Multimedia performance from UI playwright examines refugee crisis

A new play from co-head of the UI Writer’s Workshop explores war and the refugee crisis with film and dance.


Megan Nagorzanski

Actors partake in a dress rehearsal of Iphigenia Point Blank: The Story of the First Refugee at the David Thayer Theatre on October 30, 2018. Iphigenia Point Blank opens on Nov 1st and will run through Nov 11th. (Megan Nagorzanski/The Daily Iowan)

Caleb McCullough, News Reporter

Theater, music, dance, and film collide and meld on stage in an original play that tells the story of centuries of war and refugees, casting light on the modern refugee crisis.

The play, Iphigenia Point Blank, is written by the cohead of the UI Playwrights Workshop, UI Associate Professor Lisa Schlesinger. It opened Thursday and will play through Nov. 11.

Iphigenia is based on two plays by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides.

In Euripides’ first play, Schlesinger said, Iphigenia is the daughter of King Agamemnon who is sacrificed by the king to appease the gods. The second play reveals that Iphigenia survived and was taken by the goddess athena to a foreign country.

“So all this time between plays, she’s a refugee,” Schlesinger said. “I wanted to explore that in light of the refugee crisis now.”

To tell the story she wanted, Schlesinger enlisted the help of filmmaker Irina Patkanian, director Marion Schoevaert, and composer Kinan Azmeh. Schlesinger, Patkanian, and Schoevart originally met in Iowa City in the 1990s.

Schlesinger said she started writing the script in 2014. In 2015, she and Patkanian tested the first act in Greece, where refugees from Turkey were flooding in to the island of Lesbos.

Patkanian wanted her film to be different from a conventional documentary, which she said is journalistic and story-driven. Instead, Patkanian said she shot long clips that depicted the refugees as naturally as possible, without interviews or voiceovers.

“We shot long things,” she said. “We didn’t run after action … that’s where I saw you really empathize enough to start feeling.”

The challenge then was to mix the media into an effective performance, Patkanian said. They wanted each component of the play to be independent and in conflict.

“From the beginning, we decided we have to collide these worlds, not fuse them into some sort of mishmash,” Patkanian said.

Patkanian said she reached out to Schoevaert to direct the play, because she specializes in this kind of nonlinear, multimedia theater. Schoevaert said the play is poetic, and she sees it as a ritual rather than a story.

“It’s not regular psychological theater where you have a plot, or you have characters, or you have psychology driving the story,” she said.

Despite her experience, Schoevaert said, the project was difficult to put together. She didn’t want to use the film as a background but as a major component of the performance just as important as the theater.

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Azmeh, a Syrian clarinetist and composer, said he took the unique nature of the play into account when he composed the music. He read the play as poetry and attempted to write music to go along with that.

“I just kept reading the text over and over until the rhythm of the text came across to me,” he said.

Schoevaert said she wants the audience to experience something new and to remember the experience of a nation at war. Patkanian said she wants the performance to stick with people in a way that news cannot.

“I think that in order to be moved, to stick, not to just pass, there has to be something different,” Patkanian said. “I think ritual is that.”

Despite its relatively dark subject matter, Schlesinger said, she hopes the audience comes away from the play with optimism.

“I would like people to feel hopeful that we can help other people … whether it’s to listen to their stories, to notice them, to take them into our homes, to take them into our countries,” she said.

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