Voices from Afar
Graphic typography reading Voices From Afar, using a sans serif font in a light lavender on a dark lavender background
Typography by Bekka Lindström for the Dramatist

The International Voices Project (IVP) has been bringing global theatre to Chicago stages since its inception in 2010 by Founding Executive Director Patrizia Acerra. IVP’s artistic showcase is an annual offering of staged readings of “plays in translation” spread out over several weeks. In any given year, the program lists an impressive selection of countries spanning the globe in both latitude and longitude. IVP has showcased plays from every continent on the globe, including one Australian play in 2017. IVP’s quest to “champion the work of global playwrights” led to the crafting of close relationships with representative multicultural institutions that support and enrich the annual festival. The list of cultural institutions collaborating with IVP not only features several renowned Chicago-based cultural icons like Instituto Cervantes, L’alliance Française, the Goethe Institut, the Italian Cultural Institute, the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, the Egyptian American Society, and others, but also includes close relationships with several Chicago-based consulates, a few museums, and over a dozen notable theatre companies. The unique format of this global theatre celebration distinguishes it from any other in the nation.

In its early years, the annual IVP event was by design itinerant, taking its ever-growing core audience along with its music stands, donations boxes, clipboards, and a computer to a new culturally specific venue, joining a culturally connected audience, every week. The venues—a consulate, a museum, a theatre house, or a cultural institute—brought a unique atmosphere that synergistically amplified the voice of the playwright and the artistic impact of the work. Members regularly associated with the venue were attracted to these new offerings showcasing their own heritage on the Chicago global stage and utilizing actors and directors from their own community. They often invited friends whom they wanted to familiarize with their cultural issues. The post-show discussions naturally set forth a dialogue between those inside and outside the highlighted community as each group tried to grasp the subtle points of difference, or similitude with the other. Amicable, sincere, conversations carried on at the receptions that followed over delicious authentic food and beverage spreads. Eventually, after their bond with audiences and institutions was firmly formed, IVP successfully moved to a single venue format without compromising the multicultural aspect. Currently, they use the Cervantes Institute for the annual event.

Acerra largely ascribes the inspiration behind her vision to the Silk Road Theatre Project (now Silk Road Rising, SRR). She says, “They have forged a path of serving underrepresented voices with bold production choices that inspire dialogue and action.” She believes that the missions of both companies align and considers SRR’s history as a “north star” for her own mission; aptly captured in her company’s three-word name.

With “International” so prominently represented in the name, one could easily miss the powerful local impact that IVP exerts. True, the vision is global, but it provides local ethnic communities that often feel ignored or misrepresented, with a focus that is empowering. IVP foregrounds their cultural heritage and pressing issues as expressed by the voice of a playwright whose work elicits a sense of kinship with their own communities. This not only energizes the ethnicities represented in the annual event, but also gives agency to others to press for selections from their own country of heritage.

The “Voices” are another story. They are intricately layered and complex. Of course, as in any theatre performance, the voice of the playwright is paramount. Anyone who has experienced the solitude of long hours spent capturing the essence of their creative voice in lines of script intended to convey their message, knows that reception by an audience and generation of intellectual discourse are the ultimate rewards they could seek. IVP encompasses all of that, even as it sometimes struggles with the challenge of connecting a distant playwright to a local audience. Some playwrights have managed to communicate virtually with their cast and audience. A rare few have managed to be in Chicago for the annual event and participated in the production and talkback. But the majority relied on the intermediate voice of the translator. Translators act as the central connecting core of many of the IVP offerings. Playwrights entrust them with preserving the true voice of their work, audiences look for them to further deepen their understanding of the works, and the company relies on them to act as surrogates for the creative mind behind the words. On several occasions, the translator has been charged with running the talkbacks, often relaying important details that arose in their frequent conversations with the playwright during the translation process.

Some plays in the annual selection are already written in English and thus do not involve a translator. In those instances, the director, the cast, and the company must carefully consider all subtle nuances of the script and the words that, in spite of the common language, might carry very different meanings and allusions. That is the beauty of staging international plays. Acerra says they have learned over the years “that translation is as much about culture as it is about language.” She says, “I am a North American child of an Italian immigrant. The language I use has all of that infused in it… The words on the page [of these plays] have a lot in common with my mother tongue, but they also carry [a] world quite different than my own. I must remind myself not to make assumptions based on that familiarity.”

IVP has always been about representing a global diversity of voices that reflect the local ethnic diversity of this great city. As an Arab American theatre artist, I have particular interest in works that convey Arab voices. Fortunately, those have been speaking loudly since the very beginning of the project. I was approached in the second year of IVP, by a member of Acerra’s team, to propose a play from Egypt. I naturally gravitated towards the works of the doyen of Egyptian theatre, Tawfiq AlHakim. Although not immediately contemporary, his work has value that transcends universality of time and place. The Sultan’s Dilemma was included in the 2011 season, and performed to a sold-out house at SRR, the most apt venue for this work. Over the years the IVP annual event has included plays from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, as well as three plays by Tunisian Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri. Perhaps the most daring and unique project undertaken by IVP, and Acerra’s stated favorite, was the eventual IVP full production of Sultan’s Dilemma in the original Arabic language at the University of Chicago’s International House, co-directed by Acerra and Hassan Amejal.

One might think of IVP as simply a festival of readings. In reality, it is more like graduate school for international plays. Many of the IVP plays (I have counted almost two dozen titles) have gone on to full productions on Chicago stages and elsewhere. A few of these productions were mounted by IVP, but the majority resulted when their partner theatre companies felt that a play they collaborated on aligned with their mission and their audience interests. Whether this phenomenon was integral to Acerra’s original vision or not, it has certainly become a major force that is reshaping the national theatre landscape and bringing a diversity of voices to our stages.

This past year has been critically formative for the history of IVP. What began as an itinerant “project” has now become a resident theatre company at Chicago Dramatists. In typical fashion, IVP eschewed the traditional offering of familiar/safe plays for their inaugural production. Instead, they launched the residency with a powerful U.S. premiere production of The Shroud Maker, by UK-based Palestinian playwright Ahmed Masoud, directed by Stanford University’s Marina Johnson. Incidentally, a reading of this play was in the lineup for IVP 2022 alongside a fine collection of plays. Most notable of those, based on timeliness and active commissioning response, was the 2022 Ukraine performance of three plays described as, “Three voices from the War in Ukraine meld together chronicling thoughts, emotions, and horror from the war in Ukraine as it begins and changes the world.” A thought-provoking experiment that, in concert with the real war developments happening at the time, generated a lively and emotionally charged post-show discussion.

The International Voices Project might have entered a new era, but like always, and like its slogan proclaims, it will continue to “Tell the story. Change the World!”

For more information, visit www.ivpchicago.org


 is a Chicago-based Egyptian American playwright, a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists, an associate artist of Silk Road Rising and Medina Theater Collective, and a board member for International Voices Project. The 2019 world premiere of his play Twice, Thrice, Frice… was Jeff-nominated for Best New Work.