Denison University Presents Immersive Play ‘Information For Foreigners’
Plays of protest don’t get much more powerful than Argentinian writer Griselda Gambaro’s 1974 Information for Foreigners. Denison University presents an intriguing new staging of this underrated classic.
As with many things, necessity was the mother of invention, as director Eleni Papaleonardos told me when we spoke by phone.
“Denison is finishing up building a brand new performing arts complex; we’re in that transition right now where [the theatre department’s] building is under construction, she said. “We performed our first two plays in a black box theater but we’re in the process of moving.”
“I’m a big fan of experimentation,” Papaleonardos continued, “and thought, ‘Let’s investigate alternative spaces.’ The university president’s residence of 50 years moved across the street and that [previous] house opened to the public; the second floor is full of memorabilia, the first floor will be reception space. So we went looking for plays that we could stage in a house.”
As they narrowed down that search for drama that works in that specific residence, Papleonardos said, “Karie Miller [director-actor-academic] suggested this play. We are so grateful to her for suggesting it and grateful that she’s come to work with us and serve as dramaturge. [Information for Foreigners] was written in Argentina in the early ‘70s and speaks very much to what was happening in Argentina during the dirty war but is still very, very relevant to what is happening today.”
Papaleonardos gave a little background in the writing. “This play was written in 1971 and the dirty war as the world came to think of the period doesn’t start until 1976. So Gambaro was writing this in secret years before what we think of the dirty war as starting. She was seeing all of this happening and her act of resistance was to write [Information for Foreigners]. [The play] was smuggled out and has never been performed in Argentina.”
Digging into the themes, Papaleonardos remarked, “[The play was] written by a woman working at not fetishizing violence but demystifying violence; shining a light on torture. So often, we watch something and we’re able to say, ‘Oh, I’m the watcher, I’m one of the good guys. I would never do that.’ But the play leads the audience through the house so they’re not just sitting in the dark watching from far away. They are complicit. They are bystanders. They do nothing. There’s a dirty secret we’re all watching and doing nothing about.”
Papaleonardos commented on how her production worked to draw out that effect from the play. “[That complicity] is in how Gambaro writes, her framing. The 12 scenes [of the play] can be performed in any order except the last one. The playwright asks that the audience be split up into groups so we’ve got three audience tracks running simultaneously with 12 actors running through the whole house. Each track presents the scenes in a different order, with each track taking about 21 minutes.
“That was a directorial decision to get the most people in to experience this. [For example], one scene takes place in a bathroom. We can’t get many people in that bathroom but we can get an audience of 12. [The audience] sees actors go from one room to another and we ask that the actors not in a scene look at the audience. So you’re always being watched by an audience who will do nothing to help.”
I asked Papaleonardos about the challenges of working on this material with students who may have no experience with immersive theatre. In her response, I could hear her smile across the phone. “No, this is a first. I’ve been so grateful for their enthusiasm and problem-solving and eagerness. I wanted to make sure this was a process of positivity and support in an uplifting environment. This is a really heavy play.”
“On top of that, I’m asking them to do very challenging things: run the play three times every night, using connecting doors where two scenes are happening next to each other and an actor in one scene runs through the connecting door to jump into the next scene. It’s a marathon for the actor and I’ve been so impressed and delightfully surprised at how excited and hungry they are for this work.”
We talked a little about Papaleonardos’ recent work and threads tying the plays together. “My little soapbox of the last couple of years has been that we only think about going to the theatre as having this communion between the actor and the audience. We go there to see something film can’t do; the connection between us, live.”
“I think with technology that allows us to be alone when we’re surrounded by people, we can self-isolate, intentionally or unintentionally. Connecting with other people in the room who are also watching has been important, really interesting [to explore]. [I’m interested in] a different way of being an audience together. [Information for Foreigners], especially, really creates a community and, also, complicity. There’s something about the humanity of the people you’re watching but the humanity of the other people watching with you.”
Information for Foreigners runs through March 9 with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit denison.edu/events/event/128358.