Lost in Transnation
By Martin Harries
By Keith Khan, Marianne Weems, and Ali Zaidi
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St. (Brooklyn)
Box office: (718) 636-4100
Alienation is funny. The gap between workers
and the products of their labor--that gap Marx called alienation--has
inspired laughter from Dickens to Chaplin to Alladeen,
the multi-media theater piece now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The spectacle of labor that distances workers from a humane life
can be hilarious.
A sentence in Henri Lefebvre's Critique
of Everyday Life can stand as a test for representations
of alienating work: "An art based on alienation must struggle
against alienation; if not it sanctions it." The crucial example
for Lefebvre is, unsurprisingly, Brecht, whose so-called "alienation
effect" had the aim of distancing--alienating--the spectator from
the alienation Brecht's plays represented. That we Anglophones
use the word "alienation" to describe both the poison and the
cure has made for many hours of confusion in classrooms and beyond.
The simple, Brechtian point would be that theater should put distance
between the viewer and the social world. That alienating distance
should, in turn, make social alienation seem strange once again,
and such awareness should lead to change.
Brecht's critical hope for theater invites
generalizations about different media. Why not indulge? One of
television's main functions is to make people forget the suffering
their own work entails; that is, it sanctions alienation. One
of the main tasks of theater since the late nineteenth century,
on the other hand, has been to struggle against such alienation.
We recognize this by continuing to read Hauptmann's The Weavers
as one of the first "modern" plays. Alladeen pulls this
modern theme into the age of satellite telephony and the Internet,
though it involves a gamble. In Lefebvre's terms, Alladeen
bets that spectacular multi-media resources can form part of an
alienating theater piece that will not sanction the alienation
Alladeen, at once visually alluring
and aurally provocative, is a collaboration directed by Marianne
Weems and conceived by Weems, of the New York-based Builders Association,
with Keith Khan and Ali Zadi, of the London-based motiroti. The
production also draws on the talents of a wide array of performers,
sound and video designers, 3D animation designers, CD artwork
licensers, and pop musicians.
The centerpiece is a call center in Bangalore,
with the action focusing on the experiences of two women and two
men as they move from training to work in telemarketing. Since
their customers are from the U.S., their training involves a process
of quite explicit alienation. They must become simulacral Americans,
learning American speech, getting a crash course in American culture,
becoming, in short, so far as their customers are concerned, Americans.
a video screened on a scrim above the stage, SharuJose, a trainer,
chillingly describes the aim of the training: the workers at the
call center will attain an American speech without any "mother
tongue influence." (Portions of this interview are part of a related
web site, www.alladeen.com.) The struggles against "mother tongue
influence" produce Alladeen's comedy. As the workers
learn to speak to customers "they will never ever see," American
place names (Olympia, Washington), American pastimes (football),
and American television (Friends) become the hazards
they must negotiate during their night-owl's work, which begins
at 3 a.m. and ends at noon.
No amount of training in "clichés and idioms"
can prepare them for the stoner who wants to get from "Philly"
to Boston, or the home-boy who speaks of putting the "bling bling"
on his girlfriend's finger. (She's a princess, he says. Well then,
responds the call center employee, get your family together with
her family and arrange a good dowry. Where's the problem? End
of call.) The imitation of Friends provides some of the
production's most amusing uses of electronic media. We see the
workers' faces on screens above them, and their faces erratically
morph into the faces of the television characters whose names
they have borrowed: Joey, Phoebe, Rachel. In the realm of the
image, they achieve the identities for which they have trained.
Most of the featured characters do fairly
well despite crossed wires. One woman helps a man lost in mountains
and darkness somewhere near Yosemite. Another shows a real knack
for sales. At the end of the opening Bangalore segment, it becomes
clear that one woman will be fired. The successful salesman, meanwhile,
has emerged as the production's Aladdin. Such is his tremendous
good fortune that he discovers a magical lamp from which a genie
emerges, offering him all he might desire . . . Yes, I exaggerate.
His American overseer, however, does promise him a trip to California
to take part in a conference.
