On March 11 of next year — at 9 a.m. in Iowa and 5 p.m. in Baghdad — six new works will be performed as part of “Book Wings Iraq,” a three-year-old program sponsored by the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) that’s previously commissioned work from Russia, China, and the U.S.:

wingsThree Iraqi playwrights — Amir al-Azraki, Sarem Dakhel, and Hassab Allah Yahya — are joined by three North American playwrights in writing works that in some way touch on the theme of “courage.” Book Wings organizers are currently looking for institutions to hos viewing parties so that the works aren’t just experience on the stage at Theatre B in Iowa City, but also around the world. Book Wings, according to IWP Director Chris Merrill, “is making literature fly.”

The six commissioned works will each run between eight and ten minutes, and will be followed by a “talk-back” session. The six works are:

COURAGE by Amir Al-Azraki: After losing his wife to sectarian violence, will a musician’s passion for pursuing his art put his own life in danger?

THE BIRD BREEDER by Sarem Dakhel: Razzaq can’t live without his birds, but in a climate of nationalism, is he willing to pay the ultimate price?

MOCK COURT by Catherine Filloux: When a terrifying post-9/11 reality becomes a schoolyard game, can life go on as normal?

HOW ABOUT THESE FIRES by David Kranes: Can two artistic souls make it work in a dystopian world of megafires?

SHELTER DRILLS by Heather Raffo: How far will mothers go to protect their children?

TRAIN OF DEATH by Hassab Allah Yahya: How much is one life worth? A train conductor faces an ethical dilemma as the lives of 52 men hang in the balance.

Ashley Davidson, IWP’s Program Coordinator for Outreach and Special Programs, said that they’re particularly hoping that audiences from around the Arabic-speaking world will join in and watch the productions. She answered a few questions about the Book Wings project.

ArabLit: How did you select these 6 writers? How does the selection process generally work? You’re looking for writers at what stage in their careers?

Ashley Davidson: The Iraqi playwrights were identified by the University of Baghdad (they put a general call out to 10 playwrights for 8-10 minute plays with a cast of 2-3 on the central theme of “courage” and these three plays were selected). We asked that the 10 playwrights approached include men and women from various regions so that the pool would include playwrights who reflect the geographic and cultural richness and diversity of Iraq, in the understanding that ultimately it would come down to literary merit of the plays submitted.

In commissioning American writers, IWP had an eye out for playwrights who also write prose. …. Another consideration in commissioning playwrights had to do with their interests and the landscape of their preoccupations as writers. Heather Raffo for example has written a extensively about and has personal ties to Iraq, Catherine Filloux has a longstanding interest in human rights and recently traveled with IWP on a reading tour to Sudan and South Sudan, etc. We’re looking for writers with an established track record of literary excellence and many fine literary works still ahead of them!

AL: Will Russia be one of the Book Wings countries every year? How does the selection process for countries work?

We anticipate the collaborative relationship with the Moscow Art Theatre to evolve into another collaborative project and look forward to continuing to expand the Book Wings model in new countries (which will change every year) as partnerships with local theatre organizations are formed.

AD: The idea for Book Wings — to connect writers, performers, directors, new media professionals and audiences from the U.S. and Russia — sprang from the Culture Sub-Working Group of the U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission, made possible with grant funds provided by the U.S. Department of State. The success of the collaboration with the Moscow Art Theatre made it possible to expand the project to China in 2013 and Iraq in 2014. We anticipate the collaborative relationship with the Moscow Art Theatre to evolve into another collaborative project and look forward to continuing to expand the Book Wings model in new countries (which will change every year) as partnerships with local theatre organizations are formed.

AL: Why a theme? Why “courage” for Iraq and “contact” for Russia?

AD: The idea for the theme “contact” came out of the Culture Sub-Working Group of the U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission (and emerged at the same time as the idea for Book Wings itself) — “courage” actually originated out of a suggestion from the American playwright David Kranes — IWP and our Iraqi partners had been discussing possible themes and he came up with a longer theme that was eventually shortened to “courage.” The themes are intentionally developed to be inspirational rather than prescriptive — it gives the writers someplace to start, with complete creative freedom as to how they choose to interpret or portray the theme.

One of the most interesting, entertaining things, as an audience member, is to watch how varied (and wildly different and creative) the commissioned works on the common theme are. Last year, for the Russia collaboration for example, we had a play about contact with extraterrestrials and another about two colleagues crossing paths in a stairwell. Arguably the most exciting thing about Book Wings is the new work that comes out of it — twelve creative minds have produced twelve new works that didn’t exist a few short months ago — they are by turns funny, moving, disturbing, hopeful, thought-provoking. It’s interesting to see how they complement and interact with one another when taken as a whole even though they were written individually without consultation between the playwrights.

Artistic and production teams — including playwrights — will answer audience questions in a talk-back session following the performance — live stream viewers can Tweet questions to @UIIWP #bookw or email them to me beforehand. 

In the long term, Book Wings hopes to provide a possible blueprint for other institutions to adapt and produce innovative collaborative theatre projects that bring creative professionals — and nations — closer together (IWP will publish an e-book that details how the 3-year initiative was put together, technology, lessons learned, and so on.) Also, I should mention, the complete texts of the commissioned plays will appear (in both the original language and in translation) in the Book Wings program, which will be made available in PDF format on IWP’s website, so that viewers and those interested in the project can read the texts beforehand. Artistic and production teams — including playwrights — will answer audience questions in a talk-back session following the performance — live stream viewers can Tweet questions to @UIIWP #bookw or email them to me beforehand.

AL: When-ish will the complete texts appear online? 

AD: I’m aiming to get the PDF of the program with the texts up on the website by the end of January.

AL: Are the performances and Q&A archived? Can people watch later?

AD: They have not archived the talk-back sections in the past, but we’re aiming to include them in the archived videos this year…we had a number of universities who were on spring break the week of the performances last year who had students watch the archived version of the performances at a later date.

AL: I assume Amir al-Azraki’s “COURAGE” was written in English? Sarem’s and Hassab’s pieces? If not, who translates? What percentage of the works have been written in English?

AD: Amir al-Azraki’s play was written in English…. The other two Iraqi playwrights wrote in Arabic and of course the three American playwrights wrote in English. In Russia, all three Russian playwrights wrote in Russian. Book Wings commissions a translator to produce a literal translation of each work. For 2014, our Arabic to English and English to Arabic translator is Nadia Faydh, Associate Professor (PhD) at the University of Mustanseryah (College of Arts, Department of English Language and Literature).

Once the literal translations are finished, we send those on to the commissioned playwrights who are native speakers of the language into which the play has been translated. For example, American playwright David Kranes read through the English translation of THE BIRD BREEDER by Sarem Dakhel with a playwright’s eye and literary sensibility and suggested revisions (we call this process “refining the translation”). Once this step is completed, the translator takes another look and answers any questions raised by the playwright doing the refining, then, once they agree, the refined version goes to the playwright whose play it is, and our partners in Iraq for final approval.

Those who are interested in setting up a “viewing party,” or in learning more about the project, can find out more here.