Professor Bess Welden Interviewed by Portland Stage on her upcoming ‘Refuge Malja’
Colby Theater and Dance Teaching Artist Bess Welden gave an interview for Portland Stage Company (PSC) on the upcoming world premiere of her play Refuge*Malja, running at Portland Stage from October 30 to November 18.
In her interview, conducted by PSC Directing & Dramaturgy Intern Jae-Yeon Joo, Welden discussed her creative process in conceptualizing her play, her experiences developing the production, and her hopes regarding the impact of the show on its audiences.
See the full transcript below. Ticketing information for Refuge*Malja can be found here.
Conversation with the Playwright
Bess Welden has been making theater as a writer, performer, and educator for nearly 25 years, and creating art in Maine since 2001. Refuge * Malja * ملجأ marks her playwriting debut on Portland Stage’s main stage. She has a long history with creating new work, including many collaborations with Portland Stage (PS). Her most recent works include an original multi-disciplinary performance, Legbala is a River, and a script for young actors/audiences, Mergirl Saves the Waves. Bess is a Teaching Artist in Colby College’s Department of Theater and Dance, in addition to being a PS Affiliate Artist and Teaching Artist.
Jae-Yeon Yoo (JY): Hi Bess, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. To begin with, could you talk a bit about what inspired the creation of this new work?
Bess Welden (BW):
The genesis happened almost exactly three years ago, fall of 2015, when I was obsessively following the story of the migrant crisis playing out in Greece.
My sister-in-law, Jodi Hilton, whose work we’re going to be using in the design of the show, is a freelance international photojournalist. She has spent most of her career telling refugee stories in pictures; she’s a brilliant artist and her images are so compelling. She was right there on Lesvos, covering the story, so I was following along. While she was there, she also created a photo essay, of the things people were leaving behind on the beach. In particular, there were a lot of discarded shoes.
My immediate response was that every one of these shoes represents an individual human being with a story—and a lot of the shoes had obviously belonged to kids. I started wondering about what would it be like to have the experience of migrating as a child. Parallel to that—and I’ve had conversations with my sister-in-law about this—I was imagining what it’s like to be a first responder in these sorts of situations. How do you put up your professional barriers, so that you don’t get emotionally involved with every single person you’re meeting? Which led me to ask: what happens if a connection does penetrate those professional walls? What would the consequences be?
JY: What were the next steps, after imagining this initial scenario?
BW: I then almost immediately generated the idea of connection through photography and improvised language lessons, which led to inventing
circumstances would create an “impossible corner” for Jamie, my photojournalist character. What would have to happen
to pull her away from this child and how would she communicate that to him? That is how the character of Ibrahim materialized, someone who she trusts but also can practically help her communicate with the boy in Arabic.
As I continued to watch events on the Mediterranean and in Greence unfold from my safe place in Portland, I was struck by so many people wanting to find refuge in Germany. As a Jewish American, I grew up steeped in stories of people who had to flee Germany. There was something about this circularity that resonated deeply for me and I hadn’t really heard anybody talking about that connection. That led to developing Jamie’s backstory and her own family refugee history, a generation removed. I wanted to tap into the idea that migration is something that is constantly going on for humans on our planet. Every time we have a specific wave mass movement, there are resonances with the waves that have happened before.
JY: Exactly. I think it’s one of the more tragic and powerful aspects of your play for me, when I see how current global crises are triggered by previous injustices.
BW: Yes. I’m intrigued by how different narratives get spun out around the same events and debate about who’s responsible for what. The character of Ibrahim talks about the importance of living in the “gray” zone, where things aren’t so black and white, but filled with contradictions and complex interpretations. I honestly think that’s not how we are socialized to think about things, at least from my experience growing up in the US. There’s a desire for these polarized places—black and white, right and wrong—and it’s really difficult to step into something confusing, where there is no obvious line to draw.
Even though the play touches on some big, long-standing conflicts, I hope what touches people are the character’s stories and relationships inside that bigger context. The play is very much a snapshot of what was happening three years ago, but hopefully will resonate beyond that particular moment. When I was starting out on this project, someone expressed concern that the story would feel outdated by the time the show got into production; theater does take a long time to produce. I said, “Well, that may be true, but I feel that this is a story that will continue to make sense to people for a long time.”
JY: I understand you’ve been on a three-year journey with this play to get to this PS version. Can you talk more about the process of creating the new work and finding your collaborators?
BW: It was a real leap to imagine a play that would be partly written in Arabic. It meant putting myself on the hook to reach out and find a translator. I initially started working with a young man named Mohammed alBehadli, who is originally from Iraq. He had just graduated from Portland High School and I met him through the Telling Room. He was the one that made the first stab at any of the translations for the short version of the play.
Originally it was a 30-minute play called “Whatever You Decide.” I submitted it to the Maine Playwright’s Festival in the fall of 2015. They selected it for production for their spring festival, but we ended up not being able to fully produce it because we couldn’t cast it appropriately. The producers and I knew from the start that it would be a big challenge to find Arabic-speaking actors , and I was thrilled that they were even willing to take the risk. In the end, we settled on having two readings of the play, so that I could hear it and continue to develop the script.
Through the process with Maine Playwright’s Festival, I connected with Ali Al Mshakheel, who at the time, was working for Portland Public Schools as an Arabic interpreter. He read the role of Ibrahim for one of the MPF readings, even though he’s not an actor. Over the course of spring 2016, I discovered that I needed to write a full-length version of the play, and I asked Ali if he’d be willing to collaborate with me, because Mohammed was going to college. Some of the early translation done by Mohammed is still in the play, but Ali has gone through and made adjustments to it and I’ve generated more material since then that has needed new translation.
