For Martin Luther King Day, we hear from an artist who makes civil rights heroes leap off the page.
D.C. has a bit of a reputation as a city of transients who come and go relatively quickly, and without putting down roots. There’s some truth to that, but it doesn’t mean that D.C. is without culture (as we’ve explored on this show before).
As an expatriate, it’s very easy to feel lonely and isolated – even surrounded by people in an urban center. D.C.’s newest theater company is diving into what it means to be on the outside looking in, and they’re doing it by elevating playwrights and work from overseas.
We’ll meet the Creative Director of ExPats Theatre and hear what it’s taken to translate her first show and launch a company.
Produced by Maura Currie
- Karin Rosnizeck Creative Director and Founder, ExPats Theatre; @KarinRosnizeck
KOJO NNAMDID.C. has a reputation as a city of transients, without an established community or culture. It's a myth that we've busted time and time again on this show, but sometimes, the fact that D.C. has an established culture can make it that much harder for people new to the country to feel at home. A new theater company in D.C. is exploring what it means to be an expatriate, on the outside looking in. And they're doing it by elevating exclusively international playwrights. Here to tell us more about this is Karin Rosnizeck. She is the founder and artistic director of ExPats Theatre. Karin, thank you for joining us.
KARIN ROSNIZECKThank you for having me.
NNAMDITell us about your theater company, and why you decided to name it ExPats.
ROSNIZECKWell, I did this show, in the beginning, at the Fringe Festival, and also had to come up with a production company. I mean, I literally stumbled into that. And then I came up with ExPats Theatre, because I have read up a lot on, you know, artists in exile, and all these people that have been, you know, either from the U.S. to France, or from Germany to the U.S., you know, that interesting mixture in the 1920s, or opposed the Nazi regime.
ROSNIZECKAnd that's why I called it ExPats Theatre, but I also -- I am an expat, and I am a member, also, of the D.C. theater scene. But there's always something where I felt I either don't belong, or I would like to add something that's missing.
NNAMDIYour current show, "Surfacing," is currently performing at the Atlas Theater. What's it about?
ROSNIZECKIt's about three people who are all trapped. They're stuck. They are three characters. They're not anymore specified. They don't even have a name. They're called A, B and C. And one is a refugee, somewhere stranded in Austria -- in Vienna, probably. And she has to hide underground in order to apply for asylum, and can't leave a certain room.
ROSNIZECKThe other one is B, and that's a woman, a little -- I mean, a young woman who has been kidnapped at the age of nine, and then has been locked up in a basement for 10 years, which has been a real story in Austria. So, that character is based on that woman.
NNAMDISexually abused, too, right?
ROSNIZECKThat, too, yes. And then the third one is a young man who -- let's place him into Northern Albania, because that's where the Kanun, the law of the blood revenge, is very alive, back now. And he has to be at home because of his father having killed somebody. And he's the next one to be killed if he leaves the house, by the hostile family.
NNAMDISo, he is hiding in his house. You are not the playwright of "Surfacing," but you are responsible for bringing it to English-speaking audiences. What's your relationship to the show, and how did you discover it?
ROSNIZECKI'm not solely responsible for bringing it here. That is actually a credit due to Natalia Nagy, who is a Hungarian director living in D.C. And she did a reading of that play, which is written by Julya Rabinowich. And she is a Russian-Austrian, you know, also an expat in Austria. And she asked me to translate that play, which I did. And then she did a reading for the Women's Voice Festival, which was sponsored by the Austrian Embassy, and was taking place at Forum Theatre.
ROSNIZECKAnd when I translated it, I was really -- you know, you marinate the text, you really do a lot with the text, and I thought, this is great. And two years later, I took a directing class at Studio Theatre, and we had an assignment to do certain things with certain texts. And that's when I took it out, and that's when it surfaced back again.
NNAMDIWhat challenges, if any, did you encounter in translating the show to English?
ROSNIZECKThis one is not that much of a challenge, because it wasn't very much relying on any, you know, localisms, regionalisms or anything. This is actually -- even though it is in Vienna, and there are two things that are specifically in Vienna, it could happen anywhere. So, the language is abstract enough, the characters are all abstract. It's very minimalist. And the language is very fragmented, anyway, also in the German version. So, you translate it, and if you're not familiar with the play, you may think, oh, maybe she couldn't translate a sentence or something. (laugh) But that's really how the play is, on purpose.
ROSNIZECKAnd one of the things I did not translate was there was an idiom at the end, when it went, like, (speaks foreign language), which is a children's rhyme, you know, to count down something. And I just omitted it. I put on a footnote, and I said, this is the idiom, but I'm not going to translate that. And I didn't find an equivalent, because it would've been a cramped translation, then. But other than that, it was quite straightforward.
NNAMDIWhy was "Surfacing" a good show to launch your company with?
ROSNIZECKWell, it is, in a way, what ExPats Theatre should be about, or will be about, I hope. It is people who are neither at home, nor somewhere else. They are alienated, in a way, and they live between two cultures. And that has become a norm today. It's not that, you know, we have this, you know, nationalistic concept. I mean, it's coming back, but, you know, it's not a reality right now, in terms of where people really come from, and where they live and how they live.
