The International Voices Project (IVP) started a decade ago with the goal of bringing world theater to Chicago, but the shift to an online format because of the Covid-19 pandemic has made founder and executive director Patrizia Acerra see its potential to bring Chicago theater to the world.
Acerra said she has been interested in translating between cultures and languages for as long as she can remember. She got the idea for putting her passion into practice while she was living in Rome from 1999 to early 2002. She'd staged Landon Coleman's "Picture This" at the Bailwick Arts Center in Chicago and arranged to have it translated into Italian and presented in repertory in both languages at the English Theatre of Rome where she was working. It was a hit.
After returning home to Chicago, Acerra founded Premiere Theatre and Performance to produce all new works, some of them translated from foreign languages. “As the company progressed, we began doing solely translated works because that's what I was drawn to,” she said. “The first festival of contemporary plays in translation was in May-June 2010 and featured works from India, Canada, France, Japan, and Spain.”
Acerra has been committed to partnering with consulates and other cultural institutions from the outset, and for the first few years, the readings were held at locations connected to plays' cultures, among them the Instituto Cervantes of Chicago, the Alliance Française, and the Goethe-Institute Chicago. “I remember standing at the door of the Instituto Cervantes' theater for the first reading—of Jordi Galceran's 'The Dakota Dream’ – wondering if anyone would come,” she recalled. “But the turnout was great and very diverse with people interested in the play, the topic it addressed, the culture, the language. At the same time, plays from places like Egypt and Serbia drew audiences from those communities in Chicago, so you could feel like you were spending the evening in a foreign land.”
As the festival grew, though, the logistics of arranging for the various venues became difficult. Starting in 2013, IVP was at Victory Gardens Theater for four years, after which it moved to the Instituto Cervantes. Most of the festivals have showcased eight plays, except for 2017, which had 10, and the readings typically have been spread over several weekends sometime between April and July.
While the directors and actors have always been Chicagoans, the sources for the plays have evolved. “We've made a growing number of contacts around the world and share information about playwrights and their works,” Acerra explained. “We've invited literary agents to submit works, as well as past festival playwrights. We've worked with the Theatre in Translation network (TinT), consulted universities, and commissioned translations. We probably have enough plays on hand for two more festivals.”
IVP also has developed relationships with local companies that specialize in producing plays in translation. Trap Door Theatre has been a collaborator every year, and this year is presenting Romanian Matei Visniec's “Decomposed.” Another frequent partner, Akvavit Theatre, is providing the reading from Finland, “Second Nature” by Pipsa Lonka. Newcomers include Water People Theater with the Sept. 2 opener, Jordi Casanovas' “Juaría” from Spain; Promethean Theatre Ensemble with “Take The Rubbish Out, Sasha” by Natal'ya Vorozhbit from Ukraine, and Silk Road Rising with “A Distinct Society,” a Canadian play by Kareem Fahmy, which is directed by Acerra and closes the festival
“When we partner with a local theater, they bring us the play, we read it and agree that it will work, then they choose the director who casts and rehearses the reading,” Acerra explained. “When a theater company isn't involved, I hire the director, who does the rest.”
Acerra added that, for practical reasons, IVP favors scripts that can be read in 90 minutes or less with casts of no more than seven actors. “We want plays that have the potential for a full production in Chicago, though we prefer that they've been produced—or at least read—elsewhere in the original language and in translation. We're looking for pieces that reflect the culture they're coming from but also have something universal to say to audiences.”
Acerra estimated that 12-15 percent of IVP plays have gone on to full Chicago productions, though she didn't know if the festival was responsible. She also said that the plays for 2020 had been selected, the rights secured, and the directors chosen by the time the pandemic struck. At that point, she didn't know how—or whether—to go ahead.
“At a meeting with the seven other directors, the dramaturg, and the two festival directors, I said that we could either stop for the year or pivot to virtual, something we'd never done before,” Acerra said. “We discussed concerns, ideas, platforms, and consistency, and I also said that if we opted for virtual, it shouldn't just be a substitute for live but should be to learn something new for future use.”
Next Acerra met with dramaturg Zoe Rose Kriegler-Wenk and festival directors Shane Murray-Corcoran and Katherine Tanner Silverman to come up with a format that would make all the readings consistent. “I'd gotten to know Shane and Katherine on other projects and wanted to find an occasion to work with them,” she said. “I also knew that they had backgrounds in film and technology as well as theater, so hiring them for this seemed like kismet.”
The crucial decision was to prerecord all the readings. They're being rehearsed with the directors on Zoom, then recorded with additional help from a festival director. “We wanted to insure the quality of the experience for the audience and not be dependent on the quirks of an internet connection,” Acerra said.
While the live readings in previous years were one-time-only, the Zoom readings premiere on Wednesday at 7 p.m., and – except for the first one – remain on the web site Thursday through Saturday of the same week. The post-show talk-backs, live on Wednesday, are being recorded for Thursday-Saturday broadcast, too. As always, IVP is free.
Besides giving viewers several opportunities to see each reading—and making them available to global audiences, using IVP's worldwide connections and social media for promotion—Acerra said going virtual offers some less obvious benefits. “This is the first time the actors can watch their own readings,” she pointed out, “and after the readings, the playwrights and translators have the recordings to show artistic directors to try to get productions, rather than just sending scripts.”
Acerra envisioned Zoom helping the translation process, too. “If the translators anywhere can watch and hear actors speaking American English, it should enable them to produce translations that are more performance-friendly and less literal,” she explained. “Directors and actors can contribute, allowing deeper interaction without having to worry about flights, hotels, and so on.”
Acerra confessed, however, that she didn't know if she wanted IVP to be virtual next year. “Nothing replaces the deliciousness of live theater,” she said, “but this offers so many possibilities for presenting more international work that I definitely want to have a director of virtual programming.”