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Drama on Video

With Andrea Assaf

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: This season, we’ll be focusing on twenty-first-century MENA theatre, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the US. 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: Yalla. Grab your tea. The shay is just right.

Marina: In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about drama on video, especially relevant because of COVID, but it was definitely happening before then too. In previous episodes, we've talked about the film work of Zeina Daccache and Jen Marlowe who made documentaries about their plays, audio plays through Golden Thread, Noor, IVP, their reading series and Zoom plays produced live but mediated through Zoom and video like This Is Who I Am.

In Egypt, they used to televise stage plays, which popularized comedic drama in the middle of the twentieth century. We will share some examples of different types of drama on video, including stage productions, video plays, shows that integrate social media, and Zoom plays. We also interviewed Andrea Assaf from Art2Action, who has been doing video-based dramatic productions since well before the pandemic.

Nabra: So the first production that I want to talk about is Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran by Javaad Alipoor Company. This was produced— I saw it through Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, so I want to make sure to shout them out. But this really stands out to me in all the Zoom theatre/pandemic virtual theatre viewing that I’ve seen. It really stood out so I wanted to start with that as a really unique version of drama on video. So the play is just such an interesting virtual production because it uses social media as an integral part of the audience’s experience. So before the show, you’re asked to follow a private Instagram account and, throughout the play, the narrators who are just two actors—and they’re narrating the story on video—they ask you to scroll through the Instagram account at specific points and look at specific photos or videos. They even tell you to look up certain hashtags on Instagram that relate to the story and free browse on your own.

The play was mostly the two actors, each in their respective separate houses, looking at the camera and telling the story of a car crash that involved rich Iranian young adults in Tehran, and illuminates elements of rich culture in Tehran, as well as goes on to talk about greater philosophical considerations. The journey honestly takes you on a lot of really unexpected paths, and it doesn’t end in the way that you would expect it to end. In addition to the social media aspect, there are video graphics and film-like stylized moments throughout that also enhance the play and lead to a very compelling and interesting final product.

It’s a live event with audience interaction so it has those crucial theatrical elements to make it feel like a play, but it also has certain elements that are unique to film and the virtual sphere. And I think that it integrates those live and virtual elements really beautifully. Also in the Arab Spring, for instance, social media played a huge role in that movement because it was a way to kind of get past local news, even international news and censorship that was happening digitally and in other ways so, social media is really historically and recently a very powerful tool in the Middle East and that whole region, and it’s really interesting that they integrated that into this particular play.

There are honestly just a lot of bad Zoom and virtual plays, but this, and as well as This Is Who I Am by Amir Nizar Zuabi, were really compelling as digital plays because they were made for the media they were hosted on. Rich Kids specifically used social media and narrator-talking-into-camera-to-an-unseen-audience kind of framework as a part of the narrative storytelling. This Is Who I Am is about a son and a father Zoom cooking with each other in different countries, so it works perfectly in that media. During COVID, theatremakers have learned that the use of video can make their art more accessible, can have a wider geographical reach, and, in some ways, perhaps further popularize the art form. Although some people had been using video as an element in theatre before the pandemic, as we will explore later in this episode, many theatremakers are discovering a new form of theatre, one that is partially or fully digitized. And new types of drama on video may emerge in this unique time.

Marina: Yes. So it’s worth talking about Silk Road Rising’s online work here, which existed well before the pandemic. And they have three different categories of their digital work. They have documentary films, animated shorts, and video plays. The documentary films are Sacred Stages: A Church, a Theatre, and a Story and Not Quite White: Arabs, Slavs, and the Contours of Contested Whiteness, which are part of Silk Road Rising’s advancement of their mission and the “unraveling and dissecting its deeper meanings.”

