BEING IN THE ROOM: Transatlantic Collaborations in ReOrient 2017
by Emily DeDakis, ReOrient Publications Dramaturg
As a team member of the first-time partnership between Golden Thread and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas,
Publications Dramaturg Emily DeDakis interviews ReOrient playwrights Sevan K. Greene (A is for Ali) and Hannah Khalil (The Rehearsal)
to discuss their plays, playwriting careers in the U.K., and past experiences with Golden Thread.
ABOUT EMILY DeDAKIS
Sevan K. Greene is Lebanese-Armenian. Hannah Khalil is Palestinian-Irish. Both live in London. Neither will be in San Francisco when their plays are performed at this year’s ReOrient Festival. When so much of theatre hinges on being in the room, what gives when your closest collaborators are 7,000 miles and an eight-hour time difference away? Speaking across great distances while surfing complex identities and geographies, it’s no mistake that both of these plays are about choosing words very carefully.
I talked to Khalil and Greene about Golden Thread, lived experience, long-distance collaborations, U.S. vs. U.K. approaches, and the dangers and opportunities that come with being theatre nomads.
A IS FOR ALI
In Sevan K. Greene’s play, an Arab-American couple brainstorm names for their unborn child. It could be a simple, sweet experience – but they’re suddenly juggling massive cultural assumptions (each other’s and society’s), and second-guessing a fraught and shifting political context.
Names affect how we inhabit the world – perhaps even how successful we are, or how safe. Greene squirmed through childhood with a name he didn’t like: “When I became an actor in New York,” he said, “I changed it when I got my Equity card. A: Nobody could pronounce it properly. B: I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a certain character.” The thorny decision to change his name is inextricably linked with his identity as an artist, and also fed into his full-length play The Greene Card (2014). “My name shouldn’t have to be unpronounceable for you to think that I’m an artist of color,” he said. “I’m already a war refugee and a foreigner – what more do you want?” The characters in A is for Ali, he points out, “don’t have accents. They’re not first-generation Arab. For all intents and purposes, they’re having a very domestic conversation that a lot of couples do. The difference is I’m re-clarifying and subverting the traditional narrative.”
Hannah Khalil’s active exploration of censorship and resistance arose out of an anecdote from Egyptian playwright Laila Soliman. Soliman said that in Egypt companies almost had to have two versions of the play – the actual script, and the one they’d veer to in case of a visit by government censors. “It’s so weird and so theatrical,” Khalil said, “the idea of the façade and the play within the play. That seed just grew and grew and grew in my mind.”
It properly bloomed after ReOrient 2015, when Khalil traveled to San Francisco for the performance of her play Bitterenders. A panelist at the Forum talked about U.S. Civil Rights activists “rehearsing for resistance”. He had “photographs of people who were practicing on each other for bad things that might happen to them when they were doing sit-ins. How weird is that on a friendship, to be hurting someone you love as a way of arming them against what might happen in the future?” The new political context of the past year has only supercharged her neutral setting: This could be anywhere.
Despite their physical distance from ReOrient, neither playwright is nervous. Skype and e-mail have kept the writers connected to the ReOrient rehearsal room. Khalil has total faith in Golden Thread and director Evren Odcikin: “He understands everything about my work…. It’s astonishing, really. We come from very different backgrounds, live on different sides of the world with different cultural references and yet he totally gets it.”
Greene has e-met director Sara Razavi and listened in on workshops to get a sense of how the characters’ voices were developing. “I just wish I could be there in the room,” he said. “It’s great I can be there digitally, but….” A big contrast in Greene’s experiences of new play development in the U.K. and U.S. is whether or not it’s assumed that the writer will be in the room. “In America,” Greene said, “writers are there from auditions all the way through opening night. In the U.K. it’s very much a director’s culture” – even at places dedicated to creating new work.