ROSNIZECKAnd Julya Rabinowich is somebody who, you know, concentrates exactly at this spot, where people are transnational, and we don't even have a language for these people today, yet. On the other hand, it is also a global scene that is relevant for everyone, especially, you know, in Europe and in the U.S., with immigrants. I mean, we have the problem right now. You know, President Trump is going to build a wall. We had one in Berlin. It didn't work. And there's a lot of refugees that have been coming in in the last, you know, five years to Europe. So, these are things that, you know, the West deals with, and it doesn't really matter what country it is.
NNAMDIAnd what does the word “surfacing” mean in the context of the show?
ROSNIZECKIt is actually -- the word, the original word is (speaks foreign language) which is actually a translation of kind of literally diving up. So, you have to imagine a diver, underwater. And then when he comes up, that's what it's called, (speaks foreign language). And so he surfaces above the water. So, basically, he becomes visible. And so, you know, it is kind of a Deus Ex Machina thing. You know, something comes out. Something is born. You know, there are several images that it evokes to me.
NNAMDIYou've been involved in theater for many years, but in a past life, you worked with literal expats as an embassy staffer. How did working with embassies lead you into theater?
ROSNIZECKI worked for the U.S. Consulate in Munich for at least 10 years. And I also worked for the Institute for Intercultural Relations in Stuttgart. And, in that job, I was in the Cultural Affairs Department. And my task was -- or my wonderful task was to basically explain, or find cultural ways, find artists to explain U.S. social, political, cultural issues to German audiences, you know, whether that was a conference or whether that was a drama or whether that was a reading.
ROSNIZECKSo, I came in touch with a lot of U.S. artists who came to Germany and presented their art. And, you know, from this experience I still benefit a lot, not only in terms of context, but also in terms of seeing things, you know. Because you're constantly thinking along the line of the contradictions between U.S. and German cultures. And you constantly refine it. You constantly ask questions. You try to specify it, and then you contradict yourself again. So, that's an ongoing process. It's kind of a negotiation.
NNAMDIYou obviously have an international background. In your experience moving between and among continents, how have the arts helped you feel more at home?
ROSNIZECKOh, tremendously. Because, I mean, first of all, you can express yourself. And second, the American culture is so welcoming when you arrive and you say to someone, oh, I want to do theater, they say, okay, do a class. And, in Europe, they may say, really, you want to do theater now at your age, you know. Well, you do this for two years and then, you know, you give it up, anyway. So, there's a certain skepticism.
ROSNIZECKAnd in America, there's this constant, you know, cheering up, the encouragement and the yes, good for you, good for you. Do that. And I experience it everywhere. And it was really easy to break through a certain scene. You know, once you are mingling with everybody else -- it's hard to get on top. You know, it's hard to -- you know, that's when you have to cut through the crowd, apparently. (laugh) But you can mingle in and you can find your ways. And then, you know, at some point, something crystallizes out of this.
NNAMDIWhat crystallized for you is the formation of a theater company. How difficult was it to start a theater company in D.C., and why do you do this rather than shop scripts around with other companies?
ROSNIZECKI do work with other companies. I did work with other companies, and I still love them. And there is a great variety of companies here in D.C. I was actually amazed to find that scene here that nobody told me about before, because everybody thinks New York, New York. But then it appears that D.C. is really very big and very supportive.
ROSNIZECKI mean, in a way, you know, trying to be an actress is also, for me, very limiting, because, you know, theater is very kind of -- you know, let's put it into quotations -- "national art," because it deals with the national languages. Well, most of the cases. And I can actually, you know, work on an American accent, as far as the standard American stage accent is concerned. But if somebody asks me, do a Baltimore accent, I don't even know what they mean.
NNAMDIDon't have a lot of time left, but we have a review. Here's Hillary, in Northwest Washington. Hillary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HILLARYWell, I just wanted to say how beautiful a production it is. It's an amazing debut from a new theater company and a new director. And I really hope that people from the community who advocate on behalf of dispossessed people and displaced people and refugees are able to experience the artistry of the production. Because it's really provocative and, you know, I think those are the people that this -- the core audience for this play. I mean, I think everybody can benefit from it, but it was incredibly artfully rendered, with the projections and the music and the movement and the choreography and the acting. Everything about it was quite an experience.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Hillary, thank you so much for sharing that with us. We don't have a lot of time left, but you can see "Surfacing" at the Atlas Theater through this Sunday, September 29th. And in the 30 seconds we have left, what's next for you in this company?
ROSNIZECKThe next thing is to kind of build my team and raise funds, obviously, because there is no theater without funds. And also, you know, find an audience that maybe is outside of the regular D.C. theater scene. Being an expat, you know, basically suggests that you work with embassies, which I have worked with. And it does make a lot of sense. So, I would like to discover plays that are from other countries and find translators, if it's not German.
NNAMDIWe're hoping to see and hear a lot more from ExPats. Karin Rosnizeck is the founder and artistic director of ExPats Theatre. Thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.
ROSNIZECKThank you so much for having me here.
NNAMDIThis conversation about the new ExPats Theatre Company was produced by Maura Currie. And our discussion about reparations was produced by Victoria Chamberlin. Coming up tomorrow, we'll check in on the progress that the District has made on reducing HIV diagnoses. And Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingram is now living in rural Minnesota, the place he once called the worst place to live in America. He joins us tomorrow to talk about that experience and his new memoir. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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