves: opening discussion and reporting back. It has been edited for clarity and ease of reading, but with care to preserve the individual voices of speakers.

Welcome and Introduction (Christopher Rodriguez)

Christopher Rodriguez: Not with a whole bunch of experience, I am chairing. I have not been in touch with the [Janus] project before, but I am a playwright, a minority playwright in the UK. I've had about 7 plays on so far, not bad, it's about 7 plays in about 8 years it's not bad.

Today we're looking at problems. We have four speakers and then what we're likely to talk about is the problems in playwriting for minorities. But it's not just about looking at the problems, today we should have a slant at looking at solutions. It's a great thing to identify the problems that we have; but how can we find the solutions?

So what we're going to do is have a short introduction by each of the four speakers, just about a five minute speech, and then we'll excitingly break into groups and talk for about twenty minutes about playwrights, and then we'll present afterwards. How many playwrights do we have here? Many. Yes, so I know that writers prefer not to perform but at least you�ll get a chance to try it from the other side now. You can present at the end of 20 minutes, on the discussions within your group. You can identify your problems but please let's start thinking about solutions as well.

Before everyone goes into it, from my point of view as a minority writer in the UK, what I can identify as a problem, at least for me or for black writing on the whole, is not the quantity of work (because there's more work coming through) but the quality of the work. What I don't see as a Black person in the United Kingdom is a whole bunch of stories that I find represent the people or the community that I come from. So there's stories on stage, but they're not really stories that speak about my community; the narrative of it is very small. So those stories are reflected through a prism of how someone else wants to see them, but not reflected through a prism where I am really considered as the audience: so I don't learn something about my own community based on stories that are presented to me. So, as I say, it's not the quantity, because there are enough plays going on that are black and minority ethnic, but the narrative of it that is really very tiny. And that, at least for me as a writer, is one of the things that I hope we eventually break. If someone has a solution of exactly how to do that, where I become an active member of the audience, and plays are presented for me, then I'd be excited to hear that.

So, the speakers that we have today. We have Cem Duzova from Eastern Turkey and his first play, Ah, Tamar was staged here at the West Yorkshire Playhouse [as a rehearsed reading as part of the Janus project]. Over at that end is Gabriel Gbadamosi, most people would know him anyway because he's a face and a celebrity, A-list/B-list not sure which, but he's done a lot of work: he's a poet, writer for the Guardian as well, social commentator, everything you can name, kind of person you want to know, kind of contact you want to have. And there�s Milena Bogavic, and she's from Belgrade, Serbia and her play Dear Dad was also presented here [as part of Janus] at West Yorkshire Playhouse. And Andrei Kuriechik, who is from Belarus, and his play Heaven was presented [as part of the Janus project]in Graz, Austria. Milena...

Milena Bogavic (Serbia)

Milena: So, as you heard my name is Milena Bogavic, I'm a playwright from Serbia. I am 24 years old. I guess I'll be speaking from the position of a young playwright.

In my country we don't have like one particular theatre where only new plays of young playwrights are presented. So if you are a young playwright in Serbia, when you have finished your studies and everything, somehow you have to find your own way of getting your play into a mainstream theatre. We just don't have theatres for young people and everything. And if that does finally happen, you have different problems with the critics, because everyone is expecting your work to be like a classic because your play is staged in a mainstream theatre, and they are comparing your work with the work of very serious writers. You can hear very bad comments actually.

It�s also very hard if you are trying to live on your writing, but I guess it�s because the country is in a financial crisis; there�s always lots of problems like this.

What else to say? Yes, and I also think we have another problem because we have only a few acting schools and they are all sharing the same programme [of study] - so we have very old-fashioned educated actors. If you want to try to write something very contemporary in terms of form it's very hard to find an actor who will be brave enough to act in a different way and not in a realistic way, not like Stanislavski methods. I guess it would be very nice if we could create some kind of studio where actors and playwrights and directors could work together without those things we learned at university.


Andrei Kuriechik (Belarus)

Andrei: Hello, I am Andrei Kuriechik, from Minsk, Belarus.

