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Balancing Comedy and Drama as a MENA Playwright

With Yussef El-Guindi & Leila Buck

Nabra Nelson: Salaam alaikum! 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 African, or MENA, theatre from across the region.

Marina J. Bergenstock: I'm Marina.

Nabra: And I'm Nabra.

Marina: And we're your hosts.

Nabra: 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: 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: In our second season, we highlight US MENA theatre makers with an impact nationally and internationally. This season outlines the state of MENA theatre today through the lens of multigenerational and multidisciplinary artists.

Marina: Yalla, grab your tea. The shay is just right.

As politicized ethnic groups, playwriting comes with a sense of responsibility in history for many MENA and SWANA writers. Balancing drama and comedy in plays that deal with MENA politics, identity, and history can be difficult, but is also crucial in inviting audiences into our stories and addressing stereotypes and historical harm. Today, two pillars of the MENA community, playwrights Yussef El-Guindi and Leila Buck, join us as we have an open conversation about how they approach their writing and reflect on what their work means in a greater societal context. Before we begin, let's introduce our guests.

Nabra: Leila Buck is a Lebanese American playwright, actor, facilitator, and educator who has lived, performed, and taught theatrical tools to youth educators, aid workers, UN delegates, and others across the US, Europe, China, Australia, and eleven Arab countries. Her plays include American Dreams, In the Crossing, Arabian Nights, and Hkeelee: Talk to Me among many more.

She is developing the plays Mix & Match under commission from En Garde Arts as a TCG/Fox Fellow; 1001 Nights (A Retelling), commissioned by California Shakespeare Theatre and co-written with Evren Odcikin; and Carry You, commissioned by Noor Theatre. As artist-in-residence for Wesleyan University’s Doris Duke Foundation Building Bridges grant, she created interactive work about the (mis)representation of Muslims in the US and received the Edgar Beckham Social Justice Award.

Her work is featured in American Theatre; TCG’s “Finding Home” Essay Salon; Stages of Resistance; Innovation in Five Acts; Etching Our Own Image: Voices from the Arab American Art Movement; and Four Arab-American Plays. A TCG Fox Fellow, member of the Public Theater’s inaugural Emerging Writers Group, and Usual Suspect with NYTW, Leila teaches Participatory Performance and Civic Engagement and Creation and Representation in US Theatre at NYU, from which she holds a master’s in Theatre for Cross Cultural Education.

She has a brand new and lovely daughter named Zayya, who you will hear in this recording.

Marina: Yussef El Guindi was born in Egypt, raised in London, and is now based in Seattle. His work frequently examines the collision of ethnicities, cultures, and politics that face immigrants, Arab Americans, and Muslim Americans in particular. El Guindi holds an MFA in playwriting from Carnegie Mellon University. He is the recipient of many honors, including the Steinberg/ATCA New Play award, the Stranger's Genius award, and the 2010 Middle East America Distinguished Playwright Award.

El Guindi's past productions include Hotter than Egypt at Marin Theatre Company and ACT in Seattle; People of the Book at ACT; Language Rooms at Pony World Theatre in Seattle and Broken Nose Theatre in Chicago; Hostages at Radial Theatre Project in Seattle; The Talented Ones at Artists Rep in Portland, which won a Santa Barbara Independent Indie award; Threesome at Portland Center Stage, ACT, and 59E59, which was a winner of a Portland Drammy for Best Original Script; Pilgrims Musa and Sherry in the New World, which won a 2011 Gregory Award, also at ACT, Center Repertory Company at Walnut Creek, California, and at Mosaic Theater Company in DC. Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat was produced by Silk Road Rising and won the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award.

His play Back of the Throat, Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes, Such a Beautiful Voice is Sayeda and Karima’s City have been published by Dramatists Play Service. Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith, Collaborator, Threesome, The Talented Ones, Hostages, and In a Clear Concise Arabic Tongue have been published by Broadway Play Publishing Inc. Also, his book The Selected Works of Yussef El Guindi was published by Bloomsbury. He's currently a core company member at ACT in Seattle, a resident artist at Golden Thread Productions, and a member of the Lit Council Cohort.

Oh my goodness. It's so great to share space with you today. Thank you so much, Yussef and Leila. What an honor to get to talk to you today.

Yussef El Guindi: Thank you for inviting us. Thank you.

Leila Buck: Yeah, this is such a treat. Thank you.

Nabra: Truly. And we've really invited you here to talk about your playwriting, but you both create a, really, a breadth of works. Can you tell us how you describe yourself as a playwright or more generally as an artist?

Leila: You want to take that one first, Yussef?

Yussef: No, please, please.

Leila: I describe myself as a writer, performer, facilitator, and educator. And that's sort of a deliberate writer versus playwright because I feel like I've written other things and I'm interested in writing other things, even if I haven't written them yet. That's my daughter. And performer, yeah, actor. There's other ways. I love to sing. I love to move. So trying to sort of encourage those broader ways of defining ourselves. And facilitator because I really love creating and facilitating spaces of all kinds for people to connect and reflect and engage in different ways. And sometimes that's in the theatre and sometimes it's outside of it in other ways or connected to it. Yeah.

Marina: Great to really have expansive definitions of how you see yourself and it really speaks to what your work is and does. Yussef, how about you?

Yussef: These days, I identify myself as a playwright. I used to be actually actor/writer/playwright. Acting was my first passion. So how I got into theatre, I really wanted to get into acting, but I didn't get into acting schools and I did get into a playwriting school. So, for playwright, I got into school for the discipline playwriting. So I'm living Plan B, but I secretly wanted to live out Plan A, and I did so for the longest time. And I auditioned. I harbored this passion for acting, and I auditioned right up until my mid-thirties, I would say, thirty-six, thirty-seven, then I just became excruciatingly self-conscious on stage. I don't know what happened, but I could no longer lose myself in the roles I was playing. And I was always standing outside of what I was doing.

And I just had a couple of just horrendous experiences, both on stage, then I had my very first ever experience on camera. What a disaster. And I just realized, that's it, I'm done. Whatever passion I had for acting, the plug had been unplugged. And for a second, I thought—well, I wrote and directed and produced a short film—I thought, Well, I'll just switch to filmmaking. And not the rewards, but the amount—it was sixteen millimeter—it just wasn't as fulfilling as I thought it would be, filmmaking. And that kind of just left playwriting. I just kind of fell back on the discipline I had been taught in graduate school. And this was really my late thirties, early forties that I just began to really focus in on the playwriting. And now, while I do occasionally write short stories, I identify mostly as a playwright.

Nabra: I didn't know that you were an actor, first of all, Yussef, and it's hilarious to hear that playwriting was your Plan B because you are so widely produced and so prolific as a playwright. That's absolutely not what I expected.

Leila: Me neither.

Yussef: Yeah, no, acting. I got the bug, and it was everything. And I remember getting a tarot card reading in Cairo just before I came to the states. I did my undergraduate degree in Cairo. And I remember getting a tarot card reading, and it was about my career and there were three piles and I was going my interest is acting and I thought, well, I've written a couple of plays, I suppose I also enjoy writing. And the tarot card reading said 90 percent writing, 5 percent acting, or like 7 percent acting and 3 percent directing. And I thought, No, no, no, no, that's, no. I just kind of was like arguing with the tarot card reader. I said, “No, you got it backwards. It's 90 percent acting, then everything else.” And she said, “Nope, it's writing.” And so there you go. And I got another reading in Cairo just before I came, a numerology thing, and they said nothing's going to happen for you professionally until much later in life. I remember thinking what, five years from twenty? And if I had known, he was like, “No, no, it's going to be like twenty years.” It's like, oh my God. So there you go. There's something to it.

Leila: Wow. I need to know who these readers were in Cairo. They clearly have something very special.

Yussef: They were very good, but there you go.

Nabra: Amazing.

Leila: I second Nabra. Your Plan B is pretty amazing. And I'm selfishly grateful for it on behalf of our entire community. But also, what you said reminds me, too, that that's also part of why I don't identify as an actor per se, because I think it conjures a more narrow definition of what that means in the business, so to speak. And I certainly feel similarly to what you described. I've done some shows, and I feel grateful that I've been able to do them and all of that and get my equity card and tour and do those things, and I think for me, I found the auditioning so frustrating, particularly as a however, you know, largely then defined as Middle Eastern American or Arab American, or now more SWANA, but not when I was starting to audition.

Now there's more roles for twenty-something women, not for women my age. And so, I think part of it was just not being interested in playing the roles that were available and not getting the ones that I was interested in sometimes. Certainly all different identifications and genders navigate this differently. For me as someone who's a cisgendered woman, the roles were sort of being asked to reproduce trauma a lot of the time and embodying that in ways that were really hard. And not acting wise, but just energetically taking a toll, and also not what I wanted to keep representing. And I think the more I started writing, I don't know if you feel this Yussef, but the more I started writing, the more I felt like, oh, this gives me at least a little bit more control over what it is I'm—

Yussef: Agency—

Leila: Yeah, agency. Exactly. Thank you. That's better than control because you're collaborating, but that agency, that ability to sort of add to and broaden a scope of narrative. And I did find it hard, I think you said something like this, for me it was harder than to get out of my head if I was in a role where I didn't agree with what it was representing. I really admire and I'm grateful for the many actors I work with who are able to put that sort of aside and say, listen, I am here to work, to access this, to express this, to channel this, however people identify it. And I think that's a beautiful and necessary skill and it just was harder and harder for me. So I think that's why I say performer, because I feel like even when I perform my own works, or even when I perform other works, it feels like there's more agency in that in my head somehow.

Leila: And I want there to be that kind of agency for all actors in our field. And I don't know how that happens, but I like trying to see how we can do that in our rehearsal rooms or in our processes, how can actors have more of an agency in what we're creating? I think that's why I like to create with actors because I just want there to be more broad spaces for everyone in our field without those narrow definitions that kind of can be sort of discouraging for so many.

Yussef: Yeah. And I agree. A couple of things. I always say, it's not what is your passion, it's what are you willing to put up with? Because every passion comes with crap. Being an actor comes with its crap. Being a writer comes with its downsides and I'm much more willing to put up with the rejections, the occasional humiliations, all that stuff, the knocking on doors, the door-to-door sales, which actors also have to be.

I just couldn't deal with, as you say, the auditions and just all those series of circus hoops that one has to go through as an actor. Now that I'm not an actor, my respect for actors has grown. It's huge. It's so strange because when I was kind of in both camps as an actor and as a writer, I sometimes got frustrated with the actors.

Now I have such respect and awe for their craft. It's like I'll sit there sometimes in rehearsal and just be amazed at the transformation, at what they're doing. And at the end of the day, the actors become the playwrights. You leave the rehearsal room and they're the storytellers. So they take over and it's your voice through them, and it's their telling the story. And so for me, actors have as much agency, eventually much more agency than the playwrights in that they have the final say so to speak. They are on stage. They command the audience. And so, yeah, I'm in deep awe of actors in the craft of acting.

Nabra: I completely agree. Yeah.

Leila: Yes, I do too. I think it's about what the projects that we have and the room we create for that, that agency and that honoring of the most vital role in many ways in the theatre. Not to say the most, all roles are vital, but one of the most vital roles, certainly, I think.

Marina: Yeah. Because both of you sort of bend genres in different ways. And I think that if in the MENA/SWANA identity with writing dramas, it can feel like—and Nabra and I have talked about this before—about adding to the “doom and gloom” of talking about the Middle East. But when writing comedy there, it can feel like, “Oh, are we making light of this or are we taking people's baggage and putting it on stage in different ways?” But you both handle both drama and comedy so beautifully and all of the genre bending ways that you handle writing in between.

And I'm curious about what goes into your considerations when you're doing this. Are there stereotypes that you consider while writing? Or how you're moving forward from situations that can be contradictions? I've gotten to see both of your work, American Dreams online and Hotter than Egypt recently in person, and obviously read your plays, but they're such vast experiences of human emotion. So, it's a broad question, but wondering how you begin those processes and navigate some of those situations?

Yussef: First of all, I think humor... And I think, Nabra, you were saying this, talking about... Humor is, especially Egyptian humor, I know just humor across the Middle East, it is a survival tool. Egyptians can be hysterically funny, and you know it's their way of dealing with the crap that they have to deal with, with the frustrations and inconveniences and sometimes just absurd bureaucracy. It's just, humor is a survival tool, a safety valve. And so there is much humor. I think that's often ignored, frequently ignored in plays involving Middle Eastern characters, but to me, it's just woven into the fabric and character of the people and culture. Life in general, it's funny one moment, it's tragic the next. Life is both.

And also, I did start out when I first began writing, I had great admiration for people who wrote farces. I was a great fan of farceurs, whether Fado or somebody like Joe Orton, there was something about farce in particular, comedy, yes, but even farce was sharper and a little crueler. And I think there's a fine line that is often said between farce and tragedy. And I think that in dealing with a lot of these subjects, you are walking this fine line.

