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Global Exchange in a Giant Ecology

Global Exchange
A woman sings with a band on stage in a darkened studio. Onlookers clap.
The Lark's México/U.S. Playwright Exchange, 2016. A 10th Anniversary celebration!

We live in an era of global capitalism. Money, Hollywood films, luxury brands, McDonalds, shopping malls, all of these capitals flow across the world constantly. Sociologists even came up with the concept of “grobalization” to capture the globalization of the nothingness that capitalism has produced in order for the nation to sustain its economic power over the rest of the world. 

Of course, theater is part of this unequal dynamic. Big Broadway and West End musicals are touring all over the world, reinforcing the Western way of theater making. While it is important to export arts and culture from the U.S., how can this happen with an equal exchange? How can we shift the paradigm so it encourages intercultural and cross-cultural dialogues? 

This month, I sat down with
Lloyd Suh, the Director of Artistic Programs at The Lark, to learn more about what Global Exchange at The Lark entails and how it functions uniquely in the current global capitalist society. 

WENXUAN XUE: Could you tell me a little bit about the history of Global Exchange Initiatives at The Lark?  How did it start?

LLOYD SUH: The spirit of Global Exchange, philosophically, was about expanding the conversation around not just what a play can do in the world, but what a writer can do in the world. John [Clinton Eisner, Lark Artistic Director] is always interested in the idea that playwrights are thought leaders. So philosophically it fits the mission of empowering writers. When you take away commercial pressures, when you take away notions of writing for a specific audience, that allows the writers to just think about what they want to do in the world, what they want to say that's unique and individual to themselves. 

These exchange processes aim to create as big a context for that as possible. The idea of reciprocal exchange, where we send U.S.-based writers to different parts of the world, is about expanding a writer's idea about what their own work can do. Putting it in a different cultural context is always revelatory. On one end, writers learn things about how audiences in different communities receive the play. On the other end, having writers from other parts of the world come and do residencies here is about expanding our communities' understanding of what theater is, what's going on outside of our political situation, outside of our geographic boundaries, outside of our established aesthetic norms, but even more, outside of these structures. Working with writers from other parts of the world, writers can see and experience different structures in place and different ways of working, and that can be inspiring.

WX: What is it like for writers from other parts of the world to experience the new work development process here? Are they surprised? 

LS: There's always the sense of surprise. Because The Lark is unique. I think when American writers come here, even when writers have been working in this country for many years, they tend to be surprised about being the writer in the room making choices, dictating decisions, and leading the process. And it's not necessarily a cultural difference, but I think globally speaking, most writers aren't used to how aggressively The Lark centers the playwright. 

Every part of it is an experiment. Sending writers to another country and having them stay for 10 to 12 days in a translation workshop process is an experiment and an adventure. It's still process based. We can say a goal is to create a stage-worthy translation of a play, but it's not enough time to guarantee that. These translations sometimes do get produced, and some go on have an incredible global reach. But that can’t be the main goal. The main goal has to be about learning and sharing, to engage in the process like an experiment in cultural understanding. Learning is a very practical, tangible, attainable, real goal, and it's the kind of goal that leads to open, organic processes. They can't be measured in terms of whether you get it right, but can be measured in terms of whether it was useful. And by large it's almost always useful. Maybe you
don't get it right. Maybe that is useful. Maybe that teaches you something about language, about your writing, and in a deeper philosophical sense, about cultural sharing. Through the process of using plays as a mechanism, we can have cross-cultural dialogue about grammar, about what it is like to work across borders, about shared humanity, about art and beauty, and about what it is to be a human being.

WX: There have been multiple forms of global relationships, some are more violent some are peaceful. While globalization today is very much a global movement of capitalism, what does “exchange” at The Lark look like when we don’t think about money? How is The Lark’s Global Exchange program different from other global relationships, i.e. the capitalist, neo-colonial expansion? 

LS: That's a big question. I can’t say we don't consider money. We consider money to the appropriate degree. But about the relationships between money and art, funds for these global exchange programs come from government sources, they come from embassies, they directly come from the local government, or in some cases, directly come from the United States government. 

This is the more complicated answer towards the second part of the question, because we have to believe, as a theater organization designed to empower writers, that individual voices are incredibly powerful, that a single writer can change the world as a thought leader, as an activist, as a storyteller, or any combination of these roles. Our exchanges are not focused on changing legislation, or changing international geopolitics on those levels. What we're doing is changing culture. We're taking people who are leaders of cultural expression, people who work within oftentimes very specific cultural communities, and we're trying to expand their notion of what their agency is in global dialogue. We're putting them in positions where they're navigating the ways in which their work is seen and understood in a much more expansive way than they might otherwise have the opportunity to see. We're zooming in. It's very intimate. Those rooms are small rooms. It's writer, translator, director and actors, working on a play, talking about the play, in really micro terms, like talking about translation of a word, translation of a joke. 

Earlier today, I had a video conference call with
Dipika Guha who's going over to Moscow, about just "what reads?". Part of the plot points and humor in the play revolves around the hiring of a guru from India to work for a corporation, only to discover when he gets there that it's a white guy. I don't know how that reads in Moscow - the relationship with Yoga, the perception of India as a place where you find spiritual gurus, the tension between spirituality and corporations, and the identity politics of racial signifiers - how are these going to translate? These are not easy questions to answer. You can't answer these questions in a video conference call. So this is one of the things that they’re going to explore when they're in that room with the director and actors. 