JY: What was it like to work with a translator?
BW: Ali is not just a translator; he’s a cultural broker for me and the whole project. He has helped me far beyond translating words on the page by having important conversations with me about cultural details. For example, when Jamie comes to visit Ibrahim out of the blue after nine years, Ibrahim’s mother brings in a tray of food. In my original version, it was olives and tea. Ali said, “No, that’s not how it would be. She would never serve them just olives and tea. There’d be bread and cheese and more on that tray. Realistically, the mother is going to go further to extend hospitality.” He’s helped me to capture those small details that lend a deeper level of authenticity to what I’m trying to show in the play.
JY: As a multi-lingual speaker, I know how there aren’t exact translations between languages a lot of the time. What was that linguistic aspect like, when working with a translator?
BW: It’s fascinating, a total leap of faith. Since I don’t speak or read Arabic, I can’t vet or debate specific word choices. I have given over the Arabic sections to Ali to interpret the way he feels captures the essence of what I’m trying to say. I’m completely vulnerable in accepting that I don’t control every word in my own play. Ali’s questions and ideas have definitely made my experience of my own writing deeper. As writers, I think a lot of us feel quite proprietary about what we’ve created and, for me, this process has been a great exercise to practice letting go.
Ali has asked me for clarifications about specific word choices and, for the most part, I think he’s tried very hard to do a literal translation. But then again, a lot of the translation is Ibrahim’s poetry and it’s important to maintain the sense of lyricism there. Ali has a real passion for language; he studied English and English Literature when he was at university in Iraq. Poetry is a deep interest of his, beyond his previous work as a journalist and his current work in Portland as translator and interpreter. He brings so much of his life experience to tap into the heart of what’s going on in this play. I consider it divine intervention that I met him and he was interested enough to want to be a part of it.
As we’ve developed the play and had other Arabic speakers involved, it’s been interesting to hear how they respond to what Ali has created on the page. In the LFU 2017 workshop, I remember that the actor playing Ibrahim pulled me aside and asked, “Where did you find this guy? He speaks the most beautiful Arabic that I have ever heard in my life! He’s a poet!”
JY: To hear you talk about your process, it’s remarkable to me how much it mirrors what messages you’re sending with the play. It’s all about being in that vulnerable state, not needing to understand every word to connect.
BW: Absolutely. Ali and I have a kind of joke not joke that starts “a Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian walk into a rehearsal hall…” Every time we’ve done a reading of the material, we end up with a microcosm of the people who are similar in many ways to those that are represented in our play. We’re all in there, having our own experiences of trying to communicate with each other, trying to understand what the story is, and how to make it accessible for an audience. I’ve said many times over the last three years of development, if nothing else happens with this project, all the time put in has already been worth it because it has generated these real-time connections and conversations with real people. I can’t think of any better situation, personally.
JY: Let’s backtrack a little—what inspired the linguistic choices in the play, to begin with? What made you want to incorporate Arabic, especially without subtitles?
BW: Well, to me it was obvious—if an American photojournalist was actually in this situation, most likely the refugee kid is going to speak Arabic, and let’s say she doesn’t. It was a function of having come up with an initial scenario, then following that internal logic. I was also curious about how to imbed translation into the story without it feeling mechanical. With the exceptions of Waleed’s nightmare and a few of lines of text between Ibrahim and his non-speaking mother, all of the Arabic in the play gets translated into English or given a contextual explanation. If people hang with it enough, they’re going to understand. I tried to think creatively about how to translate internally. I learned a lot and have grown confident about the sections I’ve chosen not to translate. Through the course of the workshop readings, people have responded to Waleed’s nightmare very strongly. The nightmare sends the audience into a space where they literally don’t understand, but hopefully can comprehend the emotional reality of the moment for that character.
I also really hung onto the scene with the aid worker, because I wanted to invite audiences to have the experience of a real-time translation, of how long it takes and how patient you have to be. It’s a moment when you’re listening to both the story and the translation of the story, experiencing this triangle of communication.
JY: I personally love that there’s a section that isn’t translated, where English speakers don’t have complete access. I think we’re brought up in such an English-dominated world that we—to some degree—expect to understand everything if we speak English. And it’s good to make the audience realize that it’s not always that way.
BW: Yes, and that’s what many people have reflected back to me, saying things like, “Oh, I get it. Waleed is trying to negotiate a world in which he doesn’t speak the language, so if I have that experience as an audience member, that brings me a little closer to the reality of all of these people who are migrating to foreign places and learning new languages and ways of being.” My hope is that if listeners get even just 20 seconds of that, they get to a different way of understanding the story and building empathy.
JY: Do you have any advice for other aspiring playwrights/theater-makers?
BW: There have been multiple times over the course of this play’s development when it felt too ambitious. You’re living in Maine—how are you going to find the people and resources you need to make this kind of play? It felt large and scary and somewhat presumptuous that I could pull off a project that would include all of these layers, from the language to the casting to the right artistic team to production opportunities (like PS). Out of all the work I’ve been making in my career, Refuge * Malja * ملجأ is probably the riskiest thing I’ve tried. Yet, it’s not only turning out to be among the most deeply personal and artistically satisfying things I’ve done, but also where I’m finding a new level of success.
So here’s my advice: a friend recently told me, “Take exquisite risks,” and it has since become my mantra. Find the resources to trust yourself and don’t hold back from attempting to bring your boldest ideas to life. If there’s any payoff in creative work, I believe it lives there.