Found in Translation

There’s nothing like seeing your words projected above the stage while hearing them spoken in a foreign language by the actors below. I first experienced this phenomenon when my contemporary take on Carmen (score by Wildhorn and Murphy) premiered in Prague. Days before first preview, I was asked to condense the dialogue to twenty-word chunks, to ensure that a line’s intent wasn’t scattered over multiple projections. It was a great learning experience, making the book leaner and more effective in its visual incarnation than in its aural one.

It was a different story when my one-man play Nijinsky’s Last Dance was licensed for production at the Mladinsko Theatre in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The piece had been a success in the States and played various international venues, including a Hungarian translation in Budapest. I enjoyed the trickle of royalties after the Mladinsko premiere but otherwise gave it little thought—until I was invited for a week’s residency during the company’s international Overflight Festival, where I would get a taste of the company’s work, lead a two-day playwrighting workshop, and, on my last night, see Nijinsky in Slovenian, with English surtitles.

The first red flag went up within moments of arriving at the theater, when artistic director Ursula Cetinski mentioned casually, “Of course, we cut a bit of your text.” Later, during the workshop, I described structural techniques I’d used in Nijinsky only to be told by a young writer, “The things you describe in your play were not there when I saw it last week.”

While indulging in some dramatic cease-and-desist fantasies, I decided to bide my time. I argued to myself that the production already had a successful spot in the repertory, that a ninety-minute monologue left room for a director’s poetic license. To be honest, I just didn’t want to create friction with people who had been so enormously welcoming and generous. And I guessed that there was something to be learned.

In the subsequent, sometimes heated, discussion of authors’ rights, I discovered a cultural divide that seemed impossible to bridge. My students and I viewed the question of authorship through vastly different lenses shaped by vastly different creative processes.

the inside of a rehearsal  room
The basement studio space of the Mladinsko Theatre. Photo by Dusan Ojdanic. 

My work typically goes through two years of in-house and public readings, with feedback from actors, director, designers, and audience. By the time we open, each word is exactly where I want it. For the folks at the Mladinsko, those words were just one of many equal, and equally malleable, elements. During my week in Slovenia, I never heard the word “play.” My new friends spoke always about the “text” and the “performance,” and assumed that both were at their command.

Barbara Skubic, a local dramaturg and translator, explained, “This is a director’s culture, and yours, in America, is a writer’s. Here, copyright laws are not big enough to encompass our directors’ egos.” I pointed out that this puts the writer at the mercy of unknown collaborators. The comment was met with a shrug of the shoulders and the assurance that I was in good company. “In Slovenia, we cut Williams,” Barbara said. “We cut Beckett.”

While indulging in some dramatic cease-and-desist fantasies, I decided to bide my time. I argued to myself that the production already had a successful spot in the repertory, that a ninety-minute monologue left room for a director’s poetic license. To be honest, I just didn’t want to create friction with people who had been so enormously welcoming and generous. And I guessed that there was something to be learned.

On free days, actors Damjana Cerne and Marko Mlacnik, who had directed Nijinsky, shared the beauties of Slovenia. Ninety minutes north of Ljubljana, we were hiking in the Alps and sipping homemade juniper-berry liqueur at the summer home of Slovenian leading lady Milena Zupancic. The three actors, tumbling in and out of English, shared stories of the days following the 1991 breakup of Yugoslavia, of touring to cities that had, overnight, become hostile to Slovenian artists.

It was a recurring theme. Most of my students, when asked to describe a moment in which their lives intersected with a significant historical event, chose Slovenia’s declaration of independence. One woman, who had been touring in Croatia, drove through the night to reach her husband and child, only to be stopped by a lone soldier, shaking with nerves, on a narrow country road. A younger writer took her scheduled driving test on that first morning of independence, expertly demonstrating three-point turns at each of the military roadblocks surrounding her village. An actress in the group wept at the memory of a colleague’s threatening response to her sadness at Yugoslavia’s dissolution. “I was not politically correct then,” she explained.

These events, still vital in the public consciousness, shaped the performances we saw each night. A fantastic Danton’s Death, built upon Buchner’s text, incorporated contemporary documents and themes. In Damned Be the Traitor of His Homeland, actors portraying themselves recreated a backstage drama in which one of the company refused to perform a song made popular by a Croatian artist.

As the past shaped these theatrical events, so did the new threat of Neo-Liberalism, a term I heard over and over during my short stay. As Slovenia shifts toward this market-driven system, public institutions like the Mladinsko (with a government-funded staff of sixty-two, including twenty-four salaried actors) find themselves in a new world, strange to them but familiar to us.

