fbpx Art, Activism, and Connecting to the Past | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Art, Activism, and Connecting to the Past

Nabra Nelson: Salam Aleykum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North Africa, or MENA, theatre from across the region.

Marina Johnson: I'm Marina.

Nabra Nelson: And I'm Nabra.

Marina Johnson: And we are your hosts.

Nabra Nelson: Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea, or in Arabic, shay.

Marina Johnson: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you'll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra Nelson: In our third season, we highlight queer MENA and SWANA, or Southwest Asian North African theatremakers, and dive into the breadth of queerness present in their art.

Marina Johnson: Yalla. Grab your tea. The shay is just right.
Often, activism and storytelling go hand in hand. What does it mean for queer art and activism to take center stage? How can we look to the future while honoring the places and people from where we all came? In this episode, Sivan Battat talks about their ancestral storytelling workshops within queer and Middle Eastern communities, how they see the relationship between art and activism, and ways that SWANA groups can resist cultural erasure as they pave new paths forward.

Nabra Nelson: Sivan Battat is an artist and organizer based in New York City. Sivan's work is across genres in the theatre, in community, in ritual celebration and beyond, and seeks to make deeply individual stories into universal ones, helping us to understand how our liberation is and always will be collectively bound.
Sivan is the director of New Work Development at North Theatre Company, an OBIE award-winning company dedicated to supporting and developing and producing the work of theatre artists of Middle Eastern descent. Sivan has developed new works and reimagined classics with companies including Roundabout, NYTW, the Atlantic, Ars Nova, National Queer Theatre, New Gorges, Goodman, Victory Gardens, New York Stage and Film, MCC and more. Recent credits include Layalina at the Goodman Theatre, Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Studio Theatre, and Brass Knuckles at Ensemble Studio Theatre.

Marina Johnson: We're so excited to have you here with us today. Thanks for joining us.

Sivan Battat: So happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Marina Johnson: On another episode this season, we have writers, directors, producers who've talked about the relationship between representation, religion, and queerness. Do any of these things manifest in your work, and if so, how?

Sivan Battat: Oh, gosh, all of the above, all of the time and all of the ways is the easiest answer. But yeah, just to give a little bit of context about who I am, I'm a director, a theatremaker and a community organizer, and I am based in New York City. I live on Lenape ancestral lands, and my heritage is mixed and rich in its mixedness, as many of ours are.
My father's side of the family is from Baghdad, from Iraq, Jews from Baghdad. We have sort of a long history of my family and my communities there, and my mother's side, I think she's fourth gen Ashkenazi, Jewish, Brooklyn, so thick Brooklyn accents on my grandparents on that side. I always say the homelands are Brooklyn and Baghdad, and I feel grateful and blessed to have those in my ancestry.
And I think to your question, Marina, about I think the words you said are representation, religion, queerness, maybe you added ancestors. If not, we'll get there. As a person who lives in a messy space between identities, I identify as an Arab Jew. My family's Arab-ness is deep in their legacies and in their bones, though the term Arab Jew has a complex history across many regions, and for many communities.
I identify as an Arab Jew, and that is an identity that has been positioned by many systems of power and by systems of colonialism as an impossibility, as an identity that cannot exist. You are an Arab or you are a Jew, and that false binary has tried to erase me and my communities in service of colonialism and Zionism and certain forms of power that would rather us be cleanly on two sides of a perfect divide. And we're just not. Arabs come from so many different cultural backgrounds, religious backgrounds.
And so, as a result, having grown up sort of at that intersection of these identities, having Arabic in my home, going to Jewish day schools, people being like, here's what Jewish history is, and me being like, but my grandpa's from Iraq. How do those things fit together? I think I always lived in sort of the messy space of representation and religion and how those show up in my work.
And then, later in life, as I figured out my own queerness and came to language around my own queerness, I had a really similar journey, actually, around calling myself Arab and calling myself queer, because I was just really afraid to claim things that I felt that I hadn't "suffered for enough," quote-unquote. I had some false notion that I had to have suffered X, Y, Z amount in order to call myself these things that I inherently was, and I was really afraid of the labels. And I think I came to them around the same time in my individuation, in my emergence into selfhood. And in many ways, I think of Arab Jew as also a queer term in and of itself, because it complicates. It complicates a binary. It complicates and lives in the space and in the murkiness between.
And then, all of this shows up in how I exist as a director. I think as a director, my role and my ethos is to hold many multiplicities at once, to hold paradox and to embrace paradox, and to embrace complexity and the messiness of being human and sort of where that spills out along all of the edges.
And I feel like my queerness has taught me how to do that as much as it's also taught me how to imagine new possibilities. I think of being a queer director, I'm like, I don't know any other way to do it, because being in the world has meant that I didn't see something and I said, well, that's what I am and that's what I want, and I created it in and with the communities and the legacies that exist.
And directing is kind of the same thing. It's like, do I see something in front of me that I want to be there? Yes. Let's create it. Let's create space for that thing. And it's building on all of the legacies that came before. So that's kind of an introduction to the many places we can go in this conversation, I think.
Nabra Nelson: Wow, what a beautiful introduction to all the places. I'm sure we'll have a really exciting conversation. Thank you so much for sharing all of that. It was really lovely.