Things could make you weep or that you just explode in laughter because what else can you do? And there is a cruelty to life that I think comedy and farce… Sometimes that's the best way to reflect it because to reflect it through straight drama or tragedy can be unbearable. Comedy and laughter become a way to sweeten the poison or as a way to reflect that cruelty that's out there in a way that the audience can digest and recognize and not be put off by. You can still move them through the story without pushing them away with some of the heaviness of the subject matter you might be dealing with. I don't think laughter is an avoidance. Laughter for me is a way into some of the most complex questions.

Nabra: I completely agree, and yeah, I often talk about how MENA folks are just so funny, and it's frustrating to me that a lot, most of, the narratives that we see being produced in theatre and in film about the Middle East is super dark and dramatic and filled with war and violence, because exactly as you're saying, there's always humor within all of that. That is true. That is present in a lot of our lives and countries and cultures. But through that, we cope through humor. And I found that coming back to America—I came back here when I was seventeen—and that was a little bit of the culture shock of coming back is that I'd really developed my Arab sense of humor. And one of the things that I think about a lot is my mom and I both love to tell slaughtering animal stories around Eid because non-MENA Americans are always asking, oh, it's Eid, happy Eid, what do you usually do in Eid and I'm like, “I send money to Egypt so they can slaughter animals.” Then I'll go off and tell them the stories of all the times I was a young girl and watching animals being slaughtered.

And I think they're just hilarious stories because they're so dramatic and traumatic probably, but just so normalized in our culture. And my mom and I will laugh and laugh and laugh and everyone that we're telling the story to will be absolutely horrified.

Yussef: Let's just be specific about the animal, sheep.

Nabra: Yes. Well, we also do goats sometimes.

Leila: And every part is used and eaten and valued, right? Yes.

Nabra: I love that both of you are like, don't worry everyone. Meanwhile, my mom and I, whenever we tell this story, we try to make it as dramatic as possible, but you're right. It's not perhaps as dramatic as it sounds.

Yussef: Yes.

Leila: In case there are any PETA people listening.

Yussef: Yes, really.

Leila: We just don't want all the vegans to tune out right now.

Nabra: That's true.

Yussef: Yeah. We'll get PETA on us or something.

Nabra: So I've also found that as a writer myself, I've kind of struggled with actors and audiences thinking that a comedy is a drama or kind of taking a joke too seriously and not feeling like they're allowed to laugh. So, I'm wondering if you both have encountered that in your writing. As you said, Yussef, it's very true that you interweave comedy and drama very naturally, and I wonder if that has been difficult for audiences or producers to kind of understand because there's this idea of it's one thing or another. Is this a comedy or is this a drama? But a lot of your plays, the ones that I'm familiar with, have both elements throughout.

And with you Leila, at least American Dreams, you did a great job of facilitating, allowing folks or inviting folks to laugh at this very intense story of immigration and really having people's lives in their hands as an interactive audience member. And yet folks were invited to laugh. But I wonder if either of you have had this issue with kind of translating the cultural significance and integration of humor into your work as MENA artists since, of course, we're not writing for all-MENA audiences most of the time or all of the time. So how do you navigate that, and what issues have you come into in that realm?

Leila: Well, I'm thinking first about sort of the role of humor. I'll get to sort of the reception thing next maybe after Yussef, but I'm just thinking about how humor began. And for me, I think it came from the first thing I wrote, which was Eyesight when I was in college, which was my thesis in college, and I was navigating moving between one of the most liberal campuses in the US and Saudi Arabia where my parents were living at the time, which is certainly one of the most conservative countries in the Arab world, at least when it comes particularly to the rights of women at that time. And yet I had grown up in other Arab countries, my mom's Lebanese, which is sort of on the opposite end of the spectrum of women's rights from Saudi in the Arab world, much more progressive in so many ways, legally and socially.

And so for me, it was both foreign and familiar because I was in an Arab country, many things about that were really familiar to me and wonderful. And I was really struck by the complexity within Saudi Arabia once my mom and I got to know a lot of the women there and then there were also things that enraged me as a feminist and as a woman. And I would come back to this campus and realize I didn't want to share those things with my fellow students for the same reason, Yussef, that we jump in and go, but we only slaughter sheep and goats. It's not actually the stereotype you think. Because I didn't want to feed these stereotypes that I was so aware were there and that were actually much more complex when they were lived. Anyway, there were a lot of conversations that I found really parallel between Saudi women and what they expressed about, for example, why some of them chose to wear a hijab.

That was very similar to why some of my college friends chose not to wear makeup or not to shave or whatever it was about being seen for their soul and their being and not their look and I found it really interesting that these very seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum were so similar in how they talked about it in some ways. Of course, there's lots of other complexities to that. So when I started writing about this, I started writing something sort of similar to what I just said, which was quite dry and sort of lecture-y and not very interesting in performance at all. And then I realized no one's going to listen to this.

