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Multihyphenate Artists

With Denmo Ibrahim and Sarah Fahmy

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 theatremakers 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.

Artistic identities can be complicated, and many theatremakers work equally within two or more disciplines simultaneously. The most interesting work is rarely created in a vacuum. These multidisciplinary artists create diverse projects in all senses of the word, broadening our idea of what theatre can and should be. Today, two such multihyphenate artists, Denmo Ibrahim and Sarah Fahmy converse about their multiple identities, how they reconcile and manage their myriad expertise and the role of multihyphenate artists in today’s theatre landscape. Before we begin, let’s introduce our guests.

Denmo Ibrahim is an American actor, playwright, and author of Egyptian descent. Regional acting credits include Berkeley Repertory, American Conservatory Theater, The Old Globe, Seattle Rep, Marin Theatre Company, and Cal Shakes. She was recently nominated for an SFBATCC award for principal performance in a drama, for Noura, and was one of twenty-five theatre artists nominated for the Rainin Fellowship in 2020. Denmo’s plays include Brilliant Mind, Baba, Ecstasy: A Water Fable, The Day Naguib Mahfouz Was Stabbed In The Neck And Almost Died (a.k.a. The Selkie Play), and An Arab Spring.

Her work has been supported by the Civilians’ R&D Group, The Ground Floor at Berkeley Rep, [and] Theatre Bay Area and has stored international festivals in Egypt, France, and Germany. Her next writing project is a ten-part historical drama about the life of Hatshepsut for Audible. She’s a resident artist of Golden Thread and a member of the steering committee of MENA Theater Makers Alliance. Denmo holds an MFA in Lecoq-based actor-created physical theatre from Naropa University and a BFA in acting from Boston University. She lives in San Francisco and Brooklyn.

Nabra: Sarah Fahmy is a school-artist who infuses the intentional playfulness and activism of theatre practice to co-create community based embodied explorations that reignite the stories of those historically silenced. She has devised site-specific pieces that perambulate identity, gender, sustainable development, and language as a carrier of culture.

She has facilitated performance-based programs with hundreds of participants internationally, covering issues ranging from anti-racism and belonging among university constituents to creative climate communication with scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research to co-created workshops with young women at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Her work has been recognized by the Egyptian government who invited her to present at the Ministry of Expatriate Affairs’ “Egypt Can” 2018 conference about the importance of arts education. A PhD candidate in theatre and performance studies and a member of the Child Language Learning Lab in Speech and Language Hearing Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, Sarah is the first to research how applied performance supports MENA youth’s decoloniality.

Sarah is a co-founder of the Middle Eastern Theatre Focus Group at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and author of the CU Boulder Middle Eastern North African Women Playwrights LibGuide. Employing decolonial qualitative and quantitative methods, her research is published in both arts and social science journals. As the president of the Graduate and Professional Student Government at CU Boulder, Sarah has contributed to numerous campus-wide strategic planning initiatives, centering diversity, equity, and inclusion. As the Center for Teaching and Learning theatre lead instructor, she has led campus-wide pedagogical workshops, arts-science collaborations, and developed curricula for the Theatre and Dance Department on decolonizing pedagogy and season practices.

In 2019, she served as the Executive Producer of the fourth annual New Play Festival and the Assistant Production Coordinator for the Department of Theatre’s season. In the US, she facilitates programs with SPEAK: a Young Women’s Vocal Empowerment nonprofit, performs with the CU Playback Ensemble and Applied Theatre groups: Performers Without Borders and Inside the Greenhouse. She’s also a co-founder of EnActs, a group that offers theatre-based workshops for STEM disciplines.

Marina: Amazing. We are so excited to have you both with us. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Denmo Ibrahim: [It’s] a total joy. Thank you.

Nabra: Such a joy! I have to point out, before I forget, that we are three Egyptians on this call, I would zaghrouta, but I think that would break people’s ears, so I’m not going to do that.

Sarah Fahmy: This might be the most number of Egyptians that have been present on a theatre conversation ever, and this is really exciting for me.

Nabra: At the same time. Listen, now my new plan is to break that record. Just to work on keep breaking that record until there’s a whole conference of Egyptians in theatre. I don’t know what we would do. I think we’d just party.

Denmo: Yeah.

Nabra: We’d have a wedding. We’d have to have a wedding.

Marina: I love that. Well, Let’s just jump into… I think, a good question to get our feet wet with the conversation, but just asking each of you: how do you describe yourself as an artist? Specifically, what art forms do you practice and then what disciplines do you specialize in?

Denmo: It depends on the room and where I find myself. I think I’ve just realized that I wear many hats. There are a lot of different things I like to do and explore, and that I usually don’t really ever have to encapsulate all of that in any one conversation. And that’s fine by me. It doesn’t take away from my other practices; it just focuses the conversation. I’d say, primarily, I define myself as an actor and a playwright and a writer. I just want to open it up because playwriting is a particular form of writing, but I’m really drawn to other genres and other styles of writing as well. I just published a children’s book recently, and that was really an incredible experience. And so that was sort of a new way of being. I’m also an educator, but I think, I’d say primarily, it’s in the performing arts and then also in publishing.

Marina: Amazing. Nabra And I both got to see a Brilliant Mind last year online, the digital version, which was so beautiful.

Nabra: Also that, since you brought up a Brilliant Mind, that was very multidisciplinary. There was this VR-ish component and then interactivity and there’s the phones and the performance. So I guess you could say that you’re also a digital artist? I don't know if something that either of you have started to embrace in this virtual world.

Denmo: I’m curious to hear, Sarah, how you would answer that, but I feel like artists were required to redefine their genre when we were forced to be in a digital era where live performance and gathering in spaces was no longer a possibility. In my experience, I think something happened where if you didn’t have… There’s generative artists; they create from nothing. Then there are artists that are waiting for the next gig. When theatre collapsed in and of itself, a lot of people just waited for the opportunity to do different kinds of art: podcasts, audio dramas. I think, because my practice has been so much in the generative arts, I had to find what it meant to create in a digital world. Brilliant Mind was an extraordinary process, because it was the intersection of a live, in the theatre performance every night with an actor. A film that was spliced together on a digital frame of a computer, alongside a second device, which was people’s cell phones, if they wanted to engage. I don’t know if I would’ve written that if I wasn’t forced and slash confined to the process or how I would deliver that.

Sarah: Yeah. Echoing a lot of that. I think that having to be forced within the digital realms, and so I’m an educator. I work at the university and so as an academic, but also teaching students online and in teaching theatre and creating performances through Zoom. It was very challenging. At the same time, it opened up this entire wonderful new world of accessibility and these new forms of how do students actually want to engage with performances and what is the exciting, whether it’s a TikTok performance or whether it’s a performance that’s half filmed live and half of it is on Zoom and what does that look like? Then not creating many performances with my students. One of them was this devised piece that responded very specifically to the wildfires that we had in Colorado, a mass shooting that we had that same semester and then just responding to the multiple protests and whatnot that were going on that exact same semester as well.

The students found a new way to reengage with their own learning, but also with what does theatre mean. And the statement of theatre is dead. Theatre is not dead. Theatre’s never been dead and the idea of we can only engage with it in a very specific format, was very exciting to challenge and taking that and using it in different forms. I also got to direct with my students, The Shadow Spirit by Ibn Daniyal, which is a medieval shadow puppetry play. It was really, really challenging to produce the shadow puppetry play [for] students who are not very familiar with Middle Eastern North African theatre, let alone shadow puppetry. That was another really wonderful project that came very specifically in response to how do we produce something for the digital world? That’s a little bit about the digital creations and I think I’m really excited moving past the pandemic of “How can we continue to incorporate these digital creations, even with our live performances?”

In terms of how I identify as an artist…a lot of different hats, and it’s always a very challenging question to respond to. Because I identify as a performer, and as an artist, and as an applied performance facilitator, but I also identify as a scholar and as a researcher. Within my research practice, I do very multidisciplinary work using theatre and performance studies, but also speech and language hearing sciences, the cognitive sciences and sustainable development, and working within an arts-science collaboration and developing projects and workshops that specifically target science communication.

Then, as a performer, I perform with Playback, and I facilitate a lot of Applied performance workshops. And there’s a lot of different hats that are worn, whether it’s devising site-specific pieces and engaging with heritage and identity, but then also in terms of working with students and directing pieces and performing pieces in that way as well. So, different hats definitely. It’s interesting because I started off as a stage manager and to wear a hat of stage manager, but then to also be like, “Well, I facilitate applied performance in site-specific pieces.” And to work over in two very different worlds almost, is very interesting to navigate.

