Imagine trying to create a theatre production from scratch—concept, script-writing, staging, blocking, producing. Shorten your time-frame to three weeks and add in copious amounts of background reading. Now include an intercontinental collaboration via Skype and email that often gets truncated because of cut electricity. How about, for good measure, you throw in a revolution?
Those are some of the challenges that faced the students in Associate Professor of Theatre Arts Amy Sarno’s Beloit Blocks course this summer. From mid-May through early June, Sarno taught Devising EraseHER! (TDMS 345), billed as “intercultural performance approaches to study women as watchers and women being watched.”
Sarno developed the class in partnership with an Egyptian colleague and friend, Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts Dalia Basiouny of The American University in Cairo. The two met about a decade ago, through the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, where they’re both on a theatre and social change task force.
“A couple of years ago we were talking about a possible collaboration, and Amy at the time was considering where she would go for her sabbatical, and we started thinking maybe we could create a work that we could do together. And then it started growing,” says Basiouny, who visited the Beloit Blocks class this summer and performed on campus.
Throughout their eight-week course, the students in Sarno’s class read travel pieces written by women traveling in Egypt, articles about Islam, corseting, veiling, women’s rights movements past and present, and Edward Said’s Orientalism. Sarno says the readings fostered discussions about “how the west looks at the east during the early 20th century, and about how that affects the way the West looks at women and interacts with the Middle East.”
It’s a lens that’s meant to help students examine their own culture. “I want students to learn about their own culture and another culture, and how they look at another culture—we, as Americans, can have a very distorted [view].”
Each Beloit student was paired with two Egyptian students from Cairo, and seeing the connections develop was one of the most meaningful parts of the course for Basiouny.
“One of the students here was telling me that the student we paired him with in Cairo happens to be a political science major and a theatre minor, which is exactly what he is,” says Basiouny. “They see eye to eye on so many of the issues; it’s so exciting for them. There are a lot of expectations, a lot of education, a lot of myths that are being debunked. There are some really exciting connections that are happening with this project.”
And some unique challenges, like the constant power outages in Egypt, a country still dealing with the fallout of a revolution. That can make relying on connections via Skype and internet difficult, and trying to collaborate from across the Atlantic nearly impossible.
“Creating theatre is next to impossible on its own,” Basiouny points out. “We’re facing all the exciting challenges of creating work across time zones, as well as technical difficulties, as well as all the fascinating things Egypt is going through as well—a revolution. We have power cuts, so many of them. I was on Skype with Amy and then there was no electricity. It’s really challenging, so every single success is a really big step, because we’re really facing all the odds and all the obstacles we know, and all the obstacles we can’t even fathom.”
And yet, she says that she was impressed by the amount of work Beloit students were able to create in just a few weeks’ time. “They’ve read so much material, created so many smart, intelligent reactions.”
The students in Sarno’s Beloit Block performed rough drafts, or more of a “staged reading” as Sarno says, at the end of the course on campus. The next step is for Sarno to travel to Egypt this fall on a Fulbright and work with Basiouny’s students in Cairo. After that? The professors are hoping to bring the Beloit students to Egypt over winter break to stage a collaborative performance and to bring the Egyptian students to Beloit in the spring of 2014.
“That is the true moment, when the Egyptian students see what the American students created, and vice versa, comment on it, and see what affects them, what hurts them, what annoys them. It will be crazy, it will be intense,” says Basiouny. “I’m hoping for connections that transcend all the limitations.”
The connections between the students have already been illuminating; if the students, Sarno, and Basiouny are able to produce collaborative performances, it will be all the more successful.
“If we pull this off, it will be amazing,” Sarno says.