Scenes in New York and London frame the
central section of Alladeen. These scenes feature a polyglot
woman with a cell phone in New York who makes a date to meet her
boyfriend in Las Vegas. While on the phone in London, she makes
another date to meet other friends for an evening of karaoke.
By chance our Aladdin, the Bangalore salesman, who has moved up
the ranks at his telemarketing company, is at the karaoke bar.
The elegant polyglot sniffs at his line of work.
Sniffing aside, the career of Aladdin the
Salesman defines the dreams of the actual telemarketers whom the
makers of Alladeen interviewed in Bangalore. In the New
York Times, Benedict Nightingale writes:
Yet apparently the operators themselves,
while well aware of the incongruities of their jobs, did not
feel exploited. They were young, well paid by local standards
and believed they were acquiring skills that made it worth working
through Indian nights in order to serve daytime America. "Everyone
we met was Aladdin," Mr. Khan said. "They had a deep belief
that they could get what they wanted--go to America and marry
a princess." The fable also permeates Alladeen: Here
are Indians wishing to change their lives, as Aladdin does.
Here are Americans touching buttons and summoning up genies
to provide goods and services.
At one point, the video screens in Alladeen
broadcast images of call center employees describing their wishes.
Many confirm the good spirits Nightingale describes; one bearded
man speaks with special jollity of his wish to go to Scotland.
Another rather worn-down man, however, gives the lie to Nightingale's
Panglossian account. He radiates weariness as he expresses his
wish to work from nine to six, like everyone else. The frugality
of this wish reveals the erasure of everyday social life that
the work at the call center requires.
There is, then, a kind of division in Alladeen
between its comic and alienating representations of the call center
and the Aladdin story from the 1001 Nights. At times
it seems as though the theater makers have become the genies,
asking people what their wishes are, and then giving them what
they desire: a "rags to riches" story, to steal a cliché from
the Alladeen web site. The Aladdin story is, as Khan
suggests, a way of imaginatively fulfilling the desire of the
workers in Bangalore. But those workers are not the audience of
the theater piece, which is scheduled to travel to Turkey, Colombia,
and Singapore, but has not yet been to India. Would Alladeen
on a stage in Bangalore confirm fantasies of upward and outward
mobility? Or would the ironies of the Aladdin plot be all too
With Lefebvre in mind, it seems to me crucial
to challenge the logic of Nightingale's account. One way to sanction
alienation is to decide that it exists only where workers declare
that they "feel exploited." (As I have suggested, one does not
need to venture far into the textures of Alladeen to
hear such protests in any case.) If American audiences begin to
forget that those in Bangalore's call centers are not genies--or
that the whole notion that they might be genies is a grotesque
metaphor--then Alladeen will certainly have betrayed
the intentions of its creators.
For some viewers--perhaps for many in the
Brooklyn audience--Alladeen might occasion a sort of
swerving between the poles of Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt,
described by Lefebvre as "an externalized judgement" and "an immersion
in the image proposed." For many others, however, the piece may
occasion a hi-tech forgetting, an alienation through fascination
and a loss of "externalized judgement" in "immersion in the image."
The multi-media sheen of Alladeen
is especially remarkable, and its power of fascination perhaps
greatest, in the closing section in the karaoke bar. As in the
film Lost in Translation, karaoke is an image for the
ventriloquism that deracinated "global souls" like Bill Murray's
tired superstar or the Alladeen polyglot on the cell
phone require. I borrow a phrase from a paragraph by Pico Iyer
in the BAM program:
Global souls . . . belong to a kind of
migratory tribe, able to see things more clearly than those
imprisoned in local concerns can, yet losing their identity
often as they fall between the cracks. A Global Soul is a ventriloquist,
an impersonator, or an undercover agent . . .
The chic London karaoke bar and the Bangalore
call center are both sites of ventriloquism and impersonation.
Now salesman Aladdin mans the phones. Now he sings over a backing
track in Piccadilly. His progress satisfies a wish. Does Alladeen
give us enough to examine this satisfying plot dialectically?
Or does its fascinating technology blur the difference between
the polyglot's world of choices and the enforced loss of identity
at the call center?