Nabra: Well, that’s what we are here to talk about.

Marina: Yes. Also Ibn Daniyal shoutout. Nabra and I talked a little bit about Ibn Daniyal, at least one of the pieces, in season one, but I love that’s coming back around and I really wish I could have seen your work. I think you posted something, and I wasn’t able to see it at the time. But if there’s video…

Sarah: We’ve filmed it. I do have a video of it. It was so interesting because our students filmed it. This wasn’t an acting class. This was a global theatre history class, but we’re like, “This production has never been fully produced with puppets, and it has never been filmed.” And so we did the uncensored version of it, and it was very exciting. Very intense, but they made their own puppets. Marvin Carlson came in to speak about everything and he came to see the performance and it was just like, “Oh my goodness.” Having one of the translators there was just intense of an experience. Happy to share that link.

Marina: Thank you. That’s amazing. I can’t believe Marvin was there. Very cool. Are you able to say a little bit more about what Applied Theatre is? I’m thinking for anyone who might be listening, who doesn’t quite understand what Applied Theatre is or could look like?

Sarah: Yeah, definitely. Applied Theatre is basically doing theatre performance-based methods with people who don’t necessarily identify as being performers. They don’t have to have a theatre background. They don’t have to have a performance background or specialize in it in any way, shape, or form. It’s usually using embodied practices in a non-performance space. For instance, a research lab, a classroom, a church, an open town hall. It may or may not result in a public performance. Usually the focus is on the process rather than the aesthetics of the final performance if there is one.

It can be used for research purposes to interrogate how theatre might support, whether it’s young people or engaging of anti-racist work or whatever it is. Or it might just be used for public speaking communication skills. There’s a wide range of applications for it. What’s exciting about it is, it’s with people who don’t have a theatrical background, and it’s a way to have them engage with their creative side, which they didn’t really tap into prior to Applied Theatre. It’s pretty exciting. It’s participant led. You can only control so much of it, and it’s very exciting.

Marina: You summed it up so beautifully and I love the work that you’ve described there and hopefully we’ll get to hear a little bit more about that work too, as we go.

Nabra: In this world of Applied Theatre and also what you were talking about, Denmo, with the virtual aspects that you’ve included in your art, I feel like being multihyphenate, both being multidisciplinary and working across disciplines, has become necessary during this pandemic in the theatre world. I wonder, perhaps during, but also before the pandemic, both of you were still multihyphenated in so many different ways, and I wonder: did you take on these different roles by choice or by necessity? As you said, Denmo, there’s this element of necessity with how a Brilliant Mind came together during the pandemic. But when it comes to how you define yourself as an artist with all of these hats, what brought you to that point in your career or your artistry?

Denmo: It’s so interesting. I think I certainly was wearing many different hats before the pandemic, but the way I was thinking about it was very compartmentalized. I was writing, and it was very separate from when I was acting or if I was devising a work that had its own vocabulary. If I was doing audio, like an audio project, that was also very separate and so in my mind, I think my idea of being an artist, if I’m being honest was a bit more divided, and it was like, “How can I fit my creative flow into the thing that is there?” It’s almost like the thing that is king or queen, the thing that’s at the top is the medium. It’s the theatre, or it’s the book.

Then I’m fitting my art, my creative flow or my artistic process within that frame. Then the pandemic happened, and all the rules were broken. I think one of the things I walked away from that was, the creative processes that will survive are the ones where the artist is actually put first, not the institution. That shift became very clear to me because suddenly, it wasn’t about creating work for a proscenium stage. It was suddenly theatre itself had to be redefined. Even this is really interesting, the children’s book was a really good example. That was actually originally a commission for a fifty-minute musical that would tour to elementary schools. Then when the live component died, I pitched this idea of an audio immersive, one kid at a time.

We created a score, and we hired composers. And there was a whole Foley art to this story that was told. It was so beautiful that the producers found the publisher and also created a book. That was a great example of the artist led a process, and then the producer slash organization slash commissioners found all the ways that that art could be translated. To me, I feel like this is really, I hope, is going to become really clear as we move forward in the US, is that we really lean on following our artists and not so much on these brick and mortar institutions with these hundred-year-old legacies of how things are supposed to be.

Sarah: Yes, a hundred percent to that. For me, Denmo, I really appreciated you mentioning, “Who are you actually serving, and where is this going? And what does the future of theatre look like?” For me, it’s very similar in that it all comes out of representation and what kind of representation are we having, but also who are we inviting into the theatrical space and who is able to actually explore their creative voice. A lot of my artwork has focused on being participant led and pre pandemic—and it helps with Applied Theatre. I can only go in with so much of my own ego as an artist and as a creative person because then it gets knocked down, and you realize that in order to actually create something that’s meaningful, that serves the community, it can’t just be my own voice in the space. And it can’t just be my own artistic vision, no matter how wonderful it is.

That has been the most exciting thing and the most challenging thing of how have I been learning to adapt and letting go of certain things that I wish I could keep on within my theatrical practice. I think with the pandemic, especially teaching at the university level during the pandemic and seeing how my students were adapting and with mental health and their needs, and some students weren’t even getting basic needs met.

It became an issue of “What are we actually teaching and what performances are we putting forward? And how do we then best serve the students in having theatre as an outlet for their voices, but also for a creative vision that is being suppressed in so many different ways?” And going in and just allowing them to be like, “We can make mistakes and this doesn’t have to be perfect.” That is great. There is such a beautiful part of theatre; that’s the messy process that I’ve been trying to reengage with. It doesn’t have to be perfect because it doesn’t have to be on this brilliant stage that everyone’s going to watch, and no mistakes ever. How do we just embrace these tiny little moments that make theatre what it is?

Denmo: One of the things I’ve always held onto for myself, one of the reasons why I love theatre and that I continue again and again to come back to theatre, is because there is a quality sometimes where the performance becomes a culmination of a process. Sometimes that changes, especially when it becomes professional theatre, and you’re not working with the same ensemble. And you don’t have shorthand. That rehearsal and process is only to get prepared so that we can do the performance because the performance is the thing that we’re really marketing and putting in front of an audience. But the best kinds of shows, I think, are a culmination of a process. That’s what the performance is. What is the process other than a collaboration?

It’s so funny, artists, generative, we may think we may define that as someone who has a vision and can put their idea all the way through, but Sarah, as you were pointing out, the artist oftentimes is really the conduit in which all these different ideas can come through. Then, suddenly… It reminds me of Greek theatre. It’s like our actors, our dancers, our performers, we held them in a particular esteem for people, for audience, for humanity, to be able to see parts of themselves in a new way. That I think still excites me about the live experience of a theatrical space.

Marina: Definitely. You’re both talking so much about collaboration and how the collaboration informs the process and the product. Theatre is necessarily collaborative in many ways, although sometimes I’m surprised at the ways that institutions try to take away some of the collaborative elements. But I would love to just hear about some of your most successful collaborations or collaborations that you’ve been really proud of or that have enriched you in different ways.

Sarah: One of the most exciting collaborations, for me, has come out of working with young people. In 2018, I started this projects that is partially research, but also part community outreach in Egypt. I worked with teenage girls. There’s about a hundred of them that have now participated from 2018 all the way till 2020, participating in month-long programs of theatre-based vocal empowerment and how can we use performance specifically to support young Egyptian women author and then embody their decolonial feminist identities? It’s been a very fascinating longitudinal study, and it’s collaborative in different ways. There’s the collaboration from the research aspect where I’ve worked with speech and language hearing science pathologists and researchers to create very specific pre- and post-program measures of looking at linguistic data, looking at voice data, and looking at how participating in theatre actually impacts these young women’s voices and how they speak about themselves and their self-authorship. But also looking at their language, assessing them in both English and Arabic and how does that change over the course, participating in this program?

Then the other aspect of it is contributing or collaborating with a university partner in Egypt and doing this long-distance work, navigating different research prompters and identifying the importance of holding this type of workshop. Then the third and most important aspects of it is actually with the young women themselves. The Applied performance work that I facilitate is rooted in participatory action research and community-based methods. The young women—and by young women I’m meaning these are teenage girls between the ages of 13 to 19—and they were engaged in every aspect of the design, the facilitating, and the analysis of the data that they generated. A lot of the young women who participated in 2018 came back in 2020, and they either participated in the program, or I set up meetings with them over Zoom to try and navigate “How do we, A, facilitate this potential workshop over Zoom or in person? What do travel logistics look like during the pandemic?” I ended up traveling twice to Egypt between 2018 and 2020, going to Alexandria and then Aswan, and working with girls there.

The most recent work…so they did a public performance after this month-long program in Aswan. It had girls from very different schools. It was also outreach to schools. It was a free program, but there were teenage girls from all these different public schools in Aswan, and they ended up creating a trilingual song that represented their heritage. A trilingual song in Arabic, in Coptic, and then in Kenzi, which is one of the Nubian languages spoken in the region. That was really important, because many of these girls came in saying that they didn’t really care about any of these languages, Arabic included. Having a very important conversation about language as a carrier of culture and what does that mean as young women moving forward? They also produced a site-specific piece at the Philae Temple in Aswan and recreating the story of [the] goddess Isis and what does that look like specifically for young women carrying forward their feminist legacies from ancient Egypt.

Then they also devised a shadow puppetry play about women across the different time periods, looking specifically at Egyptian feminists and women from a diverse range of ethnicities and religions who are all Egyptian and looking at how they can draw upon them in order to author their own identities. It was really wonderful, and they came out of it, performing all these pieces for their parents. But a lot of it was also that they wrote in their journals about their own reflections. Then what resulted with that is that the Egyptian minister of expatriate affairs found out about the program and recognized many of these girls, so they performed for the governor of Aswan as well. It was really, really fruitful.

It was hard work. Working with fifty-five teenage girls, in June, in Aswan, which is really, really hot, is not easy, but it was incredible. It was humbling, and it was eye-opening. I continue being in touch with all these young women, and it’s very inspiring of what can happen when youth are just given that ability to produce work in their own natural environments and engaging with heritage in different ways and what that looks like. I would say that’s my most exciting collaboration.

Nabra: It also sounds like it’s something that brought together a lot of the different skills that you would really need to put on a piece of art like that, or pieces of art like that. The research element, the educator element, I’m sure directing and acting, and all of those art skills came out as well. You should have seen our faces, all of us listeners, all of us, just so excited about this project.

Sarah: I’ve got loads of photos to share, so if anyone ever wants to see photos, happy to do that.

Marina: If you want to send one to be included in the episode, we can post it on the HowlRound site with the transcript.

Nabra: Yes!

Marina: When you said 55 also, I was already impressed and amazed, but then 55 is like, it’s just such a massive amount of people. That’s really amazing.

Sarah: Yeah, there was 50 in the 2018 one and then 55 in the 2020 [one], not including those who couldn’t participate because of exams and whatnot. But yeah.

Marina: Wow. Thank you for sharing that with us.

Denmo: That’s amazing.

Marina: Denmo, we would love to hear from you. Just thinking about what some of the successful collaborations, however you define successful, maybe even just most enriching collaborations you’ve had, just to share more about your work and some of the things that you really look for or love, or that resonate with you in those collaborations.

Denmo: Yeah, it’s so beautiful. The question is beautiful. It’s pointing to the places where I think at least in my creative process, where the challenges really live. Of course, they’re scattered all the way throughout, but the beginning is hard. It’s hard when you’re writing a new play or working on a new piece, and you don’t know where it is or where it’s going, especially if it’s close to home. It almost feels like the source material is me. I’ve had a few pieces. My very first solo piece called Baba. That was the first piece I had written as a challenge to myself because I had spent eight years in ensemble theatre. I interviewed my family and other first-generation immigrants and that became the beginning of this piece, but it also became the beginning of my process of finding a theme or a question that I was excavating and then beginning to go out into the community and start to gather documentation and research and material from true stories to begin to infiltrate the text.

Oftentimes what I find is in the beginning, if I’m working with a dramaturg, it can be really powerful. In Brilliant Mind, that piece was inspired by my own family dynamic. I was working with this brilliant dramaturg slash professor in Canada, and I was delivering pages. And it was the most subtle, gentle process that really opened up all these doors within me. She would just gently point to the space between two lines and write a question mark. I realized, in those little things, that there was a whole conversation I was having in my head, but it wasn’t really on the page. And in this very gentle way, her own curiosity was pointing to parts in the script that I was like, “Oh! Go here more; go pull out this.”

Then I think through that process, I started to excavate what this source material within myself was and that was really powerful. Similarly, when I was performing, I was actually performing Heather Raffo’s Noura, and I was working with Kate Bergstrom, who was directing that piece. Noura has a lot of text in that play, and she has quite the journey. One of the things that was really amazing about that is I think Kate, as a director, didn’t let anyone off the hook. Even if the performance was at a certain place, really, she kept pushing and pushing and pushing, and I just thought, I always want to be in rooms. I always want to be in rooms where I never know everything, where I never have reached my limit, where I’m always going to be challenged.

The sense of—Sarah, as you were saying—the sense of messiness is genuine. It’s not just the beginning, but it’s actually, hopefully, a culmination. That the culmination is messy. My most successful collaborations have really, I think, taught me that if I don’t feel changed as an artist by the end of the process, or rather to be changed as an artist by the end of the process, I think, is a good sign that that relationship was very fruitful. I think it also changes my desire. When I was younger in my early twenties, I was really hungry in the sense of, “I just want to be in all these creative processes,” and saying yes to a lot of projects. Now I feel really clear that who I’m playing with is as important to what I’m creating.

Nabra: That is so poetically said, Denmo. My goodness. I completely agree, and both of you have, I think, illustrated very, very different forms of collaboration that embrace that beautiful messiness, if you may, and create something perfect out of that. If I may call it perfect because perfect in its messiness as well. To talk a little bit about MENA/SWANA theatre as well, I really think that MENA theatre is naturally multidisciplinary. We’re always integrating music, dance, storytelling, multimedia into both traditional and contemporary performances. Do you think that your identity as a MENA or SWANA artist informs how you approach your work, and do you think that MENA art has some type of element of that natural multidisciplinary or also multi-art-form quality to it in some way?

Denmo: I want to address, since I haven’t said it yet, but I think I’m going to now. I’d like to address even the term of multihyphenated or multidisciplinary because it’s from the perspective of being outside, you know what I mean? It’s from the perspective of the medium, but the internal experience is not multihyphenated, actually. I don’t feel multihyphenated although I’ve written a screenplay. I published a children’s book. I’m performing on the main stage. I’m leading a workshop in Kuwait. Although you could look at all these “fragments” of my life and the different disciplines, I think the internal experience is actually just being an artist in the world. Then to go a little further, Nabra, with your point of “Where does MENA intersect with that?”

I think that’s a really powerful question. I will say that I think the answer for me, I’m realizing, is perhaps that’s why there is such a multilayer, multihyphenated quality to MENA artists. For me being, an Egyptian American—my parents immigrated to the States in the seventies; my brother and I were born here—so much of my life has been this question around identity and home. No matter how far I try and run away from that, no matter how much I try and be inventive and clever and write something that doesn’t have to do with those two themes of identity and home, I am always led back to that. I think because I feel this very strong tether to this question of identity, of not really fitting in, in any one place, there is a natural inclination to want to be able to create, devise, design in multiple mediums. Because I’m not sure I really fit in any one place anyway.

I’m saying it now very articulate and very fully formed, but I don’t think I’ve always felt that way. I think I just had a response to the world. I did undergraduate in a conservatory for acting at a 4-year college in Boston that had a cut program halfway through. We started with 60; we ended with 11. And we were doing the plays of Ibsen and Chekhov and maybe some John Guare and David Ives. They don’t have Egyptian characters, so I was usually being cast as the mistress or the servant. I learned early on that, if I am going to have a place in the creative world, I’ll probably have to create that myself. It felt very intentional, and now I’m understanding it wasn’t because I wasn't invited to those other spaces. But that perhaps, where I felt most comfortable was always going to be my own definition of home anyway, because that I think is ultimately my question of home and identity.

Marina: Denmo, thank you for saying all of that. I really resonate with that. I’ve always found I use the term multihyphenate to describe myself, but only because I’ve gotten reactions to, “Oh, you do this too?” It’s always felt like, “I need then something so that you don’t say that thing to me because it feels really reductive.” I loved your, just so articulate. I will cite you when I say these things now back to people, but thank you for saying that. It resonates deeply. I’m feeling a lot of things. Thank you. Sarah, I would love to hear also from you about Nabra’s question around your identity and how that really influences your work as well.

Sarah: It’s at the core of everything I do and no matter how I try, as Denmo very wonderfully stated in that statement—it sent goose pimples down my arm because it was like, “Yep, this is a hundred percent where it is and the constant frustration of why are we not including Middle Eastern North African performances or theatre or whatever it is, within theatre anthologies? Why are we consistently showing up to spaces and having to fight for our place on the table? Why are we consistently running up against this issue of lack of representation or rather misrepresentation?” For me, the biggest driving force behind my work and everything that continues to lead back to it, is this issue of reclamation and reigniting lost or suppressed histories in the ability to actually talk about performance and then talk about it and to do it in a way that’s like, “Well, this is something that has been in the region for centuries.”

I’m really, truly indebted to the handful of other MENA scholars and artists and practitioners who, once we find each other, it’s almost the same conversation happening over and over again. We can be on opposite ends of the coast. We can be in professional theatre or academic institutions or whatever it is, and you end up finding that it’s the exact same conversations of “What is my identity? What is home?” Home versus diaspora, but then “What is home in the first place and how does that shape what it means to be an artist of MENA descent or to be focusing on this work?” I often wonder how much of that do we hold onto because of the way that we have been siloed and misrepresented, rather than how much of that do we just want to do?

Are we ever offered the privilege of working on something that has nothing to do with identity, that has nothing to do with generational trauma, that has nothing to do with embodied history? I’m curious about that, and at the same time, I consistently try and do work that is very focused on this region for the sake of representation and knowing that it’s hard work. For instance, looking up one scholarly article about Applied Theatre in the Middle East, it will take up to seven hours to find one article versus if you were looking at another region, you can find it in five minutes. Taking it upon myself to go and do that research in hopes that people who come after me can actually benefit from that work in the same way that I have benefited from the few other scholars who have been working in this industry.

At the same time, it’s beautiful, being able to say “Yeah, we’re decolonizing and reclaiming what theatre means,” and bringing back, Nabra, you spoke about storytelling and dance and music. I think so many people forget that a lot of that actually originated in Africa or in the Middle East. We’ve been taught through this very Eurocentric lens of theatre and performance that we don’t have any of that, and we don’t have the right to claim ownership of that. It’s a very exciting challenge to focus on identity work and to claim that of, “Yeah, this is what we do.” We will change what theatre looks like and open up more doors for more people, not only to research MENA work, but also people of MENA descent, to actually envision themselves and see themselves in this industry and to not be excluded and to not play the mistress role or the servant role or whatever other token person of color role that we might be allotted.

Nabra: That’s also so beautifully said. I also partially asked this question exactly for the reason that you articulated, which is that in order to define what MENA theatre is and to decolonize our definition of theater and in order to include indigenous North African Middle Eastern art forms, theatre forms, we have to approach theatre in a more multidisciplinary way. We have to understand it in a more multidisciplinary way and allow it to encompass the indigenous music, dance, storytelling forms that are just inherent to how we create theatre much of the time, and then figure out what that is traditionally and allow that to then define what our contemporary theatre forms are. Just as Denmo was saying, that it’s true, that this idea of multidisciplinary, multihyphenate is imposed upon us because the default is the singular individualistic Western mode of theatre.

I think, in reflecting on what you’re saying from your perspective as a researcher, Sarah, that you can’t find information on Applied Theatre in the Middle East. I know for a fact that there’s tons. We’ve been doing tons of Applied Theatre in the Middle East, but I’m sure it hasn’t been defined as that. Or it hasn’t even been defined as theatre because of this very singular view. I love that you’ve both brought up this; how we need to redefine theatre as multidisciplinary, multihyphenate in order to include a cannon of MENA theatre and include the fullness of who we are as artists of the global majority, as MENA artists. This, I think applies to tons of different international art forms and diasporic art forms. To finish off the conversation today, I wonder if any of you have these final thoughts on the future of theatre and how we can rethink this idea of multidisciplinary artistry or multihyphenate artistry in the field of MENA theatre.

Denmo: It’s such a good question. The future of theatre, the future of MENA theatre. I’m still thinking about what Sarah was just saying and I wonder if there’s a connection to it. That because there’s such little representation of MENA on stage: the creators, the writers, the researchers, the generators of that content, it’s almost like we need to write more material that represents and has characters of MENA descent, around MENA questions, around questions of really have presence. I think the first part is we need to continue to establish our presence as artists, as actors, as an entire category that’s not even recognized in the census. MENA doesn’t exist. We are technically, legally white.