Queerness for me is actually about joy and love and liberation. It's not about systems of oppression that I have or haven't been subject to. It's about imagined futures…

Marina Johnson: Yeah, and I appreciate also that you're talking about labels, and we have other folks we've talked to this season about how sometimes we're really just sick of labels and we want to just be able to complicate things, and you used the phrase “embrace paradox,” which I really love. But I also really appreciate how you're gesturing towards that naming things is also a way to complicate things, to embrace terms that sort of confuse or complicate a binary. So just noting all of the really lovely things that you're saying. And also that we don't have to necessarily suffer for an identity. We can note those who have had to suffer for those identities and know that we're part of lineages and legacies therein, but that your identity is your identity.

Sivan Battat: Yeah, exactly. And queerness for me is actually about joy and love and liberation. It's not about systems of oppression that I have or haven't been subject to. It's about imagined futures for me. Yeah.

Marina Johnson: So you recently directed the world premiere of Martin Yousif Zebari's Layalina at the Goodman in Chicago. I attended a Zoom workshop of it during the height of stay-at-home, and I loved it, and I've gotten to hear great things from people who were at the production in Chicago. Can you talk a little about that project and some of your work with it, and the audience reception, as well?

Actors stand onstage in a dimly lit set of a house.

Layalina by Martin Yousif Zebari at the Goodman Theatre. Cast includes Waseem Alzer, Atra Asdou, Ali Louis Bourzgui, and Mattico David. Directed by Sivan Battat. Scenic design by casaboyce. Costume design by Dina El-Aziz. Lighting design by Jason Lynch. Sound design by Ronnie Malley and Eric Backus. Stage management by Jaci Entwisle and Abigail Medrano. Casting by Rachael Jimenez and Lauren Port. Dramaturgy by Jonathan L. Green and Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel. Script assistance by Layla Bahmanziari. Vocal coaching by Eva Breneman. Khigga instruction by Phaedra Darwish. Assistant direction and intimacy facilitation by Gloria Imseih Petrelli. Dialect coaching by Louis Sallan.

Sivan Battat: Sure, sure. Yeah, I mean, the play is by an extraordinary writer named Martin Yousif Zebari, who is an actor as well and has been an actor of the Goodman stages for a long time, and during the pandemic was obviously not acting on the stages, as no one was, and sat down and thought, I really want to write this play about my family and my migration story. And so, the play began from that place, from that seed of Martin saying, I need to tell this story of how my family lives and breathes, and then took it far and fictionalized many things.
It's not an autobiographical play by any stretch, it's just seeded from a true experience that Martin had of being born in Baghdad and leaving around 2003 with the US invasion of Baghdad, which was a very, very critical and pivotal moment for many, many Iraqis in this country and ended up being, I would argue to say, like a pivotal moment for other Middle Eastern people in this country too, just because of the implications and consequences of the war in Iraq and sort of what its impacts were on Arab American identity on Middle Eastern American identity.
So Martin wrote this gorgeous play. It's set in Baghdad in the first act in 2003, and then it jumps forward seventeen years to Skokie, Illinois in 2020, and you see the same actors sort of age into their ancestors, because it's double cast, so you have sort of Mama and Baba, Mom and Dad in the first act, and then you have a younger brother and sister and the sister's new husband, and then you see those same actors play older versions of characters you met in the first act, you see them in the second act. So the younger siblings are now older, aged into their parents, played by the same actors who played Mama and Baba, and there's two younger toddlers who you meet. They grow into their older siblings in different ways, the husband's younger brother... It's a little complicated to explain in audio, but it makes a lot of sense on stage and on page.
But the point of it is that you see these people age into their ancestors, become their ancestors in these really beautiful ways, and it asks questions about when a family has to flee a place and fractures, around the world, in this case, for this family, what does it look like seventeen, twenty, one hundred later? This play just asks about seventeen, but what does it look like later for that family to reconnect and heal and find each other again?
And Martin has written a gorgeous family story. It's funny, it's queer, it's human, and it is an intercontinental, intergenerational play about a family finding their way back to each other through grief and through love and through crushes and through heartbreak and through hope. So it's a really beautiful piece.
Azar Kazemi actually directed the first reading during the pandemic on Zoom. So the one that you saw, Marina, was not directed by me, but by another extraordinary artist, and then I came in and connected with Martin in New York through the National Queer Theatre. Adam Odsess-Rubin introduced us when the play had a reading at the National Queer Theatre in, it must have been 2021? That's not a fact. I have to fact check that, but maybe 2021. And then it went to the Goodman's News Stages Festival, and then was produced at the Goodman as a world premiere.
So I've been with the play for many years, kind of dreaming through its inception, and there's been many gorgeous artists whose work has also journeyed with the play through that time. And I love it. It is such a gorgeous piece about a family. I really hope to keep finding stages for it.

Nabra Nelson: You talked about this lovely quote that I'm going to grab from you, “aging into your ancestry,” and that seems to relate to other aspects of your work that we saw in descriptions as we were looking into you. Ancestral storytelling and ritual come up in relation to your work. Can you talk about how you integrate that into elements of your art, and perhaps into this place specifically? Can you go a little bit deeper into that?