Khalil’s and Greene’s work for this festival exists on that tightrope between cultures and continents. Working as a U.S. dramaturg in Belfast (and as a Belfast dramaturg in the U.S.) means I think a lot about what it means for theatre and its makers to travel – as do these writers. “I’d argue that all theatre is nomadic,” Khalil said. “The dream is always to not just have one production but many [productions] of your plays, and touring productions as well. The whole life of theatre is liminal.”
Mobility is invigorating – and challenging. One of her plays is being translated into French, and Khalil says, “When things move, there are massive cultural sensitivities; so it’s about having access to someone who’s an expert (ideally your director or your company and your dramaturg) who are able to advise you and help you to make sure that you’re saying what you want to say in the clearest way for that particular audience. The reality is if it’s a good director and a good company with the right ethos and the right attitude, and you’ve got a good dramaturg to help you along the way…. Well, that’s the whole battle, really.”
These U.K. artists see Golden Thread as a valuable touchstone for the international Middle Eastern theatre diaspora. They’re drawn in by the company’s openness to diversity, hard conversations, unconventional understandings of identity, and varying ideas about the narrative power of drama.
Khalil was impressed by her first ReOrient experience in 2015: “It’s opening up conversation. It’s unlocking something. People were so engaged and genuinely wanting to talk about things. It would be amazing if they were doing it in the U.K. The fact they do that in the U.S. is incredible.” After the Q&A session, a young Palestinian actor “basically hugged me and said, ‘Thank you for using the word ‘apartheid’ – no one dares use it here.’” It hit home for Khalil that U.K. and U.S. audiences view and talk about Middle Eastern stories differently – but she wouldn’t skew her writing to suit either side of the pond: “I write what I write and if people want to put it on then they put it on.”
Greene explains, “People expected me to write the ‘other’ narrative because I was born and raised in the Middle East and I’m a war refugee.” (He and his parents escaped Kuwait during the Gulf War and settled in Florida.) “What they tend to forget is that I’m a child of both worlds. Torange [Yeghiazarian, Founding Artistic Director of Golden Thread] has been really great about saying, ‘Just because you’re Middle Eastern doesn’t mean we just want Arab or Armenian plays – we just want a good play of yours.’ And I thought, ‘Well yeah, this is what all theatre should be doing.’ I’m not responsible for representing the entirety of my culture or being the voice of my people. And to assume that I’m simply like a National Geographic sound bite is ridiculous.”
Greene applauds the thirst for global stories on both sides of the Atlantic, but he’s cautious about what it means in artistic terms: “We so love to culturally fetishize the world. And if Syria is a hot topic then you need to get on that topic so you get produced. And that pathway just perpetuates or recycles what we see in the media.” There’s also the pressure on playwrights to stick to familiar, expected Middle Eastern narratives. “You can’t really fault someone for being a good businessperson,” he said. “They don’t really help the art or the cause but, you know, they’re getting the work out there.” His favorite piece of advice, from a roommate in New York: “Stop whining like a revolutionary and write for the white people. Do you think Beyoncé would have been able to make Lemonade without Survivor?” Greene laughs, but he’s clearly game for the revolution: “We’re here, I have the work, it just takes a theatre to take it seriously.”
Both of their plays, A is for Ali and The Rehearsal, point toward an uncertain future, each playwright spotlighting tough questions for a world in divisive flux. Both writers have energetic hopes for the future of Middle Eastern diaspora theatre.
Greene wants writers and producers to be “brave enough about pursuing what the future potential narrative is, in light of everything that’s happening now.” For him, theatre artists and institutions all “have a responsibility to train and retrain audiences and to fight against the media’s theatre of terrorism. We can’t become unwilling accomplices – or unwitting accomplices.”
Khalil talked enthusiastically about a group of Arab and diaspora theatre-makers beginning to connect in London, being in the room together, talking about challenges and possibilities: “There is definitely a community and it’s growing all the time. There’s some really talented human beings out there. The future is rosy in terms of that. It’s only going to gain strength.”