I think there’s a lot of erasure on the MENA identity throughout the country, so it’s not special to theatre, but it exists within theatre. I think if the phase one is that. If you are a MENA person and you have any inclination to be writing, please write. Please write because we need to develop the cannon of work. I think that’s phase one and oftentimes that deals with specifically with MENA questions. I think what Sarah was also alluding to, was this piece around, “Do we always have to be writing about generational trauma, about the politics in the Middle East, about identity and home?” Maybe we want to write other things. And it feels a little bit, even for myself, I long for that, but I also feel like I don’t want to abandon the necessity, the hard work of being able [to say], “No, no, no, let’s talk about Palestine. Let’s not be afraid of that. Let’s have that conversation.”

Then, also, “Let’s do the love story. Let’s have a piece focused on May Ziadeh, who ignited the Nahda in Egypt, the Egyptian Enlightenment.” How come nobody knows about her? We didn’t read her about her in books. Then let’s talk about science, who just happens to feature a brilliant Egyptian scientist. That it’s not about her race, her culture, her upbringing; it’s about science. A part of me feels like we don’t even get to even begin those pieces because we don’t have enough material on our culture and the questions we’re grappling with. My hope for the future of MENA is create more content as much as possible, and whatever questions you’re wrestling with is necessary. That’s where we begin.

Sarah: Yes, to all of that. For me, I think the most important thing is building coalitions and being in conversation and just having—and actually just connecting with people and being like, “Oh, hey! You do this? Maybe you are a playwright, and I have nothing to do with playwriting. But hi, I exist too. Let’s just know about each other.” Having a podcast like this one. Having, for instance, MENATMA, the Middle Eastern Theater Makers Alliance. I was also one of the co-founders of the Middle Eastern Theatre Focus Group at the Association [for] Theatre and Higher Education. Doing the hard work of carving out spaces for us to actually just have conversations and start to connect with people.

Then there’s also the other difficult question of “How much do we, as performers or artists within the United States, have conversations with people who are outside of the United States? What is the focus on producing or focusing on contemporary work versus how much effort should we be putting in ancient work, in medieval work?” I mentioned Ibn Daniyal at the beginning of this podcast, but then I’ve also been trying to teach The Triumph of Horus, which is the very first script ever written. That was in Egypt, and it’s not being spoken about.

Denmo: What is that one called?

Sarah: The Triumph of Horus. It’s being included in a lot of Black acting methods, pedagogy work, and looking at theatre from an Afrocentric lens, but how much of that is it like, “We should be talking about the contemporary work,” versus also focusing on “No, we have a rich history.” There have been certain people who have been in charge for way too long, who’ve been dictating what is theatre with a capital T and who gets to be reported on and who doesn’t.

For me, what’s exciting, as someone who’s an artist, but also as an academic, is having these conversations and having the tough conversations of “Why aren’t we talking about certain locations or certain politics or identity? How do we talk about representation and inclusivity, if we’re not being inclusive of the Middle East and North Africa?” I’m really excited for what comes next, and I’m excited to continue seeing how we continue to push the boundaries of theatre and of performance and being in conversation with different people outside of the US as well and learning from them and seeing, for instance, “How is theatre right now in Egypt different from Egyptian diaspora theatre in the US?”

Denmo, we’re both Egyptian in the US, but we’ve got very different origin stories. I’ve only been in the US for ten years. I’ve spent a lot of time in Egypt, but also a lot of time in England, and it’s been interesting. How much of the Egyptian American diaspora experience do I get to claim versus how much theatre focus should I try and do back in Egypt? It’s interesting. How do we have these conversations? I’m really excited for the future, and I’m excited for what we can continue to bring to the table and who we continue to welcome onto our Middle Eastern North African table and learn from the diversity of experiences within our region, because it’s not one story. That’s what I’m really excited about.

Nabra: Absolutely. You’ve already brought up so much. I feel like you’ve started a whole new conversation, but we have to end on this conversation.

Marina: It’s true. I just want to keep going.

Nabra: Thank you so much for being here with us in this conversation.

Marina: Yes, thank you both.

Nabra: You’re all brilliant and wonderful.

Denmo: It was wonderful, and it was such a thrill to unpack this within this container and specifically around the MENA experience and the many layers of that, so thank you for the invitation for it.

Sarah: Such an honor to be in conversation with all of you and really looking forward to having more of these podcasts and to continuing these conversations because it doesn’t stop here. But thank you again so much.

Denmo: 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 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 progressive and descriptive 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 commons.

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

Marina and 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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