Interview by Janina Fenigsen
Janina Fenigsen: You’ve written a fascinating account of the 2016 US tour of the Algerian theater troupe Istijmam, which was sponsored by the Center Stage program of the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. How did you come to be involved with this tour? More broadly, what led you to study Arab Algerian theater after writing a first book on Berber/Amazigh music (Berber Culture on the World Stage: From Village to Video)?
Jane Goodman: As I discuss in the book, Algeria underwent a very difficult period in the 1990s, referred to as the “Dark Decade.” That period of conflict escalated during my doctoral research, when I was working in a Kabyle Berber mountain village. I had to leave Algeria at the end of 1993, when it became unsafe for me to remain and unsafe for the village to continue hosting me. When I was ready to return to Algeria in 2008, I was not given permission by the US Fulbright program to go back to the Kabyle region, as it was still considered too dangerous. I had good research and personal connections in the western city of Oran, and it was among the safest areas of the country. For those reasons, I decided to change regions. At the same time, in my earlier research (both ethnographic and archival) I had noticed that Algerians had long been practicing amateur theater, and I was curious about what contemporary theater troupes were doing. Oran is the city where Algeria’s renowned playwright, the late Abdelkader Alloula, had been based (and where he was tragically assassinated in 1994). I was fortunate to have had a personal introduction to the Istijmam Culturelle theater troupe, which included several members of Alloula’s family and was working in his legacy. Istijmam was only in its second year of existence at the time, but they were already invested in working in an experimental or laboratory mode. The actors were open to me being present for their rigorous daily rehearsals. To them, my engagement was another way for them to experience other disciplinary perspectives and approaches. During my stay in Oran in 2008-2009, I also carried out research with several other troupes (which I’ve written about elsewhere). Fast forward a couple of years: I saw an announcement flash by on email that the Center Stage program of the US State Department was inviting nominations of music and theater troupes from Algeria and Tanzania, the program’s featured countries in 2016. I nominated Istijmam, and when they were accepted, I knew instantly that I wanted to write about the tour. The book unfolds very much in relation to the tour itself: I take up the play Apples that they presented, the historical context of the early 1990s when the play was written, the actors’ engagement with the play some 25 years later, and the genre of the Algerian “halqa” or marketplace theater that inspired both the playwright Alloula and the troupe. I also write about our process as we translated the play from Arabic to English, and, of course, about the various encounters that took place with a range of US audiences on the tour itself.
Janina Fenigsen: You discuss the scenarios of cultural exchange encounters as heavily scripted genres that create “a sense among participants that they have seen it all before”—both comfort and constraint—while noting the potential for a space of critique to open up. You also say that to the members of the troupe, the tour was somewhat disappointing. To what extent and in what ways in their engagements with American publics were they able to break out of the script? Was this particular script more difficult to shake off than those of their other tours? Did they feel that they were able to open up a space of critique at all? if so, in what ways?
Jane Goodman: In the book, I developed the idea of scenarios of cultural exchange from Diana Taylor’s work on scenarios as repertoires of scripted encounters that tend to unfold in similar ways time and time again. I saw this tour as situated within a decades-old scenario of cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy through the arts, which has been informing artistic exchange since at least the early 20th century (and even earlier, if we want to include the worlds’ fairs). As a form of “soft diplomacy,” these exchanges are based on the premise that encounters at the interpersonal level can “scale up” to become signs of good will between nations. The Center Stage program, formed under President George W. Bush, was envisioned as a way to provide a softer, friendlier view of America to countries where populations did not necessarily see the US in a positive light. Yet the scenario of cultural exchange entails a familiar repertoire of encounters or social roles through which the tours are structured, such as meet-and-greet events, classroom visits, workshops, or panel discussions. It relies on all participants knowing the script. Whereas the tours are structured around valorizing cultural difference, in fact, as genres of encounter they are deeply familiar. Although the cultural content itself may be different, the encounters through which a cultural exchange tour unfolds are similar worldwide. If they weren’t, it would not be possible to orchestrate a tour like this successfully. So this is the paradox I take up in the book: Cultural exchange tours are organized around a premise of cultural difference, but in fact they require deep familiarity on all sides with the performances associated with genres of encounter.
As to whether this script was more difficult to “shake off” than some of their other tours, I think that Istijmam felt that they were on display as cultural others more in the United States than they had felt during their work in Europe. In Europe, they were involved in producing an original work with troupes from France and Germany. Participants from the three countries were co-eval: they were all working together in a process of co-creation. But, in the US, Algerians were framed as representing Algerian culture and Algerian theater, but the Americans were not framed as representing American culture or American theater (with one happy exception). Instead, the Americans were, by and large, consuming what the Algerians had to offer, whether it was the play or, especially, the workshops. This was often frustrating for the actors.
Janina Fenigsen: You point to this disparity in part through the term “celebratory otherness.” There is a rich irony at the heart of the “celebratory otherness” that you describe as underpinning the paradigm of cultural exchange. While in the Center Stage promotional materials for the US audiences the untranslated language tokens of halqa and goual emphasize and evoke the folklorized otherness, the traditions and rehearsal discipline of Brecht’s and Grotowski’s “poor theater” that are at the heart of Istijmam’s practice seem to be erased. How does it work for the members of the troupe themselves? Do they view their blending of Algerian street theater and European performance principles and philosophy as an example of a cultural encounter in its own right? As an evidence of shared human experience? Something else?
