Jessica Brater is no stranger to the concept of devised theater. She’s been spearheading devised theater projects since I first met her, working on her theater company Polybe + Seats’ Life or Theater: The Charlotte Salomon Project, back in 2006. As artistic director of Polybe, Jessica is often the lead in the collaborative creative process of making a new play, which is why when Polybe embarked upon the upcoming Anna Asli Suriyah (I Come from Syria), I was so intrigued. Unlike Charlotte, which used the paintings of Charlotte Salomon as a base, or A Thousand Thousand Slimy Things, which originated with the texts of Rachel Carson and Coleridge, among others, Anna Asli Suriyah was pioneered by Sarah Sakaan, performer and Polybe + Seats company member.
For Sarah, going home to Memphis before the conflict began in Syria was vastly different than afterwards. Sarah always felt that she was in touch with her Syrian roots, but she was not prepared for the violence that was engulfing her father’s homeland, whether her exposure to that was through the news or in conversation with her family. Her first desire was to protect herself from the troubles, by staying in New York, continuing to make her artwork, and by shutting it out, but she could not shut out her family and their experiences of war. Moreover, she did not want to. She realized that as an artist, she was in a position to express, in a larger way, what she was hearing from her family at home. She started asking questions and recording those conversations. She used audio recording only, so that no one would feel self-conscious, and what she found was that aunts, uncles, sisters, cousins, even her father, were aching to talk about what was happening in their home country, their memories of growing up there, and the fears they were harboring about family left behind.
It was in a Polybe + Seats company meeting, the forum through which new projects are hatched, that the idea for a piece based on Sarah’s Syrian family began to take shape. Sarah is a performer, and Jessica is a real advocate for the performers she works with. She enthusiastically encourages performers to feel an ownership of a project, but this is the first time the company has created a piece that was entirely performer driven. Playwrights and directors have spearheaded projects in the past, but in this case, it was the actress who originated, created, and takes a lead role in devising the work.
Sarah shaped the interviews with her family into monologues, and taking on the persona and mannerisms of her father, her aunts, and her sister, she plays all the roles. The team decided to do a small presentation at Brooklyn Winery, to get a feel for the piece and its potential. For Jessica, Anna Asli Suriyah resonated with what’s happening in the world now, in terms of both personal story and a global impact. “For a lot of art that works well, that addresses geo-political issues,” Jessica explains, “it’s best to have a way into it, and that way in is the personal story, the story of an individual and his or her experience.” Telling a big, broad story doesn’t give the viewer, or even the performer, anything to hold on to, which is what made these monologues such an essential component, and the basis for everything that came after.
Sarah initially said that the story wasn’t going to be political, but as Jessica, Sarah, and the company continued to work on it and the ideas began to evolve, it became very political. While not shoving a certain message down the audience’s throat, “I think we’ve both learned that the personal is political, and there’s no way to separate the two,” says Jessica. Sarah shares her perspective: “It’s inherently political,” she says, “but it’s more personal for me. It would be great if people would help refugees, or have a better attitude about people who have to flee their homeland, and to think about that. No one wants to be a refugee, and these are real people who are dealing with this.”
There is a hesitancy on Sarah’s part to assign a real political perspective to the characters based on her family, or even to use their real names. “The reality is, there’s a dictator in power, and there’s a civil war taking place there, so if they need to go back there, who knows how the power is going to shake down,” she said, “There’s an element of me protecting them.” What she did say was that at the start of the conflict, many of the people Sarah talked to had been in favor of the rebellion to overthrow the Assad regime. But as the bloodshed continued, the disruption to Syrian lives and culture reached tragic proportions, and hope of a US intervention dwindled. For the most part, Syrians want hope that their country and their daily lives can be returned to normal. That longing for a way of life lost, for a sense of daily security destroyed, is deeply felt in Anna Asli Suriyah.
There is no one model for a Polybe project, and part of what’s exciting about their approach is the reinventing and reimagining performance modes and ways of creating new work on a new stage. After Sarah did the first showing at Brooklyn Winery last fall, Jessica and she began to meet to talk about the direction for the piece. Right from the beginning, the piece seemed ripe for expansion. They wanted to include more people and more material. They knew when Sarah started to develop these monologues that they wanted to create a broader piece that would expand on the interviews to include news reports and folk tales, using the interviews as a base, framing the piece with Syrian ritual. In this case that ritual takes the form of a wedding, which plays a big part in Sarah’s memories of Syria, and her experience growing up in a Syrian family in the US. As the writing evolved and the interviews continued, other company members (Lindsay Torrey and Elaine O’Brien) came in to read scenes aloud so that Sarah could hear how the piece moved, how the voices were beginning to interact. Shortly thereafter, they began to bring in others, such as Katie Naka, a producer, and then actors through the audition process.
