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Translating Soldierland: A Chat with Rzgar Hama

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Originally from South Kurdistan, Vancouver-based theatre director, actor, acting coach and writer, Rzgar Hama currently serves as  artistic director for Sky Theatre Group. Rzgar is premiering the English language version of his play Soldierland at The Annex May 18-24, 2018.  Soldierland explores the negative consequences of war – through changes in societies, migration and the psychological effects of war on individuals and communities. Soldierland questions love and humanity in an era of war influenced by the power of mass media and authorities in the digital age. We talked to Rzgar about the challenges and discoveries of translating his play from Kurdish to English, about connecting with veterans and working with actors from different traditions.

 

This is your first English language play, correct?  How different was it for you to say what you wanted to say in English?

Rzgar: You are right. This is my first English language play as a playwright and director, and it wasn’t easy at all. It took me two years to translate the Kurdish version with the help of Hemin Khasrow to have the first draft of the English version ready, and after that, with the help of an editor Claire Mulligan, I had a new version with grammar and language corrections. Then with the actors during the rehearsals giving it the Canadian language test, I changed many things.

Moreover, I wrote Soldierland in 1994 under the name of Jengistan which means “Waristan” or “The Country of War”. Back then I had a clear vision of being against war – there is no legitimate war. All the authorities, regimes and politicians trying to logically prove that their war is legal and that they had no other choice but to fight the “enemy”; well, who is the enemy? To each side of the conflict the “other” is enemy; they both make humans feel animosity towards each other. This is what makes me stand up against war wherever I am. It doesn’t make any difference whether you speak about these facts in English or in any other language, but I had to deal with re-polishing my play to speak to Canadian audiences. That is what theatre does – the discourse is the same as the first draft, but the idea of here/now in theatre is what makes the search for other techniques necessary, to make sure that our performance is appropriate for this society.

The play owes some of its form and style to the poetry of another place. Can you talk about that? Did you consciously bring those traditions into the play?

Rzgar: In the script I tried to use different cultures, or to use different rituals from different places. I believe that war is not identified with a specific place or a geographic spot somewhere else, but is located right where we are and we all have to feel responsible for what is going on in the world. I used a poetry form for some of the characters and curses for some others, and also created the characters all from different backgrounds to make the point that this is not from or about one place, rather it is about the world.

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Does the English language seem to encourage a different performance style than work you have done in other languages?

Rzgar: It is not the language that encouraged me to think about different performance styles, but the idea of performing in a specific society. The style of this work is a continued experiment of more than 30 years of searching; it’s always been my concern to find the best way to affect the audience at this time inside the frame of this society. Most theatre directors talk about finding the linkage or connection between the performance and its audiences, but I borrow the term “influence”­­ from Artaud and concentrate my search around the question of theatre and its influence on audiences.

The themes of this play – the ugly aftermath of war, its indelible effect on soldiers and civilians – are more real and less theoretical to you than they probably are to most of us in North America. What do we need to know to understand this play?

Rzgar: I hope that this play reminds audiences about the destructive effects of war on everyone in the world, despite their distance. Also, the indelible effects of war on those who have participated.

The play is in three “acts” or sections – one right after the war as the soldiers are sent home, one when they get home and are greeted by the ones left behind, and the third as they wait to go back into battle. What did you want to examine in each of these sections?

 Rzgar: In Soldierland I tried to speak about the many different aspects of war. When I look back at the history of the world, I see the bloody history. We haven’t yet left war behind, it continues and grows with us. However, each section of the play comprises a different aspect. For example in act one, we see the psychological and physical effects of war on the soldiers, and through them, the absurd motives behind making wars and killing people. In act two, the economical and sociological effects of war. Finally, act three describes war as a continued fact in our life, and the negative role of mass media in confusing people and making war seem inevitable, axiomatic.

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You’ve connected with some veterans’ groups over the content of this play. Is that a similar process to what you would have done in Kurdistan?

Rzgar: I have always wanted to listen to those who have participated in wars or were close to it, not only for the sake of my play or productions but also for their benefit. I always encourage my actors to find their way into connecting with veterans, to see the reactions of those memories in their bodies and on their faces, the changes in their voices while talking about their wounded or killed friends, their sense of humour which sprang from their absurd past, and, in some of them, speaking at high volume to express pride, but in fact, to exhibit anxiety. On the other hand, it is a benefit for veterans to talk about those miserable memories that haunt them. In many cases, they are ashamed and cannot speak about them. Sometimes they try to live in denial but the feeling of guilt doesn’t leave them alone. Therefore, to make them talk about it may help them to get some kind of relief.

What were the biggest obstacles you found in directing actors who have not been trained in the same tradition as you were, or even as each other?

Rzgar: Working with a group from different backgrounds has always been my desire. In my work I widely focus on the training and daily exercises with the actors – this is the best way to make an ensemble. My rehearsal method starts with a few days of general acting training and, after that, cursory reading of the script and then improvising it. After that we go back to deconstruct the script and find the significances in it. Then I ask the actors to write an essay about it and discuss it with the group, after which we focus on describing all the characters and their connections. It’s is a serious process and the actors will benefit from it. I don’t think there are any tradition issues in training actors; we all have the same starting point; the history of theatre is a history of every individual theatre artist who understands it.