It's very difficult to talk about the Belarusian theatre market now. You must understand that Belarus was, for almost 300 years, part of the Russian empire and then the USSR, and it's only in the last 15 years that it has been an independent country. We are still very much involved in the Russian theatre market and what's happening now in Belarus is the creation of the national school of theatre and the national school of playwriting.

I should say that in big Russia, this big, big, big space it had never been really friendly to playwrights. All the great playwrights in Russia had very unhappy lives, beginning from Gogol and Chekhov and everybody; so new playwriting is a really, really tough topic for Russian market. Even now (and we have very talented playwrights in Belarus and in Russia) we have a very small number of performances in Russia. Many more performances are abroad, like Vassily Sigarev, The Presnyakov brothers, and many of them, who had only few performances in Moscow and a lot of them somewhere else. We also have playwrights who say they are quite successful in Russia, but they never had any productions abroad. You cannot really predict how the market will work.

There's a very big problem with playwriting education. It's not existing in the way you have it in Britain or in other countries, so it somehow happens that people become playwrights from all other professions. Mostly doctors I should say. Doctors and lawyers; the most popular professions to become a playwright from! Traditionally... Yes, I don�t know how it happens.

When we talk about getting into the market, we should understand that big theatres are very traditional, and the [very] big ones like The Moscow Art Theatre (Stanislavski and Chekhov's theatre) are very traditional. Of course you can have your play staged there but it must be a traditional play. A very traditional play. If you're young and if you write a very traditional conservative play it could be staged. But if you're dealing with a really contemporary drama, you should be ready to be sent to some kind of small space, and that it will take years to have your plays staged or read. So many playwrights in Russia and Belarus are thinking about international activities which are about the countries which are much more friendly to the contemporary drama. So we have this phenomenon of export drama; drama that works as an export to other countries.

Well of course, we should talk about, when we talk about Belarus, this strange political situation which will suppress authors because, yes, it's fact there is a kind of censorship in theatres. You cannot do a political play. If you do it, you will have a problem. You will have a problem. But actually censorship touches every profession. If you do politics and you are a worker or doctor or student, of course somehow you will have this problem too.

When we talk about modern life in Belarus, of course, any play you write about modern life in Belarus, somehow touches politics because you cannot avoid social system, you cannot avoid social problems. And social problems connect to political problems and everything is connected. It's a very rare case when in Belarusian theatre you can see the play about modern life.

Cem Duzova (Turkey) [Translated in the session by Serdar Bilis]

Cem: Hi. Cem Duzova.

In my country all the Theatre movement is based in Istanbul and the big cities. All the other places in Eastern Turkey, Northern Turkey or Southern Turkey are a bit left out of this establishment. They are seen as second class or third class cities. Well I come from one of those cities, Bam in Eastern Turkey. There are difficulties for the writers who are writing outside these big cities, outside of the theatre establishment, which is in Istanbul, Ankara or maybe Ismit. Especially for those who are not trained in theatre, who don't come from a theatre background, be it acting or directing.

In my case there, the theatre history in my city is no more than ten years old. The municipal theatre, which is sponsored by the government, has been there for only ten years, so my relationship with the theatre is also ten years old! That's why when I meet these people, they don't take me seriously - they don't take anyone in my position seriously. I've sent my play to some of the theatres; I had no response. That's why it was shocking for me to see it was taken so seriously here. They sat and listened and gave me feedback- and that was shocking.

The only big state theatre establishment (they have 27 buildings in 12 cities) is a central organisation controlled through Ankara. If you want to get your play on, there's no other way, you have to go through this state theatre. The state theatres are viewed very seriously in the perception of theatregoers; the other theatres aren't taken seriously. There are a very few fringe theatres in Istanbul, maybe five, and in any other city, like in my city, there would be no fringe theatre. So no one would take you seriously unless your play was on in the municipal theatre in Bam.

And there's also, the literary department which is based in Ankara which OKs every play. It's a very painstaking process and competitive as there's a lot of money at stake (the money for playwrights in Turkey is 40% of the box office).