The Four Hijabs is an animated short that they created. Silk Road Rising has created and produced five video plays, and those are: Obstacle Course, The Imam and the Homosexual, The Balancing Arab, both/and, and Multi Meets Poly, which is where multiculturalism and polyculturalism go on a first date. So this is really interesting because [Jamil] Khoury [Silk Road Rising’s co-executive artistic director] first coined this term “video play” in 2011 and he described it as something that’s “conceived for the stage, interpreted cinematically, and then rendered online.” It’s a theatrical experience that is “worthy of the title of ‘play’” but that it “rejects the limitations and binary of the stage and the screen.” So in rejecting those notions, it capitalizes on the strengths of both mediums while creating a new form that is accessible to people that have access to an electronic device and internet access.

Something that Jamil Khoury has written about this is,

While the definition of the term continues to evolve, it’s important to note that a video play is neither a filmed play nor a feature film, but rather a marriage of genres, a hybrid of theatrical language and design aesthetics, enacted on a theatrical stage, conveyed through a cinematic lens and engaged on a computer tablet or smartphone screen or at a public screening.

These video plays share a common desire to bring complex political, social, and cultural conversations into people’s homes. And the video play also serves as a flexible platform that’s not confined to the conventional lengths that feature films or standard plays are confined.

Nabra: So this is such an interesting experience for me watching Multi Meets Poly because I had vaguely heard the term video play, like reading the description on YouTube, but I hadn’t really looked into I guess the theories behind it that Khoury has articulated. And to me, it looked like a film. It was filmed in an apartment, or I guess an apartment set, and the shot composition had some of the characteristics of a film. But as I watched more, I recognized some of the qualities that are much more characteristic of theatre. The whole one-hour video is just two people talking in their apartment and that simplicity alone is just not something you see very much on film and so it gave me more of that feeling of watching a stage play and started to get me to understand this video play classification.

Marina: And something that really excites me about it is the fact that— So Multi Meets Poly is specifically talking about multiculturalism and polyculturalism. People might not be following what’s being written about this in scholarly academic articles, and this play makes these complex topics and the way that multiculturalism and polyculturalism have been used in different ways into a really accessible thirtyish-minute piece where you don’t have to go and slog through an academic article necessarily to get this content.

I’m also interested in artists who theorize their own work and so that’s something that Jamil Khoury is doing here. So he’s labeled Multi Meets Poly as a pedagogidrama, which is a video play event that’s not meant for entertainment as much as it is a “theatricalized intellectual workout.” And so it’s primarily supposed to be a teaching and learning tool that asks the audience to be engaged thinkers and to lean into the piece. And he talks about how, as a playwright, he has grown interested in the idea of dramatizing discursive arguments not as “stealth messaging” but as a “basis for constructing a story.” So these are ideas that I’m really interested in and have found this theorizing that Jamil Khoury is doing to be really interesting.

Nabra: This work of Silk Road Rising also makes me think about the title of a recent American Theatre Magazine article. It was written by Kelundra Smith and the article is called “If a Theatre Company Does It, Is It Theatre?” In the article, Lily Tung Crystal, the artistic director of Theatre Mu, calls the virtual work we are seeing a hybrid art form, but that the live aspect of the work is the key element that differentiates it from film. But some virtual events put on by theatre companies are not live—they’re prerecorded, just like films. In many cases the fact that the performance occurs on stage makes it clear that it’s theatre, but in some cases, the editing and shots are much more stylized. So as we talked about, Silk Road Rising has released documentary films, animated short films, and video plays. And so the lines between theatre and film are just very blurry at this moment. And there aren’t really clear answers of what that distinction is, or even whether we really need to make that distinction, I guess in some ways.

Marina: Nabra’s question about classification and hybridity is one that’s really important. So we were trying to think of, okay, video and film. Film technically refers to image and sound that’s recorded, historically on a celluloid film strip using a chemical exposure development process. And video refers to information recorded on a magnetic tape, VHS, or in the case of digital video as digital information. So film also then carries the connotation of a feature-length movie, while video is often used to refer to shorter works, something that might be amateur or less commercial. Others might say that video tends to capture the moment as it is while films are focused on creating a hyperreal version of reality, which can involve camera angles and visual effects to contribute to this world making. So in the past, perhaps one would say that film and video utilize different tools for storytelling, but also these lines have blurred as different media is really playing with these tools in different ways, which is an exciting time to be witnessing this art.

