Theatre and Exile International Conference
Theatre and Exile International Conference (sponsored by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Modern Drama, Joint Initiative in German and European Studies, School of Graduate Studies, Department of English, Centre for Comparative Literature, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures U of T; PEN Canada; Playwrights Union of Canada) was held at the Graduate Centre for Study of Drama, University of Toronto, 21-23 March, 2002.
It is difficult to find the right tone to describe or analyze an event you were more then attached to: when you were responsible for its birth both intellectually, physically and just by the fact of your being a Russian in Canada, a critic watching a production, an academic working in theatre. Since you always remain someone you had been and someone you have become, it is not easy to talk about something that you have been experiencing since the moment you crossed the border — the condition of being other. Borders, the dichotomy between there and here, past and present, memory and reality, imagination and truth — all of these eternal questions — are embraced and highlighted by the existentiality of exile. Once you are expelled from the Garden of Eden, from your childhood and the dreams of youth, you have no choice but to face adulthood. Since that moment, you are always two: someone I was and someone I “is”.
The idea of organizing a conference on theatre in exile occurred a friend of mine (now a Doctor of Philosophy in Theatre Studies), Silvija Jestrovic, a year ago, when we discussed her doctoral thesis on defamliarization in theatre. We discussed the notion of distance as necessity for an artist to be able to observe and depict real life exiled in theatre: first in drama, then on stage.
A year had passed. Theatre and Exile International Conference opened on March 21, 2002 at the Graduate Center for Study of Drama, at the University of Toronto. About twenty speakers from all over the world gathered for three intellectually intense and emotionally draining days. The conference addressed the concept of exile from different viewpoints: as a physical condition brought about from the outside, as an intellectual category, and as a philosophical model. The audience of many cultures and languages enthusiastically received the multi-genre action.
The conference started with a keynote address by the writer and philosopher Breyten Breytenbach (New York University and University of Cape Town), in which he mapped both philosophical and political sides of exile. He shaped his talk as a Platonic dialogue between I (Ego) and Other (Alter Ego), thus embracing the duality and of exile. As Breytenbach stressed in his poetic rather than academic speech, exile is simultaneously “experiencing, thinking and walking about”.
The numerous academic panels featured, among others, Una Chaudhuri (New York University), Eileen Denn Jackson (Trinity College, Dublin), Christine Jones (University of British Columbia), Jan B. Gross (Grinnell College, Iowa), Donia Mounsef (Yale University), Mary Trotter (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis); Don Rubin (York University). Case studies described and analyzed the concept of exile in the works of various authors and artists such as Beckett, Fugard, Horvath, Tennessee Williams, Brecht, Michael Chekhov, and others. Several papers dealt with exile as an element of the contemporary theories of globalization, nationalization, and geopolitics.
There were several round-tables presenting theatre practitioners, such as Annette Heilmann and Helmut Schafer (Theater an der Ruhr); Dragana Varagic, Djanet Sears, Erna Paris and Gail Nyoka.
There was a screening of Guillermo Verdecchia's and Ramiro Puerta's film Crucero/Crossroads and a play-reading session in the Idler pub with Mario Fratti, Rahul Varma, Daniel David Moses, Woon-Ping Chin, Goran Stefanovski.
At the farewell dinner, this conference indeed was Babylon incarnate. No one was excluded. All of us — from Amsterdam to Saskatchewan, from Dublin to New York, from Munich to Montreal, from Moscow to Toronto — felt at home at the conference. Moreover, all of us found a theme, a presentation we could identify with.
Perhaps I was following my fellow East Europeans intently, since if we don't speak the same language, we do have a very similar past. Among the presentations differently addressing the subject there were “Tales from the Wild East” by Goran Stefanovski, a Macedonian playwright, teaching now at the University of Kent, UK; “Staging Exile for Children” by Dragan Klaic, a Belgrade theatre history professor now living in Holland; “Michael Chekhov in Western Theatre” by Liisa Byckling, Finland; “Making It in America: Janusz Glowacki in New York” by Tamara Trojanowska, of Polish origin, University of Toronto; “Polyphonic Performances: Soviet Emigres in the United States” by Rachel Perlmeter, born in USA and spending this year in Moscow.
Perhaps the presentations of Woon-Ping Chin (Dartmouth College) “Sycorax Revisited: Exile and Absence of Performance” and of Reza Baraheni, the president of PEN Canada, deserve a special note. In her highly performative talk Chin addressed not only the problems of women in exile from the feminist viewpoint (there were other papers dealing with similar issues) but also the problems of people from the East in the Western civilization. Like Chin, Baraheni emphasized the necessity to re-address the Western viewpoint on the culture of the East; and like Breytenbach, he returned to the notion of the existentiality of exile familiar to each age and each continent. Among others, these two presentations made me think that the Theatre and Exile conference alluded to the new tendencies appearing in the Slavic studies (as formulated in the AAASS Newsletter, V. 42, no. 2, March 2002) of “expanding the definitions of area studies” and “integrating Russian studies into the Northeast Asian studies”. As Veronika Ambros (University of Toronto) stressed in her closing remarks, this conference indeed focused our thinking on re-shaping the common concepts of home, motherland, mother tongue, nation, foreignness, and geography.
As Stephen Johnson (University of Toronto) said, the Graduate Center for Study of Drama (DC) is itself acquiring a multinational population. Many of its members took part in preparing this conference. Professor Veronika Ambros and the inspired group of DC students (Silvija Jestrovic, Danielle Couture, Joanne MacKay-Bennett, Stephen Farrow and myself), bound together by similar interests and life experiences, put in a year's worth of effort for this event to come through. The proceedings of “Theatre and Exile” conference will be published in the special issue of Modern Drama, 2003.