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Producing Queer MENA Theatre on the American Stage

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

Marina Johnson: I'm Marina.

Nabra: And I'm Nabra.

Marina: And we are 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 third season, we highlight queer MENA and SWANA or Southwest Asian North African theatremakers and dive into the breadth of queerness present in their art.

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

This season we've talked about what it means to create characters who break out of boxes and create new representations. Once these characters are created, then comes the challenge of having your work produced. In this episode, we'll talk with Kareem Fahmy, who has dealt with the considerations of producibility and what it means to have his work produced on stages in the United States, from staged readings, to castings, to reviews, and everything in between.

Nabra: Kareem Fahmy is a Canadian-born director, playwright, and screenwriter of Egyptian descent. He has directed and developed plays at theatres nationwide, including MCC, The Atlantic, The New Group, Ensemble Studio Theatre, New Dramatists, The Civilians, Writers Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse, Geva Theatre, Pioneer Theatre, The Magic, Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Berkeley Rep, and more. Kareem's plays include Dodi & Diana, American Fast, A Distinct Society, The Triumph, Pareidolia, The In-Between, and an adaptation of the bestselling novel, The Yacoubian Building. His work has been developed at Atlantic Theater Company, Denver Center, Northlight Theatre, New York Stage & Film, Citadel Theatre and more.

Kareem has been a fellow or resident artist at the Sundance Theatre Lab. MacDowell, Yaddo, New Harmony Project, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Old Globe, Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, TCG, Second Stage, Soho Rep, Lincoln Center, The New Museum, Stratford Festival, and New York Theater Workshop. He is a NYSCA/NYSA playwright fellow. His MFA in directing is from Columbia University. Kareem lives in New York City with his husband, acclaimed fiction writer, John McManus and their dog, Kip.

All right, hey, Kareem, nice to have you here. Thank you so much for being a part of this.

Kareem Fahmy: I'm happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Nabra: I mean, you've done so much. You're doing so much. I know you're at an important theatre to you right now. So we just wanted an update on what you're working on right now to start us off, any secrets that you have of things that are in development, of course are appreciated, and what's been going on for you very recently?

Kareem: Yeah, I mean, I'm at the moment sitting at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. I'm born and raised in Canada, so this is a big moment for me. It's my first time coming back home to Canada as a professional ever in my whole career in person. I did some Zoom stuff during the pandemic with a couple of Canadian theatres, so it's very special to me to be making work in my home country. I left Canada so that I could become a professional theatremaker. So it's like, to sort of finally come back as a professional after twenty years, to age myself—it's very special.

And I'm here doing a three-week playwriting residency, and I am working on my first new play in a year and a half, two years. I had for many years promised myself I would write a new play every calendar year to try to keep up a sense of like, okay, I will start something. But then in the last calendar year, 2022, I did not write a new play because I was too busy with all of my various projects, so I was like, "I'm not going to let 2023 pass without writing a new play." So I'm challenging myself to write a new play by the end of this calendar year. So here we are, three months left, and I'm like most of the way through a very rough first draft of a brand new play.

Nabra: Congratulations, that's great. Oh my goodness.

Kareem: Well, maybe 60 percent. It's like written-ish with the exception of the last scene, but it's not... But yeah, it's a new play that I am writing, which is very exciting.

Nabra: Well, we will all be keeping our eyes out for that, for sure. And I mean, you've had a very exciting year, I think. I've been following you on social media, of course, seeing all the exciting things, being really excited. Can you give us a little snapshot of your year and what's been happening with your plays?

Kareem: Yeah, I mean, I'm in a very unusual… and I think I would be shocked if I ever had a year like what I had, or season, I guess, I should say, not a calendar year. But I mean, in the 22/23 season, I had three of my... So I went from never having been really produced as a playwright at all. I had had two of my plays got sort of relatively well-developed workshop productions in New York, but not full runs. And in 22/23, three of my plays all had world premieres with a total of eight productions across the country of my plays in one season. So it was wild. One of which I directed. So it was a real gift. It was a really special and unique and just a wonderful and overwhelming, exhilarating, stressful, all of the adjectives you could imagine, I experienced in the 22/23 season.

Nabra: That's so exciting. And which one did you direct?