Nabra: Yeah, and as with many things we bring up in these podcasts, there aren’t any clear answers. And so today we’re actually going to be asking some of these questions and learning from somebody who’s been doing video drama or some type of multimedia work in this way for much longer than the pandemic. So I’d love to introduce you to our interviewee today, Andrea Assaf. Andrea Assaf is a writer, performer, director, and cultural organizer. She’s the founding artistic and executive director of Art2Action, Inc. and the national coordinator of the National Institute for Directing & Ensemble Creation, which is an Art2Action collaboration with Pangea World Theater. She is currently artist-in-residence and guest faculty at the School of Theatre and Dance at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Andrea has served as a consultant with Equity Quotient, Alternate ROOTS, and the Arts and Democracy project, and more. She’s a former artistic director of New WORLD Theatre and former program associate for Animating Democracy.

Andrea has a master’s degree in Performance Studies and a BFA in acting both from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She currently serves on the board of CAATA, which is the Consortium of Asian American Theatres and Artists, and is a voting board member of Alternate ROOTS. She’s also a founding steering committee member of the new MENA Theatre Makers Alliance, or MENATMA. She has served on the international management committee of WPI, which is Women Playwrights International, in 2012 to 2015, and is a member of RAWI, which is the Radius of Arab American Writers. Andrea’s original, full-length theatre works include DRONE and Eleven Reflections on September, works that both integrate filmed and live components.

Marina: DRONE is a transdisciplinary performance project integrating theatre, live music, drone technology, and artistic containers for public dialogue. It explores the drone as a metaphor for how we become desensitized to daily violence, both domestic and global. The question for moral injury and the effects of remote-control warfare on the human soul. Eleven Reflections on September is a poetry/spoken word multimedia performance on Arab American experience, wars on/of terror, and the “constant quiet rain of death amidst beauty,” that each autumn brings in a post-9/11 world. Andrea, we’re so glad to have you with us today. Thank you so much.

Andrea Assaf: Thank you for inviting me. It’s great to be here.

Marina: So I’m going to ask you a question that is both my favorite and my least favorite. How do you describe yourself as an artist?

Andrea: Yes, that is one of my least favorite questions. But it is important that we articulate what it is that we do because sometimes folks really don’t know what happens in the life of a theatre artist. Side note, I once had the opportunity— My mother came to visit when I was in the middle of production, like in tech week, like right before our show was opening. And so I was like, great mom, you’re going to experience a day in the life of an artistic director, and I just dragged her around to everything I had to do for like twelve hours. So that’s a little story.

But anyway I am primarily a theatre artist, that’s how I’m trained and it’s kind of my training background as an actor and I learned to be a director by doing it. A lot of trial and error. And I’m also a writer. So sometimes I write and perform my own work. Right now I’m actually writing a new play that’s a large ensemble cast. And I also direct other people’s plays, but mostly what I love to do as a theatre artist is interdisciplinary collaborations. So sometimes I collaborate with multimedia artists, actually often—projection designers, video artists, media designers. Sometimes with live music, sometimes with dancers or movement artists. And I really love being able to collaborate with artists who have expertise in something that is not my area so I get to learn and explore and find the unexpected possibilities in those interdisciplinary collaborations. That’s what I get excited about in creating new work.

Nabra: I love that. I think that interdisciplinary work and multimedia work is so important to the art form, to any art form really, and I’m always surprised when an artist only has one niche that they work in. But I love the community-engaged aspect of your work as well. And you brought up before in our communications that sometimes there’s a conflation of video projection and multimedia work and film. So how do you define the work that you do that’s kind of at the intersection of that?