Jane Goodman: I drew the term celebratory otherness from Rupert Stasch to refer to the ways figures of cultural difference become marked as folklorized forms of pleasurable consumption. Artistic traditions such as music and theater are among the most common ways that figures of celebratory otherness circulate globally. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong about enjoying other artistic traditions. But celebratory otherness tends to erase more problematic forms of difference. US audiences could see Istijmam’s colorful dress and joyful music making in the streets of New York, but they did not see the difficulty one member had in obtaining a visa to the US. They did not see the behind the scenes labor that the troupe engaged in to be able to create theater with little support in Algeria. The troupe members did seek to make Algerian theatrical traditions known in the United States, and they did want to talk about these traditions with US audiences. At the same time, however, they wanted to learn about what US troupes were doing. This was where the encounters in the US fell short. The Algerians were the only ones understood to be sharing culture. This made the exchange unequal and incommensurate and is part of what contributed to their being cast in terms of celebratory otherness. Celebratory otherness is one of the systemic, historically shaped ways that the global north has viewed the global south. This is not to say that this was the only way the troupe was seen, but it was certainly part of it, as it is part of the wider scenario of cultural exchange through the arts.
As for Istijmam’s blending of Algerian street theater and European performance principles and philosophy, you are right to suggest that the troupe members also viewed this as an encounter. I write about the ways that their rehearsals in Algeria brought together the space of halqa, or improvisational marketplace performance, with Brechtian principles of identification and distanciation. They saw both of these as evoking a similar kind of space, an example of shared human experience if you will. To them (as well as to the playwright Alloula), Algerian halqa-style performance had been operating for centuries through performance techniques that Brecht, much later, would term identification and distantiation. That is, the street performer would go into and out of multiple roles, identifying with one character and that moving out of that character to go into another. Istijmam adopted this style of performance in their own work, with each actor playing multiple roles. They also brought to halqa theater the embodied discipline they drew from the work of Jerzy Grotowski, which very much influences their brand of physical theater.
Janina Fenigsen: How might the Istijmam actors script the tour and cultural exchange events it involved if given an opportunity? How would you?
Jane Goodman: I imagine Istijmam’s ideal tour as consisting of similar kinds of engagements (performances, workshops, theatrical exchanges), but the balance of activities would have been different. On the tour itself, the performances of the play, followed by audience talk-backs, went well on the whole. Certainly the play would have remained a central part of any tour. But the actors and I would have liked more conversation around it. If the scheduling could have been done in reverse, such that Istijmam would have first presented the play, and then gone into a classroom presentation able to talk with students about it, that would have made for a richer exchange. We all understood that scheduling constraints made this impossible. In fact, even at my own university, the conversations and panel discussions came first, and the play was the last item on the agenda, due to scheduling and travel needs. The exchanges with theater troupes could have been done differently. What performance theorists call emergence – that sense of unexpected, creative novelty that performance can generate – is part of what the actors were looking for. The closest engagement that featured a balanced, two-way, emergent cultural exchange came with the Hartbeat Ensemble, as I write about. Here, the troupes co-created improvisational scenes and participated together in a panel discussion on theater in times in crisis. But it was a brief encounter. The actors would have loved to return and spend focused time with a theater troupe in the US to develop a truly cross-cultural co-creation, as they had done in Europe.
Janina Fenigsen: I view your book as an excellent teaching resource, even more so when paired with the video of the play and guided by your notes that collate the text with the portions of the video. What kind of student audience would you envision for the book? What would you like the students to get out of its reading?
Jane Goodman: I wrote the book with my students in mind. I regularly teach about performance in North Africa and the Middle East, and my students come alive when they see video of the material we’re discussing. Usually I have to do my own searches to find audiovisual support for what we’re reading about. I wanted to include this material in the book itself, so from the beginning I envisioned a multimedia project. The e-version of the book includes embedded hyperlinks where readers can go directly to the specific video they are reading about. Readers of the hard copy can find these links on the book’s website . The website also includes two performances of Istijmam’s play Apples, around which the book is based. For a full multimedia experience, instructors can screen and discuss the play (60 minutes)and then have students read the book and view the associated videos. The website also provides more information about the troupe and the six actors, and it includes ancillary footage both from the tour and from the rehearsal residency the troupe and I held in Algeria in the month before the tour.
Another reason I wanted to do this project is because I felt that students could relate to it. Much of the ethnography took place among students just like them in the United States. Universities are among my field sites: the book engages with students from the University of New Hampshire, Sarah Lawrence College, Yale University, the University of St. Joseph, and Indiana University. Students today have almost all experienced performances by travelling groups from abroad. Students can also relate to the six Algerian actors, who, like them, are young people with similar hopes and aspirations. I anticipate that future student readers will recognize themselves (as participants or audience members) and their own institutions (as hosts) in cultural exchange tours like this one. My hope is that readers will come to a deeper understanding of some of the systemic global imbalances that underpin cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy through the arts (despite the very best of intentions on all sides), and to reflect on their own positionalities within a broader global arts community.