Ruth Margraff is a playwright, performer, lyricist, lecturer and a powerful voice in contemporary American theatre. At heart though, she is a gypsy. When she doesn't have a play to write or a teaching assignment to tie her down, Ruth sets off to the Balkan part of the globe with her four-member ensemble, Caf' Antarsia. And it's difficult to decide if she is more of an academic than a troubadour.
The New Yorker with a curly auburn mop and porcelain skin was in town for a couple of weeks on an exchange programme between India and the US. This required her to hold playwriting workshops for Swayam, Kalam, Calcutta International School and Peaceworks, a project of Seagull Arts and Media Resource Centre.
At Peaceworks, the emphasis has been on playwriting, where participants in the age-group of 16 to 29 were asked to write half-hour monologues or dialogues on human rights, women's issues, discrimination, co-existence and democracy.
With members of Kalam, an NGO working with budding writers from marginalised sections, Ruth worked on a collaborative script. With the women of Swayam, the focus was on developing characters and language of a play. At Calcutta International School, the participating group was initiated into the basics of plot, character, theme and dialogue, before sketching its own short plays.
'Each workshop has been a little different from the other. I taught them a variety of readings but also gave them room for thought,' says Ruth, who works with graduate playwrights in the US and is acclaimed for her operas ' The Elektra Fugues, Red Frogs, Night Vision and Voice of the Dragon, where she had collaborated with jazz composer Fred Ho.
The latest production she is working on is set in 1889, on the Greek coast of Crete, centring around the rebellion against the Ottoman empire. The piece fuses traditional Greek tunes with characters and is aimed at the American opera audience.
Ruth keeps going back to Greece, its traditions and music. Yet, it is modern-day Greece she is more interested in. Her Caf' Antarsia, for instance, uses theatrical folk songs inspired by Greek blues and Balkan gypsy music.
'Cafe Antarsia is something of world folk opera, but not in the classical sense. I like exploring boundaries between theatre and opera, between music and theatre. I am a self-taught singer and I have explored a lot with my voice,' adds Ruth, who has composed the lyrics for Caf' Antarsia and has taken it to Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Russia and England.
The second play she is busy scripting is based in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 'It is inspired by my mother who has worked as a peacemaker in Bosnia,' smiles Ruth, who mentions Emily Dickinson as one of her influences.