Sivan Battat: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I will say, so I was almost a religion major in college. I didn't quite finish the major, but I did study ritual for a lot of school because it was so important to me as a way to understand theatre. And in its most distilled down form, I think of ritual as a way to make visible the invisible, or a way to try to visualize something invisible. And that comes from extraordinary ritual scholars like Émile Durkheim and Victor Turner and all these people who've been writing about ritual. That's not from my brain, but from those who write about this a lot.
And I think the work of also ancestral storytelling is to also sort of make visible, or story told, or speak, make heard the unheard, or make present that which is present, but you're not seeing or you're not looking at. And I think of ancestors in a really broad sense of the term, I just want to add because especially when I teach different ancestral storytelling classes, not everyone has access to who their biological ancestors are. For some it's not relevant because it's traumatic, and for some it's just something they don't have access to for a variety of reasons. And I believe it is a tremendous privilege, and I have a lot of privilege in the amount of access I have to who my ancestors are.
And so, I think of ancestors, I try to think of it in the most expansive way. I think a really gorgeous tree outside of a childhood window can be an ancestor if you want it to be. And I think that mentors can be ancestors. I think that a writer from the 1920s whose work changed your life can be an ancestor if you want them to be. So I think of it in a really expansive term, and I just want to add that nuance into it.
But what Martin has done with Layalina is ancestral storytelling. I mean, Martin sat down and said, what was the moment in my family's life when we were all leaving, and my family had to make these really hard decisions? They had to say, okay, you're going to go to Australia and get married. You're going to go to America, you're going to take the babies with you. Spoiler alert, sorry. You're going to go to Australia, you're going to take the babies with you. These seismic decisions, I mean, enormously seismic decisions that Martin's parents and ancestors had to make in a moment of crisis.
And Martin sat down and really imagined, what was that conversation? How do you actually do that? How do you say, goodbye, I might never see you again. I love you. And see your child off with your babies to America, to a place where you don't speak the language and you don't know if you'll ever be able to travel. And so, what Martin did, I think, is to tell the stories of their ancestors and to imagine those stories, and I think that showed up in so many ways in the truth of that first act.
And something I like to think about too with ancestral storytelling that I think Martin has done with this play really beautifully is to also zoom in on the parts we don't know. As important, if not more important or more beautiful than the parts we do. The fragments of the story or the fracturing of the story is part of the story itself, and the things we don't tell and the things we don't inherit, or the stories we don't know, those are as important as the parts of the story that we do, and I think it's really beautiful to imagine into those spaces and to imagine into those sites of memory.
And so, I like to call it imagined stories. So sometimes I'll have a group of community members or artists. If I'm teaching an ancestral storytelling class, I might say, imagine a place where your people are from. Leave that as broad as you want it to be. Imagine one specific place, or a place that you're from, and then imagine a story in that place. Something that didn't actually necessarily happen, but imagine a story in that place. Those imagined stories, imagined pasts, I think are really exciting and really beautiful, and that's sort of the fabric of us as queer people in the modern day, getting to think about our ancestors and not having to be black and white about who they are and how they are.
I'll share very vulnerably here, I don't know if my ancestors, like my grandparents would be... My grandparents who don't know. I do have a grandparent who knows I'm queer and is so supportive and loving, and my other grandparents who I never got the chance to come out to, I don't know how they would feel about the life that I'm living in the world. I can't pretend it's like all glossy, shiny, like, oh, how beautiful as a queer person to live these ancestor stories.
And it gives me the space in that imagined process to imagine new realities and imagine new histories and sort of live them in my own truth and in my own body. And imagine what it would be if they did. If they did support it, or if they did love it. And I'm not saying they explicitly wouldn't. I actually believe, maybe, hearts open in all kinds of complex and beautiful and rich ways, and I think queerness is in my family legacy in all types of ways that maybe none of us know about.
My grandmother was a real icon in my family. Everyone always used to say she wore the pants, and she had a really famous radio show in Arabic that was viral around the Arab world. It's an amazing story, I'll tell you all about it. And my grandfather came to the United States and she didn't want to come, so she stayed, and she was like, I'm not going to America. I have my radio show here. I'm a superstar here. This was in Jerusalem in the seventies.
And yeah, my grandmother at that moment, and maybe now, would never have called that a queer life to live. And in my contemporary understanding of my own power as a person socialized as female and as a non-male person in the world, I think I inherited that kind of vibrancy from her. I feel that I inherited that. Even if she wouldn't call herself living a queer life, she lived on her own as a woman. She said, okay, my husband can go, that's fine. Go take the kids, go to America, whatever you want. And she didn't leave. So I think how we balance that question of queerness and ancestors is something really interesting. And now I'm realizing now, but I didn't even really speak so much to your question of ritual, but we can get into that more.

Nabra Nelson: Well, that is totally fine. The entire path that you went on was beautiful, and it really relates to a lot of what we have intentionally/unintentionally done in the episode so far, which is really break open a definition of queerness, which I think is extremely liberating and exciting. And I love the way that you've contextualized that within the idea of ancestry, because absolutely, reconciling ancestors with queerness can be a very difficult and sometimes painful process. And so, the way that you have artistically brought those two stories together is really lovely and quite, again, this word comes up for me, liberating.
And I wanted to go into this idea of healing and collective liberation that seems to be coming up in what you just said. How do you bring a healing and collective liberation into your worldview, your artistic approach, and how does that also tie into activism, however you might define that?

Sivan Battat: I just want to respond quickly to something you said, and then I'll speak to the question, which is just that I think really, Layalina is an extraordinary example of how you can take queerness and reconcile it with your family stories. Because Martin hasn't written any type of narrative into the play that would be untrue for those characters, and hasn't imagined, oh yeah, they were all living a life in Baghdad for generations. Those aren't... There were queer people living queer lives in Baghdad for many, many generations and many, many places, and it's complicated inside of family stories, how those things might've existed, and Martin has done such a beautiful job of integrating queerness, I think, into a family story and figuring out how you reconcile who you are now with those stories. So I just wanted to say, you're giving me the credit and I pass it to Martin for that play, for doing that with such grace and nuance and tenderness.
To your question about healing and collective liberation, I think I've often said, and I don't mean this with any shade to the theatre industry or to the extraordinary directors who I've assisted, and I feel that I've learned much more about how I want to run a room as a director from my work as a community organizer than I have from my theatre training, both in school and assisting and directing on my own. I think organizing has taught me what the kinds of rooms I want to create look and feel like, and has taught me how to listen in a way that I didn't quite learn in my theatre training. And there were some directors who I think exemplified that, who I was able to learn from over the course of my journey. But not all of them. Not every room is equal, and not every process is equal in terms of what it has taught me.
And I think that the way I try to show up in a room is to really hold the complexity of how we all show up to storytelling and to making art, and to do that with great respect, to not dig into anyone's individual selves if they don't want to. I always tell, I direct a lot of work that touches and circles around themes of Middle Eastern identity and/or queerness, and I'll often have actors in the room and collaborators in the room who share some of those identities, whether that's queerness, whether that's Middle Eastern-ness, whether that's a family history that might touch or be close to the family history in the play. And I often say to them, I just want you to know that you get to keep anything you want for yourself here. You don't have to share from your trauma, you don't have to share from your truth. And you're allowed to actually protect a part of yourself inside this and still be an extraordinary artist and show up in the role and in the rehearsal and in the room.
And I think learning how I want to show up for the individuals in the room while I'm showing up for the work that we're making, community organizing told me how I can do both of those, which is like, we're after this thing, right? In organizing, too. We're after this thing that we're chasing together, and we're all going to figure out what our stake in that is and how we can best contribute. But the people are really important to me, and that they are cared for in that process is really important to me.
And so, when you ask about healing and collective liberation, it is my hope that making theatre is healing. It is not always healing. It has not always been healing for me. It has sometimes been tremendously healing and it has sometimes been extractive. And so I think, as I make rooms, I seek to make rooms that create the potential for healing, or just are a job, or just if they need to be someone's job right then, and it needs to not be a place that you come to heal something, that's actually, I think that's really important too. I'm always kind of balancing those two, of keep something for yourself. You don't need to unravel because of this play, though if you want to take this space to unravel and heal something, you are welcome and come in, come in. So I think it's, "Yes, and..."
To the question of collective liberation, I mean, this is language that I think I learned in my organizing spaces. My sort of organizing home in New York is through an organization called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, JFREJ, and JFREJ is a domestic racial and economic justice org that really focuses on New York City politics, immigration rights, housing rights, union advocacy work, healthcare workers and home care workers and aides. We do all kinds of organizing around that. We also do a lot of Islamophobia and antisemitism work, and abolition and policing work, we do a lot of that as well in New York.
So those are sort of the topics that JFREJ holds, and then within that, there are caucuses for Jews from different communities, and I've been a part of a caucus for Middle Eastern and North African and South Asian Jews, or SWANA Jews, or Mizrahi Jews, as we often call it, though Mizrahi is... There's so much that I could get into, of all the language for all the things that we use.
But we have a caucus for Jews, and that's been my organizing home in New York for a long time, and I think the language of collective liberation and how it sort of embedded itself into my work comes from that JFREJ space and thinking about how none of us are free until all of are free, and that in the work that I've done inside of the antisemitism working group at JFREJ, or work around policing at JFREJ, I have come to more deeply understand how true that really is, and how it means... how it changes the way I walk in the world and the way I make art.
So I don't know, the language of collective liberation I think has come to sort of be like a term that sometimes doesn't mean anything when you say it. And sometimes I catch myself in that too. I'm like, oh, collective liberation, and I'm like, what am I really talking about? And I think what I'm really talking about is that there are material things that we need in order to be free and well in this country. We need to abolish prisons, we need to abolish policing. Those are basic things. We need to deal with reparations, and we need healthcare, and we need universal basic income. There are these core things that we need in order for our communities in this country to be truly liberated.
And it also means that all of these things are profoundly interconnected. It means that you can't say, we're just going to fight antisemitism and we don't care about Islamophobia. Like, all we want to do is work on antisemitism. And I choose that one intentionally as a Jewish person who does work on antisemitism and is like, yes, doing work on antisemitism is so, so important, and actually, white nationalism wants us all to suffer, and they want us all to suffer separately from each other.
And so, collective liberation means that I'm going to stand by my Black colleagues in the fight. I'm going to stand by my Muslim colleagues in the fight. I'm going to stand with them and I'm going to say, none of us are truly free until you are free, too. And that's been my experience in organizing across the board.
I mean, when the biggest attacks on synagogues have happened in this country, the first people to pop up in my phone were Muslim comrades and organizers and beloveds who were like, hey, I'm thinking of you. I'm with you today. The first people. And I would say when Christchurch happened, I think, I hope my communities, the first place we went was to our Muslim colleagues and said, we're here for you. We're here for... What do you need? How can we show up for you?
And JFREJ was a powerful organizer and is a powerful organizer in the movement for Black lives. And these things are also not binaries, right? There's Black Jews, and all of these things. Our communities are rich and complex. So that's a bit of a ramble.