And so, I had just read and performed The Kathy & Mo Show, Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffne’s amazing two-hander feminist show. And there was this amazing piece in there that was basically set to “Flight of the Bumblebees.” And it was watching a woman get dressed to go out and doing all of these... The ablutions and the this and getting primped and preened and whatever. And it was basically a very humorous, physical, comedic critique of the expectations on women's bodies in this culture from a very different end of the spectrum from Saudi. And so I had just done that and I thought, how could I do something like that, but around this issue? And so I created a piece that's part of Eyesight called “Natural Woman,” which is essentially connected to that. And it's a humorous piece. And I won't try to describe it, but it became clear to me that when I would start performing that, people could laugh at that and then recognize what I was trying to say through it much more clearly, which is basically what you said, Yussef, that this is just my sort of entry into it.

And certainly with American Dreams, I credit Tamilla Woodard hugely with that, of just saying when we would talk about how do we create (our director Tamilla Woodard) how do we create a space that people can really engage with these questions around immigration and what it means to be a citizen in a way that won't just become the trite polarized either “build the wall” or “let them all in,” and the simplicity of either of those.

And of course, I was thinking about it in all these ways, and Tamilla said, “Yes, but it has to be fun. It has to be playful. They're not coming to a lecture.” And so we came up with this game show idea, which of course for those who have gone through the citizenship process, particularly from countries that are not Western European ones, it can feel like a game show, and a game that is being played with people's lives. And we wanted people to really feel that sense of how to help people be able to laugh at the ludicrousness of what we are asking people to do in order to have the same rights as someone who was just born here. And I think humor is a way that we can laugh and then go, wait a minute, this is actually happening to real human beings. And what would I do if that were me?

Yussef: Yeah. In a situation like that, where you're going to try and reflect the immigration process, in a sense, you're not trying to be funny. On occasion, I go, okay, I need a joke here. Very rarely, very, very rarely. What you're doing is you are focusing on something like the immigration process and just kind of selectively highlighting certain things, not even selectively, you are just showing the process and people get to see the absurdity of a process and a situation. And that's funny. You don't even have to try and be funny. You just say, here is what it is, and you are able to sit back and objectively observe something, observe the machinery of something and just go, “Oh my God, that's absurd.”

And find humor in that, which is what farce is, farce and a lot of comedy is, it's the absurd machinery that we are sucked into. You can set out to be dramatic, but by purely reflecting the truth of something, people just laugh at I can't believe this is the way it is, or that people have to put up with that or the absurdity and the needlessness of some obstacles and things that are in the way of people's progress. I sometimes set out to write a comedy, but usually I'm just setting out to reflect something. And in hopefully truthfully reflecting something, you are also showing the absurdity of something and in that there's humor and laughter.

Leila: Yeah, you're making me think, Yussef, of another example I was just struck by because I was looking at it last night. It's that part of comedy that's just let me take reality and just, just touch it up a tiny bit of exaggeration. And if we take it to that extreme, we can actually see how ridiculous the "norm" is, or if we flip the subject of it. I was thinking yesterday, there's a lot going on right now in discussion that I'm a new mother and a breastfeeding mother talking about formula and formula shortage, and “Why can't women just breastfeed?” in this is very dismissive language as though breastfeeding is just something everyone can do and is just so easy and the judgment that we have about mothers and breastfeeding people in particular and all of that.

So I was looking up an article that was a serious article in the Times about that, and I found this YouTube video from a couple of years ago that was this wonderful... I think the Buzzfeed thing was... I'll try to find the link, and it was basically if men had to breastfeed and it was this hilarious What If scenario enacted with, they're at work and in the meeting everyone gets to pump and they all have their shirts off and it's like, “what can we do for you?” And then there's a lactation lounge where everyone has this special VIP club and it was hilarious.

And it made you reflect on how unlike that our society actually is. So I think those two things, that exaggeration and that sort of flipping things to make us aware, “Oh wait, yeah, why isn't it like this? Is it because it's women that do it?” and just reflecting on that. It was hilarious and very powerful in a way that a lecture about that would not have been.

Yussef: I think in this men's room there would be a beer pump next to it.

Leila: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Oh, that was the other thing was a great scene with the guy at the bar who gets his beer while he is pumping and the bartender gives him a straw. So it's easier for him. It was just hilarious.

