Conversations at the Caffeine Theatre

Translations at the Caffeine Theatre
Jennifer Shook graduated from MAPH in 2005 and is currently doing work at Chicago’s Caffeine Theatre. She submits this post with the hopes of generating conversations with other (After)MAPHers after being inspired by her work with the theatre company.

Caffeine and Translations–and Caffeine Theatre’s TRANSLATIONS

The same week I started in MAPH, Caffeine Theatre premiered its first show. For the past three years, I’ve been working as the Artistic Director of Caffeine Theatre, and striving to make the same kinds of connections through our performances and programming that I tried to make in my U of C classes. The kinds of connections that get people talking. About important things. Because if we don’t talk about the Big Questions, how can we begin to work them out?

I also work as a freelance dramaturg, and teach dramaturgy and criticism at The Theatre School at DePaul University (and taught similar classes previously at Columbia College), and will soon join the staff of Silk Road Theatre Project as their Literary Manager.

I have come to think of all of these works as forms of translation: between people, between perspectives, between banks of knowledge, between disciplines, between forms of communication. On stage we translate ideas into images, and language into action. We translate big empty rooms into small shadowy meadows, and laughter into love, and vice versa. The universal story into the particular emotion, the particular need into the universal want. I began thinking in this vein when immersed in Lorca, probably because I had been fortunate enough to spend some time with a group of international artists at La MaMa Theatre’s Umbria symposium. (If you think the word “conceptual” is heavily laden in U.S. art criticism, just try explaining those nuances to Croatians! Or translating Shakespearean character development into traditional Japanese puppetry….) Yet now translation has further consumed my life: this year, Caffeine will solicit contemporary local responses to the story of Antigone; we’ll produce a new adaptation (memoir “translated” to the stage after being translated from Italian to English) of /Like the Moon Behind the Clouds, /an Italian writer’s trip to Japan, and her journey to enter Japanese culture through the work of long-dead Japanese poets; and right now we have on stage Brian Friel’s gorgeous play /Translations/.

Brian Friel helped to launch the Northern Irish cultural initiative Field Day, now best known for the /Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing/. In fact, it launched with this play, /Translations, /in 1980, in a time when making statements about Irish language identity in Northern Ireland was a pretty radical move. Friel had been reading George Steiner’s A /fter Babel, /about the paradox of the necessity and impossibility of communication through language. He’d also been reading about the 19th century Ordnance Survey of Ireland, which remapped both the island and its linguistic terrain, “simplifying” Irish names into English, sometimes by literal translation, sometimes merely by sounds. The survey took place at roughly the same time that the National School system required Irish children to take classes in the English language, and forbid them to speak Irish (whether as a tactic for colonization or for charity, the debate continues–but the parallels to American Indian boarding schools is striking). Friel’s play connects all of the above. It also translates politics and philosophy into the theatrical, the task of the thinking playwright.

As thinking people in the world, how do we translate the past to the present, the there to the here-and-now? How do we remap ideas into realities? I still think it begins with art. As Arthur Miller said, put a group of people together in the dark with the same story, and they’ll start to breath together, and then they’ll be ready to talk.

I end, of course, with a plug for the conversations of Caffeine Theatre. But also, more generally, a plug for conversation–I miss the kind of talk I found in the environs of U of C, but I also find great conversation in unlikely places. And in order to learn to translate, we must begin to talk.

Come talk to me at a Caffeine production. More info can be found at

Jennifer Shook (MAPH ’05)






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *