Never a place to hide: on helping bring Arthur Kopit’s “Wings” to Russia (and a few other things besides)

New York’s Lark Play Development Center & Moscow’s Lyubimovka Festival recently conspired to have several great American plays be translated and adapted for the Russian stage. I was tapped to translate and adapt Arthur Kopit’s “Wings.” After Arthur and the other playwrights participating in the workshop flew in, we took my first draft and worked on the adaptation together, alongside director Daniel Romanov and a wonderful cast with the great Varvara Pushkarskaya in the lead.

At the same time that we were preparing a dramatic reading of “Wings” at the Meyerhold Center (named after Vsevolod Meyerhold, executed by Stalin in 1940), it was announced that Moscow’s Teatr.doc, where I began my career as a playwright in Russia, was being thrown out of its iconic basement facilities by the Moscow authorities.

While I was working on “Wings,” a number of people politely asked me why I was focused on bringing American drama to the Russian stage in the midst of sanctions, acrimony, threats of war, confusion, a destabilized and bloodied Ukrainian Donbass, and so on. “Do you even think it’s worth it?” the implied question was.

In the best of times, I never thought it was possible to retreat into art. The idea of art as a kind of pretty meadow where you can hide from life’s general BS always struck me as distinctly Soviet – and when I say “Soviet” I’m talking about the bureaucratic side of things, as opposed to the human side, because I mean no disrespect to the great artists produced by the USSR.

There’s a reason why “Swan Lake” played on Soviet TVs during the putsch in August of 1991. Officials had a view of art that was both utilitarian and naive. Art was a pretty picture you could transmit in place of reality – i.e. real art had nothing to do with reality.

This view of art endures, somewhat, in Russia to this day. It’s why an anti-constitutional law banning obscene language in movies and songs (books with obscenities must now come with special stickers) was passed. The idea of art as pretty, ineffectual, and uncontroversial is the idea that appeals to bureaucrats the most.

Still, there is what officials want to believe – and then there is reality.

The reality is this: working in the theater is a battle from which there is no retreat. Even when times are relatively good and no one is going around trying to shut down independent theaters – but especially so when times are not good. Especially so when you are scared. And sad. And tired. And when you can’t make up your mind as to what displeases you more – the world outside or the world inside you.

When I was translating Arthur Kopit’s “Wings,” I had to take mental health breaks several times. The play was constantly making me cry.

There are lots of reasons why a great play should make someone cry. My reason for crying was the reminder that it all comes to nought. The play’s heroine is a strong woman, a former stunt pilot, suffering from a stroke. She is forever altered. She will never go back.

(“There is now no ship to bear me hence, and I must indeed abide the Doom of Men, whether I will or nill: the loss and the silence”)

We are such fragile creatures, really. Nobody wants to be reminded of that.

In recent years, I had to deal with the loss of a family home, the second such loss I had to experience so far. I then had to deal with the loss of my beloved job. Now I’m dealing with the reality that theater is also not some mystical island upon which the forces of darkness may never encroach. Quite the opposite.

I often think of myself as Arthur Kopit’s heroine now. Flying through the darkness and unable to tether myself to somewhere safe. And you know, I realized that this is perfectly alright.

When you know exactly what is happening to you, when you are no longer trying to hide from it, when you cease to be a character in a horror movie, running screaming from the danger to the sadistic delight of your pursuer, you become free – so free that you’re not even sure what to do with this freedom at first. It’s like living under a molehill for all of your life and then finding out that there is a sky.

In the West, we are often used to thinking that we define the world – we are the observers, others are the subjects of our observation. As a product of at least three distinct cultures, I’ve always known what utter crap that is. When an entity like Lark collaborates with an entity such as Lyubimovka, I get the chance to demonstrate precisely why it is crap. Because when a play like “Wings” comes to Moscow, it’s Russians who are cast as the observers, for example.

This is why such collaborations are important – and this is why everyone asking me about “the point” of bringing American drama to Russia now is, in fact, misguided. We are doing what the entire Russian Foreign Ministry (which knows a thing or two about the high art of the irrational) cannot dream of doing. We see a text expand so much that it becomes a kind of space, a platform, a field – where people from different backgrounds engage each other as normal human beings.

You can’t hide in art, it’s true, but then again, that’s only because art exists beyond the state of hiding.