Nabra Nelson: No, not at all. Again, the most artistic ramble. I would never call it a word ramble. Never. Lovely. And also, what you said at the end there too, that there's so many intersectional identities, it just makes collective liberation as the way to move forward so obvious to me, as well. Yeah, it's all within those words, and you so beautifully define that. But also your last point further pushes us to say, we cannot be liberated if we are not all liberated.
And you talked about how your activism contributes to your artistic approach. I wonder if you could talk about how your art contributes to your activism, how you show up as an activist because you are an artist, and how artistry is a part of that work.

I'm deeply uninterested in making art or working on art that has no point of view on the world it exists in, or the world it is situated inside of. Why do we spend the money? Why would we take the time? Why would we invite audiences to engage?

Sivan Battat: It's funny, when... This is kind of a funny story to me, but when I first got involved with JFREJ in New York, it was at a moment when I had recently moved to New York and I really didn't know which theatre rooms I wanted to be in. I was doing a lot of assisting. And sometimes assisting is really powerful and gorgeous, and sometimes it's an observership sometimes. And so I just kind of felt like, who am I? What's my voice? What am I good at? What am I skilled at? What do I want to be doing? What rooms do I want to be in?
And I showed up at JFREJ, and this isn't literally what someone said, but it felt like someone said, does anyone in here know how to tell a story? And I was like, I do! This is something I actually am really good at. Or like, does anyone in here know how we should set up the stage so that all the seats can see the stage? And I was like, actually this is something I'm going to be really good at.
And so, it was almost immediate that the JFREJ world was like, oh, welcome. We are so happy you are here. You are one of us. You are in our community. Cultural workers and artists are such a central part of our work. And JFREJ really does highlight cultural organizing as an organizing strategy and cultural workers as an organizing strategy, and they're, I think, visionaries in the way they think about cultural workers and artists inside of the organizing work.
And a couple of summers ago, I helped put together a cultural organizing strategy retreat for JFREJ, which basically meant we brought a bunch of cultural workers and artists to this amazing chicken farm in Upstate New York, and we just spent four days just visioning, what is cultural organizing strategy in JFREJ, and what does it mean that we are all artists and we're bringing our artistry to JFREJ into this activism, and what does that mean in the work?
And there's so many ways that manifests, but for me, it has meant really helping to create events. Really helping to be like, okay, how do these pieces all fit together? A couple of years ago, I was an artistic lead on an event called Mimouna, which was this huge ritual event celebrating shared Muslim and Jewish histories in Brooklyn. We did it with the Arab American Association of New York, AAANY. It was like a partnership event that we did at this amazing catering hall in Bay Ridge.
And I was really thinking about the synthesis and the synergy of things, like working with storytellers to tell stories, creating imagined ancestral objects from our histories out of papier-mâché with community members, working with the caterers to have the reveal of all the sweets at sundown of Passover be some sort of a theatrical event, where suddenly we are... And shared music, and thinking about the integration of music, story, visual art, food, ritual, all kind of colliding to create this political event that was about shared Muslim and Jewish histories and a ritual tradition in North African Jewish communities that I grew up doing with my family.
And so, that's just one example of how it shows up, but I think storytelling, I think the binary between these is also not clear. I think the binary between art and activism is also a false one, because I'm deeply uninterested in making art or working on art that has no point of view on the world it exists in, or the world it is situated inside of. Why do we spend the money? Why would we take the time? Why would we invite audiences to engage?
Even something that you can say, quote-unquote, is for "pure entertainment," that is also a political act, right? That is inherently itself like a political act, to say, we want people to come to the theatre tonight, and we want them to laugh their heads off and then leave joyful and spread light into the New York City streets because they're so happy. That is a political act, too.
And so, I think the space between art and... I wouldn't call it activism necessarily. I think that that gets into other, a longer and more complex conversation. But I don't even think I can really separate the two parts for me, how my artistry shows up in my activism work. It also just shows up, I think, in the way I build community around me. Like, hey, where are your people from? What's an amazing story you want to tell me about your people and your identity and something that makes you who you are? Yeah.

Marina Johnson: Yeah. I appreciate all of this so much, especially because you mentioned, I learned about directing in some ways from organizing work, and I think that the academy is changing. Director training is hopefully changing in some regard too. But I think if anyone just listened to you talk for the last little bit, this is a masterclass on how to really put these things together and how to show up in the world in ways that you can use your full self, and where it's... I don't know, I'm just feeling very inspired by this.
I mean, I think it's very much what you're bringing to the table, and I appreciate that you're not, I don't know, trying to section yourself off in all of these ways. And also just the care that you're giving in your organizing spaces, and then also in your theatre spaces, to say, oh, actually, parts of our training have been to be extractive, and we're not interested in that in these ways.
I'm curious, so there's so many places we could go from here, and so I'm hoping we can touch on some more of them. But in your role as the director of New Work Development at Noor, what does this work look like for you? And then, I imagine that as you're envisioning new work, and new work is so capacious, and the identities that you're bringing are so capacious, and so how do these identities and how does this, some of the other things that you've mentioned around ritual, around organizing, how does this play into the work that you do there?

