Tuesday, February 28, 2017

I Interview Playwrights Part 917: Betty Shamieh



Betty Shamieh

Hometown: San Francisco.

Q:  Tell me about The Strangest.

A:  As a child of Arab immigrants who became an American playwright, I was always fascinated by the idea of Middle Eastern storytelling cafes, where a person could grab a cup of joe and listen to the live performances of the best storytellers in that community retelling fables and myths from The Arabian Nights. How was it similar and different to the kind of theatre I was making in New York and Europe? Might I have been a café storyteller if my parents hadn’t fled? It never occurred to me that cafes were segregated all-male spaces. Women were not welcome. This fact was particularly galling because these men were reshaping, retelling, and recreating stories attributed to their world’s most famous storyteller Scheherezade, a woman whose cheeky, bawdy stories-within-stories were so compelling that they had the power to save her life. I wanted to infiltrate these storytelling cafes. I went to the Middle East in search of stories of women who must have tried to do so, particularly in places like Algeria, where women were an integral part of the resistance that overthrew the French occupation only to find themselves in a society that was determined to clamp down on the rights of women.

At that time, I had been approached by an artistic director about writing a stage adaptation of The Stranger, a novel I had dutifully read in high school but had made little impression upon me at that time. I was clearly being asked to do the job because of my ethnic background, but I needed the job. Upon revisiting The Stranger, I realized adapting a cerebral novel wasn’t my thing, no matter how badly I wanted to work with that director. I also realized, though I was an Arab-American kid, I missed that the novel is about more than a weird narrator who shot a man he didn’t know without feeling remorse, or a representation of an abstract concept called Existentialism. It is about a colonist killing a native in a deeply racist environment, where desensitization of self and dehumanization of others are necessary ingredients for it to survive. I wanted to tell the other side of the story, evoking the wildness of the world that was French Algiers.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I am working on two new projects. Malvolio is a comedic sequel to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Malvolio, a lowborn stewart with self-esteem issues, becomes a celebrated general in the King of Illyria’s army. Volina, the serious-minded teenage daughter of Duke Orsino and Duchess Viola, falls madly in love with Malvolio. He believes the beautiful girl is mocking him with her ardent displays of passion for him. Volina tries to teach Malvolio how success – and a young lover - is always the best revenge.

My other project is Veritas, a historical drama inspired by the story of how Harvard accepted four Native American students in the 17th century. Being targeted as traitors by their tribes and never fully accepted by the colonial establishment, only one of the Native American students would live long enough to graduate in 1665. It’s a story about affirmative action at an American university before America formally existed. It illuminates how easily the American national narrative could have developed into one of integration and co-existence rather than separation and eradication. Plus, its got folks in Puritan outfits behaving badly, which is always fun.

Basically, these are the most ambitious and expensive plays to produce that I’ve written to date. I’ve got my fingers crossed that I’ll find the right producer to take on these extravaganzas.

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 come from an immigrant family who was very enthusiastic about supporting my artistic aspirations, especially my fabulous mother. She would pay for, enroll me, and chauffeur me to anything I wanted to participate in – like ballet and the San Francisco Children’s Light Opera program - but had no idea how to guide me further. It was up to me to find mentors and figure out how to develop. I knew I wanted to pursue theatre from an early age. Ironically, I ended up at an all girls Catholic high school with no theatre program. I found out about auditions for a musical at an all boys high school. I didn’t know basic info about musical auditions. I arrived late. I wrote my own (very bad) monologue, sang a Christmas carol instead of an appropriate Broadway number, and proceeded to offer to improvise my own dance to demonstrate my extensive classical training when I was told I had missed the dance audition portion. I can still remember the confused faces of the trio of high school drama teachers, looking up at me as I danced a ballet number for them without music. Of course, they did not cast me. Ever. Even after I began training the next year at ACT’s Young Conservatory program and become one of the more experienced young actors in the Bay Area. I had to find a place elsewhere, which I did. In some ways, no matter how far I go in theatre, I’ll always be that thirteen year old girl who didn’t have guidance or tools or polish or anything really, except a burning belief she had something to contribute by being on stage, especially stages where people like her and the stories she had to tell had never been seen before.

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

A:  I wish our industry would stop trying to compete with film or television. We are our own beast. The easiest way to get a play produced is to find a movie star that will sell tickets and cast them, whether or not they are right for the role. I think that is profoundly bad for our industry, though I understand the importance of institutions trying to survive in this climate and – of course – there are so many famous movie stars that are fantastic stage actors and deserve to be onstage. But, I hate to see brilliant stage actors lose roles to mediocre film and TV stars in new plays. It means the play isn’t as good as it could be, which means the audience is the ultimately loser in the end. Not everyone enjoys opera, but opera companies aren’t trying to put Rihanna or the latest winner of The Voice in every production to sell tickets.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  There are so many great playwrights working today and I think one of the blessings of my life is that I know some of them personally. I was lucky enough to have Lynn Nottage as a mentor as part of the first playwriting fellowship I got (Van Lier at New Dramatists). The scope of the plays she writes and how she never repeats herself is thrilling. I am so happy that Lynn is getting the Broadway debut she deserves. The urgency in Kia Corthron’s political plays always inspires me and her new novel is one of the best I’ve read in years. The depth of Naomi Wallace’s characters is haunting. Few playwrights explore humanity with the clarity of her unflinching gaze. The playwright Tony Kushner is someone I also admire a great deal. Angels in America is a very important play to me. It is the kind of work that negates any fallacious attempt to split playwrights into the separate categories of those who entertain and those who write about ideas. That is the kind of theatre that I like to see and aspire to make.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I love theatre that embraces theatricality, and utilizes the imagination of the audience. I’m continually pushing myself to experiment with the tools that are unique to live performance, including presenting characters to the audience not as they are, but as other characters see them. For example, in The Strangest, the Algerian men view French men as threats and cannot relate to them as otherwise. I represented this by making the one French character appear in costume as an actual gun. His dialogue consists only of a single word “Bang!”. I did this to give the audience the understanding of how deeply disorienting and frightening it is for colonized men to have to live side by side with their colonizers. The women in the story understand the “language” of gunfire and can respond accordingly, because I believe women are more accustomed than men to dealing with feeling disempowered and figuring out how to function in spite of that. This is an example of an idea that can be best conveyed theatrically. People who come to the theatre do so because they are in love with life that they are not content to simply live their own. They hunger to know more than they can if they stay only within the confines of their own skin, to feel more experiences than their own lives can afford them.

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

A:  The key to longevity as an artist is to believe your best work is yet to come. Try not to see your art as a key to money, fame, or attention – there are ways to get all of those things faster and easier than writing plays. Instead, try as much as possible to enjoy the process of creating for its own sake. Know that not every play of yours necessarily deserves a wide audience. Even the best playwrights create work that varies in quality. But, what is important is to learn from each project you undertake, which is easier to do if you spend more time dreaming about your next project than worrying about how to mount, publicize, or promote your last one. Those are all important and essential things to do, but they cannot be your main focus. Writing is easy. It’s designing a life in which you can spend most of it writing that is a challenge. I think to be the best writer you can be you’ve got to figure out how to survive the experience of being a writer long enough to develop the craft of writing.

Q:  Plugs:

A:  The Strangest will be at the Fourth Street Theatre from March 11 – April 1 and audience members will get a chance to experience firsthand an Arab story telling cafe. This is an immersive play where the audience will be transported to an intimate world. Tickets are $25-$5 and can be purchased at: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2822899


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