Because they’d done so much advance work, by the time the actors came on board, Sarah and Jessica had honed much of their approach; they were able to hand off news items and folk tales that they had already decided were essential to the piece. Actors would take their given story element, work on it outside of rehearsal, and bring it back in to the company. In past projects, when the approach itself is still being hashed out well into the process, lots of work is discarded along the way. In the case of Anna Asli Suriyah, that wasn’t the case. That they had chosen a clear direction and approach before bringing in the other collaborators meant that the ship was already heading toward its destination; the collaborators just had to pull together their provisions and climb aboard.
Because only the base components of story and trajectory were decided before the audition process, actors weren’t trying out for specific character roles. Instead of casting characters, Jessica and Sarah were looking to build a company of collaborators who wanted to explore these ideas. When examining the resumes of actors who had come in to audition, all of the Arab-American actors had “Terrorist #3” and the like listed among their credits. It became increasingly important to bring in actors with Arab-American backgrounds. Jessica notes that “we wanted to have characters that were culturally specific, that were based in reality, instead of these wild perceptions of everyone who is Arab-American having to be cast as a terrorist.” The scenes that have developed are based entirely on the people in the cast. The actors themselves created the characters they wanted to play.
Jessica and Sarah have had an easy and open working relationship. “I’ve tried to be conscious of the fact that while I’m the director, and running rehearsals,” says Jessica, “Sarah is the lead artist on the project, so often I’ll think to myself that I need to pull back a little bit, and that’s gotten easier as we’ve gone along.” Sarah’s instinct is to play, to go along for the ride, then after rehearsal to talk with Jessica about what worked, what didn’t work. In that sense, rehearsal is almost like the creation of a first draft, which Jessica and Sarah can step back from to edit and restructure before an element is nailed down.
Polybe + Seats frequently uses non-theater spaces for presentation: Brooklyn Winery in Williamsburg, The Old Stone House in Park Slope, the Waterfront Barge Museum in Red Hook. But for this play about Syria, and about an Arab-American experience, they are venturing off the edge of the mainstream arts map in NYC and taking the show to Bay Ridge. Anna Asli Suriyah is being presented at Beit Jeddo, a restaurant and events space popular in Bay Ridge’s large Arab-American community. The company wanted to work in Bay Ridge, to bring the show to the Arab-American audience there. “They’re not our usual audience,” says Jessica, “we thought that it would be more likely that people who live in that neighborhood would come to see the show there.” As artists’ neighborhoods have been decentralized, the diaspora of artists has spilled out into the far reaches of the city. The result of the real estate fracture is that every hood where an artist lives or chooses to present work becomes a hub for creation. Every single corner in this vast, great city is ripe for genesis.
Excerpt from Anna Asli Suriyah (I Come from Syria):
(Obeyda, early thirties, is in Turkey; he is speaking to his cousin in Brooklyn, NY. We are hearing and seeing him through a computer, or iPhone or tablet. We should feel as if he is in the room, but somehow distorted, maybe through the lighting or buzzing electrical sound, or maybe he is seen through the audience’s smart phones?)
How are you doing zeez dayz?
Ya, no, but you are enjoyink your time zts not like you are livink in Memphis.
Most of my brothers and sisters are livink in Memphis just for some time, yianni, all of them are leaving. Yianni nobody goink to stay zerr, outside of Tennessee is much better. Yianni, New York and Brooklyn sere is more sings habbening, more different peoble to meet.
Ya well every place has its own properties.
So one tank commander comes to me and told he me zat, “Now, I shoot over 85 missiles on two hours and I am happy?” And when you hear zat and you see zat all of the buildings are coming down and all the city are burnt down and and all of the soldiers are laughing and you feel like what the Hell! What am I doing? What am I doing here!
Now, I am working on a pharmacy in the morning and in the night I don’t do anything because there is nothing to do. I did have plans of coming to the states, but now, no. No, I am not going to the states, because it is impossible for me to come to the states. The last time I tried ze officer mocked at me and he will not give me a visa type.
You saw my Facebook, now I put profile picture for my eh eh eh for my friend he used to be a photo shooter, photo-grapher, and he used to be a media coordinate with ze rebels he used to go and just shoot photos for what is happening and he was shot wiz ze sniper bullet in his neck and died. So its za ...You Can Not Hold your Camera! If zey saw you or you were holding your camera zey gonna kill you.
Anna Asli Suriyah (I Come from Syria), by Sarah Sakaan, directed by Jessica Brater, featuring Sarah Sakaan, Ayse Eldek, Nuah Ozryel, Tom Giordano, and Pascale Signeurie, runs August 9-26 at Beit Jeddo Hookah Lounge in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. For tickets and further info, visit polybeandseats.org.
LIBBY EMMONS is a playwright and theater maker in Brooklyn, blogging the story of her life at li88yinc.com.