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Part Two: Talking with"Aftermath" Playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen

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We're back for the second part of my interview with "Aftermath" playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. After spending two weeks in Jordan, you came away with 35 stories. How did you narrow it down? What were you looking for?

Narrowing the stories down is one of the hardest parts of doing this kind of work. The play has nine characters (including the translator) but it really tells six stories--some of the characters are couples, and each of the two couples in the play tells one shared story. Every single one of the 37 people we interviewed in Jordan was incredibly compelling--and unfortunately, every single one of them had lived through something almost unbelievably harrowing. It was very difficult to narrow the stories down, because they were all so important.

As with "The Exonerated," we narrowed the stories down in stages, trying to keep an eye on the larger story the piece was telling as well as the individual, personal accounts.

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When we returned from Jordan, NYU professor Sinan Antoon listened to the recordings of our interviews and translated them word-for-word. We had those translations transcribed, and did a first round of winnowing, bringing about 20 of the full interview transcripts to Dartmouth to workshop them with actors. Erik and I edit by ear as we listen to the actors read the transcripts--we're both actors ourselves, so working with actors in a hands-on way from the very beginning of the process is important to us.

Nearly everything our interview subjects said to us in the room was compelling and interesting in the interview setting--but that doesn't mean it's necessarily going to translate to the stage. Hearing actors read the words out loud, we can immediately hear what material is potentially theatrical, what is "act-able" (and active) as opposed to simply texturally or factually interesting. We do edits in the room, enter them into the computer at night, come back to the actors with a condensed version the next day, have them read that aloud edit again, come back to them the next day with a further condensed version, and so forth---repeating the process until monologues begin to emerge organically. At the same time, we begin to hear which stories double each other, which are similar in tone, which characters have similar personalities, etc., and we start winnowing down the number of characters.

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We make our story-selection choices according to a number of criteria. We try to be as representative as possible--in terms of demographics, religion, class, age, gender, etc., but also in terms of more "artistic" or dramaturgical things like point of view, personality, rhythm, and emotional makeup.

In addition to telling the individual stories, we are also trying to convey the larger story that we heard in all the interviews--so we think about the repeating themes and content that arose in multiple interviews and try to make sure that we have at least one character in the play who addresses each of those themes or facts. (For example, "Aftermath" includes stories of people who were affected by sectarian militias, by religious persecution, by the military; it includes stories of Sunni, Shi'a, Christian and non-religious individuals, it includes stories of wealthy, middle-class and working-class individuals (though most of the people we met were middle-class, in part because Iraq used to be a largely middle-class country). Eventually, we come up with a group of stories that balance each other out, are individually compelling and dramatic, and that each tell a piece of the larger story.

Thanks for that fascinating peek inside the process. The run was extended until October 18th. That's good. What kind of reactions are you getting from the audience? You've had a few panels and post-show discussions. Does it get heated and partisan?

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We've only been present for a few of the post-performance discussions, so we can't speak about the content of all of them. But from the few discussions we've been present at--as well as speaking with our audiences more informally--we've found, even in downtown Manhattan, that our audiences' viewpoints and assumptions about the subject matter are incredibly diverse. "The Exonerated" shone a light on an aspect of the criminal justice system--wrongful conviction--that was at that point fairly new to the majority of people in our audience.

With "Aftermath," it's a bit different--while the personal stories and perspectives of Iraqi civilians have been grossly underreported and are often brand-new to our audiences, everyone has done some thinking about the larger issue of Iraq. It's been fascinating to watch how that has informed the way people watch the play---how sometimes they hear every word and are stunned, or sometimes they miss entire chunks of content that the play addresses, because that content doesn't line up with things they've already heard or read on the subject.

The responses from the audience range from being enormously moved, to inspired by the strength and resilience of the refugees, to sometimes contentious--but they are always deeply engaged with the stories they are watching unfold onstage. The play raises many, many different kinds of questions for its audiences--which we think is great. We believe deeply that our job as playwrights isn't to provide answers or prescriptions--it's to raise questions. To that end, we've been incredibly happy with the amount of dialogue the play has raised, and the enormous diversity in people's responses.

How are the reviews so far?

The reviews have been very kind, for which we are, of course, enormously grateful. We've been heartened to see that all the major critics picked up on and appreciated what we were trying to do structurally and artistically with the play, and more importantly, gained a deep and personal understanding of the individual human experience of the people portrayed in the play. They seem to have walked away from the play with an experience not unlike the incredibly moving experience that we had in the interview rooms with the real subjects of the play, which tells us that hopefully, we've done our job.
Your play is undeniably political even if it's not partisan. What are you hoping your audience will take away from it?
With all our documentary theater, we work very, very hard to keep our own political opinions out of the piece. To our minds, our own personal political viewpoints are so much less compelling than the real human stories we've heard; our job is to serve as a conduit, and to provide a structure; not to insert our own ideas.

Whatever anyone thinks of the fact that we went into Iraq in 2003--and we certainly have our own opinions about that--the fact is that it happened, it had a profound effect on the regular people of Iraq, and most importantly it is continuing to have an effect. It's a luxury for us here in the U.S. to have ongoing ideological arguments about what led to the war, and to rehash what we wish politicians would or would not have done.

The fact is that the human impact of what did happen continues to be felt, on a massive scale--as it does with any war--and we feel that it's our job as people to grapple with what that means on a human, non-ideological level. Here in the U.S., most individuals who have not served in the military don't have a direct experience of what it's like to live in a war zone. It's a much more common experience in the rest of the world--it's a part of the larger human story---and we believe that it's imperative for us to at least try to understand what that experience is like.

A lot of the damage that gets done in the world happens because we are encouraged, culturally, to see people who are different from us as "other"--to abstract them, to put them somehow in a different category from ourselves. Theater asks the audience, just for an hour or two, to put themselves in another's shoes; to identify and empathize with the characters on stage. If we want our audiences to walk away with anything, we want them to walk away with that experience--the experience of walking in the shoes of someone they may have thought of as "other." We believe that experience raises questions and asks us to grapple with things in a more powerful way than any abstract ideological debate ever could.
Do you plan to have "Aftermath" performed in other cities?
We hope it will be! We're currently working on several possibilities and would love for the play to have a long, healthy life in many American cities and hopefully, internationally as well. We're currently open to all potential opportunities to have the play performed as widely as is possible .

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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