When Patrizia Acerra founded the International Voices Project in 2010, she sought to create a community for Chicago artists and audiences to experience the work of global playwrights. Since the company’s inaugural season, IVP has presented staged readings of contemporary translations at venues across the city, in collaboration with cultural partners and local artists.
But when COVID-19 threw a wrench in IVP’s 11th season, Acerra, who is also the company’s executive director, worked with her collaborators to develop the International Voices Project 2020 Virtual Festival, which will premiere on September 2. Each Wednesday, audiences can catch a virtual play reading, followed by a live discussion with the artists. The look of the festival as a whole, Acerra says, will pull from theater, film, and social media aesthetics, changing with each play. The lineup of shows is unchanged from the season’s pre-pandemic, in-person iteration.
And since the pandemic has brought about a world that stresses physical separation and has kept people largely confined to their homes, Acerra finds that IVP’s mission has more meaning than ever. “More and more of those physical border closures also begin to create borders within cultures and among people,” she says. “Bringing those global works to audiences is a way to push back those borders, in an aesthetic way and in a cultural way, if not in a physical way.”
For Acerra and her creative team, bringing the season online isn’t simply a crisis management strategy; they are embracing the challenge, and welcoming the opportunity to expand their breadth as a company. “If it’s just getting by that’s one thing,” she says. “But I wanted us to really invest in our understanding of what this new realm could be like, not just for now but for the future.”
Certainly, the virtual festival has brought about new possibilities surrounding who might be tuning in. “For the first time our global work can have a global audience,” Acerra says. “One of the challenges we’re considering is what it looks like to market to a global audience. How do you reach them? That’s something we plan to look at in the coming years as we do more of this work, which we definitely plan to do.”
Festival directors Shane Murray-Corcoran and Katherine Tanner Silverman are managing the logistics of the festival leading up to opening night. Acerra credits their involvement to the success of the transition online. “Bringing in my two festival directors who are immersed in the virtual in a more natural way than I am has really opened up things for me,” she says. “I’ve learned so much from not only watching them put things together but listening to their conversations on how and why they are putting things together.”
Although Murray-Corcoran and Silverman have taken the helm of the overall direction and presentation of the festival, each play has its own director who went about the creative process in their own way, paying mind to the aesthetic nature of each play. As a result, each night of the festival will offer a unique visual experience for its audience. But this flexibility also provides an important opportunity for directors to build their skill sets. “We really wanted to make sure directors could use this as an opportunity to get experience in the virtual as well,” Acerra says. “We wanted to create a playground for them too.”
Director, playwright, and producer Warner Crocker has been directing staged readings with IVP since 2015. This year, he’s directing Testosterone, a dark comedy (emphasis on dark, he says) from German playwright Rebekka Kricheldorf, streaming September 23. In the beginning of the online rehearsal process, he imagined endless possibilities for how he might approach the reading’s visual presentation. And while he points out that the play will continue to evolve until it premieres, he’s found an approach that best serves the story he seeks to tell.
“We are going to be playing around with a format that will give us focus where the play gives us focus at a particular moment,” he says. “I thought about creating some backgrounds and things that would allow us to feel some of the visual elements that the play calls for, but today, I’m moving away from that. Simplicity is best so that I don’t take the viewer’s mind away from the text.”
Crocker notes that the virtual rehearsal process hasn’t been without obvious challenges, such as fickle Internet connections. But he’s also enjoyed the challenges that come from working in a new medium. “I’ve enjoyed the excitement of planning things out and then seeing it crash and burn as I’ve experimented,” he says.
He’s looking forward to the discussion that will follow his play, a staple of IVP’s readings each year. “The audiences who come to see a piece are in essence watching something for the first time and you get very emotional, intellectual, and raw responses to a piece,” Crocker says. “Hopefully we can capture that online as well.” He thinks Kricheldorf’s play—a parable about toxic masculinity involving a family in a “good” neighborhood whose son becomes a hitman—will garner some particularly interesting reactions.
A Distinct Society, written by Canadian playwright Kareem Fahmy and directed by Acerra herself will close the festival on October 21. The story centers on the plight of an Iranian family separated at the U.S-Canadian border. Acerra says it will have more of a traditional visual presentation as it involves all of the actors appearing on-screen together during filming.
The IVP team is exploring opportunities for audience engagement each week and how that will look will be mostly contingent on the number of attendees, Acerra says. She urges any theatergoer who might be skeptical about the experience of a virtual performance to keep an open mind to ways in which it might bring nuance to a given piece. “The virtual has its own discoveries,” she says. “Overall the artists are paying even more attention to the language itself. You lose the dimension of space so you are really immersed in the language in a new way.” v