And so I’m really grateful to Lark & Lyubimovka. And to Arthur and Daniel, for being so good at what they do, and so good in general. And grateful to the actors, of course.

cast of wings and me and arthur and danya filtered
The night before we showed “Wings” in Moscow.

Summer night Kiev blues

I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
I was young and running wild –
“Be a darling,” said the raven,
“Keep my beak inside your heart.”
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
Beak in heart and heart in throat,
Acid bubbling in the tear ducts,
Muscle in a Gordian knot.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine –
Soldiers shivered in the ground
As the god of tits and wine
Put my fire out with his tongue.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine –
I am friends with rock and rye,
Candle flame and worm and lichen,
And the torture spikes of stars.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
I have seen the mirror crack,
I have seen the flaming sword
Buried in a templar’s back.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
I have knelt for the Red Sun,
Drank the moonlight from the river ,
Stroked a hussar’s shiny gun.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
In its hollow bones are caves,
In the caves the saints are sleeping,
In the saints the wormholes wait.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine –
Thank you, physics, thank you, fate,
Thank you, lindens, thank you, chestnuts,
Thank you, cemetery gate.

I was born in Kiev, Ukraine –
The fault lines in my face
Cry tears of happiness,
Cry tears of happiness.

With thanks to Solomia and the musicians who play at the Buena Vista Bar in downtown Kiev on Thursdays

Moonlight night on the Dnepr. Arkhip Kuindzhi.
Moonlit night on the Dnepr. Arkhip Kuindzhi.

“Converting on Paper”: Faith vs. Warm Bodies

This post on Muslimah Media Watch caught my eye, because it reminded me of one of my favourite topics – converting on paper. I think the subject is pertinent. I disagree with Yusra’s assertion that for Muslim women, marrying non-Muslims is not an issue, because, as she puts it, “Muslim women believe that their freedom lies within the teachings of Islam.” I rather view this as a minority issue – no more irrelevant than the issues the GLBT community faces when trying to carve out its own space within a particular religion. I also think that this issue will continue to grow in importance, because, crisis or no crisis, the world is progressively getting smaller. More and more people are leaving their communities, or stretching the concept of what “community” means in the first place. As their numbers continue to grow, so will the issue of “mixed” marriage.

What do I mean by the phrase “conversion on paper”? Let’s put it this way – We all know people who had to convert to a particular religion because of their prospective spouse. Whether due to religious law, family pressure, inheritance issues, etc., people convert in order to get hitched all the time. While some are sincere in their conversions, others view it purely as an issue of convenience. With Islam in particular, it’s not as if a Muslim woman (someone who isn’t very religious, for example) can simply say, “oh, I can’t marry this dude ’cause he’s a non-Muslim? Well, I guess I’ll stop being Muslim then,” because many communities actively police those who would like to officially leave the religion.

The word official is important here, because we all know that the issue of religion is actually quite elastic to begin with. I’m not just talking about Islam here either. Many people are religious only nominally, or culturally (I often see the argument that Asra Nomani is pushing for a cultural interpretation of Islam, which makes me scratch my head, because who isn’t influenced by a particular culture in one way or another?).

Conversion is often framed as something that’s “best for the children,” as in “dear God! Won’t somebody please think of the children?” but we all know that you can’t make your kids believe. You can make them culturally adherent – little Soraya put on a hijab upon puberty, how wonderful, little Boris goes to Sunday prayer every week, how special – but faith is a different subject altogether. You can lead a horse to water, et cetera.

Conversion, instead, is important because it addresses the “warm bodies” issue. It gives the impression that the religion is striving and strong, that it won’t be taken over by infidels of whatever stripe. It’s addresses a security concern.

Modernity takes its toll, but religion isn’t going out without a fight. I believe that there will be more and more “paper converts” in the future. This may be the part where you say, “of course, it’s terrible what’s happening in these modern times, but when we get society fixed up, inshallah, we will…” What? Send a weekly committee to the house of every convert to make sure they’re following whatever interpretation of Islam (or any other religion that’s an issue) you have decided is the most authentic?

We all know that you can choose who you marry (well, assuming your family doesn’t shove a prospective spouse down your throat). You don’t choose, however, whom you fall in love with. So people make whatever arrangements that are necessary. Remember that scene in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” when the prospective groom converts to Orthodox Christianity? It’s shown as a positive moment, but it also made me wonder just what the character was supposed to believe, in the end. Probably nothing. The ceremony is what’s important. Not the faith.

In my impossible post-religious utopia, the only issue will be that of faith.