Friday, 20 July 2018

The Bride of Dramaturgy: JM Meyer @ Edfringe 2018

Thinkery and Verse (New York, USA)

Bride of the Gulf
by J M Meyer

New York City ensemble Thinkery and Verse presents Bride of the Gulf, a new play dedicated to the resilience of life in Basra, Iraq, and based upon a transnational collaboration with artists from Iraq’s largest port city. 

Amid the violence that followed the British withdrawal from Basra in 2007, a sharp-witted Iraqi woman goes in search of her missing husband at the behest of her mother-in-law. 

Often in Anglophone theatre, there is a habit of making much of the 'multicultural' content, but the actual makers are always just the usual suspects (white, middle class, a bit like the critics).

Fort Point Theatre Channel, which commissioned ‘Bride of the Gulf’ as a ten-minute play, features a fair amount of ethnic diversity, but it would be fair to describe it as middle-class. Fort Point producers and playwrights like Marc Miller and Amy Merrill would not object to that description. 

However, I get the impression that your collaboration is a bit more engaged and actually involves Iraqi artists.

Yes, several. Amir Al-Azraki, the Iraqi/Canadian playwright and critic who helped organize an art collaborative called the 'Boston to Basra Project' at Fort Point Theater Channel, connected me with several Iraqi artists in Basra, and thereby initiated the project. He introduced me to Qais Ouda, an Iraqi composer, and to Dr. Samir Talib, an English professor at Basra University. At the conclusion of the Fort Point Theatre Channel process, which consisted of several staged-readings over an eighteen month period, Thinkery & Verse took over the production, and asked me to expand Bride of the Gulf to a full-length play.

Can you tell me a little about how this process came about, and how is the work of Iraqi artists reflected in the production?

I think my artistic partners and I found our Iraqi collaborators to be fascinating artists, and we suspected that we had a lot more to explore than we could fit into ten minutes.  
In writing a ten-minute play for Fort Point Theatre Channel, I had opened up space for Qais’ music, themes, and interests—the play’s comic-tragic tone and magical-realist content were strongly influenced by his score (quirkily entitled ‘Panorama Joy’) which was much more playful than Westerners might expect.

Since I initially felt that the commission was not going to lead to a full production, I decided to write impossible stage directions; the characters haunted the space, and toyed with the audiences perception as to whether they were alive or dead. It was a lot of fun, but also sparked our director’s imagination, and she pushed to fully stage the play.

Then Dr. Talib hosted several readings of the play with his students in Iraq, and solicited their feedback. As the playwright, I incorporated his students’ responses into the script, placing their arguments about storytelling into the mouths of new characters. 

The students, much to their teacher’s chagrin, paradoxically pushed for more realism, as well as a stronger sense of right-and-wrong. They also wanted what a Westerner might view as an ‘unrealistic’ amount of emotion. I decided I should honor all of their requests. I incorporated their feedback into the very structure of the play, and now it begins in a hyper-realistic setting, and then, with the help of Elham Al-Zabaedy’s poetry and paintings, launches into magical realism.

Given the transnational makeup of the creators, it felt appropriate to pursue a transnational makeup for the cast. We therefore recruited many actors who study or work in the New York City area, but have an international background: Brazil, India, Israel, Mexico, Portugal, South Africa, Turkey, and probably some places I’m forgetting.
It’s also true that our ensemble includes a few working-class actors, and Karen Alvarado, our director, has a working-class background as well. But the Iraqi artists are definitely ‘middle-class,’ to use your term, and I think that’s probably where I fit as well.

I'd also like to ask about  Elham Al Zabaedy, the painter and poet... it might be handy to introduce her work to me, because I have to admit, I don't know it....

I started working with Elham’s paintings and poetry (and with Elham) just in the past year. She was also a part of the project with Fort Point Theatre Channel, but she was originally working with a different group of artists. I was struck by the power, clarity, and perspective of her poems. Her sense of identity, as a person who lives in Basra, is far stronger than anything I’ve ever felt about my own life. I’ve lived in at least twelve different cities in thirty-six years. I am no one. Elham is Basrawi, and she knows Basra the way a child knows her mother’s face.

Being drawn to her art, I asked Elham’s permission to ‘perform’ some of it with students from Rutgers University, where they have a top-notch acting conservatory.
Elham, whose English is limited (as is my Arabic), provided us with some quirky translations of her poems, and then allowed me to shape them to fit the workshop process. Here’s an example:

'The prophets said that we would be protected in our homes. A palm tree snaps in half. What can the prophets see, if they could not foresee my family tree snapping into pieces?' 

For actors, that’s fun language to say aloud. Her paintings, similarly, contain stunning shifts between pop-art caricature and antique imagery—they arrest the imagination. The paintings, as well as the poems, helped me push the play’s outlook further and further into the past, and helped me articulate the contrast between Basra’s present existence as a repressed city, and its past history as a part of the fertile crescent where human civilization originated.

Since you have a veteran in the playwright, and an Iraqi poet in the process, is there a sense of creating a model of collaboration in the production that reflects a process of reconciliation that might be hoped for after the Gulf conflicts? Is that an important aspect of the work?

The project serves as a model for tying two distinct cultures together, and recognizing the artistic expertise of the ‘other.’ Americans, as most people in the UK seem to be aware, habitually live in a bubble. As an artist I feel an obligation to snap that habit, and insist that the art created between borders matters more than art created inside a New York cocoon.  

