Actually, The Play’s Not the Thing | The American University of Iraq Sulaimani

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Actually, The Play’s Not the Thing

Monday, July 27, 2015 - 17:45

Faculty blog by Peter Friedrich

This summer, thirteen students from the AUIS club Shakespeare Iraq took a break from studying history in order to make a little. On July 1, they arrived at the Tony Award-Winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival, almost exactly halfway around the world from their Sulaimani campus. They raised the travel funds themselves through a wildly popular kickstarter internet campaign. All of this was historic, and would have utterly satisfied most people.

But at our five year-old university, it is gettting progressively more foolish to confuse our students with most people. Upon their arrival in Oregon, the cast of Shakespeare Iraq, some of whom had never been on an airplane before, shrugged off their jetlag and performed the Bard’s words in three languages, for eight days, in front of thousands of theatergoers. Several times they hit the rare air that any performer dreams of: holding still on stage, waiting for the laughter and applause to subside. Sometimes they even had to wait through showstopping standing ovations. That’s a problem actors spend careers trying to create.

And because this surely would have satisfied most people, these students naturally pushed even further. They accepted invitations from Santa Clara University, Portland State University, the American Conservatory Theater, TNT’s hit show “Leverage,” and the Artist’s Repertory Theater, where they spontaneously broke from a question answer session and, to the stunned delight of the audience, performed their entire show.

They also chose to spend time with Americans decidedly outside the theater crowd. They ate homemade pizza with US Iraq War veterans, and shared Portland’s finest “Voodoo Donuts” with officers from Portland’s Finest.But it was the unplanned experiences that truly tested them. Most Americans have learned, for obvious reasons, not to bring up the Iraq War with strangers. But if you are an Iraqi, on a highly publicized visit to the US, strangers are going to bring up the war with you. During these moments, and there were many of them, our students became effortless ambassadors, using humor, intelligence and grace to calm nerves, sometimes tears and even anger.

Performances like those were obviously not in anyone’s script. We never thought of them while we rehearsed, raised money, applied for visas, and wrestled with various devils in the details. Yet those were the performances I wish I still had tickets for. But I’m lucky -- at least I saw them once. Most AUIS faculty and staff couldn’t make it to Oregon, yet they gave generous donations, changed exam schedules, and tolerated boisterous rehearsals outside their office doors. Hundreds of OSF subscribers gave just as blindly, knowing they couldn’t make the dates of our shows. Without them all, Shakespeare Iraq would have slid straight to the crowded underworld of vanquished noble ideas.

I’m teaching a research paper class this semester, so I’m obliged to confess my bias and provide some balanced reporting. Sure, there were days on the trip were people got tired and petty. I heard, “Can’t we just go to a mall?” more than once, accompanied by a colorful metaphor. It is possible that I offered to drop them off at the nearest mall and leave them there, in equally colorful prose.

But when it mattered most, and when I least expected it, every member of Shakespeare Iraq performed so masterfully that I stopped feeling proud and started feeling humbled. As much as I expected from them, I still woefully underestimated what they were truly capable of. Maybe I can’t say that Shakespeare Iraq changed the world – it is, after all, the world. But I can say just fine that Shakespeare Iraq changed me. As for the world, there is this new show they’re working on.