Yussef: And the other thing to your point about convincing sometimes directors and even audiences that no, there is humor here. I was particularly—in the months, years right after 9/11, I found this with a play I wrote called Back of the Throat, and I found very hard to convince the actors that, I just said, please play it light. There is humor in the first fifteen minutes. And for a while, it was very hard to convince the creatives involved that there was humor. And then the audiences, they just think, are we supposed to laugh? I intended huge chunks of that play to be amusing. And it's rarely played for laughs.

And on occasion when I've been there, being at the rehearsal, they've managed to play that up, and it just plays so much better because you are then the absurdity of the interrogation. Again, somebody, an individual who's caught up in the bureaucracy and machinery of something, and it's both frightening and also funny and ludicrous and absurd. And what was interesting with that play was, depending, as the years went on, there was more laughter. So in the beginning, the audience didn't know, and then when there was more distance between 9/11 and then people saw a little bit more of the humor. And so yes it is, sometimes, it is hard to convince an audience it's okay, you can laugh.

Leila: First of all, I love Back of the Throat and I find it also hilarious in really powerful ways as so much of your work is and it makes me think as I'm being reminded: another aspect of humor, my husband has done a lot of work in the West Bank in Palestine and has a Palestinian partner that he works with for a nonprofit they have there. And his partner has been a human rights activist for a long time, a Palestinian rights activist, and was in Israeli prisons in solitary for a while because of that and has been through a lot in terms of interrogations and all the things that happen in Israeli prisons for Palestinian activists. And one of the things that really has struck me when I've been with at borders or in sort of situations where we're dealing with Israeli military people, is that he will use humor.

They will ask questions that are really invasive and insulting and in many ways with an energy that obviously has the power in the situation, and he reclaims the power by using humor in his responses. And I found that really powerful to see. So that's, again, another way that I think humor, I think that it plays out in your plays as well, Yussef, with some of the characters, certainly. And I think there's a power in it as writers, too, to sort of reclaim a certain kind of agency through that humor.

Yussef: Exactly. It's empowering. It's a way to seduce the audience into your play in order to... I make it sound much more sort of premeditated and strategic than I mean it to be, but it does seduce an audience into a play that at its core may be very dramatic and dealing with hard issues. And yes, it's very empowering. Comedians will tell you how all the terminology that comedians use when they evoke laughter. “I killed it, slayed the audience.” So yes, it is empowering.

Marina: Well, it's been exciting to hear you both talk a little bit about your evolution as artists, too. And I'm wondering if it's something you're tracking, how your writing has changed over that time? And also if there are projects you're working on now that might exemplify, I don't know, different things. Leila, 1001 Nights that you were working on and a commission from Noor. I'm not remembering its name, but maybe you can talk to us about that too. And I know Yussef, you just had a show go up, but you're so prolific, I'm assuming that there are many other projects you're working on too.

Leila: I would say, yeah, right now our 1001 Nights (A Retelling), which is co-written with Evren Odcikin and directed by Evren is sort of on hold. We're figuring out how we can move forward with it, our given and Cal Shakes given and COVID and everything, and how much has changed since we began writing that play, because it was very much written inside of a specific moment in this country that has shifted in some ways and not in others. So we're sort of reflecting on what are the next steps for that piece.

I have a commission that also was put on pause for COVID from En Garde Arts called, working title Mix & Match that's about, basically imagines, a Lebanese American and Irish American bride and groom getting married and invites the audience to be guests and parts of that family or that community in the process and through it examining connections between those communities and a bunch of other things. So also we're figuring out now what the next steps with that piece might be given how much has changed in this country and in Lebanon since we began working on it. So, yeah, so stay tuned for more on that. We're going to do a workshop in the fall, and we were working with Tamilla Woodard also on it, but given her new responsibilities at Yale, she's had to step back, and we are really excited that Noelle Ghoussaini is now working with us on it.

And it's just been wonderful to sort of reimagine what that piece might be with that new collaboration and then also in a new moment and talking, sort of consulting with some folks at Zoukak Theatre in Lebanon about how we might incorporate the situation as it's unfolding in Lebanon into the piece a little more and all of that.

And then my commission from Noor is called Carry You, and it is essentially an exploration of my journey to and through motherhood and through pregnancy and motherhood. And so I'm kind of doing the research right now by living it, as I've learned I sometimes just need to do with some of my work. So, this is my research phase, experiential research, and one thing I know about it is that it is not just about people who either are biologically parents or are parents in the traditional sense at all, but about all the ways that we care for and carry each other in all kinds of ways and how we make the choices in what we do for ourselves, how we take care of ourselves, how we take care of each other, how we take care of our communities, how, and when we carry each other and how that shapes us.

