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BorderLight Festival brings eclectic theater to Cleveland this week

Polyglot Bees.jpg
Polyglot Theatre
The BorderLight International + Fringe Festival brings productions from around the world to Cleveland, including "Bees" from Australia's Polyglot Theatre.

The BorderLight International Theatre + Fringe Festival returns to Cleveland this week with 140 performances spanning dance, music, stand-up comedy and even cooking.

“Theater is an underappreciated art form. It's not a rarified art form,” said Dale Heinen, acting executive director of BorderLight.

“There are no limits to what you can experience at a festival like this,” she said. “There's a diverse range of geography and of voices and perspectives and genres.”

The festival encompasses numerous performance art forms from around the world -- some visiting Cleveland for the first time. The festival began in 2019 and after a one-year COVID-19 delay is back on its biennial rotation. This year’s performances will be at venues from Playhouse Square to Public Square, and even in eclectic spaces such as the Hermit Club and US Bank Plaza. Heinen said, having experienced productions in many different countries, she wants BorderLight to broaden the definition of what theater can be.

“It doesn't always have to happen in a theater,” she said. “It doesn't always have to happen with a couch in a traditional set. There's so many ways to interact with performing arts and so we try to present more of those options.”

That includes intimate, sometimes interactive work such as “Songcraft,” in which a composer meets with a patron and creates a piece of music just for them. There’s also augmented reality with "What Do I See Before Me?,” which invites visitors to interact with the world around them using an app created by the artist. There are 16 free outdoor performances too, which provide more social distancing options.

At the Old Stone Church, Pittsburgh-based Realtime Interventions will present “Khuraki.” It combines storytelling with the rich culinary traditions of Afghanistan. Co-creator Molly Rice was commissioned in 2019 to work with the refugee population in her city, where she was immediately drawn to refugee women who seemed isolated.

"Their husbands often speak English,” she said. “They're often [here] on an SI Visa, which means the husbands have worked with the U.S. military, but the women didn't speak English at all. I felt that theater, being a very collaborative endeavor, would be a great way for them to break that isolation. I said, ‘What kind of theater project would you like to do?’ And they said, ‘We want to start the first Afghan food business in this city. We are amazing cooks and we have been cooking our whole lives.’”

Rice built the project around their desire for culinary and entrepreneurial training. The storytelling sprang from interviews with the women about what they'd like Americans to know about their lives – which often challenges western assumptions about Afghanistan.

“We brought in professional actors and they chose the women that they felt the most connected to, to portray themselves and to tell these stories,” said “Khuraki” Co-Creator Rusty Thelin. “The audience will come into the space. We did our best to replicate the experience of what it's like to visit an Afghan family in their home and just be a guest. [They are] incredibly kind and hospitable to guests whether they are strangers or longtime friends. They ask you to remove your shoes and sit on comfortable cushions.”

The stories come from the original group of Afghan women, who now run a nonprofit catering business in Pittsburgh. For the BorderLight version, four Afghan women from Cleveland will do the cooking. And due to COVID-19 concerns, the food will actually be pre-prepared at the commercial kitchens used for Tri-C's culinary program located across Public Square from the Old Stone Church. That spirit of collaboration helps make BorderLight possible, according to Dale Heinen.

BorderLight also fundraises to keep ticket prices down and to provide some free performances.

“We wanted to be affordable and accessible,” she said. “We want people to encounter theater in spaces and places where they normally wouldn't and then to maybe buy into what theater can be. Maybe then they will spend $15 on a [theater] ticket and think it's worth it. We wanted to build that audience.”

A previous version of this story indicated the festival is bi-annual.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.