Andrea: Yeah, I really do think that there’s a difference between film, as in what we see in a movie theatre or on Netflix, and a projection design that is created for live performance. I think in the theatre or live performance realm, the projections or the video art is really part of the ensemble. It has to support the live performance and it has to ideally interact or add layers of meaning to all the other elements of the live production, which is quite a different process. There are things that are definitely similar on the technical and technological dimension, which I’m definitely discovering right now as we’re in the process of converting a live performance to a completely virtual experience.

There are a lot of things that are similar in film production and in what you need to do with multimedia work in live performance, particularly the technical aspects. For example like, sometimes you do a take that’s about three minutes long and it takes another hour, hour and a half, to make technical adjustments before you can film another three minutes but— That part of the process is similar, but the aesthetics are very different. And what I find exciting about what’s possible with projection design in live performance is that we’re not confined by the aesthetics of realism that are dominant in the film industry, particularly Hollywood and mainstream film production, or even television, right. That relies on a certain amount of the expectation of realism, whereas in the theatre we can use video design in a much more abstract or imaginative way, I find.

Nabra: Yeah. And you talked about this a little bit just now, that potential of non-realism in this video drama work. But how do you see that evolving? What do you see as that potentially? Why do you do the work you do? Especially before COVID, you’ve been doing this work, what is the potential of that work that’s at the intersection of theatre and video or film?

Andrea: Yeah, I’ll talk about it before COVID and then this current experience. I really started collaborating with media designers when I was first creating Eleven Reflections on September, which was first produced in 2011 by Pangea World Theater as part of their Alternate Visions Festival. And that piece is very much about being Arab American in the post-9/11 era. And for me, the experience of living through 9/11 as a New Yorker and being Arab American at the same time, the media was inescapable. It just felt like the enormity of the event was one thing, but then it just kept going and going and going by the way the media replayed the event, but also the demonization of Arab and Muslim people that we began to see more and more of, through everything from news media to popular film and television.

And I think there’s a really important documentary called Reel Bad Arabs, R-E-E-L Bad Arabs, about the last hundred years of Hollywood production and the systematic demonization of Arab and Muslim people, which often has been related—most people don’t know—to the way funding works, especially for war films, and the fact that the Pentagon actually gives funding to some Hollywood-produced films.

And so our political involvement in the Middle East and political agenda, I’ll say in the Middle East, absolutely is connected to Hollywood representation, because there’s a literal, tangible connection through Pentagon funding. And that’s not new or particular to the Middle East only, it goes back to the Vietnam war and which films about Vietnam were eligible for that funding and which ones weren’t based on what kind of message the film ultimately had. Platoon is a great example.

So anti-war films obviously had a harder time getting funding or weren’t eligible for Pentagon funding and pro-war films were. You can also see this in the proliferation of World War II films for example. So that relationship, very, very direct relationship, between military policy and the representation of our communities and cultures in mainstream film and media. It may be shocking if it’s not something that you’re familiar with. I encourage people to research that, but that was something that I was responding to in feeling like I have to include media in some way. I have to wrestle with my relationship as an Arab American to the media in creating this piece. And that’s what started me on this journey.

Nabra: And then what about after COVID? I know you were going to talk about before and then, yeah. What about this work after COVID or during?

The performers of Eleven Reflections on September, including Andrea Assaf.

Eleven Reflections ensemble, from left to right: Eylem Basaldi, Andrea Assaf, Lubana Al Quntar, April Centrone. Photo by Kacey Anisa (2016).

 

Andrea: Yeah, so this is a whole new... It used to be that, we’d always talk about, what about the archive and how do we document our work? And funders were always asking us about documentation and dissemination, and it was something that as artists producing live performance, we just never had time to focus on because we were always in production mode, and then suddenly we’re all working from home and it’s like, ah, what am I going to do with all this video footage? And then it started to feel like the only creative act that was possible in a way, as well as virtual events, live online events. So with COVID we started converting all of our community-based and live programming to online, mostly Zoom virtual events, and at the same time did a major redesign of the Art2Action website with my organization and started really trying to make a lot of the video archival footage useful or available through platforms like Vimeo, YouTube, and the website art2action.org.

