Queens Odyssey: The Internationalists Which Direction Home?
On a warm day in June, in an overheated rehearsal studio in Bushwick, peppered with sawdust on the floor and punctuated by garage door openings and exitings, an experiment in theater is underway. Stage left sit Athena, Poseidon, and Zeus with a MacBook on their desk, calling the shots for the now immortal mortals, Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, and other beings from a tale that has been passed down through the millennia. The rehearsal proceeds as many others in this early stage: at times the crew, including director Jake Witlen, break into a chorus of, “ring, ring, ring, ring,” providing the necessary telephone cue; lines are forgotten and remembered; a song is sung with sparing accompaniment; at its conclusion a conversation of further scoring is had. While the story of The Odyssey is re-made, re-shaped and re-created in this room, the real odyssey for these artists and for artists the world over will begin in July. Today’s piece will then become but one of a slew of odysseys making up Which Direction Home?, a theatrical event conceived and created by The Internationalists, a collective of theater directors from around the world.
In Which Direction Home?, eight of the member-directors have created new shows which will be brought from six different countries and are, according to their website, “inspired (more or less) by Homer’s epic poem.” The shows are split into two different programs, presented on alternate evenings. There will also be one marathon performance in which the audience can view both programs in a single day. The individual pieces easily fall into the over-used category of “experimental,” or, as producer Cathy Bencivenga says, “I hesitate to call them all plays. Many of them are performances.” A sampling: from Germany, Dina Keller is bringing an event that will begin every evening by inviting the audience to sit with cast members, enjoy food and drink, and enter into discussion about “foreignness” and a journey, setting the evenings to sail. Witlen’s production has a text that was “wiki”-ed by 10 playwrights from around the world. Doug Howe, in from Paris, invited six playwrights from all over the world to create a piece based on the theme of home—who, where, and what is it? Sama Ky Balson, from Australia, has created a piece of documentary-theater, taking the stories of boys from around the world who grew up without fathers as a way to prism into the story of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son. And one evening will feature an environmental theatrical event, created by Romanian director Ana Margineanu, in which a single audience member at a time will be led to five different site-specific locations, blindfolded, to experience theater (theatron: seeing-space) sans the thea part. But the real experiment underpinning all of these experimental theaters is The Internationalists.
The Internationalists was founded by a group of directors who met during The Lincoln Center Theater’s Directors lab in the summer of 2007. While living and creating in different places on the globe, the directors came together, becoming unified with the mission “to create a more open, sustainable, and interactive global theatrical community.” Over the years the members of the collective have found ways to collaborate across borders. They’ve traveled to collaborate on projects, experimented with producing work in two locations simultaneously, and hosted artists from disciplines ranging from Burmese Butoh dancers to commedia dell’arte and site-specific work. Annual events include “Around the World in 24-hours”: a marathon, 24-hours of theater with live performances from different artists in New York and simulcast performances skyped in from locations around the world. The collective also hosts a New Year’s Eve party, “New Year’s Eve(ry) hour” with the ringing in tracked across the globe. And they are one of the few organizations in the city that hosts “World Theatre Day.” (There is one, it’s March 27.) Artists interested in global theater congregate and hear the World Theatre Day Message read aloud in various languages by member-artists around the world. While all of these events have various obstacles to overcome—language and cultural barriers, systemic differences, technological hurdles—Which Direction Home? is The Internationalists’ most ambitious project yet.
The event is a culmination of a year-long residency that the collective is concluding at the La Guardia Performing Arts Center in Queens. “It’s one show’s worth of residency over eight people,” is how Bencivenga sees it. The difficulties of producing any single production are here multiplied by a factor of eight. Add to this the incorporation of four productions that have been in development in other countries over the past year. Their creators are arriving a month before the event to add their works to those created by the artists who are based in New York. In weaving these pieces together, the “designers have been like dramaturgs,” says Witlen. Lighting designer Stephen Arnold adds, “Creating a lighting language that can serve all the widely spread ideas has been a fun challenge.”
This challenge has been necessary in order to achieve the most important goal of the event: learning about each others’ work. The members will get to experience the pieces as a whole, but even more importantly, they will get the rare opportunity to watch each other work. In order to best achieve this, each of the directors was given very little in terms of guidance. While The Odyssey is a story that is well known in the Western world, these pieces are, as Howe explains, “Not based on a reinterpretation of The Odyssey but truly inspired by it.” The result, he says, was that, “everyone latched on to the things that were interesting to them.” The diversity of pieces created due to this inspirational freedom shows the various backgrounds that each of the artists are coming from, the way this shapes their view of the world, their art, how they create their art and what is important to them in their art. Over the next month the artists will be able to communicate about their work and learn from each other in a way that technology simply doesn’t allow. As Howe explains, “Having everyone in New York gives the opportunity to be in the same room to create.”
One of the other theatrical experiences audiences and artists will be able to have will be something that the group is calling “Instant Theatre.” In this experiment the directors will collectively create pieces of theater with participating audience members before each show. This poses the question, Witlen and many others may ask, “Can two directors work at the same time? Can six?”
“Hopefully, by the end of this,” says Howe, “we have the ability to define the questions,”—questions that Witlen describes as “never-ending. They continue to grow and get deeper and more intimate.”
The most worthwhile experiments start out with questions. Expect The Internationalists to continue to ask questions of the international arts community, expanding and shaping its possibilities well into the future. In the near-future a world of theater will be in Queens and for those who make The Odyssey Howe declares: “July is Odyssey month. A kumbaya of theater.”
The Group A and Group B productions of The Internationalists’ Which Direction Home? perform at 7 p.m., alternating nights from July 21–29 (with a marathon performance of both groups on Saturday, July 24) at the La Guardia Performing Arts Center, at La Guardia Community College in Long Island City. For more information, please visit theinternationalists.org/odyssey.html.
ASHLEY KELLY-TATA is the Artistic Director of Enthuse Theatre. She is pursuing an MFA in Theatre Directing at Columbia University.