Jessica Blank

Jessica Blank – AFTERMATHWhen playwright Jessica Blank travelled to Jordan in 2008, to gather the material for documentary theatre piece Aftermath, she was understandably a little nervous. With two American wars raging in the Middle East, here she was, a New Yorker, seeking out interviews with a group of people who might have most cause to mistrust her – Iraqi refugees. She found however that there was no hostility toward her for being American; rather she was met with warmth and generous hospitality, even from families living in desperate conditions.

“These people lived under Saddam,” Blank says, speaking by phone from LA, where she splits her time with her home base in New York. “They understand viscerally and emotionally that there is a vast difference between the policies of government and the people of a country.”

Working with husband and writing partner Erik Jensen – and assisted by translators who doubled as cultural facilitators – Blank recorded roughly forty interviews in Arabic, seeking out people from many different religious and cultural backgrounds, from Sunni to Christian to Sabian to Shia. The couple had previously had success with another interview-based work, The Exonerated, which told the stories of death row inmates. Now they were attempting the same interview-to-stage transition with stories of ordinary people caught up in the Iraq War, a story she says American theatre has been shy to tell.

The stories they recorded included accounts of sectarian violence and wayward military aggression but also, she says, a surprising amount of humour and warmth. “People are still people, they’re not abstracts like refugees or war victims – all the things that we go through in daily life, with family and so on, they’re still going through,” she says. Besides, she points out, humour is a vital survival strategy.

Back in New York, Blank took translated transcriptions of the interviews and “put them in a room with actors.” Through rigorous workshopping and editing, she and Jensen culled the forty-odd stories down to six that had the most theatrical potential and which also reflected the themes that recurred most in the interviews. Snippets of the original Arabic were incorporated too, as well as a composite character, a translator, to emphasise the key role of the language barrier.

“The language difference itself, the fact of translation and the flaws and discrepancies of translation, were a large part of what had gone on between America and Iraq, so the issue of language was integral to the play,” she says.
{xtypo_quote_right}People are still people, they’re not abstracts like refugees or war victims – all the things that we go through in daily life, with family and so on, they’re still going through{/xtypo_quote_right}With so many compelling stories, Blank says, the process was both difficult in terms of making choices and profoundly emotional. She notes especially the ommission of stories relating to the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, a sadly recurrent theme but one which interviewees found too hard to talk about.

When she and Jensen first started working in documentary theatre, Blank says, they had a lot of hopeful ideas about how theatre could change the world. Seeing the way the debate over the death penalty has moved forward in America in recent years, with their play The Exonerated a part of that, she has renewed confidence in theatre's ability to make an impact. Documentary theatre’s power she says, lies in the ability to invite the audience into other people’s shoes, especially those of people who society tells us we shouldn’t be identifying with.

“Our aim is to produce theatre that doesn’t provide answers or make a statement or express an ideology," Blank says. "We want the audience to come away with more questions, for part of them to open up and be thinking about things.”

Aftermath is playing at the Malthouse as part of the Melbourne Arts Festival. Further details»

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