Kareem: I directed the very last production of the eight, which was my play, A Distinct Society. I directed the Midwest premiere, which was at Writers Theater, which is in Glencoe, Illinois, just close to Chicago. And that was just somewhat recently. It was the last show of their season, so it opened in June and ran through July, and that was a real gift. So it was the third production of that particular play. And the first time I've fully directed a full professional production of one of my own plays, which was great.

A performer speaks to another performer who is dressed as a police officer in a library lobby.

Kate Fry, Amir Adballah, and Aila Ayilam Peck in A Distinct Society by Kareem Fahmy At Writers Theatre. Directed by Kareem Fahmy. Scenic design by Paige Hathaway. Lighting Design by Brian Elston. Costume Design by Izumi Inaba. Sound Design by Andre Pluess. Properties Design by Rae Watson. Vocal and dialect coaching by Sarah Shippobotham. Choreography by Leah Morrow. Intimacy and fight direction by Victoria Nassif. Assistant direction and cultural consulting by Hamid Dehghani. Production stage management by Katie Klemme. Assistant stage management by Nikki Konomos. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Nabra: Oh my goodness.

Marina: That's very cool. And A Distinct Society is the play of yours that I think I know best because I saw maybe a reading or two at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Kareem: Oh, wow.

Marina: Which is so lovely.

Kareem: Thank you. They did it as well. They did the world premiere of it, and it was a real gift to get to share that play in three cities this past season.

Marina: Yeah, it's such a great play.

Kareem: Well, thank you.

Marina: As you're writing this new play, something that Nabra and I talk about and think about is: how does producibility come into your work? Is that something you're thinking about as you're starting these early drafts? Is it something that comes up in the editing process? Does it come up at all?

Kareem: Oh, yeah. I mean, I don't know how... Well, I do know how, because I think a lot of my writer colleagues don't think about producibility at all, and I think that's fantastic. Some days I wish I was that kind of writer. I think it's because I can't uncouple my instincts as a director with my instincts as a writer because my training was all in directing, I never professionally trained as a playwright. And so, once I kind of initially overcame the imposter syndrome of being a professional playwright, despite not having studied it, I was like, "I studied theatre." So when you study directing, you're learning about everything that goes into making a play and what is a director's job, except looking at what's on the page and understanding and trying to translate how that's going to live on stage. So when I'm reading any play, when I'm writing any play, I can't help but start to imagine how that play lives.

And I've said this in other interviews, but I think it's so true. At least it's my ethos that a play isn't a document, a play isn't the words on the page. To me, it's not. I don't think of playwriting as a literary art form because the intended way you consume a play is not to read it, it is to watch it, I think. So as the writer, I am of course, thinking about how the play lives on stage. So whether or not you call that producibility is one thing, but I am envisioning how this play exists. And part of that is, well, okay, how complicated is it to sort of bring this world to life on stage? Are there ways as the writer where I can help steer towards the idea of the ideal way the play could live on stage? So I'll use a specific example. So the play that I'm writing right now it's called, and I think it will remain being called, Fountains of Youth. It's a play that it takes place over a number of years. It jumps back and forth in time.

It has a lot of scenes, too many right now, and all of the scenes sort of move around to very different locations. They're all contained in one city, and we're instantaneously going from one to the next. And early on in the writing process, I started to go, I don't want this very belabored. And now the action of the place stops and we bring out the living room, and then now the living room goes away and we're in the bar and all of that kind of stuff. And I started to realize, and maybe it is a producibility thing, is that how could I, as the writer, invite my future collaborators, should the play ever get produced, into how I think the play wants to live? And I realized that all of these settings that the play jumps around to are actually all contained in one sort of super setting, which is this garden. And so, I started to go, this whole play is set in a garden, and yes, there's a living room, and yes, there's a bar, and yes, there's this, but you're just always in the garden.

And so, to me, that is like, it's a nod towards producibility because then somebody is going like, oh, okay, so I'll make a garden and I'll figure out then how that garden becomes these other things. So the very long answer to your question now, it's like, yeah, I do think about that, but I also try not to because it is so easy, and I'm sure we'll get into that in this conversation, particularly when you're a writer like me from an underrepresented community to be make like your play as producible as possible so people could do it. And I think I have fallen into that trap earlier in my career, and I'm really trying to move in the opposite direction now. This play being a perfect example. I mean, it's got eight actors in it, which is by producibility standards really large. And right now it's pushing a two-hour running time. It's not a tidy little ninety-minute play. And maybe a few years ago I might've said, "No, don't write that play, Kareem." But now I am writing that play, for better or for worse, that play.

