Monday, September 09, 2013

I Interview Playwrights Part 604: Ayad Akhtar

Ayad Akhtar

Hometown:  Milwaukee, WI

Current Town:  NY, NY

Q:  Tell me about Disgraced.

A:  The basic story of Disgraced tracks the unraveling of a Pakistani-American corporate attorney's marriage and career as the long-guarded secret of his Muslim origins comes out at work. The body of the play is a dinner party where a group of successful New York professionals begin to talk about Islam, and Amir, under extreme stress from his work situation, begins to unloose long-stanched emotions related both to his Islamic heritage -- which he is profoundly at odds with -- but also with being Muslim in America.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I have a new play going up in 2014 at La Jolla Playhouse and at Lincoln Center's LCT3 in New York. It's called The Who & The What, and is a partly comedic exploration of Muslim-American matrimonial mores. Also at work on a heavy rewrite of a play called The Invisible Hand. It has new productions in Seattle and Portland at the end of next summer. Have a couple of commissions I am plugging away on, as well as my next novel. I'm keeping busy.

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

A:  This is a story I've told a few times. But it's really the central one when it comes to my story as a writer. I had an amazing high school teacher who changed my life, who made me want to write. Her name was Diane Doerfler. (We called her Ms Doerfler.) She was in her late fifties at the time that I took her class, an eccentric, remarkable woman, who lived on sixty acres of land in forest-country north west of Milwaukee, with a farm-sized garden she awoke at four AM to tend every morning, usually surrounded by her ten great danes. She'd been married five times, divorced all her husbands, and carried herself with an assuredness that belied her station as a high-school teacher. Her bearing was at once regal and acute. She didn't suffer fools well. And she didn't take kindly to kids who didn't do the evening assignment. Suffice it to say, I don't recall a single incident of insubordination in her class.

Our first assignment that semester was to read Friedrich Durrenmatt's short story, "The Tunnel." It's about a man who wakes up on a train and doesn't understand how he got there, or where the train is going. He goes from car to car, asking the passengers, the conductor, the workers, but no one seems to know. Most don't care and shrug. Others point to someone else further up the chain of command for an answer. Finally, having made his way to the locomotive, the protagonist finds the driver: A madman shoveling coal maniacally into the engine. The protagonist asks him where the train is going. All the driver can do is point at the ceiling. The protagonist climbs the short ladder and peers over the perch to see: A tunnel of darkness into which the train is headed with unstoppable fury.

I hadn't the slightest idea what to make of it. When Ms Doerfler strode purposefully into class the next day, her right hand buried -- as it always was -- in her sport coat pocket and playing with a set of keys there, she asked us to explain the meaning of the story. I was confounded. I couldn't understand how anything so incoherent as the story I'd read the previous night could have a meaning. No one had an answer. And so she proceeded to explain: The train was life. And sometimes we awaken to the question of where it is headed, how it began. Unfortunately, as we look for an answer from others, they often have no interest in the question, and those who might have an interest have no answer. The most that one could do was to confront the truth -- after great effort -- and that was itself a conundrum: That life is unknown headed into a deeper unknown.

I was stunned. I remember the moment I understood what she was saying. It was like lemon juice on the surface of milk, parting the murkiness, revealing something clear underneath. It struck me then (and it still does) that giving shape in stories to the deeper questions of existence was the most remarkable thing I could imagine doing.

Ms Doerfler responded to my newfound passion with care and guidance. I spent a great deal of time around her my senior year, doing independent studies and writing essays about what she had me read. She introduced me to Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka. And when I was done with those, she had me read Sartre and Rilke and Mishima and Proust. It was a baptism in world literature, a formation I still draw from everyday...

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

A:  Ticket prices!

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Eleanora Duse, Andre Gregory, Arthur Miller, Jerzy Grotowski, David Mamet, Ariane Mnouchkine, Kate Valk, Tony Kushner, Solomon Mikhoels, Ibsen, Reza Abdoh, Jean Genet, Anatoly Vasiliev, Kazuo Ohno, Cherry Jones, Bertolt Brecht.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theater that takes audience engagement seriously, which isn't to mean work that panders to the audience. It's a matter of who the primary interlocutor of the work really is. Is it dramaturgy, form, the process of storytelling? Or is it the audience? To me, this is the distinguishing line. Not that the former isn't valid. I admire so many writers whose primary interlocutor is really the form. But I find that it just doesn't excite me as much.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Keep at it. Stay open to criticism from those you admire and trust. Work hard. Expect that it may take much much longer than you would ever imagine. Show business is about attrition more than anything else. You have to have the staying power -- which I associate with creative drive -- to keep at it.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Little, Brown and Company is bringing out an edition of Disgraced the second week of September 2013. Aasif Mandvi -- who starred in the play at Lincoln Center -- will be joining me for a reading and discussion at the Union Square Barnes and Noble on Thursday Sept 12 at 7.00 PM. Aasif is a very talented and funny guy. Should be a lot of fun.

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