The Sarajevo Project -
Pros and Contras of being the Other.
Review as Dialogue
Theatrefront in Sarajevo
In January 2004, a young Canadian theatre company, Theatrefront, in collaboration with one of the most prominent theatres in Toronto, Tarragon Theatre, presented at the Tarragon WorkSpace a production/workshop: The Sarajevo Project. The project, designed by the artistic director and founder of Theatrefront, Daryl Cloran, featured an international cast (Sanela Babić (Lejla), Alena Džebo (Jasna) and Emir Zec (Emir) from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Holly Lewis (Sarah) and Christopher Morris (Tarik) from Toronto, Ontario, Canada). The multicultural Canadian audience saw the story of a Bosnian exile's return to his homeland. The production in Toronto was the result of a unique partnership between Canadian and Bosnian artists who met for the first time in February 2003 in Sarajevo. As the program note specifies, The Sarajevo Project "combine[s] diverse cultures, languages and theatrical styles into one production" (Program Notes).
The Sarajevo Project employs Robert Lepage's words on the resemblance of crossing geographic borders and creating an artistic experiment as its mission statement. Theatrefront's interest in theatre of other cultures brought the company to Bosnia. As Daryl Cloran notes, the goal of his company is "to never run a permanent theatre in Toronto. We are more interested in creating work that we can tour internationally. My directorial task is to challenge my company and myself. I believe that working abroad gives a chance to acquire different directorial techniques and explore new styles of stage business" (Cloran).
The Sarajevo Project appeared as the outcome of the field work the company did in Bosnia in 2003. It was developed in collaboration with the Bosnian theatre director Faruk Lončarević and premiered at the Sarajevo International Winter Festival on the 15-th of March, 2003. However, before the actors found a common language, the company had to learn how to adjust to their new colleagues and to the everyday life of a country neither the language nor the customs of which they knew.
"It was incredibly demanding to work with actors coming from the different theatre aesthetics. It took time to find the tongue we understood. We spoke partially in English and partially in Bosnian, trying to explain to each other what our beliefes were, and how we can do theatre together. It took a lot of translation - literal and metaphorical - before we found a common ground. It was very important to agree on the style of actors' delivery. At the beginning we were doing a lot of exercises, very simple ones, just to get to know each other, to overcome this initial fear of someone different. I introduced some improvisations and games to make our foreplay less scary, more pleasant and joyful. The Bosnian side also used their tricks and games to introduce us to their styles, so the ice melted and we could work together. At the end, the experience was very liberating and enriching. " (Cloran)
The Sarajevo audience was so enthusiastic about the project that it gave Cloran the idea to bring his production to Canada.
The Sarajevo Project is a story about homecoming. "In 1993, Tarik Nakas, a young Bosnian, has the opportunity to escape from the war in Sarajevo and flee to Canada. Ten years later Tarik unexpectedly arrives back on his family's doorstep with his Canadian girlfriend, those he left behind must reconcile their love for Tarik with their anger at his betrayal"(Program Notes). The story of Tarik's return is indeed the story of a prodigal son who escapes the horrors of war, becoming a Bosnian refugee and exile in Canada. Although the means of his escape do not present Tarik as an innocent victim of the war conflict in the former Yugoslavia, The Sarajevo Project makes a noble effort to present his story of self-imposed exile objectively. On the one hand, it is a tale of the escape reported from the viewpoint of Tarik who leaves his family and his country by taking money from a mortally wounded girl he abandons in the middle of the road. On the other hand, it is a tale of survival seen through the eyes of Lejla, Emir and Jasna, i.e. those who have been left behind.
The Sarajevo Project asks the questions every exile, refugee, or an émigré is forced to ask. Is there ever the possibility of return? What happens to the home left behind? What happens to the idea of home and family as such? What kind of a journey does a person endure in order to be able to face reconciliation? Is this reconciliation a real opportunity or just the sweet dream of a pariah? For Daryl Cloran the answer is more metaphysical then realistic or ideological:
"Ultimately, it is impossible to go back to who you were. I think it is more interesting to examine what each character wants now and how they see their relationships with the past. For example, Tarik's sister, Lejla, wants everything back as it was before Tarik left. And his brother, Emir, totally shuts himself up from the outside world. He does not want to deal with Tarik at all. I think, the major struggle for Tarik in his journey of return is to understand that it is absolutely impossible to do things as they were, to return to what he was or what it used to be for the family. At the end, he learns how to communicate with his brother and sister, how to relate to the fact that it's been ten years since he has left and now all of them are grownups. There are ten years of silence between him and his country and he has been already shaped by the culture he spent these last ten years in. He changed so much too. So, for us it was important to link the idea of return with the idea of belonging, and the fact that everyone has to find the space - where I belong. At the end, we wanted Tarik to realize that he has no land to belong to, that he is in between two countries, between two homes. I think, it was very important to show that at the end he accepts his state of living in between. His next step is to find the means of communication between his home country and adopted country. " (Cloran)
Tarik's life in Canada has been not only a struggle for survival but also a drive for success, a quest for financial well-being that can help him bring over and thus set free his brother and sister left in Sarajevo. He comes back lighthearted, expecting total understanding, support and reconciliation. Instead, mistrust, and suspicion meet him.
