Friday, June 24, 2016

I Interview Playwrights Part 855: Silvia Cassini

Silvia Cassini

Hometown: Nairobi, Kenya

Current Town: Nairobi, Kenya

Q:  Tell me about A Man Like You.

A:  A Man Like You is a conversation between a British hostage, Patrick North, and his Somali captor Abdi, set in a windowless concrete room in Somalia. Over the course of North’s captivity of 189 days, though North and Abdi rarely agree as they discuss piracy, the nature of power, what is God and who is a terrorist, we ultimately come to see that their basic humanity connects them and that they are perhaps finally more alike than they are different. Though A Man Like You is not about real events, it was inspired by the Westgate Mall tragedy of 23rd September, 2013 in which armed men from the terrorist group Al Shabaab opened fire on shoppers, killing at least 67. When I sat down to write A Man Like You in January of 2014, those events were still very alive in our psyche, and we replayed in our minds not only the images of those who would never leave there alive, but also those of the people who did, often thanks to the heroic response of other ordinary civilians. In this context I wondered what heroism really is and what choice each of us would make when faced with giving up our life in order to stop a terror attack. Would we be able to do it? I sat down then to breathe alive a modern hero, a protagonist with a tough choice, a man who would ultimately risk everything for what he believes to be right. Perhaps I created Patrick North because I wanted to think, in light of such tragic events, that that kind of moral integrity is still part of who we are today. But the fascinating thing is that the more that I researched the world of his antagonist, Abdi, the more I could also, surprisingly, identify with his reality, and eventually he also became someone willing to die for his truth, as heroic as Patrick North. This gave me the strong central theme of the play: Who has the moral right to the truth?, an even more powerful question than what is heroism I think. Once I had the struggle and the characters, setting the play in Somalia was almost incidental and just a coherent and colourful context, despite it being a windowless concrete room!

There are many many themes explored in A Man Like You but if there were only one thing I would love people to take away from it, it is that the current frightening state of our world is brought about by our powerful conviction that our world view is ‘right’ and that everyone who does not agree with us is ‘evil’ and should be eliminated. The reality is that whilst we are witnessing the tragic result in many countries of radicalisation, we are not engaging with the causes and the legitimate grievances that motivate people to radicalize: poverty, lack of opportunity, the grabbing of land and other resources by powerful elites, in short a reality that means turning to desperate tactics to be ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ is often the only coherent choice. Someone very wise said ‘the only real way to disarm your enemy is by listening to them’ and the truth is that nobody alive is willing to fight to the Death for a reality they do not believe in. We are all motivated by the same thing; creating a better future for our children, but we differ in our ways of how that future looks. Discounting the reality of others as wrong or evil is a recipe for disaster I think and can only lead to more horror and bloodshed. Seeing the immoral actions of others as ‘terror’ and not our own is very dangerous and again to use a borrowed phrase: “There is no faster way to make a terrorist than to take away his legitimate voice and brand him as such.”

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I am at present mid-way through a novel, also set in Somalia and in many ways spun off by the massive amount of research I did for A Man Like You, titled ‘Where Wise Men Fish’. It is another hostage story, but a love-story this time and very different from A Man Like You. I think one of the big motivators for driving forward with it is that many of people I told the initial idea to thought I was crazy to set a love-story in Somalia!

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

A:  I am not sure that I am able to single out a single incident that encompasses so much, but I will say that growing up I was not stereotypically successful. In the British curriculum school I went to being good at sports was the be-all and end-all, and I wasn't. I was always stuck in goal, or on the reserve line, and the few times the ball did come my way during a hockey or netball match I could see the teachers hold their heads as I inevitably dropped it or let it hurtle past me, slamming into the back of the goal with a loud thwack! But on stage things were different. There the crippling lack of confidence evaporated and even the kids who bullied me sat up and watched. I could see them see me and afterwards, their words were more measured, less laden with contempt, as if in recognition that I could do something they couldn’t. That was the beginning of my love-affair with the theatre, a passion whole-heartedly nurtured by my English and Drama teachers, who I still feel now I owe so much to. These inspiring people not only introduced us to Shakespeare, Chaucer, Miller but taught us HOW to read them. They helped us see the hidden meaning behind each word, the barely-concealed political allusions, the metaphors, the irony, and to slowly build up in our own minds the world intended by the author, coupled with our own interpretation. This was a priceless gift and I still return to the classical greats to draw inspiration from the sheer power of the language and the timeless relevance of the themes and characters.

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

A:  Of course the biggest challenge one faces as a playwright starting out in today’s world is funding. Unless you have the means to fund a show yourself, and even if you do, producing theatre can be a very tough and unrewarding experience financially. Arts budgets have shrunk in recent years the world over and as we move away from community-centred to person-centred entertainment, theatre is in danger of going the way of newspapers and shrinking as a cultural form. In Shakespeare’s day a play at the Globe was the only form of available entertainment but these days theatre-going competes with a myriad other things and getting audiences through the door is a constant challenge. Reminding those who do buy tickets what a strong medium performance art is, how irreplaceable it is in its immediacy, and hoping that they tell their friends how powerful it still is to see raw human events unfold on stage, is what all of us who are involved in theatre aspire to do. Of-course it would be wonderful to also be able to make money out of such an endeavour.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Whilst I have had the privilege of directing several comedies in the past few years and an enormous amount of fun doing so, I will admit that tragedy is really what gets my heart-rate going, not only in my writing but also in the works of those who have inspired me. So it makes sense that the tragic hero or heroine of classical theatre, is where I have looked for inspiration and nowhere more so than in Miller’s John Proctor. A good man, with fatal flaw, trapped in a struggle between saving himself and doing the right thing; this is what I tried, with the beacon of John Proctor before me, to make of Patrick North.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I think it essential in all writing and particularly play-writing that anyone reading or watching the play must be able to identify with the characters, and ideally to even be surprised that they recognise themselves in them. Thus, characters that are not so convolutedly written that they are not easily understandable, are the ones that excite me the most. The simple choices of ordinary people, of you or me, in modern contexts, who for some reason are pushed out of their safe lives into unknown territory that is painful or difficult, and during which they are forced to change, are still the most interesting to me. I wholeheartedly believe that there is nothing worth saying that has not already been said, but it is the way in which we say the same things, our particular choice of words, our voice, our unique perspective that matters. Conveying our view of the world in a fresh and exciting manner is why writers spend hundreds of hours in self-imposed exile, with no guarantee of any kind of reward, driven simply by the desire to reach a reader or audience member somewhere and make a difference to them.

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

A:  I would tell them to read. Read classic plays, read modern plays and read books about writing. Read about the hero’s journey, about plot, about character arc, about theme. In short, research the techniques of writing that all authors use to bring their stories to life. Like a mechanic studies engines before being able to make one run smoothly I think it is a fallacy to think you will just pick up and write a good story without knowing anything about the basic structures of writing. Doing a little research before you start can save you hundreds of wasted hours. Other than that just turn up at the page (setting aside pre-destined time helps), switch off the ‘judge’ button and immerse yourself in the story. If you can truly BE your character whilst you write you will find their voice will be that much more authentic.

Q:  Plugs, Please.

A:  A Man Like You opens July 13th at IATI Theater, 64 East 4th Street in NYC. For more information and tickets, visit:

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