So that’s been an interesting process, but now there’s just been a huge learning curve I think for all of us about how to use these technologies like Zoom, and the technologies themselves are changing every other week, quite literally. And so it’s been a not only race to keep up with it, but really to investigate how to make this creative and aesthetic, and not just functional, right?, for a live theatre work. And now May 1 2021 was supposed to be my first return to the stage as a live in-person performance and of course because of the pandemic that’s been changed to a virtual event. So we’re now trying to essentially recreate Eleven Reflections on September as a completely virtual experience with musicians in three different states and myself here in Tampa, Florida, and designers in London. The exciting thing about this virtual age I would say is that we can really work with each other from anywhere. Even though time zones make it a little challenging for some people to get some sleep, but now what’s possible in global collaboration is actually really exciting even though the technology is often challenging and frustrating.

Marina: Definitely. And so you mentioned Art2Action, and I know that Art2Action and the website that you’re just talking about is a place that you share some of these pieces. We’d love to hear you talk more about Art2Action and also how you’re sharing other pieces. I know that right now you’re creating virtual work and that’s being shared in one way but we’d love to hear you talk more about that in general, too.

Andrea: Sure. Art2Action is a nonprofit organization incorporated in the state of New York and in Florida, as I mentioned, we’re based in Tampa, Florida, which is Seminole land. And we do a lot of community-based work and presenting here, and also, when we’re not in a pandemic, host our artist residencies and support the development of new work. And then we also tour Aboriginal work. So I tour often as a performer and sometimes as a director with other companies in collaboration. And we do a lot of national collaborations actually, for example, I mentioned Pangea World Theater earlier. We have an ongoing program that we co-present with Pangea called the National Institute for Directing & Ensemble Creation, which is usually an in-person intensive in the summers but this year has been a virtual series that has been livestreamed with HowlRound. So we’re doing masterclasses and interviews with artists. Particularly artists of color and women directors, where we really talk about artistic process and somewhat like we’re doing now in terms of talking about an artist’s work and how they arrived to the process or technique that they use now, so we encourage you to tune into that.

Some of our community-based programs… Like we had a multiyear program for veterans in the Tampa Bay area, US military veterans, we had a monthly veterans open mic and that’s been a real challenge because so many venues have closed because of the pandemic. So the venue that hosted the open mic has closed, and we’re still in the process of figuring out how, when the pandemic is over, we can return to community-based creative spaces and gatherings like that.

We often do presenting work in collaboration with the University of South Florida, which is a state university very close to us. And we love to collaborate with them. In fact, I’ve been doing some online teaching this semester on community-based arts practice, which is a new general education course at the university that is taught through the theatre school. So the pandemic has made some things possible and in really interesting ways. And it’ll be really interesting to see what sticks, I think some of what we’ve discovered by having to be virtual for a year is going to now be part of the expectation of our communities and audiences, especially the accessibility that virtual programming offers. I think it’s not going away. I think we’re now going to have to figure out how to produce live events and continue to be accessible virtually in the way that we have this year.

Nabra: Yeah, that was actually one of my next questions, which was: How do you see this new paradigm affecting the future of theatre, especially as someone who has been thinking about theatre as a multimedia art form? Do you see that being more common or do you see the art form itself changing in any way? What are your predictions?

Andrea: Yeah, I’m not sure if I’m good at predictions, but here’s what I think might be happening. I think that even before the pandemic, we were exploring more and more the question of interactivity, like the explosion of platforms from YouTube to TikTok, especially TikTok, has really shown us how exciting it is for people to get to co-create and not to just interact but actually be a collaborator in the artistic or creative experience in some way. And so I think that the things that we’re learning about producing through these platforms that have built-in interactivity are going to influence, like I said, the expectations of theatre going forward, but also hopefully it’s gotten us excited about what’s possible. And so not only is live performance becoming more and more interdisciplinary with multimedia design, it’s also, I think, making us question what we mean by liveness—if it’s really live, that means people get to be a part of it, right?

