Welcome to Language Reversal

July 4, 2018

If you’re here you might like some background Language Reversal, the subject of my email to you.

In 2013, Milan Vracar and his trusty organization Kulturanova produced a Serbian version of my show Open Housein the city of Novi Sad, Serbia.

That was fun, and we decided to try and work on something new together, but we didn’t know what it would be. We had a few ideas about site-based works, and themes that seemed interesting. Maybe we’d perform it in an office. Maybe it would have something to do with cities. We didn’t know. Like any ensemble, we liked having a reason to get together, and hoped that by getting together we’d find a reason that worked for making work.

We got a travel grant from Trust for Mutual Understanding in 2016, and I booked tickets. The first trip happened to be for a week after the US election went to what’s his name. As I was getting ready to go, I wrote to Milan, “We are going to need a toolkit.” 

I didn’t know what I meant exactly, just that I wanted to meet people who’d been active under Slobodan Milosevic in the 90s, as journalists, artists or artists. Serbia has been fought over for hundreds of years, has had its borders changed over and over again, has had oligarchs and Socialists and maybe about 20 years of democracy, and now faces a retrenchment of oligarchy again. Milosevic’s party is back, and the current Prime Minister, Alexandar Vucic, is as bad as Trump, coalescing power while smiling in anticipation of joining the EU.

That trip was both harrowing and affirming, as have been the three other in-person exchanges we’ve had since then – two in Serbia and one here in New York. We are in it for the long haul, you and me, and I don’t know what we can do. Except you are doing it, and on a good day so am I.

In Belgrade and Novi Sad, I’ve been to activist meetings where I don’t speak the language, and seen the same dynamics of effort and intention, empowerment and dysfunction. I spent a couple hours with a chain-smoking Kant-ian death scholar (yes!) who was leading new protests against Serbia’s newer, more smiling oligarch. I spent time with a state TV journalist there, who many people thought should have been tried at The Hague for war crimes because of how she amplified Milosevic’s point of view in the 90s. It was like looking into the eyes of Kellyanne Conway while she wept about the death of her father.

I also began to introduce my Serbian friends to the fact that there have been resistors and translators in what’s called the United States for 400 years, and introduce them to the people who are part of that ongoing work. I’ve met activists in Belgrade fighting gentrification on the waterfront there, under the same guise of renewal and entrepreneurship as we get here. (For more on that visit Perfect City).

With almost each passing week, here there and everywhere, the situation becomes more clear, more overwhelming and more entrenched. What can an encounter or a performance do? Is that even the right question?

Turning Point

We’ve been really stumped. La MaMa is presenting something in October. ASU Gammage is co-commissioning the piece for 2020 in Arizona. We feel we should really make this piece. We spent a year in really deep conversation, trying things, and then hitting various walls, creatively.

Then at one rehearsal this spring, at the Collapsable Hole, Suncica Milosavlevic, our brilliant dramaturg and director based in Belgrade threw up her hands and said,

“You know, we should probably list all the conditions that were in place that made our situation in Serbia so bad. Because the countries are so different, maybe this show’s not worth it. Maybe there’s no common ground.”

And she proceeded to list the conditions:

  • There were Vulgar Politcal Campaigns,
  • There was a whole media channel to promote a certain set of populist values
  • They provoked and orchestrated regional conflicts
  • Institutions were destroyed
  • Power was centralized in an elite cabal of politicians
  • They took our money and it was concentrated in very few people and they took it overseas, and then like used that money to fight these wars.
  • They used patriotism to incite violence against specific groups of people
  • They demoralized these other groups

And, oh one last thing, she said:

  • There were a lot of guns in the country.

So that has become part of the show. The way we make each other other until we can’t any more. And then we can start to work.