Sivan Battat: Yeah, thank you for the question and the generous words. I will treasure those. So Noor, for anyone who might be listening and doesn't know, we are a theatre company in New York City dedicated to supporting the work of artists of Middle Eastern descent, and North African and South Asian, and we're working on expanding our language.
And I think as... What a dream opportunity to have part of my job be to sit with artists and be like, what are you writing? What are you working on? How can I help? Can I read some pages? Can I give you some thoughts? Can I listen to you ideate? Can I just take notes while you talk out loud and send them back to you? What an extraordinary thing I get to do to work with commissions, and to work on development of new plays, not necessarily as a director. I love doing it as a director too, but even just as a thought partner through the theatre company, and be like, you will take this and you'll make this with whatever artists you choose to make it with, and here, I can offer whatever seeds of reflection to you, or even just scaffolding so you can have some deadlines and know when you want to get it done by, whatever it is.
But I think in selecting work to support, I think I have a very expansive view of the stories we can and should be telling. And so, getting to usher those into the Noor space and be like, wow, we just rolled out the first three commissions that we were able to initiate since I've joined the company, which are for three extraordinary artists. Nikki Massoud, Mariam Bazeed, and Rona Siddiqui are all commissioned with us right now making new works, and it's just an absolute delight to sit with them and talk to them about they're dreaming up and how we can support them at Noor.
There's so many... It's a pan identity. MENA, SWANA, these are enormous categories. We have some things in common across our communities, but to suggest that I, as an Iraqi Jew, half Ashkenazi Jew, born and raised in the United States, is as close in identity as someone from a completely different country with a completely different language, with a completely different experience, with a completely different religion. To suggest that we are in the same exact shared community, when there are so many identities in the world...
To me, it's really important to understand that MENA, SWANA is a pan identity. It's a term, not unlike Asian-American or API, it's a pan term. It encompasses many identities, some of which have a totally lot in common, and some of which are like, wow, we don't really have nearly as much in common as we thought we would.
And so, understanding how to complicate that, especially in an industry that is very identity focused right now, I think, I would go so far as to say, and we could talk about that some other time, but I would say that our theatre industry is quite identity focused in many ways right now, and so to sort of complicate this pan umbrella and say, this is an umbrella term for a lot of different languages, a lot of different communities, a lot of different experiences, a lot of different religions.
So inside of that, how do we find particularity and specificity, and not expect that any one of us is speaking for any other one inside of the community? As much as we wouldn't expect that any one particular, I don't know, white, Christian American from the Midwest is speaking for any other white Christian American from a different part of the country. We don't assume that inside of containers of whiteness. So let's not assume that inside of containers of marginalized communities or communities of color.
So all that being said, inside of Noor, I try to just hold complexity, specificity, and rigor for what it means to have a pan identity company, and to invite in many, many different voices that might be connected with that identity, and invite them to tell whatever stories they want to tell. I think something we talk about at Noor often is that just because you're a Middle Eastern or North African or South Asian writer doesn't mean you have to make a piece that is about that identity or that is focused on characters who carry that identity. And I think it's a powerful thing to invite our artists to make whatever art they want to make, and to say, we support you in your artistry, and help you make the best thing that you want to make in whatever level of craft you want to make it and whatever story you want to tell.
So those are some of my values inside of Noor, but again, I think of that as really an organizing, a job in many ways. It's about being in touch with my community. It's about one-on-ones with artists in my community. One-to-Ones is an organizing tool, too. It's about sitting with artists in my community, asking them what they're working on.
I'm doing what I would call, in very corporate speak, I'm doing some field research right now, where I'm just trying to pull the community in different ways about what are the current challenges in this year, in this moment, in this country, for our community, that you are facing as an artist? And so, we have a survey out through Noor right now that's just basically a public artist's input survey, like, hey, fill these in. And we're reading all those responses to try to synthesize as Noor, what should we or could we be offering to meet the needs, the trends in our community and the needs that our community has, which are all very different.
And this is an extraordinary year for our community. Mona Mansour just won an extraordinary award. Sanaz Toossi just won a Pulitzer. Arian Moayed is on Succession and on Broadway and nominated for a Tony. I mean, what an extraordinary... And that's just to name a few. The successes of so many people in our community are shining, shining right now.
And so, it's a different moment, I think, right now for Noor, than it was when it was founded by Lameece (Issaq) and Maha (Chehlaoui) and Nancy (Vitale) twelve years ago in New York City. And I think what they did in founding this company is they paved the way for us to be where we are now. This is the legacy that Noor is a part of, and it's not just Noor, it's Torange at Golden Thread, and now Sahar Assaf, and it's also Jamil at Silk Road, and it's like all these, and Malik, all these people in communities that have paved the way for our successes.
And so, now that we're having some successes, what do we need? What do we want? What are we looking for? What are artists who aren't necessarily being platformed yet needing or wanting or looking for? So yeah, that's why it's organizing work for me. It's artistic leadership, but it's also organizing work. It's deeply investing and understanding what the community around me is asking for or wanting, because just my opinions aren't nearly enough. Just me being like, I think we should all benefit from this. It's like, okay, Sivan, what does everyone else think? So that's really what I'm trying to lean into right now at Noor.

