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Building Book Wings

Since last fall, a team of professionals from across divisions at the University of Iowa has been working with the creative and technical staff of the Moscow Art Theatre to produce Book Wings, a collaboratively staged live reading of commissioned work from eight accomplished Russian and American poets*, Maxim Amelin, Quan Barry, Linor Goralik, Terrance Hayes, Inga Kuznetsova, Dora Malech, Anna Russ, and Matthew Zapruder. 

The idea—to connect writers, performers, directors, new media professionals and audiences from the U.S. and Russia—sprang from the Culture Sub-Working Group of the U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission and is made possible with grant funds provided by the U.S. Department of state. The project—part literary commission, part performance, part new media collaboration—represents a unique opportunity for the University of Iowa to co-produce a performance with one of Europe’s most revered stages .

But implementing a high-definition, multi-stage show at a distance of over 5,000 miles is no simple feat and has required the resources and expertise of many people in Moscow and here at the University of Iowa. Beginning last November, faculty and staff from the International Writing Program, the Department of Theatre Arts, Information Technology Services, University of Iowa Television, the Writing University began to address the unique challenges of connecting performers and audiences who spoke different languages and who lived 10 time zones apart.

“Apart from the considerable technical challenges,” says IWP Director Christopher Merrill, “there is the challenge implicit in any cultural exchange: to find a fruitful means of communication, which engages artists from different cultures at their deepest levels, where new ideas and insights may come into being.”

Over the six-month period in which the show was developed, a variety of challenges (foreseen and unforeseen) cropped up. For the poets, the act of writing a commission to the theme of “contact” presented particular challenges, as did the process of helping to refine translations of one another’s work. For the technical staff—who are responsible for operating the high-definition videoconferencing units that are making the exchange possible—the challenges of building Book Wings were myriad.

According to Lauren Haldeman, editor at the Writing University the most difficult element of producing the show has been has been troubleshooting the technical problems between continents. “Working those out from across the globe is challenging," says Haldeman, who is managing the live streaming of the event over the internet. She is quick to note, however, that "I have loved working with the different departments and specialists that this project has brought together. It is really exciting to be in the same room with experts in the written word, performing arts, technology, and diplomacy. Wild!"

"It’s exciting to see the outcome of everyone's efforts turn an idea into reality," adds Les Finken, the videoconferencing and technical project lead for Book Wings. Finken, an IT professional with the University of Iowa, has dealt with the dual challenges of organizing his individual workload for the show (including securing the appropriate videoconferencing technologies, testing those technologies, and managing them in the theatre space) and making sure that the technologic needs of the other divisions involved with the program were being met. “Providing solutions for individual components [of the show]— stage production, theatre works, broadcast production, audio production, web streaming and videoconferencing, writing, graphic design, communication, etc.—is not difficult to do,” says Finken, though, he says, “Solving the problems required bringing all of the components together into one production. That was the most challenging thing and, for me, the most interesting.”

Of course, the technical requirements of the show—while complex—are only half of the story. Once the International Writing Program had commissioned the poems and had them translated and formatted appropriately, there was still the creative staging to do. Alan MacVey, chair of the University of Iowa’s department of Theatre Arts, has been involved with the artistic direction of Book Wings since its inception and has spent the nights leading up to this week's production directing the show’s rehearsal process.

“It’s a wonderful challenge for actors and directors to bring a poem to life on stage,” says MacVey. “A poem is not a play, after all.  So the challenge is to use the actor’s voice and body to reveal something about the poem that might be hidden on the page.” The specific content of those revelations won’t be known to the public until Friday morning, when the show is performed live in Iowa City and Moscow and broadcast over the internet. The anticipation for the show is high, both in Theatre B where the show will be performed, and among the cast, crew, technical staff, and administrators of the program.

As MacVey succinctly puts it: “The most rewarding aspect of Book Wings is yet to come – being in the room with fellow artists from thousands of miles away.”

Viewers in Iowa City can do just that on Friday, March 9th. A reception with light refreshments will begin at 9:15 a.m. and the show will begin at 10 a.m. in Theatre B of the Theatre Arts Building at the University of Iowa. 

Off-site viewers can see the show and download the program for the event at the Writing University's streaming website, here.




* In 2013 Book Wings will feature Russian and American playwrights, and in 2014 the project will welcome American and Russian fiction writers

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