The misunderstanding within the family is illustrated and re-emphasized through the relationships between Tarik's Canadian girlfriend, Sarah, and his Bosnian relatives. The scenes of mutual confusion between Tarik's sister, Lejla, who speaks no English and Sarah, who speaks no Bosnian, are not only comic functioning as comic relief in a sad narration, they are meant to be educational for that part of the English-speaking audience that has never experienced the awkwardness of being the Other - an outcast cut off from native lands.
Moreover, the misunderstanding in the fictional world is re-enforced by the linguistic and performative mix-up in the production. The Sarajevo Project employs two dramatic languages of narration: English and Bosnian. The languages do not construct a theatrical jabberwocky, neither are they mixed for the sake of experiment. The use of different languages is motivated by the plot: the scenes between the family members are presented in Bosnian, whereas the episodes involving the cultural other - Sarah or sometimes Tarik himself - are done in English. Therefore, the assortment of the linguistic interlocutors pushes the company to search for a different scenic mode of story-telling. Gestures, movements, facial expressions, dance and music help the audience to link the narrative together. Dialogue becomes only the canvas for action, the carcass of the otherwise visual metaphor. For example, Lejla and Sarah are having morning coffee - the scene is a pantomime featuring two women trying to find the way to express their mutual interest and warmth. Lejla teaches Sarah to make Turkish coffee. Although the Canadian girl (accustomed to lattés and cappuccinos in Toronto's coffee shops) finds this drink unbearable and impossible to digest, she makes an effort to express her gratitude to her newly acquired friend who is guiding her through an exotic culture. She is grateful to the family that is ready to accept her and make her stay in Sarajevo possible. Tarik's sister and later even his brother understand Sarah's difficulties of being different and try to make the transition easier. The allegory of the coffee scene seems to be a bit superfluous, but for the sake of the target audience the theatrical translation is made colorful, humorous and instructive.
However, if the domestic scenes are pictured in warm tones, the outside world is quite cruel. It mocks and rejects foreigners with their annoying photo cameras and endless desire to learn more. Sarah is taking a streetcar. The conductors approach and ask her for her ticket. The ticket is lost. Humiliated and scared by her inability either to defend herself or to relate the situation to anything she has experienced before in her home country, Sarah has to pay an enormous fine. To reinforce the brutality of Sarah's experience, the scene is played both in English and Bosnian. The physical cruelty of the conductors mixed with the vicious sounds they make, while speaking in an unknown language, gives the English audience a hint of the fear, embarrassment and dishonor the exile/other experiences by being the outcast in a country, in which he or she has choosen to live. Of course, the humiliation and anger are not the only emotions the audience is forced to experience. They also witness tenderness and affection that makes the spectator identify with the story of Sarah.
The production is a work in progress and Sarah's story, the story of today's migration and exile, is the one to explore in the future, when the professional playwright (Sue Balint) finds the verbal frame for the imbalances of the plot that exist now. As Cloran says,
"the problem of Tarik's relationships with his Canadian girlfriend needs to be developed. But I really like Sarah as a character. She is a great gateway for the English Canadian audience that does not fully understand the things that happened in Bosnia. She is also the great tool for the audience that does not speak Bosnian. And she was a very important character for us, for the company, because we could feed her with our experiences as foreigners. We could share with her the confusion that we lived through in this culture. The scene on the tram, when she looses her ticket and two guys are making fun of her and take her money, was not even invented, it happened to me. She was a great tool to introduce the Canadian part of the Sarajevo story." (Cloran)
At the end of the play Sarah leaves Tarik. She decides to go back to Canada, but her departure is not a cowardly act. She leaves her boyfriend who needs to find a way to reconcile with his past and present:
"We have not dealt yet with the results of Sarah's going away. It must affect Tarik, but we do not know yet how. Sarah leaves Sarajevo, she cannot find her way and she feels that she does not need to. It is Tarik who is struggling with his guilty consciousness. Before he is ready to re-built his relationships with Sarah, Tarik must go back to his family, to figure out his relationships with his brother and sister. " (Cloran)
Indeed, Tarik's relationships with his family is the central story and problem The Sarajevo Project investigates. The impossibility of communication and thus reconciliation between the brothers is the dominant leitmotif of Tarik's journey. The family rejects his gift of Canadian emigration papers. They are not going to follow his path. This particular paradise does not exist and this adventure seems to be too expensive - not financially, but emotionally. The family will stay in Sarajevo. It is Tarik's task to understand where he finally wants to be and the production leaves this last question unresolved.