Yussef: You're going to have to write in parts for small kids, so you have an excuse to bring your child to rehearsals. And the actor comes in carrying, so you can almost get the actors to be babysitters for you.

Leila: I love it. Built in daycare. I love it.

Yussef: Daycare!

Nabra: Brilliant.

Yussef: I've noticed that part of the evolution was that during the 2000s, and the following decade, I was responding to headlines and news events and the wars, these revelations, and a lot of the plays were triggered by events going on around me as they continue to do, but a lot of the plays were based on sort of world events and headlines and reading reports and articles and consuming all that was going on around me. And to a degree, it still happens now, but it's a little less so, and that's actually one of the things that we talk about the Middle East and MENA plays and how there's sort of the expectation of doom and gloom. And I think people speak in other groups about being fed up with, is it called trauma porn?

Each play is depicting some horrendous aspect of that group's experience in whatever area. And I think a lot of the big theatres will produce those kinds of plays, ripped from the headlines, because that sells. It's a way of going, “Yes, you read about this, well, come and see its dramatization and insights from this playwright.” And I worry sometimes that theatres don't know what to do with plays that aren't headline plays, sensational plays, trauma porn plays.

While I've always employed humor in my plays, even in the darkest plays, I'm slowly trying to evolve from responding to these sensational headlines and just try and focus in on other aspects, other facets of our experience as MENA people moving through the world. So I would say that's my overall evolution as a playwright. In terms of specifics, I have three or four plays, one I wrote during the pandemic, one I wrote just before the pandemic. I've been rewriting those plays over and over. It's a continuous hustle as theatre people, unless you are attached to a theatre. We're door to door salesmen I always say, we're always knocking on doors and asking to be let in with our own version of vacuum cleaner. We'll see what happens.

Leila: Yussef, you're reminding me… I think, for me, the way you began with sort of what was happening in the world when you were writing and how that's shifted or evolved, and I'm thinking so much about that too, that I find both in the world... So the way I tend to write, I think we all do in different ways, but for me, it's very specifically sort of usually about something inspired by a moment in my life and in the world. And so as those things evolve, I find it challenging to pin down what I want to write. I think one of the reasons I started with solo work, partly because I started as an actor, but partly because I loved how when I wrote a solo piece, especially if I kept it minimal tech and I was very lucky in the days when there was more funding for this I think overall.

I got a lot of conference gigs and university gigs and just getting to go places and be in communities that would not have access to traditional professional theatre. And I could engage with church basements and community centers and universities and spaces where there's room for a lot of different kinds of people. And for me to engage with people I might not have engaged with. And for them to engage with people they might not have engaged with and with stories I was telling they might not have. And I loved the ability to respond to who was in the room because to me that's one of the gifts of theatre. You can actually do that because it's live.

And I find that… I used to think I was just very unprofessional because I never liked to lock a script. Anyone who's worked with me knows like, “Oh God, Leila, it's lock day, please, we've got to be in previews” and all that. And I resist the locking because I always want to be able to keep responding and keep changing based on what's happening in the world, what's happening in my life, what's happening with the people that I'm performing for or with or the performers that I'm working with or the artists that I'm collaborating with. And so I find myself thinking more and more now, I'm so inspired by all the ways that has become a space that's possible in the theatre more where there's more and more work that is not following the traditional sort of model, either in what that piece is or in how it has to get produced, as you were saying, Yussef. And I'm excited and hopeful about how we can redefine what is theatre, what is performance, how we engage with each other outside of the bubbles and the boxes.

And for me I find more and more just inspired by many artists who are doing this to sort of legitimize things I realized I started out doing and wanting to do and thought were unprofessional. But just really wanting to create spaces for healing, spaces for connections, spaces for laughter, the healing and the vitalness of joy or humor or sharing that moment in whatever way. It doesn't need to be a deep political thing always, it can just be the humanity of sharing food or sharing a laugh and how that in process for the team and for the audience can be a space that is sparking joy, that is healing. And especially to circle back to the thing about actors, I think often to your point about trauma porn, when we're producing trauma porn, we're actually asking human beings to embody that trauma over and over and over eight times a week and in hours of rehearsal.