I hope that we’re discovering things about interactivity in a way that changes our previous... I’ve never been really a fan of the fourth wall anyway. I’m always looking for ways to make the audience feel not like passive observers but community participants in a performance experience. And I think this is just pushing us a step further to redefine and stop this, artists on the stage/audience in the seats division that we’ve inherited from Western theatre, which is actually not at all what performance is like in many of the cultures that we come from as people of color globally, right?

In this strange twenty-first-century way, I think this is making us return to the question of liveness and interactivity in new ways that I think is going to push us. I think that we are right now developing aesthetics and tools with the technology that we’re going to keep developing after the pandemic and that is going to lead to new aesthetic inventions, interventions, discoveries. I think that we’ll look back on this time and these Zoom produced things and be like, oh, weren’t we cute in 2020, look at the technology we have now. I really think that’s where it’s going.

Nabra: I love that. I’m onboard with Oracle Andrea. I think those are great predictions.

Marina: Agreed. You do so many different kinds of pieces but my question is: When you have a concept or an idea for a piece, do you have a typical process? I’m assuming that they all look a little bit different based on who they’re intended for, or what your medium is, but we would love to hear you talk a little bit about what your process is and if you want to choose a particular piece, maybe you can talk us through a little bit about what that concept to production might’ve looked like.

Andrea: Yeah. If I can talk about a couple by way of comparison, because it is really different every time. Community-based work has a particular process that is about building relationships, building partnerships, building trust, offering workshops, getting to know a community’s issues and challenges and who they are and what they’re interested in, and ultimately what stories they have to tell. And then through a facilitation process really helping to design a process and then support people in creating raw material, which is their own stories or poems or songs or whatever it is that they want to create. And then, essentially, curating that raw material, editing and shaping it, and then working with other professional artists and designers to bring it to performance. My favorite kind of community-based work is with people from the community actually on stage, even though there might be professional artists and students in the collaboration or even on stage with them. I’m not as interested in performing someone else’s story as helping them perform their own story for their community.

So that’s one kind of process and it’s a very different process when I’m working with a team of professional artists on a piece that’s going to tour, say. And even those are different, depending on my role, like in Eleven Reflections, I am the writer, director, producer, and the person who performs the text. So I’m wearing a lot of hats and that means I have to really rely on all the collaborators to be experts at what they do. And to really work collaboratively, like Eleven Reflections, part of the concept began with… I had written since the event of 9/11, at that time, over ten years, little by little— Been writing these pieces of poetry and spoken-word pieces that I then started to weave into full-length performance.

And my thought was, I’m so American, I’m Lebanese American, but I’m third generation and I don’t speak Arabic and I didn’t really grow up in a community, an Arab American community. And so I’m out there doing spoken word, like New York City–style, right. And I’m like, well, I wonder what would happen if I invited a bunch of musicians who play Middle Eastern music to collaborate, would it even work? Would my poetry speak to this music and vice versa? Or maybe it would be a hot mess? I don’t know. But that was the experiment, so maybe to answer your question, maybe my process often starts with a question or an experiment even before I have a concept and then the concept develops through the collaboration of text, live music, and projection design.

The new play I’m working on is very much a play with characters and a narrative and a dramatic structure and large cast. It’s a very ambitious project. It’s called DRONE and it’s about the US use of weaponized drones in military drones. And that really started with an enormous amount of research, like years of research. And it’s a very, very hard script to write because the testimonies of people who have witnessed or survived drone strikes are... They’re just crushing. They’re just so hard to read and then to figure out how to transform that into an artistic experience that American audiences can hear and witness. And so that process before the pandemic was supposed to start through a series of ensemble explorations with the cast, and then that’s been impossible in 2020 and 2021. So I thought, well, I have a tremendous amount of material. I’ll just be a little old school here and start with the script and write it.