As a work in progress, The Sarajevo Project enjoys the luxury of being flexible. If at the beginning of the workshop the last image the audience saw was the brothers praying together, which suggested their true reconciliation; later versions ended with a dialogue between the two:
"the initial idea of the final scene was to make a very strong gesture of reconciliation and acceptance. I saw the prayer as the coda of the production, something like an apology of Tarik toward his family. What's more important is that the gesture was not verbal - it was visual, and that what we were after in this production to reduce the amount of text to the minimum. So we thought that with this wordless prayer, Tarik and the company were making reconciliation - prayer as asking for forgiveness. "(Cloran)
At the later stages of the workshop, the company was forced to deal with the theatrical conventions of Toronto's scene. The local audience found it very difficult to understand the message, to decode the visual metaphor of the prayer scene without it being explained verbally. English-Canadian drama tends to rely heavily on the verbal component of a production rather than on the visual one, which forced Cloran to improvise a new ending of the play, which is still waiting to be linguistically framed by Sue Balint. As he says,
" The company failed to convey the importance of the gesture - the prayer-scene - and thus we had to make it more explanatory, more illustrative for people unfamiliar with the rituals of Bosnian culture. At the end, we had to bring the brothers to the symbolic grave and give them words to make their reconciliation clear." (Cloran)
This decision emphasizes once more the differences between the theatrical cultures in which the company is working. If for the Bosnian audience the visual image was the most powerful conclusion of the story, the Canadian public demanded that the ending be conveyed through language. However, this essential flexibility is the challenge Daryl Cloran is looking for for his company. The challenge is in the openness to the other, in accepting the different and in shaking off the habitual. The same, as Cloran says, has to be applied to the acting practice he is pushing his company to explore:
"Canadian actors, and I should apologize for this huge generalization, tend to be more narrative. We like to tell a story, we like to be psychologically true and authentic, and we like realistic elements. Canadian theatre likes to have at least one foot in some kind of naturalism even in its most symbolic representations. And it is usually the aim of the local theatre not to make the audience wonder what the story is about, what the message is. Bosnian actors work according to different scales. They are less concerned with narrative. Their goal is not to tell a story, but to search for the means of doing it. They are more interested in interaction with the audience, in shocking the spectator. During our workshop in Bosnia, they were constantly talking about turning lights on or pointing at people, about making the presence of the actors more visible. The Bosnians were interested in confusing the audience, trying to make them feel that they are lost and do not know whether it is a performance or reality. They were always ready to digress from the plot, to throw away themes and scenes, and just go on and search, search and search. Theatre representation was their focus. In terms of a character development, Canadian actors are more used to work in improve when they are given an opportunity to develop their characters psychologically. They are used to improvisations with situations and objectives. The Bosnian actors were much more interested in developing style and genre of the presentation. For example, they kept insisting on grotesque, so they would get more absurd or more clownish in their style, and thus through the grotesque they would convey their characters. The experience was very educational. Once we improvised a scene on a theme "a couple is breaking up". We had the Canadian actors doing it separately from the Bosnian pair. The Canadian actors did a dialogue may be with one touch or even less. The Bosnian couple did something completely different - it was choreographed down to the second. It was enormous physically: she fall down on the ground, he grabbed her, she screamed at him, and there was a fight. The outcome was fascinating, they used the same script but the performances were completely different. It was very fascinating to watch and learn. This exercise freed Canadian actors from the necessity to be always true to the feelings, emotions and words; and it made Bosnian actors to get more attentive to the story line. It made Canadians to be aware of their naturalistic approach and it made Bosnians to be aware of their excessive style. "(Cloran)
After the workshop is over and the public in Toronto has greeted it as warmly as the Sarajevo audiences, the company is taking a timeout. In order for The Sarajevo Project to become a full-length production and be toured around the globe, and throughout the Slavic world in particular, the text of the play has to be finalized and funding has to be found. Although telling the future is not my profession, I believe that both Daryl Cloran and his company are on the road to success. Their enduring attention to theatrical diversity and to the other is an important key to an independent and discernible artistic signature.
© Y. Meerzon