And that takes a toll on our bodies and our psyches as actors, and nobody is paid enough in the theatre for that. And often, unfortunately, until very recently, it's not really talked about and not cared for the way we... Yes, we have fight coordinators for physical violence, but we don't have emotional fight coordinators. And now we do have intimacy, we do have some more of that. And I think about it as playwrights and it's one of the things I sort of try to frame what I teach around, because it's not a simple answer. How do we figure out when am I representing something that is traumatic that needs to be told, that's a story that needs to be told and needs to be embodied? And when am I maybe reproducing that trauma in a way that is not healthy for the people embodying it, or the people viewing it?

What part of this is sort of trauma porn and what part is essential asking people to face something that we need to face? And I certainly don't have a simple answer to that, but I hope that we keep asking that question in a world where there's so much that we're faced with every day. How can theatre be the space to imagine something different, something new, something better, something joyful and healing without being simplistic or ignoring the realities that we live with too?

Yussef: I think you're right. I think there are times when subject is dark and you just have to not be afraid. And yes, I often think of the actors. I was just going over a piece where actually speaking of comedy, there's lots of Commedia Dell’Arte, Lazzi stuff going on. And in the stage directions, I go, “If this is taxing on the actor, then just rework the physical routine.” So as a former actor, I am thinking about that, but I also wonder if it isn't, yes, getting actors to embody that trauma. I sometimes wonder, and I don't have the answer either, if it isn't the style of acting that is taught, this very sort of Stanislavski go deep into memories, pull out similar emotions.

And it almost becomes a form of psychotherapy as opposed to a much more, I don't know if it's an English or British, or sort of Brechtian or what approach, where the actors can approach something traumatic without huge emotional entanglement, where they can embody something without paying an emotional price for it. I'm not an acting teacher. I don't have the answers for that, but sometimes I do know there's a difference in style in terms of acting styles. And I just sometimes wonder if that isn't part of the equation and needs to be looked at.

Leila: Absolutely. And I'm thinking more of the physical embodiment, because emotionally, I agree with you. I think there's a lot of ways to approach that in terms of schools of acting and direction and the spaces we create and the actors ourselves. And thankfully I think this is happening less, but I do still see particularly... And maybe I'm more prone to notice this because it's the roles that I would more be called in for, but particularly still for MENA or SWANA women being asked to enact sexual violence, being the victims of violence in a physical way. And of course with light choreography and all of that and intimacy, but that is still your body, it is still your body, and you are still embodying that even if you are the most professional at creating those sort of boundaries for yourself, there's still something I believe at least.

And I've heard from many brilliant actors who do this brilliantly, that it takes its toll. And so thinking about how do we find the ideal sort of space where we're not shying away, as you said, from things that we need to be confronted with. And that part of the point is that it is disturbing and how are we taking care of our actors in that process? And for me with your work, one of the ways that happens so beautifully is with the humor, is with the empowerment and as you said with this sort of really direction that I see in your work of lightness towards things that are quite intense, and I don't know that always happens in work, particularly, I will say by people from outside of our community. I'm interested in how we take care of each other in that process and also honor, particularly MENA and SWANA artists’ visions and whatever people want to represent.

Nabra: Well, I must say that y'all have brought up so many different dimensions of this conversation, and we're at the end of our time unfortunately. But I know you have a such a wealth of knowledge and stories within both of you. And we're just so thankful to have spent this hour with you chatting about this and about the role of humor, and as well as this interesting conversation around all of the elements that go into telling a story that is culturally informed, that integrates, that is trauma informed as well, and that integrates that care without kind of shielding an audience from anything, by telling the truths of our stories.

That feels like the core of how y'all approach writing and approach stories is through truth. And sometimes the humor comes out of that truth very naturally. And sometimes that truth also kind of presents a great responsibility to hold our community and to hold the folks that are also telling these stories with you. So there's so much to unpack within this and to continue to think about, and to continue to talk about, but it's just so lovely that both of you were here and it's just such a privilege and an honor to talk to both of you. Thank you so much.

Yussef: Well, thank you both. I really appreciate it. It was lovely being on this panel with everyone. Thank you for inviting us.

Marina: Yeah. So grateful for your work and for your presence and your brilliance. Oh my goodness.

Leila: Thank you.

Marina: Thank you so much for having tea with us. This has been another episode of Kunafa and Shay. We're your hosts, Marina and Nabra. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find podcasts.

Nabra: Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of progressive and disruptive content, on howlround.com

Marina: Have an idea for an exciting podcast essay or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the comments.

Nabra: We hope you tune in next time. Thank you for joining us on Kunafa and Shay.

Marina and Nabra: Yalla, bye!

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