I think another solution, if we were to look at solutions, is what Mehmet Ergen started in Turkey - a flicker of hope for all of us. He came to all the cities in eastern Turkey and found us and encouraged us. I was so not used to this approach when Mehmet came to me and said, "you're interesting I think you've got a talent, I think we can develop this". That was so unfamiliar, a different planet for me. I was so not used to this different approach at all.

It's hard for new blood to get through. If there were more workshops, more studios, like a fringe culture in these cities where new plays could be put on it would really help. As it stands there is only one stage in my city, and if you're not on this you're nowhere and the play ends up in a drawer. I think I really agree with Milena when she said [at an earlier discussion] they [young playwrights in Serbia] came together with some friends and strengthened their voice - but it's really difficult for us to find peers, there's no organisations, so we don't know who's writing and who wants to write. It's very difficult to communicate with the other cities.

Christopher Rodriguez: Let me interject because we'll think about solutions as we get into the discussion as we sit and chat with each other. Sounds like the solution is we should all move to Turkey if we're getting 40% of the box office! So, Gabriel...

Gabriel Gbadamosi (UK)

Gabriel: So, yes, right. I see a kind of difference between what Milena, Andrei and Cem just said and the way you [Christopher] outlined your experience of diversity in this county, which is literally to do with ethnic minorities, the way theatre (like most institutions in this country) is, as they say, hideously white - there isn't representation. So that's the issue here in this country for diversity, but there are other issues in Europe. So what I want to do is just talk for a moment about how in my mind, how in my head, I make these two issues talk to one each other. Something like this...

So, first of all for Milena, this issue of talking as a young playwright. Any time a playwright has a success in the newspapers they are labelled, believe me, as "new young playwright'. Believe me, "new young playwright" - they could be 60! Because the successful life of most playwrights is very brief. It's the life of a mayfly. It's May now and one day at the beginning of this month everywhere there were flies. Do you know? It lasts one day in sunlight, and then they're gone. So. If I could begin by saying, I ask myself why am I still here, because my young day was in the 1980s?

Milena: Yes, but if you are a young playwright you cannot wait to grow up because people are often saying, you�re a young playwright, which actually means you're not a playwright yet.

Gabriel: Yes. And basically what I would say to equalise what you're saying and what Christopher is saying is, that of myself, when I say to myself "why am I still here?', my answer to myself is because I am a foreigner in my own country.

Your situation in Serbia is that there is a gerontocracy. The old generation, the old style actors, and you can't breath, you can't live, you can't access the resources, the theatres, the funding. This is two different cultures in a way. You are a stranger, a foreigner in their culture. As Andrei describes Belarus, the local situation of paralysis. Well it's a director�s theatre to have coded metaphorical exchange between the stage and the audience. The role of the playwright which is language and more explicit, forget it. So they find solutions internationally. But then they discover there's the market, the market can betray you, as well as any Lukashenko or any theatre bureaucracy. It can. There's Cem's descriptions of the way the cities hold, estrange, the country. All of those peasants will never get to the metropolis where power and corruption and the state all meet. They're foreigners, they're peasants, what are they doing there? So each of these circumstances, our situation of being foreigners in these theatres, is, I'm going to suggest, something to do with the solution, your survival. And your solution Christopher, your survival. That's what I want to suggest.

So, very quickly, Jonathan said (because I didn�t know how to think, this morning, because I wasn't awake) "if you want to change something about where you are in relation of diversity or the obstacles of going abroad, start abroad and come back."

So very quickly, Vincent [Woods - Irish playwright in the session], Ireland, let me start in Ireland. I�m English. You can see I'm completely English, and I am also completely Nigerian and I am also completely Irish, although, where�s Catherine [Coray - New York actor/ teacher in the session]? My heart is Irish. I brought Irish poets, all of the ones I knew, to this country for my Mother's funeral, because I could. She died, she left Ireland as a young girl, never went back. How do I celebrate her? I thought, I go to the State and say look at my black skin, you must give me money as an ethnic minority, because I am Irish. So I got the money, £6,000 20 years ago, I could pay for every major poet in Ireland to fly to London and read their poetry with Jean Binta Breeze from the Caribbean, with Abdullah al-Udhari from the Yemen. All of our ethnic minorities, a shared platform. That was my first piece of theatre. That was it.