Nabra Nelson: Once again, beautifully said. I want to write down everything you said and put it on my wall all the time.

Marina Johnson: Luckily there's a transcript, Nabra.

Nabra Nelson: I'm printing the transcript and it's turning into my wallpaper, eventually.

Sivan Battat: Well, one thing organizing has definitely taught me is to honor legacy. Look at what's come before you. Look at whose work and whose sweat and whose brilliance has created the container that you walk on now. And not in a way to discount your own work, but just to understand what's come before.
I see a lot of newer organizers who will come in like, what's a better, not military term for guns a-blazing, but come in really strong like, hey, we have a lot we want to say, and we want to try this, and we want to do that, and we want to do this, and we want to do that. And I'm like, okay, actually, six of those things have been tried, and we have a lot of lessons that we can tell you from how we did it, so here are some lessons that we can integrate, and I would hope you would want to learn from those who tried the thing before you.
And so, I think with Noor, with all of these Middle Eastern companies, it's really important to look at the extraordinary legacies that they have and the work that these founders and creators have done to sort of pave the way, and also the lessons that they learned along the way that they are... I have found extraordinary generosity from someone like Lameece, to pass those things forward and say, here's what we learned. Here's what you could try. Here's a roadblock we faced. Here's a roadblock. And I think that that is something I learned deeply from organizing, is how to honor those legacies and turn towards them for guidance.

Marina Johnson: Definitely. I mean, we don't want to create work out of a vacuum, because it misses all of the depth and breadth of all of these people who have done work before us, and now we can build. We can build taller, bigger things because of this structure that's been given and it's being passed on, and then can also be tweaked and changed together. I love that.
And also, I mean, there's a lot of cross connection I think, this season for us, like Bazeed, just shouting out to folks that are listening, that you heard Bazeed on a different episode, and so we know that their commission is coming up with Noor, which is beautiful. And we're also having Raphael Amahl Khouri and Pooya Mohseni on different episodes this season. It would have been very cool to have you all together, but we know that you directed Raphael's play that Pooya was in, She He Me. I mean, I wish we could talk about everything that you've directed, and we'll soon talk about other things that you have coming up, because we would love to just spotlight some of the other things that you're working on.
But I don't know if there's anything from She He Me or other plays. Sometimes I found that when we highlight particular works, we have listeners who might not have seen those plays, but we'll get emails and say like, oh, that turned me onto something that I didn't know. So we would love to hear you talk about that or other plays, knowing that we'll soon ask you about what you're working on next.

Sivan Battat: Yeah, yeah. So She He Me by Raphael Khouri, we did on Zoom. We were supposed to do in New York in person, but it ended up being during the pandemic. And while I really dream of doing that in person in New York and wherever else will have us someday, there was also such an extraordinary blessing of getting to do it on Zoom, or online, because we ended up having viewership from all over the world. I was getting emails from people in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Australia, who were watching the play in Palestine, and it was just like, oh, wow, this story, which is really focused on, it's like a documentary style play that Raphael wrote based on three stories of three transgender people in the Middle East and North Africa.
And a lot of it was pulled from verbatim conversations and interviews that Raphael did with them. And it sort of weaves these three stories together. It's a lot of direct address, telling their stories, and it's gorgeous and painful and funny and all of those things. And it's a story that we don't hear often in New York about transgender Middle Eastern people. And it's also a story that abroad, particularly in the Middle East, is very hard to access, I think, due to particular systems of legislation.
So the fact that we were able to do it on Zoom and people could tune in. In fact, one of the true to life people who one of the characters is based on was actually able to watch this play and say, wow, look how my story is being told. And that was tremendously moving, tremendously touching. And talk about legacy and lineage. Pooya Mohseni. I mean, there's almost no words for her power and the sort of marks she has on our community and the care she shows for our community, in addition to just being an extraordinary actor with incredibly compelling presence on stage and on screen.
So it was just an absolute joy to work on that play with the two of them and with the other actors that were involved, and I hope we can continue to dream forth new iterations of She He Me, because I got such extraordinarily moving emails during that, while that run was available digitally, from people who had never felt so represented in particular ways. Similar with Layalina, from individuals who felt like Layalina was speaking to a part of their identity that had never been synthesized, had never been represented, being both queer, being both nonbinary, being genderqueer, and living like a life in honor of your tradition of your ancestors from that region of the world, was really special. So it was such a delight to work with Pooya and Raphael on that play. Yeah.

Nabra Nelson: Yeah. And Pooya is, I think, one of the most hilarious people I've ever met. I am so excited to meet Raphael. We haven't recorded that episode yet, but yeah, I think she's (Pooya’s) just, I was dying laughing during that episode.

Sivan Battat: She's so funny.

Nabra Nelson: I was trying not to laugh directly into the microphone, constantly.

Sivan Battat: I know. She's a character through and through, in the best way.

Nabra Nelson: Such an amazing person. So profound. Yeah, absolutely. And so, what are you working on in the next year or so that you can share with us to look forward to?