Nabra: Well, that makes perfect sense. Also, from the directing standpoint, I know that you are really simultaneously a writer and a director, at least last time we chatted. Of course, you just directed one of your plays. I know that that's just a part of your career that's still active. And so, it's not about limiting one art form. It sounds more like it's about merging your two art forms into your writing, which is a really interesting and different way to think about it, which I really appreciate.

Kareem: Yeah, I mean, I think what I've come to realize over the last couple of years is that our industry, to a certain extent, really wanted to silo the playwright and the director and to say, this is the lane that you're in, and this is the lane that you're in. And the two things don't really converge or shouldn't converge. And I think it's to the detriment of our art form to think that way. And I do see it starting to change. But there's still a lot of skepticism when, in the instances where people are like, "Oh, you want to direct this," or "Are you writing this to you to direct?" Or things like that, there's still a sense that the director directs and the writer writes, and to me it's like, what are we in service of here? We're in service of this story. That to me is always the bedrock.

We are in service of the story, even though I don't love the word service, but I think that's true. We are doing all that we can. We're using our artistic sensibilities to help uplift and tell the story, and that is invariably a melding of so many different things. It's performance, it's design, it's the direction, staging, the writing itself. And you can't look at those things as separate because they're also intricately interwoven. So I don't know, I mean, at least my personal experience, is that I feel like I've become a much better writer from having been a director, and a much better director from having been a writer. I really do think the more I do of both, I feel like I'm getting better at both because I'm constantly thinking about the interplay between those things.

Nabra: And that makes perfect sense. And we're also finding a thread throughout all of the seasons of Kunafa and Shay has been that most, if not all, the artists that are on this podcast are multi-hyphenate. This is I think, the trend that I hope, I guess, the theatre world is going into, that more artists are bringing all of their hats into a space. There's less of that siloing. And I think that makes for, as you've very well articulated, more robust art, more holistic art. You brought up your identity and how that influences your work. Can you talk more about that, how identity shapes what you write, how you write, and also how you show up in producing spaces?

Kareem: Yeah, I mean, that's just the sort of constant evolution of one's career. What's so interesting, and I'm reflecting on this a lot, being back in Canada now, right. Because I think my own experience of growing up here in Canada was that my identity was not central to my experience of my childhood and my early experiences as an artist. Again, this was twenty plus years ago. So I think times have certainly changed, but I never felt like it was my identity first that was getting me in doors, that was creating opportunities for me. It was really just, at least I like to think about it, that it was the quality of my work. And then it felt kind of instantaneous from the moment I got to the US, and this is relevant to the journey that led me to being a playwright, is that my identity was the thing that people were the most excited to talk to me about and to engage with me about.

And I was actually initially surprised because I was like, "Oh, what is the fact that my parents are from Egypt have to do with anything?" And they're like, "Oh, but you don't understand Kareem, we need you to tell your stories." I was like, "What?" I kind of had to be convinced that I had anything because again, I came to the country thinking of myself as a director, was a director, and I wasn't necessarily thinking about telling my own identity-based story, whatever. But then what I, relatively quickly upon my arrival in New York, got pulled into a community of fellow Middle Eastern theatremakers in New York, of which there's still many and they're very active. And they were like, "No, we are trying to take back the narrative of our own story." And I started to actually see the value in that of myself and be like, "Oh God, it is important.” I mean, it became important for me to see my story reflected.

So I do think that as I began writing, it was largely a response to, first of all, that I thought there were huge gaps in terms of what I was seeing that weren't reflecting. For instance, my Egyptian experience or any sort of intersectional experience you want to talk about, or even just something that felt really full and centered. The complexity of the experience of what it's like to be a person of my background. And for better or for worse, which tends to be how all these things work, it's created opportunities for me while at the same time it's like, oh, there's so much more to my experience than just my identity. So it's a double-edged sword because I feel like I do want to, I think it is vital that I continue to center those stories in my work, but if that is all I can be, that will eventually feel limiting.

It's already beginning to feel limiting, but I'm hoping that I've been developing enough of a profile in the field to be like, no, any story I tell is going to be worthwhile. But I'll be curious to see… like, what does it mean—should I write this play where my identity doesn't factor into it in any measurable degree? Are people going to still be interested in that or are they're going to be like, "Well, why is Kareem Fahmy writing that play?" And I don't know. I don't know the answer to that question because I haven't faced that yet. But in the short term, I think it's really important the work that I'm doing. But also, I think as a whole community, there's still so much work. I still feel like the Middle Eastern community in particular remains one of the most behind, even despite the progress we've made over these last few years. I think there's still a lot of work to be done, and I'm just trying to do as much of that as I can while also not feeling boxed in by that.

Marina: And you bring up just so many great points. I think that a lot of MENA/SWANA folks are like, okay, yes, there have been opportunities that have been created, but then also American theatre and sort of the way that Western views of identity work is like, and now you'll tell these stories, but that's really not the purpose. Identity is capacious. Even if you're writing a play that's not about any of these line items that we might say are part of your identity, it's still coming from you. It's still coming from that identity. So I think that's a problem we see time and time again. And I'm interested in the way that, you're saying that I'm not interested in that, you're branching out in different ways and not letting it limit you. And it also sounds like that's been part of a larger trajectory for you.

I've been heavily involved in all of my productions because I think I need to be, and I aspire to the day where I don't need to be, but it's hard when six of the eight theatres have produced my play last season, I was the first ever Middle Eastern writer that those theatres have ever produced.

Kareem: Trying, I mean, look, it is so hard to get a foothold in this industry no matter what. It doesn't matter what your background. It is hard to get a foothold in this field because, well, for the thousands of reasons that I don't need to repeat. So it is like, I don't want to even think about it as biting the hand that feeds you, but let's just say I'm threading a particularly difficult needle always in terms of advocating for myself as an individual, while also advocating for the larger community. But at the same time, not tokenizing myself or tokenizing the community. That's the really difficult thing. And I don't know yet if there's an example of anybody from our community who has done that exactly right because from the outside perspective, you can still go, oh, even certain plays that have really broken through and gotten nationwide attention, how is that story—and I'm not going to name any specific titles or writers out of respect to my friends and colleagues —but I still see that, and this is also true of my own work by the way, I'm not… but that is serving a certain perspective that is for your typical American theatre going audience, which is not our community. That is the truth of the matter, is that I've now seen it happen in eight different productions where the presence of people from our community and the audience is very limited despite a lot of outreach efforts, sometimes, in parts of these theatres, to get our audience in the theatre. And that's been my experience because I'm working primarily in PWIs and things like that. But when the work ticks certain types of boxes about the MENA/SWANA community that audiences have an in to, I hope that's sort of a gateway drug to more difficult, or not even necessarily difficult, but more expansive forms of storytelling there is to come.

But that's why I'm saying that it still feels early because we're still chipping away at that. And I do think that despite the work that some of my colleagues have been doing much longer than I have, it's still an uphill battle. And again, there are so many reasons for that that specifically affect our community, but it is something I do think about, and I wouldn't say it keeps me up at night because I'm just trying to be as truthful as I can to the stories that I want to tell, but I do struggle sometimes with, well, I still feel like I need to be involved in how the stories are being told because they're so easy for it to go wrong. And when you're the first or one of the first who are getting those opportunities, you want to really take care of those productions and the artists, the actors, the various people from our community who are representing that story.

And so, let's just say I've been heavily involved in all of my productions because I think I need to be, and I aspire to the day where I don't need to be, but it's hard when six of the eight theatres have produced my play last season, I was the first ever Middle Eastern writer that those theatres have ever produced. And that is, some of those theatres have been programming for as long as fifty years. So think about that, just what it means for me to be that first writer, for those actors to sometimes be the first actors to appear on those stages, and how are they being taken care of? It's a lot of responsibility.

Nabra: And this is why we wanted to have this particular conversation about queer and MENA theatre in mainstream theatres, these big (largely PWIs as well) theatres. Because there's not only the intersections of identity to be considered, but also, as you've said, this advocacy for your community, on top of trying to produce this play, on top of being heavily involved in producing this play, on top of dealing potentially, I think depending on people's experiences, with any issues that would arise from these theatres not having MENA narratives on their stages or in their buildings. There's so much learning involved.

And you're not only the playwright and producer, but also the community engagement practitioner and the EDI consultant, essentially, on your play, and it's such a deep responsibility when you're in these PWIs. Because as you said, you're setting the stage for future theatremakers. Can you talk more about how you think about advocacy in your work at these PWIs? I mean, is it in the way in which you collaborate with the producers to make sure you're setting the stage and teaching them as you go where to support the actors? Is there a specific intention you have or is it the amalgamation of all that work?

Kareem: Yeah, I mean, I think it's so case by case because different theatres are going to sort of set you up with different levels of support. And I think the most important thing that I've noticed is to be very upfront and name where the non-negotiables are in terms of, "Hey, if you are going to engage with me by producing my play, here are the ways that I expect for you to sort of engage with me around the production of that play." Because the wonderful thing about being a playwright, which is so different than being a director, is that you do have a certain level of ownership over the work. As a director in a way, it's a problem about directing, is that nobody understands the work of a director, so they can't quantify it. So it's like, what is directing? It's like you just fire the director and replace, you can't fire the playwright from their own play.

So there's just a tiny, even though there's very little power for any individual artist in theatre, I do feel like the teensiest bit more, as a playwright, I always know in, like, worst case scenario, I can be like, "I'm just going to pull the rights. No, we're not going to do that.” So I have that power, not that I've ever had to exercise it. However, I kind of go like, look, let's just be real with each other. Your theatre X and community Y has… I'm the first Middle Eastern playwright that's been produced here, or the second or whatever. I think it's important for me to have a conversation with a marketing team for instance. I would like to have approval over the imagery that is promoting my production because it has my name on it. And so that's my name. And my name by extension is my reputation.

So there's a specific example. One of the theatres produced my play American Fast last season. I asked to look at the marketing image, and they sent me an image that they had, they were very proud of, and it actually happened with two of the four theatres that produced that play. And I said, "Thank you so much. This is wonderful. But I think that this imagery is actually slightly offensive." I didn't use the word offensive, but it did offend me a little bit because there was a sort of a bit of a cliche, a bit of a stereotype and imagery that I thought certain audience members that I might want to reach, particularly Muslim audience members, would find potentially offensive. And nobody was shamed for that. It's like they just hadn't had that experience before. So I said, "Oh, that imagery is loaded with this sort of history or this knowledge," and if I hadn't asked to see it, if I hadn't said something, they probably just would've rolled ahead with that imagery, and then I would've been surprised on the backend, which would've been more difficult.

So that's a specific example, but I try to get really granular when it comes to casting. And having been a cultural consultant myself and a casting consultant myself on many projects, there's a lot of specificity that goes into that in terms of how actors are intersecting with different roles. So again, like I said, it's the work that when you are the first or one of the first, it adds a lot more to your plate. But I do feel a responsibility to quote, unquote, "get it right," because then that next writer, either a writer from my community or a writer from a different underrepresented community who's getting that first opportunity is going to be like, "Oh, Kareem got marketing approval. Kareem got casting approval. Kareem got to liaise with the designers before the design was finalized. I should get that too." And I think they should, right?

But unless you ask for it, it's not going to be given. I've noticed that the number of times people have said to me over the last year, "Oh, nobody's ever asked me for that before." And I'm like... And because that's such, when somebody says those words to you, you always immediately go like, “Now what?” Right? Because there's a reason it hasn't been asked before because, well, anyways, let's just say it's a very difficult thing to navigate when somebody says that to me. But I go, like, this is really important to me as an artist. And again, like I said, I had never tried to wield any power, but I do think it says a lot about our field that there continue to be so many places where these stories are just very new and sometimes very daunting for these producing organizations. And I think they require a little bit of handholding.

And maybe because I have experience as a director, because I've produced before a little bit, I've always had an interest in this sort of business side and the leadership side of theatre, aside from just being an artist, I want to get involved in those conversations. And I think the reason I often get that nobody's ever asked for that before is that most artists, particularly writers and also directors, the attitude has often been like, “I'm just so grateful for the opportunity, whatever. I will play by your rules completely.” And that, I think, has been a detriment to artists from underrepresented communities because we're just so grateful to be in the room, but then the stories are not often taken care of with the specificity that they need. And I don't want to keep perpetuating that cycle myself.

Marina: I mean, the stewardship that you were doing there is really interesting. And as you were saying all of this, I was so excited because I feel like someone who's listening to this now can hopefully feel, “oh, now I can do the same thing.” Like Kareem has set the bar here, and I think it's a really useful thing to know that you can ask those things instead of just feeling that gratitude that you mentioned, which I think has been such a true experience for so many folks. Are there other things that you feel like mainstream theatres could do better to support MENA/SWANA artists? Or things that you've had done for you that you were like, "Oh, yes. That's actually such a great thing, and I really appreciate the sort of care that was taken there."

Finding that balance between the business and the emotional care, particularly of work from underrepresented communities, is something I think that if a theatre is going to program a play by somebody from our community, they have to be prepared that there's going to be a little extra work. 

Kareem: I mean, there's so much that I've learned over this last year and so many wonderful experiences that I think are relevant just to sort of our artistic practice, even more holistically than simple culturally specific practices. But there's this one theatre that I worked at where, there I was as a playwright, I was not directing the production, I was there as a playwright, and I was invited into every aspect of the process. It was like any production meeting, I was invited to be there. Every time there was a post-tech meeting, I was not only welcome to attend, I was called on. The production manager was like, "Okay, Kareem, as the playwright, what do you want to say about the production right now?" And you know how you're sitting at a tech meeting and it's like, let's go through department by department, okay, scenery, lighting, sound.

And I was the department, I was the writing department. Do you know what I mean? And I felt so uplifted because frankly, in most of the other instances, my voice as the writer in the room was not welcomed in. The tacit agreement was like, "Well, we're doing the work by producing your play." Not that this was ever said, but "You should just be grateful and just let us do the work from now on." And I was like, well, no, you have to understand that… You might look at, and of course I think people know this intellectually, but I don't know that they understand it emotionally. They will look at something that happens in a play or a moment in a play, and sometimes it's simple as a line.

There was a particular instance, again, the same production where I was invited to speak at a production meeting and I said, "There's this one particular line that the actor is consistently paraphrasing. And in doing so, it is telling a very different story than my intention as the playwright. And we have to figure out a way to get somebody on book or to correct him or do line notes, because I don't feel comfortable with that being the story that the actor's telling. I get that the actor is trying to memorize all this text, but in paraphrasing that line, it's actually fundamentally shifting what the play is." And being given the chance to voice that, and for that to be met with, "Absolutely, we understand that we will take care of it," and they did, was really powerful and really empowering for me. And I think that sort of on an emotional level, some people don't quite understand, and I get this because I've been a director, and when you're the director, it's all like, got to get the production up. That's what I'm doing, working on the production, working on production.

But sometimes you sort of discount the fact that there could be one line that writer wrote. There's this one line in A Distinct Society that I think I spent a week on that line, one week just to perfect that line. And I was like, it is very important to me that that be talked about and discussed and handled with specificity, and it's so vulnerable being a playwright. So I think the theatres that understand that vulnerability that goes into being a playwright, and more so the extreme vulnerability of being a playwright from a community whose work has not been seen on those stages and is willing to just support and hear that on a bet—again, not just lip service. I've had a lot of theatres go like, yes, we understand we're here to support you, but then they don't actually put their money where their mouth is.

I think the number one thing that theatres can do for... There's all sorts of things about identifying artists from the community, but that could be a whole other podcast. But to say, for people like me who are now getting the opportunities, whoever they might be, but when they're from the MENA/SWANA community and their work is being presented at these theatres for sometimes the first time, just be aware of, like, you've got to take care of that writer, you've got to take care of that production in a different way. And for better or for worse, our field is a machine. Even in our post-pandemic reality, you’re still, you're producing the work and you've got the thing, and this is the schedule, and then you do the thing and you got to get the budget. And I get that. I never pretend that it's all just artsy sunshine and flowers. It's still a business. People are paying mortgages and stuff like that. I get that. But there's still emotion in it too.

So finding that balance between the business and the emotional care, particularly of work from underrepresented communities is something I think that, if a theatre is going to program a play by somebody from our community, they have to be prepared that there's going to be a little extra work, in the outset, to support that play. So they just have to be aware of that. And I'm not shy, as you can tell from this podcast. You know what I mean? I will name the things that I need. Not every writer is able to do that, or director, artist, period, because we haven't been told that we should. We've been told the opposite: shut up, be grateful, don't say anything, don't rock the boat, don't be demanding. And I think that's starting to change, but boy, it's still slow. It's very slow.

Nabra: Well, and something I'm getting from what you're saying, and I think a lot of this community engagement, EDI work, I think goes down to some very simple principles. It's like, doesn't have to be that daunting. And the biggest thing that I'm hearing is, put out the invitation, when it comes to theatre. The fact that you were invited, the fact that you were asked, is enough for you to then claim however much of that agency you want. Because there's always that worry of, “oh, are we asking these folks to do more work, especially BIPOC folks to do more work? Then we don't want to ask. But if we don't ask, then are we not including that?” It's just, ask, or put out the invitation. Put out the invitation, and give people the agency. And there's just such simple principles that make for these much more supportive spaces. It doesn't have to be scary or daunting or too much work. It's a little more work, as you've said. But again, that invitation is so much more powerful, I think, than people realize.

Marina: I want to take us next to one of my favorite novels, which you then adapted into a play that I would love to talk about. And Nabra's dad actually introduced me to The Yacoubian Building when we were in Egypt together. We were driving, and he was like, "Oh, this is the building the novel's about." I was like, "What novel?" Which opened up my eyes.

Nabra: He always does that. I also love The Yacoubian Building, and it's like every single time we drive out, “oh, there it is.” It's like the hundredth time he's pointed it out. Yeah, you have to, it's a staple.

Marina: Yes. But for those listening, the novel itself gains notoriety in Egypt for being one of the first novels to break the homosexual taboo by featuring an openly gay character. But I love the novel. I love your adaptation of it. Can you tell us why you decided to adapt it and what that process was like?

Kareem: I mean, it started, my gateway drug into it was that storyline about the gay couple, the gay character. I was working on a project for many years that had to do with sort of the lives of gay men in the Middle East primarily, but throughout the Middle East. It was a project that ultimately became this play that I wrote and developed, sort of conceived and created at Target Margin Theater in Brooklyn called The Triumphant. And I was working on just research for the play, and somebody's like, "Oh, have you ever read The Yacoubian Building?" I was like, "Oh, I've heard of it. I've never read it." And they're like, "It's obviously a novel with many stories in it, but one of them is about this gay man." And so, I read this novel just like, I mean, I plowed through it, and I was just obsessed with it because such a phenomenally interesting novel and the way it tells the story of that gay man and what he goes through had a really visceral impact on me.

And it was just kind of such a surprise to me, remains a surprise, that I was ever able to get the option to actually do the adaptation, because I just didn't think they would take me seriously. But they did. And I worked on it for many years and then developed it extensively. And I think you talk about producibility, I mean, that was the number one challenge with that play, which is that it's a play that is at least for thirteen/fourteen actors, all of whom are supposed to be MENA. And it kind of requires this huge set. And there's a sort of complexity to it. And it's interesting now having been across the country at all these various theatres, because there are tons of big productions that happen at theatres all the time.

I mean, I watched a new play here at the Stratford Festival the other day, really not a new play, an adaptation of a famous old play that had never been done in English before. And I counted the curtain call. I think there were twenty-seven people in this production. I mean, Stratford Festival, it's like a whole other level. But it was a play—first of all, one of them just had seven lines. It came in from one scene, there's in the third act, three acts. First of all, two intermissions. It's like, "Oh, wow." Another character shows up and has seven lines. And that was it. That's all she played, not double cast. And I was like, "Look, people do big plays. Do they do big plays with a bunch of MENA actors in them?" No, because it doesn't get done. It hasn't been done. You do a Shakespeare play, you do a big musical, you'll put thirteen people in it. You don't blink, right? But you're like, oh, thirteen MENA actors!

I had one artistic director say, "I think we should put seventeen actors in this play." And I was like, "You would really do that?" He was like, "Yeah, I would. If I produced this play, I would do seventeen actors." I was like, "Great. That'd be much better." But I mean, that play, that novel, and then working on the adaptation, I mean, it was just probably the greatest gift of my career because in some ways, even though the play never got produced, and then I ultimately ended up losing the option (though I'm hoping I might get it back one day) it got me to where I am. It was kind of the first thing that people sort of saw like, "Oh, Kareem is really taking a leap and sort of putting himself out there as a writer." Even though I had written original plays prior to that, and obviously since that adaptation was kind of the first thing a lot of people read of my work. And to me, to center that gay story, that queer story was so important and something I still really aspire to do.

It's been a reality of my career thus far that a couple of my earlier plays that really center on more of an intersectional sort of gay and Middle Eastern experience stories—those plays have yet to be produced. But this new play, the one I'm working on here at Stratford, Fountains of Youth, it's a play about a community of gay MENASA men. And there are five central characters, all of whom are young, brown gay men. And it's exhilarating to get to write that experience. And I'm like, "Well, is somebody going to do this play?” At this point, I don't care. Do you know what I mean? I have to write this play. I've wanted to write this play for a couple of years. It feels very truthful to my experience. So again, there can be seven more podcasts about this, but when you start to get into what you see programmed that is catering to or reflecting the experience of the LGBTQ community, it's become more complicated nowadays because those plays used to be thought of as plays that would sell tickets, and now I think they're not. Something's shifted in the last decade. And that's been my experience.

And I think I've also just noticed that in the sort of response to my plays, it's like, again, I want to write all sorts of different experiences. So not all of my plays are centering that experience, even though to some extent, I think all of my plays touch on it, but the plays that have not centered, that have been the ones that have been produced thus far. So we'll see if I can buck that trend moving forward. I don't know. It's complicated. It is really complicated. It gets put into yet a different box. It's like, okay, so you're in a MENA box and now are you in a gay box? Is this a gay play? What is a gay play? What's universal about that experience? And I don't know. I really don't know the answer to that question just yet.

Nabra: Wow. And that's so much of what we're exploring in this season, especially this kind of box within a box. But is it a box? Can we think of it in a different way? But all of those considerations are so pertinent to your everyday life, your career, the career of artists with these intersectional identities, and the practicality as you've really outlined of your writing, your producing process, all of what you do has to do with the atmosphere today and how theatres and audiences are taking in your work. And it's a lot to think about. It's a lot to deal with. And you've really, I think, articulated a lot of your considerations really well. So thank you so much for doing that.

Kareem: Thanks for asking a good question. My play American Fast is all to me, a very inside play about faith, and it's a lot about Islam. And when I wrote that play, I was like, "Nobody's going to want to touch this play because people don't want to tell stories about Islam. It's too controversial, blah, blah, blah, blah. It's going to push audience members out." And I have noticed, I mean, that play of mine has gotten more productions than any of my plays. It's going on to its fifth production this season. And there is a universality to the way people approach that play, even if they know nothing about Islam, and they're responding to the human story in that play, which yes, dovetails with faith, and it dovetails with sport and lots of other things.

And why would that be any different for a play about a gay community or a play by any other type? If there's a human story in it, somebody's going to find their way into it. And I myself had fooled—I was like, "I'm going to write this play. It's going to be about these faithful Muslim characters. It'll probably never see the light of day." And it took off like wildfire. So that was also a lesson to myself that I convinced myself that maybe I was just writing for me. So there you go.

Nabra: Again, you've so well articulated the simplicity of it. It's like, yes, any of these stories, whatever intersections are involved, it's about this, there's some type of universal human story or some type of human story large amounts of folks can connect to. You do not have to be of those very specific intersecting identities. And so, we will all be looking out for your new play. It sounds really exciting from just the little tiny secret tidbits that you've shared. Thank you. And of course, I think everyone's waiting for your pieces to be produced in their cities, so you better bring them over to LA because that's where I am currently, so quickly because I'm not a patient person.

Kareem: That's good.

Nabra: Thank you so much, Kareem, for being a part of this podcast. It has been really enlightening, and we're excited to see what comes next for you.

Kareem: Thank you for having me. It was a lot of fun.

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

Nabra: Yalla, bye!

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