PEN World Voices Play Festival: Diversifying the Arts

April 24, 2017

On May 1, 2, and 7, the GC's Martin E. Segal Theatre Center will present staged readings of nine plays from five continents. The play festival aims to fight U.S. isolationism.

Eunsung Kim's Sister Mok-Rahn is one of nine plays in the PEN World Voices International Play Festival 2017. Photo © Doosan Art Center.

"All the world's a stage," wrote Shakespeare. But can the stage show us the world?

Frank Hentschker, director of the GC's Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, thinks so. This philosophy has fueled his career and prompted him just over a decade ago to lobby the founders of the famous PEN World Voices Festival to add a play festival, which the Segal Center hosts.

At this year's festival - on May 1, 2, and 7 - the Segal Center will present staged readings of nine plays from five continents. The play festival shares the aim of the larger PEN literary festival: to fight U.S. isolationism. Like its parent event, the play festival invites audiences to broaden their perspectives on challenging social and political issues through the lenses of writers from cultures whose literature doesn't typically reach the United States.

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We don't really understand the world we live in," Hentschker says. He points to some startling statistics: Over 95 percent of all books in America are published in English, leaving under five percent to cover the remaining 800 or so other world languages. Of those, 50 percent are published in German or French.

In 16 years as executive director of the Segal Center, Hentschker has brought scores of new voices to the New York stage. He has founded two other theatre festivals in addition to the PEN play festival and curates and produces roughly 40 events a year for the center.

"Theatre is a mirror and we all have to look around the world and catch up with other industries that of course think and act locally but have a global reach," Hentschker says. 

To him, it's fitting that the PEN play festival has a home in New York and within the Graduate Center. "New York City is over 50 percent non-white at the moment, and it's not being reflected in the arts, and the City University of New York is such a great, diverse place," he says.

"It's a big statement to amplify what the city of New York stands for, but also what the Graduate Center stands for," he adds. "It's inclusion. It's diversity. It's tolerance. It's questioning power and politics and a call to make this a better world, since we don't have any other one."

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J  Bilac's Venus Flytrap. Part of TRANScenes: Four Short Plays From Brazil. Photo by Juliana Chalita.

This year's PEN World Voices Festival focuses on the relationship between gender and power. The theme was chosen before President Trump's election but has taken on new significance as a result of it. A number of the plays in the festival address the theme, most notably TRANScenes: Four Short Plays From Brazil.

Audiences get to hear directly from the playwrights through live talkback sessions that follow the readings. Generous support from Distinguished Professor Marvin Carlson (Theatre) makes it possible for the Segal Center to fly in writers from Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia.

Carlson says that he is :delighted to support PEN World Voices in appreciation both of its commitment to giving voice to authors around the world and to its commitment to defending freedom of speech and freedom of expression." He adds, "Both of these concerns are of great importance to me."

Hentschker describes the event as "the most significant festival in North America for international playwrights' and hopes that it brings many different people together - directors and producers, CUNY's diverse students, and New York's multiethnic residents and visitors.

"New York, as some people say, is the melting pot that never melted, and so we are hoping that this will put a little more energy, to keep the flame up, to try to melt it," Hentschker says.

Hentschker agrees with writer, philosopher, and former Graduate Center faculty member Edouard Glissant, who asserted that that most of our problems stem from failures of imagination.

"Glissant said that people cannot imagine a different life...They cannot imagine perhaps not all American values are central - that people have different ideas and ways of thinking," Hentschker says. "I think what we do is to inspire people to imagine different worlds. This is the power of theatre and the origin."