The Irish said, "oh well we know you know, come and speak to us as a poet". But really, "come on to the radio and speak to us about our racism. We have new populations in Ireland, they're black, they're polish, xenophobia, speak to us about this". So this was my second action for Ireland. To sit and think and say, on prime time radio, everyone is driving home, "yes you know, it can be very problematic in Ireland, you can meet a lot of very violent racism but usually you have to be Irish, you have to be Catholic or you have to be Protestant to meet it. Because to the complete stranger the culture of Ireland is very welcoming".

So just to create a kind of trouble, a kind of mischief, within the way any theatre space, any culture constitutes itself and constitutes you as Other, this is a wonderful theatre that you can begin to make. I�ll stop there.

[The Session was then divided up into small groups to discuss issues around cultural diversity and to think up potential solutions. To read the second part of the session go to Part 2]


Cultural Diversity and Cultural Identity in European Playwriting (Part 2)

After presentations on different notions of diversity, the session split into five groups tasked with discussing problems faced in terms of cultural diversity, and possible solutions. Representatives from each of these groups then fed back to the main group.

Group One:

Spokesperson: Aiste Ptakauskaite/ Gabriel Gbadamosi

Aiste: What we were trying to figure out is what is happening, why this discussion, and is it really about the Fence. If it's cultural diversity within this group, or whether it is on a more general scale? Because on a more general scale I think the problem is quite well understood in different cultures. And the basic difference is that in different cultures or in post-soviet cultures or post socialist block and western block cultures, they address diversity on a very different level. If in Western culture diversity is addressed in a more ideological scale or ethnic scale, in post-socialist countries it is more a political or economic problem, or issue - so it’s difficult to find one unifying solution. But we all agreed that the main thing is that we understand the problem and that we try to talk about the problem and that we try to share it amongst ourselves in the culture and as well as in a broader network as the Fence is.


Distribution of Funds

Listening to the problems, one of the first problems is money and funds, and how do we get them? Do we form separate groups of people who are in the minority and then make a camp of them and leave them alone and say to them now you sort it out among yourselves as we go along with the mainstream, Which is not exactly a notion of diversity? Being diverse in one stream but not creating many islands. So it’s not always really about giving a certain amount of money to certain to people, but it’s also about integrating people and trying to talk from different perspectives and different cultures.



Another interesting issue was an identity issue: how we treat our identities in post-socialist blocks where we were struggling so hard to find this monolithic identity for our own nation and now we’ve found it we don’t really want to let go of it. It doesn’t mean we don’t have ethnic minorities or sexual or social diversity within the society, but at the moment we’re not ready to see it because we worked so hard to keep unity in our own small countries, our own monolithic ethnic identity. It’s really hard for us to accept - it’s also heterogenic in itself. It’s also very difficult for a writer to find his own voice, if it’s difficult for me to get money within my own society; I try to just export plays. So it means I am trying to find some universal voice that can talk to everyone, and it’s not really a voice for the audience within my country, but if I try to talk for the audience within my country, you know, like, I don’t have any guarantees that they would like, that this work would reach the audience.



Gabriel:We were also saying it was kind of win/win. In these monolithic, ethnically small countries like Lithuania, Slovenia, you’ve got no diversity. So then going outside the Fence, so you can test and see yourself in the Other, it’s a win. And if you’re a country like Great Britain or France or Germany, there’s a great deal of actually existing and recognised diversity then instead of being ghettoised in those national administrations or national policies, you escape the ghetto by internationalising or seeing the diversity that surrounds your state as a whole, so it’s a win. Saying in terms of diversity is win/ win, and that’s why you chose this subject.

Group Two

Spokesperson: Alison Watt

Alison: Yes, similar conclusion. We kind of looked at the problems, what all the writers said, their difficulties and we analysed them and talked through what they said, and thought how would we solve those particular problems?


Overcoming Censorship

We came to the conclusion that there’s no simple solution but certainly there’s the whole thing of overcoming censorship and going outside and taking an international perspective and achieving some sort of backing from the international community which we saw as a really positive thing. People endorse the writer in the world basically, and so that can be a force back home, because it’s very difficult for a country that would suppress that writer at home when all the world is saying, we love this writers work.