The interesting thing about translating a play is that you can make choices. If something doesn't read the same way in Russia that it's meant to read in America, should you change it to something that has the same cultural relevance in Russia? Or what if something has the same resonance in terms of identity politics in Russia, but it's not as funny? Or, there is something that can be a laugh moment in Russia, but it doesn't have the same identity politics. How do you choose which one is most appropriate for that storytelling? Or even, should you change it at all? Or just say that it doesn't represent the same thing to a Russian audience. And that's okay. 

WX: There's no right or wrong way of doing it. It's the process of exploring the possibilities. 

LS: When you’re working on it with a translator, it becomes a conversation around cultural meanings. So in this micro way, they have great conversations around language, meaning, intention, what audiences understand, they're making hypotheses about what things mean to different people, and those conversations have an effect on what writers do. We believe the thesis of these global exchange programs is that these shifts, in the way that artists behave and think about their own work, have a ripple effect that ultimately changes and shapes cultural conversations in general. 

WX: How were the countries selected? Are there any other countries that The Lark is hoping to have exchange with?

LS: It's almost entirely about partnerships. In order to do this kind of work, we're very sensitive around what America represents in the world, we would never want to be the sole entity, going into another country and being “in charge”. Especially when we're dealing with specific cultural entities, we want to have partners to decentralize the power so that we're not the one dictating what the conversation is. 

The three programs that we have the longest histories are with México, Romania, and Russia. In all these cases, they're rooted in having a very specific partnership that has been sustainable, that has grown into a robust on-going cultural conversation so that the programs expand based on the expansion of the partnerships. There are some other areas of global exchange where we've done exploratory trips and had exploratory conversations, with theater organizations in Shanghai, in Manila, and in Lebanon. Those are in the early stages, and we hope we will eventually grow into ongoing, sustainable, reciprocal partnerships. But those things take time, in particular because we want those structures and the ways we do them to be organic, identifying the need first before we build the program around it. 

WX: I got very interested in the Chinese Language/U.S. Exchange program because it's very specific and intentional to name it "Chinese language". It reflects the heterogeneity of Chinese cultures around the world. And I'm wondering if there's a way that this kind of work can be applied to other Global Exchange programs so that countries or nations are no longer the necessary building block of the conversations? 

LS: The exchange that Catherine Coray has been developing in Beirut isn't specific to Lebanon or Beirut, but more broadly to the conversation around Arab/Arab American or Middle Eastern/Middle Eastern American theater making practices, which are so varied around that region, and in multiple different languages. It just so happens that the venue that she has the most robust and currently active partnership right now is in Beirut. But in terms of the kind of plays they're looking for, the exploratory exchange we did here in New York last year involved two writers, Raeda Taha, a Palestinian writer living in Amman,, and Wael Qadour, a Syrian writer living in Paris. There's something interesting there about cultural conversations involving writers from displaced communities. So the question around nationality is complicated. 

WX: There could be many difficulties and challenges involved in Global Exchange, because we're dealing with international politics. How does The Lark get around issues of visas, censorship, and perhaps political repercussions? 

LS:  Global exchange is very much dictated by politics. The México/U.S. Playwright Exchange program is funded primarily through FONCA, the Mexican equivalent of the NEA, and it existed for ten years before the Mexican government imposed austerity measures which put the program on hold. So it took political advocacy to get it back on the agenda and we got re-funded again last year. But even then, we're working with government agencies. 

This exchange we're doing in Moscow in December was supposed to happen last year. It didn't happen because of complications at the Embassy. So even before getting the program in place and visas in place, it was clear to us that the timing just wasn’t going to work. So we delayed for a year because of political logistics. But all of that is part of the conversation we've been having with those partners, and the communities and artists that we've been building over time. The situation between the United States and Russia is pretty unpredictable. It is exciting that the conversation the artists have in the program is part of that flow. They're experiencing the ups and downs, the upheavals, the tensions between governments, it's all connected. It's all constantly evolving. 

WX: The exchange doesn't stop after the writers travel and have their plays read in another country. We keep seeing examples of how their works are being published or translated into other languages. How can individuals, organizations, and donors help this exchange, like you said, to continue to evolve and become something that's not bound by a singular cultural, linguistic, and national identity? 

LS: With all of these people - individuals, organizations and donors - it's the spirit of positioning ourselves, positioning individual artists, and positioning organizations within the American theater as part of a giant ecology. It's very tempting in America to think about what we do as commodity-based. 

"Oh let's do that play, let's market that play. And then when that play is over, let's find another play that we can do and market".

That's the way the structures are built, so it's hard not to mentally or subconsciously think that's what we do. But in actuality, individual artists have invested in cultural conversations that expand into theater organizations that expand into the American theater at large that then expands into the global conversations we're having. If we embrace our role as part of the ecology, then we're not just putting on shows in a specific location, we're existing within this giant human ecology of artistic and cultural expression that is simultaneously grappling with our past, reacting in real time, in the present tense, to where we are, who we are as a species, and we're visioning and imagining our futures, collectively. Our work becomes more meaningful, powerful and lasting. It’s not about how many plays have gone to have productions, what venues they were performed at, how much we make. It's not about looking at the Broadway grosses, because that's such a poor measure of meaning, of success, and of the long lasting effect on humankind. Those are things that are probably immeasurable in any other way except through feeling it in symbiotic relationships with people all over the world. That's what our Global Exchange programs are designed for.