BorderLight Transcends Geographic Divides, Promises to Put Cleveland On the Map

May 30, 2019

Erin Ulrich ’18

Playhouse Square at night.
Cleveland’s Playhouse Square at night
Photo credit: Courtesy of Ihor Balaban

BorderLight, an international theater festival cofounded and codirected by Associate Professor and Chair of English and Cinema Studies Jeff Pence, will launch in Cleveland this summer.

Four alumni will perform and direct shows in this summer’s festival. Anna Gelman ’16 will direct Why Do You Always Wear Black?, in which Ariana Silvan-Grau ’16 will perform. Arif Silverman ’15 will perform in his solo play, Galahad and the Dragons, which will be directed by Lillian White ’16. White will also direct Peter Pan and Wendy.

By bringing in performers from around the world, BorderLight is promoting Cleveland as an international city and hub for the arts, across cultures and borders. Fostering civic unity and collaboration, BorderLight hopes to make Cleveland increasingly visible to the outside world. In a global political climate in which reinforcing borders has become increasingly ubiquitous and polarizing, Jeff Pence, associate professor and chair of English and cinema studies, believes the festival’s diversity will counter these cultural narratives.

“Especially in our current situation,” he says, “we want people to engage with one another across all imaginable borders—even when others don’t want this to happen.”

When considering the location of such an ambitious festival—both logistically and in its mission—some may ask: why Cleveland? For Pence and cofounder and dramaturg Dale Heinen, the answer is simple: why not? “Decision-makers in Cleveland have an attitude of, ‘why not Cleveland?’” she says. “Perhaps more than anything, that shift in perspective has made BorderLight possible.”

Cleveland, which has more than 70 theater stages, is a particularly apt location for the festival. Playhouse Square—one of the city’s two theater districts—is the country’s second largest performing arts center, after Lincoln Center in New York City. With the largest theater circuit in the country outside of New York City, Cleveland is well-positioned to host performances on a global scale, without having to reinvent the wheel.

BorderLight is collaborating with local companies including Dobama Theatre, Karamu House (founded by Oberlin grads), and Cleveland Public Theatre. The festival’s advisory committee is made up of executives from throughout the city, including Gordon Square Arts District, Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The inception of the festival comes more than 50 years after the exodus of Clevelanders to the surrounding suburbs following WWII, which directly correlated with the rise of television and steady decline of theater audiences. Now, almost four decades following revitalization efforts to prevent the city’s five original venues from being boarded up, Cleveland is at the forefront of rebranding itself as an international destination for the arts.

BorderLight will take place over a four-day period and will have at its core an international showcase—featuring world-class artists and new work—as well as collaborations between Cleveland-based and international artists. The festival will also include a low-cost, open call Fringe Festival, which will take place in avant-garde fashion, in places such as grocery store lobbies and local pubs.

In addition to cross-cultural engagement, one of the primary goals of the festival is to showcase new writing. Heinen, who has centered her career on such, says, “I believe the lifeblood of theater is new writing. Without a healthy new play ecosystem, a city will not be on the cutting edge of theater, nor have a national impact.”

Colin Anderson ’16, the assistant producer for BorderLight,  is coordinating the Fringe Festival and curating many of the festival’s acts based on the relationships he established as a student at Oberlin. Anderson, who graduated summa cum laude with a double major in theater and English, first made contact with BorderLight immediately following his graduation. After developing hundreds of pages of BorderLight research with alumna Anna Gelman ’16, he has continued to work closely with Pence—who also oversaw his English senior capstone.

The Oberlin connection to BorderLight runs deep. Pence, who is also an alumnus, has been working with David Kamitsuka, acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Laura Baudot, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to develop hands-on experiences for current students. Many of BorderLight’s components include the work of Oberlin graduates, offering opportunities for Obies to break new ground.

BorderLight’s vision—to transform inward-looking cultural narratives that divide us—is an effort to not only broaden worldviews, but to encourage community through theater. “Theater is shared experience,” Heinen says. “It offers a forum for alternative worldviews, creates empathy for people we might easily turn a blind eye to, and challenges our understanding of how we’re living our lives. It holds up a mirror to American culture, and offers insight into other cultures.”


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