British Council

The other thing that was discussed was the expertise at the British Council in order to overcome difficulties at home for rwriters. It’s very useful to have people come in and talk to them about how to write plays, develop plays, and that would be a very useful thing to have.

Grass Roots

Also Jon was talking about getting the grass roots things going, communication on a low scale, if it’s just people meeting in groups, communication through the internet, to actually develop the body of work, through small scale things, and develop it that way.

It’s basically trying to establish self-esteem for a writer and get it out there.

Charles Mulekwa: The big one we came up with is that there are no solutions.

Christopher Rodriguez: That’s uplifting!

Group Three:

Spokesperson: Milena Bogavic/ Sarah Dickenson

Milena: Well we started the discussion from the position of a young playwright. But we were talking about problems with young playwrights have if he wants to establish his work in one way.

Freedom and Responsibility

But then we came to a conclusion that from the position of a young playwright you have a huge freedom to really to say a lot of things, and we all agreed that this is not the worst position you can have as a playwright. For example there are also countries and playwrights who don’t have the freedom to say a lot of things, and there are also countries where you cannot show your work. You don’t have that chance. In the end we all agreed, that responsibility for each other is the most important thing, and you cannot just wait for a situation to change, but we all have to support each other on different levels to change this situation.


Sarah: I think we had a conversation about audiences, as well. We talked about difficulties of audiences and being generalised. So for example a building like this, having the remit of having to serve a whole host of different people in terms of work, as against specific theatre companies who are set up with specific audience in mind.

Group Four

Spokesperson: Andrei Kureichik/ Edith Draxl

Andrei: We began with a discussion about the situation in Belarus; the problem of isolation, and it's a problem because there is no information coming in and no going out. We tried to develop ideas how we would deal with it. And it was two ideas.

Bringing People Together

The first is to bring people together, because all our meetings before, yes we are very different countries from the point of view of culture, but it’s three countries, and it will be very useful to get international people together in a different atmosphere, to a different psychology, it will be very interesting to explore how the atmosphere of society influences everything about art and the discussions about art. It will be very useful for people from abroad to have first hand information, and it will be very useful for Belarusians, because it’s expensive to bring a lot of Belarusians abroad, so they can come, students, theatre practitioners, directors, a lot of them, just to have this communication, it will be useful.

International Networking

The second idea was to keep a kind of networking work with playwrights and international playwrights and Belarusian playwrights of different countries, so it would be as well quite interesting. And we had discussions about audiences and about critics, and please Edith can you tell more times about the difference about criteria and cultural diversity.


Exchange/ Structure

Edith: I tried to say that the starting point was the question of work/workshopping, and I said, the question is who is speaking because there doesn’t exist one kind of theatre, there are lots of differences and I think that cultural diversity exists not so much in the content but in the structure in a way of a play. For me it’s really question not of going out and telling people how to do it, because that’s a kind of cultural colonisation, but it’s about exchange and it’s a lot about structure and less about content I think.

And not only about structure of a play, but as we looked before, also about the style of acting, and what you think in general about theatre.


Can You Beat the Market?

Gabriel: There was one thing I forgot. Can you beat the market? It’s a question that everyone asks on the stock exchange. Can you beat the market? So when Andrei says we don’t know who lives, who dies in this international market, the thing about the Fence is that it is not the market.

When Andrei said, we are blocked at home we must go abroad, we must go into exile, abroad is a market, some writers and some other writers and we don’t know why. Really it’s a terror for us. This is our experience. Well if that is the experience of the market, the experience of the Fence as a network is a certain kind of safety and it’s not about money. It’s not about what the market says; it’s about what we say. But the question is: Are we better than the market or are we worse? Is it necessarily that we can beat what the market can do?

Group Five

Spokesperson: Vincent Woods

Vincent: We came to a very radical conclusion and that is that cultural diversity should be stamped out!!!

We had a very broad ranging discussion especially around the notion of cultural diversity as explored around the Fence. And the individual responses from different countries about what it means and how we can move forward especially through meetings like this.

Meeting Informally - Allowing the Unexpected to Happen

I suppose the writers among us felt that the strength of cultural diversity comes through very informal content and it can’t be prescribed, and that in meetings like this the unexpected happens. There must be room always for the unexpected to happen, for people to meet informally, for contacts to happen over years, and we concluded that we won’t necessarily see the results of even years of meetings like this, for several more years to come, that it takes time and it can be very slow. And that there’s also a need for administrators to see the possibilities in raising funds also for work like this, to give practitioners, to give writers especially the opportunity to meet, to exchange scripts and possibly translate each others work, engage with each other and with each others cultures.

Import vs Export

Again we talked about whether there’s a conflict between the desire of the individual writer to have their work seen in other countries, to have their work exported, and the need to have work from other countries brought into their countries. And for me, that’s a particular problem in relation to Ireland where I’m from, because I think there’s a certain kind of cultural arrogance in Ireland where we presume that, partly because we speak English, the rest of the world is waiting to see our work and welcomes literature from Ireland with open arms. But there’s very little desire in Ireland, it seems to me, to have the rest of Europe or indeed the rest of the world seen or heard in Ireland, whether that be in translation into English or in its original language with subtitles. Jonathan talked about the work of the Fence and what had been achieved in the last few years, especially how in the context with Cem and the context with Turkey there is a possibility in a very subtle way, and must in its very nature be very subtle, things can’t be prescribed, they must happen very organically, certainly with structures and people as well to make us all engaged with each other, but in a sense much of the achievement and much of what will come out of all of this, won’t be seen necessarily immediately, but things are happening, will happen.


Conclusion (Christopher Rodriguez)

Christopher: That covers it very well really. OK, in wrapping up, I want to answer the market issue.

Did you go to that thing with Ali LeRoi the writer who did Everybody Hates Chris; he’s a very successful American writer? I did. And it reminds me of one of the good things about meeting people, this just meeting up with people from different cultures, people who talk about their problems, and he’s extremely successful in the USA, but just when you sit with other writers, in different positions scattered across the globe the first thing is to meet someone like that who says "two years ago I wasn’t working". And it is a relief for all writers who suddenly think “oh, it’s not that easy is it? One minute you’re not working and the next you’re a millionaire”.

And so it’s strange and it is within that world of writers when you have that space and you meet across different places that you begin to understand each other and it becomes much more important. In the sense of ‘can the market be beat’ what he said was really good. What he said was that he was in a position now where he is commanding a lot and he said, "you know what, you just don’t know what will work. You have no idea what is going to be a hit or what won’t, so the only thing you can do is write from your heart and write well. Because you don’t know what will happen, which one will go and which one won’t. But if you aim for that it probably never will happen, there are too many factors happening, there’s too much what society wants at the time, what’s going on somewhere, what’s the zeitgeist, so something might be right now, something might be right twenty years down the line, something might never be right. The only thing you can do is just write with feeling and be the best you can be."

And can the market be beat? I don’t know, but it’s lovely when you sit amongst writers that anything is possible, and you start to discuss the experiences that people can have even across the US in difference places, and what I feel here at least, with different writers, you’re talking about breaking the form - that will always be the struggle that we have. It will always be the struggle breaking the form. We want to say new things with new energy and all those things, and yes, at least if we can back each other up to stick with that consistently, encourage each other to do new things so that we break the form.

But also what’s clear for me, here, is that there’s a real hub for people to go beyond their borders, because people obviously want more and if they’re sixteen pieces done, it’s an amazing thing that writers can start going beyond their own borders and even to be translated. It is the sort of strength that we’re looking for, because it seems to be what is repeated here all the time. It’s not about diversity, it’s about being heard beyond your own space and it seems that everyone here would like to be heard beyond their own space because it makes you a little bit stronger - perhaps more than in the one that you have.

And I think that’s very admirable and I can’t add anything on to that, and thanks very much for coming, and the key thing is, yes, what we concluded group five, and what I hear reflected through everybody is just these kinds of networks, where we can exchange cards. I just heard something from Anja about the Royal Court and I might know someone in the Royal Court.

We create the space for possibility, what can be more exciting?