To reflect this imminent change, the Overflight Festival opened with the staged arrival of a faux Minister of Culture. In bouffant hair and surrounded by hunky security officers, she explained to the crowd that the “benefits” of Neo-Liberalism would include gala fundraising parties for the rich. To growing laughter, she added the good news that Slovenian actors are so passionate that they’ll work for free, allowing for an increase in the salaries of administrative and marketing staffs. Each satirical point highlighted the fact that artists in Slovenia must now prove their worth in monetary terms.

During a radio interview, I found myself spouting talking points that have become cliché in my hometown of Washington, DC: that funding for the arts feeds the economy through tourism and auxiliary businesses, that a successful theater can transform at-risk neighborhoods. Shocked at how quickly I fell into this defensive posture, I quickly added, “But, of course, we shouldn’t have to make that argument at all.”

By the time I saw Nijinsky’s Last Dance, on the last evening of my stay, I was just beginning to understand the Mladinsko community. My students and I had shared hard work, good laughs, and intimate stories. Marko and Damjana had become friends, unveiling the physical beauty of their country and sharing its challenges. I entered the theater eager to see what my new colleagues had done with my play and nervous about what they had done with my text.

In the smallest of the company’s three spaces, the audience sat in a single row circling an oval stage, putting them at the very edge of Nijinsky’s asylum cell. Primo Bezjak’s performance was the tour de force that the writing demands. Marko’s direction was brilliantly inventive. Choreographer Mateja Rebolj honored the iconic moves of Nijinsky’s groundbreaking choreography with provocative variations. Design elements were pitch perfect.

But, even as I was swept up in the music of the Slovenian language, I kept an eagle eye on the projected English surtitles. Cutting a sequence based on Nijinsky’s travels in America seemed a good choice, but I was less comfortable with the minimizing of his wife’s role and shocked to realize that the pivotal Sacre du Printemps sequence was not going to happen at all.

As Marko explained in our post-show discussion, his Nijinsky’s Last Dance took its cue from Debussy, the impressionist composer of Nijinsky’s seminal work L’Apres-midi d’un Faun. It’s a good instinct. In many ways this Nijinsky is an improvement on the original. It removes the structural crutch that I had thought necessary and trusts the audience to ride a great wash of music and madness.

Of course, the company should have proposed the cuts, as the licensing contract dictated. They should have given me the opportunity to agree, or not, to create bridging material where it was needed, to suggest that we sacrifice Petrouchka for the sake of Sacre. But it’s hard to complain in the face of a silent audience, leaning forward into the spill of light.

It was the company’s young publicist who, unwittingly, convinced me that I was right to keep my cease-and-desist fantasies to myself. She told me that her friends love the production and that young people, in particular, have been filling the seats. “The play is like us,” she said. “We are like this, we are on an edge, we are schizophrenic. Young people in Slovenia, we see ourselves in this performance.”

Nijinsky’s Last Dance is speaking to an audience that is still largely foreign to its author. It reflects the nation’s volatile 1990s, when friendships and artistic collaborations disintegrated, and it evokes the fears of an uncertain future. How can I be anything but grateful to the artists who made this true?

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Very lovely and insightful in the way only personal experience (its evolution and epiphanies) can be. As our world 'globalizes', for better or worse, we are becoming more aware of and experiencing theatre practice in other places--so radically different from our own. And not only in terms of the practitioners, and the resulting productions, and how they treat our sacred texts, but also in terms of the audiences who come to the theatre with other expectations and often a kind of hunger, so foreign ...

This is a beautiful story, Norman, about embracing the experience and letting go of expectations and then having these moments of sheer beauty and exhilaration. Who would want to miss all that surprise and magic?

A very interesting article. I am curious now, in hindsight, if you could somehow have put a mechanism that would have insured that your text would not be altered by the director, would you have? Or has your experience softened your approach to copyright?

Hey Dan - I think my basic thoughts on copyright haven't changed. And I'll continue to be protective of my work. I certainly would have preferred to be involved in the conversation prior to the opening of the production in Slovenia. In this case, though, being out-of-the-loop turned out to have some fascinating consequences. It meant that I learned a lot - about a different approach to doing theatre, and about my own play.

Agreed, a lovely well thought out story. When we make theatre it's about making an experience. I write for youth and sometimes the experience that happens belongs to those acting in the play (creating self-confidence in someone who before was terrified to stand on stage, or someone finding a community where before they felt alone). It can be life-changing and is so important it sometimes trumps the sacredness of the product. It's hard because we want everyone to love every single word we spend hours and hours putting on the page. But sometimes, knowing how powerful the experience is - for those involved, for an audience, is exactly what theatre should be and I'm proud to be a part of it. From the description above, it does seem like the experience was powerful.

I was just in nearby Kosovo earlier this summer giving a poetry reading (the in-flight magazine actually had a couple of articles on theatre in Ljubljana); the region is fascinating. I'm still sorting out what it means to be a visiting artist in lands that has so recently experienced such turmoil.