When they accepted Turkish playwright Ebru Gokdag to the Women's Work Festival, the artistic directors had no idea with whom they were dealing.
Gokdag, a professor in performing arts at Turkey's Anadolu University, had submitted her dark and powerful play "White Flag" to be workshopped and publicly read over a weekend during the festival.
Gokdag's poignantly-written script, a study of female oppression and genital mutilation, immediately commanded the attention of artistic directors Ruth Lawrence and Sara Tilley.
"We were very struck by it, because it was very powerful and really spoke to us as women, even though it wasn't really a situation we were aware of. We knew it existed, but we didn't really know anything about it," Lawrence explained. "After we read the play, we thought we've got to meet this woman."
Lawrence and Tilley saw Gokdag solely as a playwright, until, over the course of a year of organizing and fundraising for her visit to St. John's, they started learning more about her.
Not only is Gokdag an award-winning writer of theatre, she's been an arts and culture adviser, creative drama trainer, voice and diction coach, actress, choreographer and dancer. She's also a published expert and one of Turkey's pioneering practitioners of Theatre of the Oppressed.
Created by Brazilian director and political activist Augusto Boal in the early 1970s, Theatre of the Oppressed is a style of interactive creation theatre which bridges the gap between actor and audience member.
"It's a technique using theatre as a tool to transfer or to change a situation," Gokdag explained. "It really transfers the situation into a dialogue and it is a rehearsal for reality. You ask about a problem and then you work on it with the participants.
"It generally starts with a real problem, a real story. You will ask the participants and the audience for their help by showing the scene, what happens, and then you tell them the protagonist faces this, and this is how she or he tried to handle the situation. To change that, what could she or he do? It takes a reality, a problem, and it works out how to change it to a better situation."
Through the Women's Work Festival, Gokdag conducted a workshop series in Theatre of the Oppressed in St. John's this week with a group of 18 participants.
Lawrence and Tilley had put out a call for interested people to come and work with her, and the spots filled quickly. A few knew what the theatre style was in advance, but at least 75 per cent of the class had never heard of Theatre of the Oppressed, Lawrence said.
The workshops lasted two hours each weekday morning. After lunch, about half of the participants came back as cast members to prepare for the reading of "White Flag," which will open the festival tonight.
When it came to the actors involved, Lawrence and Tilley had help from a casting agent.
"We really felt like it was important to reach out and have a bit of diversity in our cast, so I got Maggie Kieley to help me find people from diverse backgrounds," Lawrence said. "We've got a young woman who's studying here from China, a young man who's studying here from New Delhi and others. That took a long time to come together."
"White Flag" has been presented publicly only once before, during the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Nebraska - where Gokdag had previously completed a master's degree in theatre - in 2008, winning an audience choice award.
Goktag said she wasn't particularly pleased with the play when she saw the reading.
"I thought there was too much violence, too much cursing, everything was too much. I really didn't like the play and the things I had put in it," Gokdag said. "This time, I'm directing the play, so it's an amazing opportunity for me because whatever I dreamed when I wrote it, I can try to transfer to the stage to see if it will work or not. There are visuals, rituals, dance, and I really don't know if it will work on the stage. It's very easy to put on paper, but you never know if it will work in the discipline of the theatre. It's the first time somebody's given me that opportunity, so I'm grateful to Ruth and Sara for enabling me to do that."
Gokdag said she had no knowledge of female circumcision/genital mutilation until she was shocked to learn about it from a Sudanese classmate while she was studying in the U.S.
After travelling to Egypt for research, Gokdag wrote the play in English. She hasn't been able to translate it to Turkish because she hasn't found the Turkish equivalent of some of the vocabulary.
The play, set in an unknown location where female circumcision is the norm, centres around 18-year-old Ayse and her family, who are extremely protective of her.
Ayse's father and mother, herself circumsized, shielded her from the procedure as a pubescent girl, but now that she's of an age to be married, are caving under society's pressure to have her circumsized as well.
"Finally, though the mother still resists, she goes through that, and we literally see how it happens, why it happens and the problems involved," Gokdag said. "When (girls) get circumsized, the man, on the first night, thrusts himself into her to open the stitches. At the end of the play, (Ayse) obeys society and gets circumsized, but then, with a piece of glass, cuts herself open before the new husband can do that. After making everybody happy and obeying tradition, freeing the family of the pressure, she then frees herself."
Some of the cast members have had difficulties with the harshness of their roles, and have wanted to make it clear to Goktag they don't support female genital mutilation.
"I understand, because no one can be for this unless they are born into the tradition, I think," Goktag said.
Goktag's dream for "White Flag," after she returns to Turkey, is to present it with an international cast as part of a conference on female genital mutilation, involving health professionals and religious leaders.
The sixth annual Women's Work Festival, a co-production of Lawrence's White Rooster Theatre, Tilley's She Said Yes! theatre company and RCA Theatre, will consist of a series of new play readings by, for or about women, in celebration of Internation Women's Week.
"White Flag," with Frank Barry, Jane Dingle, Sandy Gow, Askwin Gupta, Huan Yu, Stan Nochasak, Wendi Smallwood, Sara Tilley and Alison Woolridge, will be read Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Eastern Edge Gallery on Harbour Drive.
Readings will continue each night at the same time until Wednesday.
New works by Lawrence, Christine Foster, Emily Bridger and Deborah Jackman will also be presented.
Admission is by donation and is pay-what-you-can, with all proceeds going to Marguerite's Place, a transitional housing facility for women and children in crisis.
More information on the Women's Work Festival is available by contacting Lawrence at email@example.com.
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