And so we actually did in the month of February. I had a digital residency with the Arab American National Museum, which gave me an opportunity to pull all these bits and pieces into a full-length script and invite an incredible ensemble of actors to do a virtual reading on Zoom online, which was really, really effective as part of creative process. I really didn’t know if it was going to work or help or not, but it actually was a great way to begin to share the script with people and have conversations about it and get feedback. So now that’s going to send me into another round of revisions and rewrites and another draft of the script. And hopefully by 2022 we’ll be able to gather and actually do the ensemble work.

Nabra: Yeah. I love that you said that you went old school and just wrote a script. And I just, like, love the idea that just writing a script is so old school, come on, you’re not working with community, you’re not doing something multidisciplinary. I do really hope that that is the future of theatre. And you also talked about how your art is really tied to community engagement and that Art2Action does community-engagement work with and beyond the art. I think with anything relating to community engagement, there’s an element of activism in there. Can you talk a little bit more about the activism of the art pieces and how you tie art to activism, and if that multimedia quality of the art perhaps facilitates more widespread activism and engagement?

Andrea stands facing one screen with projected words on it with another behind her. Behind the second screen stands a man playing the oud.

Andrea Assaf performing in Eleven Reflections on September written and directed by herself. Video Art by Pramila Vasudevan. Performed by: Andrea Assaf, Eylem Basaldi, April Centrone, Lubana Al Quntar.

Andrea: That’s a really great question. Yeah, for me, absolutely doing community-engaged work is always about activism. And, unfortunately, I don’t think that that’s always true for a lot of theatres or companies—sometimes it’s just about butts in seats and audience development, which is not what I’m interested in, not in the sense that I don’t want people to see the work, but in the sense that I don’t believe that that’s the way to have impact. To me, community engagement is about building real relationships so that when people do come to the theatre, it’s because they already deeply care. They’re already engaged in the subject. They already have something to say so that it’s a dialogue and it’s not about consumerism, right.

And for me, ideally, there’s always an activist component, but again it’s very different, depending on each and every project, sometimes it’s about raising awareness about a particular issue. Sometimes it’s about community healing or even individual healing and transformation. I think with the veteran work people are often surprised to see an Arab American artist working with US military veterans, many of whom have served in the Middle East. But I started that work partly, I have to give a shout out to Linda Parris-Bailey and the Carpetbag Theatre, because way back in 2012, Linda invited me to direct her play called Speed Killed My Cousin, which is not about drugs, but about vehicular suicide among veterans returning from combat.

When we were working on Speed Killed My Cousin, we had to learn a whole lot about PTSD and we were introduced to the concept of moral injury, which is a concept I continue to work with in the DRONE project. So there was an enormous component of that work that was about understanding what war does to mental health and how people heal and what arts and creative process have to do with healing, which doesn’t sound like activist work but in fact I came to realize through that process that maybe the thing that our communities, meaning Arab American communities or communities that have lived through war, have in common with military veterans is war itself, is trauma itself.

And if we can understand that better, then maybe we can have a different kind of conversation. We can have a different kind of dialogue about what it means to be anti-war. I realized after working on Eleven Reflections initially that there were a whole lot of people who will never walk in the door to see my work, simply because of my last name, because I have a Lebanese last name. They’ll never show up for my work, but they will show up to hear veterans tell their story. And if the veterans who’ve lived through war are saying essentially the same thing that I’m trying to say about war, then we can really move the envelope. Then we’re not just preaching to the choir, we’re not just talking to audiences who already agree with us. Then we’re having a real conversation across identity and political lines about, “What are we doing? What are we doing as a nation? What are we doing to our own people that we ask to serve and what are we doing to the people who have to live with what we’ve done for decades after, or generations after?”

