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Layers of Cultural Exchange: Spectator notes from Book Wings 2014

A special guest post by University of Iowa student Sara Cooper.

[Click to Enlarge] Members of the Iowa City audience, waiting for Book Wings Iraq to begin.
[Click to Enlarge] Members of the Iowa City audience, waiting for Book Wings Iraq to begin.
I participated as an audience member in both performances of Book Wings 2014, the first a collaboration between the University of Iowa (UI) and the University of Baghdad, the second between UI and the Moscow Art Theatre. Both performances took place in the Theater Building on the UI campus.

The most interesting aspect of Book Wings 2014 for me were the many layers on which cultural exchange could be tracked. While one channel of exchange expressed one kind of relationship between the two countries, another channel portrayed the relationship differently. For example, while the verbal exchanges between the Iowa City and the Baghdad moderator in the Iraq-America Book Wings were polite and gracious, the staging of the American plays in Arabic in the Baghdadi theatre gave a different message.  Thus the decision, by the Iraqi director, to omit portions of the original text from the American play “Shelter Drills” and instead have the actors perform silently or to mime made the audience in the US (which had access to the full original texts in their program booklets) assume there was tension between the two countries that could not be surmounted by the fiction, and that dialogue was therefore deleted in favor of more neutral acting techniques. Face to face the two countries’ moderators interacted amicably, but the performances made me feel as though the relationship between the two countries was much more complicated than the moderators' tone and style have any hint of.

UI Director Carol MacVey (on screen) with MXAT host Adam Muskin and Russian playwright Ksenia Dragunskaya on stage in Moscow.
UI Director Carol MacVey (on screen) with MXAT host Adam Muskin and Russian playwright Ksenia Dragunskaya on stage in Moscow.
On the other hand, the Russian-American Book Wings gave the impression of an opposite relationship. When there was any technical difficulty, the Russian moderator acted, I felt, rather rudely.  His exertion of control over the situation made me feel as though the relationship between the two countries was less than comfortable. The Russian adaptations of the plays, however, were lively and entertaining, and stayed faithful to the American texts, portraying a different, more comfortable relationship between the two countries. What made the interactions even more interesting was that Russian moderator was American-born. But I don't know what to make of that.

Baghdad host and interpreter Dr. Maysam Saleh (on screen) interacts with UI host Christopher Merrill during Book Wings Iraq.
Baghdad host and interpreter Dr. Maysam Saleh (on screen) interacts with UI host Christopher Merrill during Book Wings Iraq.
One part of both Book Wings performances that I found especially striking was the absence of translators on the American side. In both performances the interpreting of the conversations, both between Arabic and English and Russian and English was done by the overseas moderators.1 It should have been easy enough to find someone in Iowa to do the interpreting on our side, yet for some reason that job was left to the overseas moderator alone.2 This discrepancy provided another insight into the relationships between the two countries. While the Arabic moderator handled the interpreting job fairly straightforwardly, saying a complete thought in Arabic and then translating it into English, or waiting for the American speaker to finish before translating the complete thought into Arabic, the Russian moderator went back and forth between Russian and, sometimes translating everything and sometimes leaving either the Russian or the American audience in the dark. I thought that the differences between the moderators’ interpreting strategies reflected the relationships emerging out of the moderator exchanges in each performance: the Iraqi and American moderators gracious and conciliatory, the Russian moderator more determined to make the show his own. In both events there were many more layers of exchange, but the textual and verbal performance levels were the ones that I found most interesting.
1Shambaugh house blog note: Vladimir Kulikov provided interpretation on the Iowa Stage during the Book Wings Russia Q&A immediately following the performance.
2Shambaugh House blog note: the decision to have only one interpreter was made jointly by the partners in both cases, in the interest of streamlining the performance and shortening the performance time.
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