Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I Interview Playwrights Part 422: Lameece Issaq


Lameece Issaq

Hometown: Las Vegas, Nevada

Current Town: Brooklyn, NY

Q:  Tell me about Food and Fadwa:

A:  Well, it first started out as a sketch. It was 2004 and I was just back from the Middle East. I was jobless and crashing on my friend's futon in Astoria, watching an unhealthy amount of The Food Network. I had just participated in the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, where I wound up meeting folks who are now my dearest friends and creative partners. One of those people was Jake Kader, who was in film school at Columbia at the time. One unproductive afternoon, I see that The Food Network is having this "Win Your Own Cooking Show Contest," and in order to be considered, you had to put yourself on video doing a cooking segment. I thought, "Yes! I am going to go for this!" I mean, who wouldn't be able to see the incredible potential in a woman who had zero culinary skills or television experience? Come ON!

So, I asked Jake to film this ridiculous segment of me making brownies with one of my friends' kids (I was pitching a kids cooking show--brilliant!), and during takes, I would improvise this odd Arab lady cooking host who was, you know, very serious and somber. We thought it might make a good sketch for the NY Arab Comedy Festival, and started meeting to brainstorm ideas and write it. Eventually the sketch morphed into something more bittersweet and substantial and started having some dramatic potential, and before we knew it, we had a one act play set in Bethlehem. We did a reading of it at NYTW as a part of a festival, and were then encouraged by Linda Chapman to expand it. Now it's three acts. That's right, folks, I said three.

The play is about a woman, Fadwa, who escapes the harsher realities of living in the West Bank through her cooking show. It's mostly about family and the different ways in which we love and express love. But there's that backdrop of occupation. The questions that most interested us were--how do people deal with that kind of daily stress, and still maintain their sense of joy, celebration, humor? What is it like being stuck in a house during a curfew situation? What happens between family members when they are forced to be together and practically live on top of each other for days on end? Hopefully, the play addresses those kinds of things. It's also a piece about being connected to home and land, and what happens when those connections are severed or changed.

Q:  What else are you working on?

A:  My company, Noor Theatre, is co-producing Food and Fadwa with New York Theatre Workshop, so much of my time is spent with my co-founders, Nancy Vitale and Maha Chehlaoui, fundraising for the production.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  Well, I have a very big, funny Arab family, so I felt strongly that their weirdness and beauty ought to be documented somehow. One silly anecdote: My father is a deeply kind, deeply emotional man, subject to very unintentionally funny bouts of screaming or histrionics, which are made more hilarious by his thick accent. He can also be very intentionally funny, but as kids you seize the moments that are most mock worthy. We grew up in Vegas, in a very nice, safe neighborhood. One afternoon, our neighbors got robbed, which was unheard of in our area. Our folks sat down with us, as good parents ought to, to lecture us on the musts of front door safety. My mother said, quite reasonably, "Listen, make sure to keep all of the doors in the house locked, and if anyone knocks on the door, look through the peek-hole and ask who it is." My father responded "NO! If anybody knocks on the door, just RUN!" This struck us as incredibly funny, as images of running aimlessly up and down the stairs or in circles around the kitchen came to mind. Moments of culture clash. I remember this other time I was in 10th grade and I ditched school to go hang with my pals. I must have done it quite stupidly, because my parents found out and grounded me for two weeks. But that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was facing my father, who wasn't actually angry, but rather so saddened by my having taken an education for granted, that he just looked at me and cried. He was taken out of school and never finished high school due to war. So, you know--perspective. I'll never forget that.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  More money for its artists; less expensive tickets to the theater. I am sure there are more intelligent answers like diversification in the theater and seeing more woman and people of color get produced. I am very passionate about those things. But I am also very passionate about seeing The Book of Mormon for ten dollars.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Oh, man. So many. For now I'll say I'm obsessed with anything Daniel Kitson does. He's a very, very special kind of storyteller. He draws these beautiful, funny, deeply flawed characters, referring to them in the third person, and connecting them to each other in the most delightful, unexpected ways. The way he uses language blows my mind. I saw him for the first time in 2006 at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest doing a show called C90, about a man dealing with his last day at work at a repository for abandoned mix tapes. He has a show right now at St. Ann's Warehouse called It's Always Right Now Until It's Later. Go see it!

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I think it depends. Simply told stories; new ways to tell old stories; theater about subjects we rarely see. The production The Play Company did of Invasion, by Jonas Hassan Khemiri, was one of my favorites last year. It was so well done, and was able to address fear, preconceptions, and prejudice (in relation to Arabs/Muslims) with humor and creativity, and in a very theatrically exciting way. I loved it.

Q:  Tell me abou the NYTW Case Study for Food and Fadwa.

A:  Jim and NYTW had this idea that they would offer a course on how a play gets made, from seed to stage. The students will attend seminars on casting, marketing, and production, and speak with the artistic team--designers, director etc. And they'll attend a rehearsal, preview and opening night. I think the idea is to get behind the scenes and see what goes on. It's exciting (and nerve wracking) to be the guinea pigs! I think there's a class where Jake and I go in and talk about our process. We've been developing the play with NYTW for a number of years now--we have them to thank for how this thing grew. Them, and of course, The Food Network.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Food and Fadwa begins previews at NYTW on May 18.

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