But there are limits to reconciling people through art. If ten years ago we took an Iraqi child’s father from him, he’s not going to forgive us just because we worked on a play about Iraq for a few years.

It was important to Dr. Talib’s students that the play ‘teach’ audiences about their home city because they felt it would help powerful countries like the United States and the United Kingdom make better choices. And I do think that our artists and our audiences walk away with a profound thoughtfulness about Basra, and the way the people of Basra see themselves as being at the center of the world, not the periphery.

You draw comparison with Black Watch, but also insist that Basra is at the heart of the work. In what ways might an audience member who has seen Black Watch find the show familiar - in content and theatricality - and in what ways different.

In both pieces, abstract movement tumbles into realism, and then to magical realism. And an almost melodramatic sense of history underlies the emotional power of the plays. But a play like Black Watch treats the recent British experience in Iraq as almost co-equivalent with the disasters of First World War trench fighting. I was a soldier in Iraq. Things happened. But I was also well-paid, and I got to return to America after a year or two. 

That’s not the experience of war for someone from Basra. Our characters view Black Watch as profoundly bizarre in its insistence on placing Western characters at the center of a story set in Iraq, and we directly address that problem.

I am always interested in religion, and that is mentioned in the work of  Elham Al Zabaedy. Does Islam help to shape the perspective of the play?

Yes, Islam informs the decision-making of the characters. But Islam is not a monolithic thing—it’s far more diverse and confusing than, say, the Roman Catholicism that I grew up with. We are at a point in history where Islam is actively contested, and splits along economic and geographic cleavages. I have never probed Elham’s religious beliefs, but her artistic interest in Islam, as far as I can tell, is in the contrast between what the Koran says with what diverse Muslim religious leaders preach, and what people then actually do. 

The tensions between these three authorities (canonical, ecclesiastical, observed behavior) seems to have provided Elham’s art with a sense of irony, anger, and hope, and we have incorporated her viewpoint into that of our protagonists.

Religion can provide people with a view that extends beyond the grave, even if they themselves do not actively possess a faith in the supernatural, or in an afterlife. This is especially true in a place like Iraq, where the ruins stretch back beyond monotheism, and into ancient Mesopotamia. So Islam is actively practiced, and this encourages a feeling for an afterlife, and the ruins of history are very present, and that encourages people to conceptualize human life as a thimble of water tossed into a very large ocean. In America, by contrast, most ruins or historical markers only stretch back a couple hundred years, and that collapses our sense of time a bit more.

An American rarely doubts that they live in the most important moment in history. An Iraqi rarely doubts that they do not live at the most important moment in history. Bride of the Gulf helps communicate that feeling.

Where do we go next, as an audience? What impact do you hope that the play will have?

I hope that it will gentle our condition, and our feelings towards the social conditions found in Basra, as well as the rest of the Middle East. We need that right now—a sense of gentleness, and an urge to share.

The play’s sharp narrative and rich texture can astonish its audience, and I hope that art-makers and promoters give Amir, Elham, and Qais (as well as Thinkery &Verse) further opportunities to create art and explore the conflicted, super-heated world of global politics.

Bride of the Gulf began as a short play created for the Basra to Boston Project and the Fort Pointe Theatre Channel, and drew on transnational conversations, as well as the playwright’s memories of Iraq in 2007 as a US soldier. Using the short play as a starting point, the ensemble then collaborated with Iraqi poet and painter Elham Al Zabaedy, and incorporated her ironic, religious perspective into the play’s outlook to a create an original full-length play,Bride of the Gulf. American composer Sean Ullmer then collaborated with Iraqi composer Kais Ouda to score the show. When creating the play, Thinkery and Verse drew on transnational conversations that took place during our ongoing artistic process, but also on the playwright’s memories of Iraq in 2007: the translators, the journalists, Iraqi citizens, the incoming fire, the kidnappings, the reunions, the violence—and the resiliency of the world’s oldest civilisation. 

With surprising humour and hard-earned insight, Bride of the Gulf explores what the invasion of Iraq felt like from the perspective of the people of Basra. Though it draws on the same theatrical vocabulary as plays like Black Watch, it provides a necessary corrective to the Western perspective. This is what transnational collaboration looks like at its best: well-informed, courageous, risk-taking, and profoundly theatrical. 

Notes to Editors

The Thinkery and Verse creative ensemble draws on recent graduates from one of the top acting conservatories in the world: the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. As a publicly funded university, the ensembles created at Rutgers are enriched by students from a wide variety of economic and ethnic backgrounds, enabling it to smash the barriers to working-class artists in a time of retrenched economic divisions. The creative team, including Karen Alvarado, Abishek Nair, Jahsiah Musig, and Camila Cano-Flavia, spent two years learning the Stanislavskian techniques of Sanford Meisner, and developing an ensemble-based approach to creating physical new work. They then moved to London to study Early Modern performance techniques with celebrated acting teacher Simon Dormandy at Shakespeare’s Globe. 

Playwright J M Meyer became the first playwright to make the long-list for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2010, and now offers a play set in Iraq in 2007, a setting which coincides with his second deployment as a United States Army airborne ranger. 

Venue: C cubed, Brodie’s Close, Lawnmarket, EH1 2PS, venue 50, Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Dates: 2-27 Aug (not 14)
Time: 15:10 (1hr00)

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