May 3, 2011
Artigue says Osama bin Laden's death will change his audience's experience
When Iowa Playwrights Workshop student Kevin Artigue was writing "People of the Ditch," his play about an American soldier's response to the mistreatment of prisoners in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's whereabouts where unknown, and his fate was a mystery.
But when the 2011 Iowa Playwrights Festival performs the play at 5:30 and 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 4, in the David Thayer Theatre of the University of Iowa Theatre Building, his audience will bring with them a consciousness of a world transformed by recent events.
"The announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden changes the context for 'People of the Ditch' in complicated and exciting ways." Artigue said. "We are going to hear it differently.
"Live theatre is an essential art because it has the ability to speak to audiences in the present moment, as a collective, as we experience our lives in synch. Bin Laden's death makes the play alive in a new way -- right here, right now."
"People of the Ditch" takes place in a remote, secret military prison in Afghanistan during the early years of the War on Terror. Pvt. Gabby Lopez witnesses treatment of prisoners that becomes increasingly violent, absurd and terrifying. After becoming convinced a detainee under her watch is innocent, she is forced to transgress cultural boundaries, disobey orders and confront her own complicity.
"One of the arguments made in the play by the character of Captain Woods, who runs the interrogation unit in the prison, is that she has the ability -- she calls it a talent -- of manipulating the truth to 'provide context.' Near the climax of the play, Lopez confronts her with evidence of the truth -- of the abuses, torture, murder -- happening under her watch, and threatens to make this evidence public," Artigue said. "The Captain counters by saying she will 'shift the context' and place blame on the shoulders of Gabby and a few others -- similar to what happened with Abu Ghraib. Power allowed the higher-ups to dictate the story and shift the blame."
With bin Laden's death, Artigue hopes this scene takes on a new resonance: "The context has shifted overnight and now when we hear in the play the voice of an interrogator in the darkness yelling 'Where is Mullah Omar? Where is Osama bin Laden' we have an official answer.
"But we shouldn't let the story of the last 10 years be re-written in a rush to celebrate. The fanatical urgency to kill or capture bin Laden at any cost is part of why the abuses occurred. As we breathe a necessary and well-earned sigh of relief, it's important to remember that it didn't have to happen the way it did. We didn't kill bin Laden because we tortured. If anything, torture and the scandals that followed delayed his capture by distracting us from our objective and making others less likely to cooperate."
Artigue, who is a friend of former Abu Ghraib interrogator and UI writing alumnus Joshua Casteel, said "People of the Ditch" is the culmination of a long-standing interest.
And although Casteel's experience was in the context of post-invasion Iraq, Artigue invited him to talk with his cast. Casteel's "Returns," inspired by his experiences in Abu Ghraib that led him to seek discharge as a conscientious objector, had its world premiere performances at the UI in 2007.
But their friendship was not the impetus for Artigue's play, although they confront some of the same issues. "Joshua is much clearer and braver in his beliefs than I am and his actions show this," Artigue said. "As a playwright, I'm interested in understanding the secret pains and desires behind actions, including my own, and this leads to plenty of self-doubt and arrested action. I hope my play helps us understand how good -- or at least well-intentioned -- people end up committing such inhumane crimes. How small individual choices lead to large consequences, and how nobody thinks it's their fault."
Artigue had worked toward a play on Afghanistan ever since UI playwriting alumna Naomi Wallace was a guest of the Playwrights Workshop his first year. "I wrote a one-act play in her workshop based on true events that tracked a pair of Afghani brothers responding to the defacing of a Qu'ran in Iraq," he said.
"She was very encouraging of my writing and that gave me confidence to take on a larger play and to write characters whose lives are seeming remote and separated from my own experience. This challenge -- to write across boundaries, to transgress my own experience -- has always stayed with me."
Although he was nurturing an interest in depicting a guard and a prisoner whose language and culture conflict, he did not determine how to frame the story until he read a news article about Afghan life after the Taliban regime fell.
"My research led me to an article in the LA Times talking about the period in Kabul after the Taliban fell, during which the city suffered from an explosion of 'Titanic' fever," he said. "'Titanic' is hugely popular in Afghanistan, and so are the stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
"After the Taliban fell in 2001, and their violent and draconian prohibitions were no longer in effect, there was a wave of young men who ran out to get a haircut just like Leo. The haircut even had a name -- the Titanic. Soon everything in Kabul became 'Titanic' with pictures of the two stars appearing all over the city and street vendors and grocers and taxi drivers all marketing their goods as 'Titanic.'
"All the romantic passion and absurd idealism for the film inspired me and it's through bonding over the movie 'Titanic' that my two characters are able to communicate. We learn that Hassan has been swept up in a raid while watching a bootlegged copy of 'Titanic' with six other suspected Taliban. Hassan later pieces together dialogue from the film in a desperate attempt to communicate his innocence to Gabby."
The fact that Artigue's main American character is female is crucial to the focus and direction of this story. "In my story, Gabby is sent to this prison specifically because she is female and her gender and sexuality is used against the prisoners who are all male Afghan Muslims," he said. "Having looked at the actual cases of abuse, there was something particularly transgressive and disturbing about the role women played."
"There is a code of toughness in the military and women in positions of power have an unfair burden of proving this toughness to the men around them. And not to say that all women are by nature more sympathetic and less prone to violence, but when you look at what happened in those prisons, it's often women who took the blame for actions provoked and instigated by men -- though they are no less culpable.
"The climax of the play is a showdown between Gabby and Captain Woods over some pictures Gabby shouldn't have taken -- and the fact that these are two women in a man's world is an important layer."
Tickets for "People of the Ditch" are $5 for the general public and free for UI students with a valid UI ID. Tickets will be on sale one hour before each of the performances. Tickets to all the remaining festival plays are on sale noon to 1:30 p.m. through Friday at the Theatre Building box office. More information can be found at http://bit.ly/newplay.
Workshop history, evolution
The Iowa Playwrights Workshop - the UI MFA Program in Playwriting - is an intensive three-year program dedicated to educating playwrights for the professional theatre. The objective of the program is to train talented playwrights and collaborative theatre artists who will lead the American theater in the creation of new works and the training of future generations of playwrights.
The Iowa New Play Festival began in the 1960s as Critics Week and developed into the more public Iowa Playwrights Festival. The festival's name was changed to the Iowa New Play Festival to stress that the production of new plays was of educational value not only to the playwrights but to all students in the department. Learn more about this year's festival at http://www.news-releases.uiowa.edu/2011/April/042011new_play_festival.html.
Over the years, the festival has produced scripts by numerous young playwrights who have gone on to distinguished careers in theater, and many of the plays developed through the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and presented in the festival have gone on to successful professional productions. Many of the playwrights have also been honored with theatrical awards or have been invited to theater festivals.
This year's festival is dedicated to Cosmo Catalano, who died in January. He joined the UI Department of Theatre Arts in 1966 and was professor in charge of acting and directing, department chair and managing director of Iowa Summer Rep. Catalano directed more than 100 productions for the department. His numerous contributions to the community are detailed here: http://performingarts.uiowa.edu/ui-mourns-loss-of-cosmo-catalano/.
The Department of Theatre Arts is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
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