So for me that’s the activism. The activism is a different level of dialogue is possible when you have real community members engaged in real conversations about things we never talk about. Things that we don’t say on TV. Other projects… You asked about the media component especially during COVID. I had the opportunity in the fall to collaborate with Houston in Action, which is an incredible community-organizing organization in Houston, Texas around voter engagement and voter mobilization. Everything was virtual obviously, so what we were able to do was create a call for proposals for artists and get a team of twelve different artist organizations and artistic projects working on voter mobilization, reaching out to different communities of color in Texas, in the Houston area specifically, but also, since it’s all digital, it was useful nationally.

So we were working with a Vietnamese American animator who was doing an Instagram series in Vietnamese and English. We were working with multiple Spanish bilingual artists and organizations. We were working with African American artists who are trying to engage dialogue about internalized racism and why the vote is important. All kinds of things that we were able to do virtually that actress and comedian and performance artist Kristina Wong did a whole series of kids telling adults why they have to vote as there’s this video series.

So it was really fun, it was really hard but we felt like it really moved the needle. We know that voter turnout, obviously not because of one project but because of the collective power of so many organizations and artists and organizers on the ground working together, that voter turnout among communities of color in Houston, Texas hit a historic new level. Also, voter turnout around the country, so being able use media in that way and use these virtual platforms to really see where we can make a difference beyond the walls of the theatre is really exciting, and I hope that we’ll be able to continue to explore and discover things in that way.

Marina: Definitely. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. I highly encourage everyone to check out the work that Andrea and Art2Action is doing. And Andrea, can you tell us, you’ve mentioned some but what’s coming up for you?

Andrea: Yes. Thank you. As I mentioned earlier, we’re working on making Eleven Reflections on September a virtual performance, which is going to be presented and premiered as a virtual event on May 1 by the Carver Community Cultural Center. You can go to the Carver website to get tickets and we’ll premiere it as live and interactive so we’ll be able to interact through the chat. It’ll be on a Vimeo livestream on May 1. And then the video will continue to be available until May 11, and on May 11 we’ll have an online post-show dialogue with anyone who’s able to tune in. You’ll be able to register for free for the conversation through the Art2Action website.

We’re also trying to make tickets for the virtual performance pay what you can, so we want to make it available and accessible to everyone. And so we hope for those eleven days people will tune in, see this new version and what it feels like in this virtual world. We have an incredible media designer who’s working with us, I mentioned, from London, Eva Auster, who’s also a collaborator on the DRONE project. She’ll be adapting the piece to this virtual format.

We hope that people will tune in and join us on the eleventh for a conversation with the performance ensemble that includes incredible vocalist Lubana Al Quntar who is from Syria, she is both an opera singer and a classic era music singer. She’s amazing because she can pretty much do with anything. I was saying to the sound engineer Matt Eaton, who’s also in London, the other day, I was like, “It is not very often that you get to collaborate with an artist and you can say, I would like an excerpt of an opera piece, a jazz standard, and an Arabic music taqsim, what do you think? And she goes, Yeah sure, I can do that.” She’s extraordinary, and so forget about me if for nothing else please tune in to see Lubana Al Quntar in this piece and also with music violin by Eylem Basaldi who’s originally from Turkey and April Centrone who’s based in the New York/New Jersey area and is a percussionist.

So yeah, I’m very excited about it. I honestly, at the time of this recording, don’t know what’s going to happen yet, but whatever it is I think it’ll be fabulous and I can’t wait to share it with you all.

Marina: We can’t wait to see it. Wow. Well thank you so much. It’s been such a joy and pleasure to get to spend this time with you and to hear about all of the work that you’re creating. It’s truly phenomenal.

Andrea: Thank you for this series. It’s very exciting, and thanks so much for having me on.

Nabra: 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, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you loved 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 other progressive and disruptive content on HowlRound.com.

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 commons.

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

Marina: Yalla, bye.

Nabra: Yalla, bye.

Thoughts from the curators

Season 1 of Kunafa and Shay will focus on MENA theatre post-9/11 to today, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the United States. Theatre artist Nabra Nelson and MENA theatre scholar Marina J. Bergenstock bring their own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

The 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!). Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and, sometimes, to engage with our differences.

Kunafa and Shay

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