Sivan Battat: To answer your question, what I'm working on right now is a couple of graduate musical theatre showcases from writers at Berklee School of Music, one in particular named Fouad Dakwar, who I bring up just because of the cultural identity as a Palestinian-American musical theatre composer and writer, and he wrote this hilarious, smart, funny, biting new musical called Fouad de Nazareth, which deals with this young Palestinian-American kid, teenager, young adult going to visit Nazareth for the first time, and just all he encounters along the way as someone who holds both an Israeli passport and an American passport, and him being like, which one did my mom tell me to show them at the border? I can't remember. So it's hilarious and really smart, and the music is so, so fun. He did book, music and lyrics, so I'm directing a little excerpt of that next week.
And the second musical is by three others, graduate musical theatre writers. It's called Vincent, the Musical. So I'm working on those next week. Those are just little excerpts of showcases, but they're open to the public if anyone should want. I guess this will air in October, so it's not really relevant.
October 12th, I'm opening Wish You Were Here at Yale Repertory Theatre, which is Sanaz Toossi's play about a group of Iranian women through the revolution, through thirteen years of the revolution in Iran. It is a gorgeous play about friendship and absence and longing, and it features an Iranian Jewish storyline inside of it as well, which is so profound. I sent so many Iranian Jews to see it when it was at Playwrights Horizons, and they will come in droves, I imagine, my community of Middle Eastern Jews to see the play when it's at Yale, I hope, and I'm really excited about that project. It's a play that touches something really deep inside of me. And to speak of ancestral storytelling, it is also Sanaz imagining a family story and writing it onto the stage. So I'm really excited for that one.
And then, following that, also in October, November in New York, I have a, Fault Line Theatre is doing a series of workshop productions, so they're lightly staged, lightly produced plays and development, and I am directing a play called Backstroke Boys by a writer named Xavier Clark, which is going to be really, really fun and features two young men on a swim team in high school figuring themselves out. I don't want to give too much away, but figuring themselves out. And Xavier is a really extraordinary actor and writer, and the play is a really ambitious take on how you intersect queerness and selfhood and identity and all these things, and athleticism. So I'm really excited about that piece. That'll be at Fault Line in a workshop production in the fall.
And then, a longer term piece that I'm working on that perhaps folks, listeners might be interested in is with a comedian named Noam Shuster-Eliassi, and she's a comedian who, she's an Iranian Jewish comedian, born and raised in the only binational peace village in Israel-Palestine. So she was raised fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, and then ended up going to Brandeis University and is fluent in English as well. And for many years, Noam was a peacekeeper in the UN, doing pretty high profile piecework in the West Bank with different communities, and was like the keynote speaker at a UN conference, and felt so choked in terms of what she could or couldn't say, that she took the mic and just started cracking jokes and never turned back.
And so, she's a comedian and she's an extraordinary light and talent, and I have been working with Noam for many years now on her solo comedy show called Coexistence, My Ass, which I have directed some iterations of in, I have heard her do in Arabic, I have directed some iterations of in Hebrew, and now we are working on an English. And Noam is absolutely hilarious and an extraordinary activist and freedom fighter and comedian. She's just really funny, and there's almost nothing she won't say. She speaks really truth to power through her comedy.
And there's a documentary, actually, that an extraordinary Lebanese filmmaker named Amber Fares is making about Noam and about the show and about the process of getting Coexistence, My Ass. That's on, they released a twenty-five minute excerpt of that documentary on the New Yorker and on Al Jazeera last year. It's called Reckoning with Laughter, if you want to look it up. And it gives you a little sense of who Noam is and what is the work that she's doing, and why is it so radical inside of Israeli society to say the things that she's saying and to push in the ways that she's pushing. And because she has access to Arabic as a Jewish person, which is systemically erased from our tongues, she's able to engage in conversations in a really different way than most Israeli Jews are able to.
So Noam is amazing, and working with her on her solo comedy show, she had a piece in the New York Times last year, an op-ed as well, about comedy, trauma and comedy. And so, I'm working with her. Stay tuned. My hope is that in the next year, we'll be able to bring her comedy show to the US. Maybe we'll be able to tour it around and show, we'll see what's possible. But Noam is amazing. And so, that's a longer term project that I'm working on, and I'm going with her this summer to Edinburgh, to the Fringe Festival for a little stint in Edinburgh. I'll be there for a brief window, but Noam will be there all month. So if you're in Edinburgh and you're seeing theatre, go check out Coexistence, My Ass by Noam Shuster-Eliassi.

Marina Johnson: That's amazing. Oh my gosh, everything coming up is incredible. I wish I could see them all.

Sivan Battat: Yeah, so are a few pieces, and then I've got some pots bubbling. I've got some things on the burners that hopefully will come to fruition in due time.

Nabra Nelson: They will, insh’Allah. We will be looking out for it. Thank you so much, Sivan. It's so excellent to meet you and to chat with you. Really, so many brilliant nuggets of wisdom and thoughtfulness around directing and bringing artistry to activism and vice versa. So thank you so much for being a part of this.

Sivan Battat: Thank you. Thank you both. This has been an absolutely delightful conversation.

Marina Johnson: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of Kunafa and Shay and other HowlRound podcasts by searching HowlRound wherever you find podcasts.
If you loved this podcast, please post a rating and write a review on your platform of choice. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content, on the HowlRound.com website.
Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay or TV event the theatre community meets to hear? Visit HowlRound.com and contribute your ideas to the comments.

Marina and Nabra: Yalla! Bye!

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First