The Rooted Adventure of Target Margin: 1001 Nights in Sunset Park
Target Margin artistic director David Herskovits in the Doxsee, the company’s new theater in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Photo: Kelly Lamanna.
Target Margin artistic director David Herskovits walked into the office, shedding his bicycling gear and declaring: “A wind like this reminds me of a mouse.”
I joked with Moe Yousuf, the associate artistic director—with whom I had already started discussing Target Margin’s new neighborhood of Sunset Park—that Herskovits had said that so I would write it down as his entrance line. (It is a quote from “Woyzeck.”)
To this, Herskovits replied: “Things that make me sound like a pretentious ass have to be off the record.”
“Now that should be his entrance line!” said Yousuf.
I have known David Herskovits for twenty years or so and I can attest to the fact that he can sound pretentious. But he is not. There is no pretense with Herskovits, and he likes to work with people who have as little—like Yousuf, the instigator of the current season, which is inspired by The Thousand and One Nights.
Moe Yousuf is a bagpipe-playing, half-Pakistani theater artist who was doing his own exploration of the classic and mercurial text that was never meant to be a text, when, in 2015, he found himself heading back from a retreat at Martha’s Vineyard with Herskovits, lighting designer guru Lenore Doxsee, and two others. He mentioned his interest in The Thousand and One Nights, even suggesting the potential for building a Target Margin season around it. As Yousuf interprets the reaction from Herskovits: “It didn’t go plop.”
After doing some casual and then pointed reading from Yousuf’s three-volume edition, the company decided to officially call the 2017-18 season a “multi-year exploration of The Thousand and One Nights.” Says Herskovits, “I had spent two years working on O’Neill. This was a turn away from that.” (That multifaceted Eugene O’Neill season started with a 100-minute streamlined and experimental Mourning Becomes Electra, renamed Drunken With What, and culminated in a celebrated six-hour production of that same classically-inspired Southern melodrama.)
According to Herskovits, ideas for seasons have long come from many voices in the company, though he is, as he puts it, casually, “the boss.” For instance, in Target Margin’s second year, Doug Langworthy suggested Little Eyolf, the obscure Ibsen play. As part of this season, the company has initiated the Sinbad Lab, which asks four theater artists to create anything they want around the Sinbad stories from The Thousand and One Nights. Stephanie Weeks, a Sinbad Lab leading artist who also recently played Christine in Target Margin’s Mourning Becomes Electra, muses, “My attitude is: if you’re in the room, you have something to offer. And I’ve learned that from working with Target Margin over the years. It doesn’t matter what your role, you are at the table and your voice is welcome and wanted in that space.”
Both Herskovits and Yousuf emphasize the “responsibility” that comes with the material and, more specifically, the sources of The Thousand and One Nights. The Target Margin mission includes the promise that the company will “aggressively cast and staff [its] work with the broadest range of people. That means racial diversity has been a guiding principle from the start.” The company makes a point of going beyond “color-blind” casting, leaning deep into the rainbow to explore age and gender, as well. A white woman in her sixties might play Seth in Mourning Becomes Electra, a Filipino man might play a Yiddish actor in Uriel Acosta, or a middle-aged African-American man might play Faust. And yet, to the knowledge of everyone I talked to about Target Margin, never has there been a deliberate effort to focus on one community as a casting and staffing hub for conceiving a season.
Target Margin's Pay No Attention to the Girl featuring Anthony Vaughn Merchant and Caitlin Nasema Cassidy. Photo: Kelly Stuart.
As Caitlin Nasema Cassidy, one of the five actors in this season’s first production, Pay No Attention to the Girl, says, “David insisted that the work belonged to everyone.” But there is no denying that half of the cast in that production and the majority of the leading artists for the upcoming Sinbad Lab are of Silk Road descent (Silk Road referring to what others prefer to or also call MENASA—Middle Eastern, North African, South Asian). In other words, they are from the communities who might claim some roots in The Thousand and One Nights.
“There is a conversation about how to tell a more nuanced narrative about the people of that world,” says Kareem Fahmy, a busy working director also tapped to be one of the Sinbad Lab leading artists. Fahmy actively works with emerging and established MENASA playwrights and other theater artists, but sees that as only one aspect of helping to create a canon. “In other minority groups there are canons that exist,” Fahmy explains. “We don’t have that canon yet. I am fiercely involved in the building of that canon. We’re at the state where we’re curious about the roots of where we are.”
After talking with the artistic and associate artistic directors, and before interviewing Cassidy or the lead artists of the Lab, I saw Pay No Attention to the Girl, a production directed by David Herskovits that primarily focuses on one intertwined narrative from The Thousand and One Nights involving a prince who may or may not be put to death because he may or may not have raped a woman. While the piece acknowledges and connects back to the main Scheherazade frame story (the woman who keeps herself alive by telling complicated but captivating tales to her wife-killing husband), its focus remains on the section known in some translations as “The Craft and Malice of Women.”
My impressions of the show reflect not only its content but the experience I had in seeing it in Target Margin’s brand new space. For the first time in over twenty-five years, the company has a performance venue it can call home instead of wandering nomadically through HERE, Abrons Arts Center, and a plethora of other downtown Manhattan rental venues, even while their offices were in Fort Greene, Brooklyn with storage for their voluminous props and set pieces elsewhere. Now they are lodged—administrative offices, bountiful rehearsal space, storage space, and, most significantly, large and adaptable performance space—under one roof and behind one massive bright yellow garage door, which happens to be in the industrial section west of I-278 with the East River in sight, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
I took the R to the 53rd Street stop on a temperate Friday night. I grabbed a well-made Cuban sandwich at a bodega near the subway (Azy, on 51st Street and 4th Ave) and followed a moving dotted trail of other Park Slope hipster intellectuals towards the warehouse garage fronts that define Target Margin’s new habitat. I stood outside the bright yellow garage door near the shiny green signboard with the yellow arrow pointing in, watching a steady but well-punctuated parade of Ubers and Lyfts drop off more people who looked like me at the theater’s entrance. Many seemed confused as to how they had ended up in such an industrial neighborhood, glancing around unsure of where to go next. Why, I wondered quietly, did they not automatically assume the yellow arrow on the sparkly green sign with pink ribbon draped over it was meant for them? I tossed my sandwich scraps and entered with my compatriots.
The ticket taker invited me to sit in the open area and await further instruction.
Avi Amon, a prolific composer of Turkish descent who is another lead Sinbad Lab artist, described to me his reaction upon entering the performance space for the first time: “It’s as big as a gym. You don’t see things like that in New York City.” As Avi’s reaction prompted him to imagine the possibilities of intimate and epic sound in the space, I immediately thought about what it would be like to write a play meant for it. Its vastness inspires.
From the scattered folding chairs on the floor, where other audience members, deliberately roaming actors, and some mysterious tech operators sat and milled, I looked up to a bank of risers where yellow sagging couches, pillows, and beanbags awaited. I drank the IPA I bought for $5 at the snack stand, and then the actor I would soon confirm was Caitlin Nasema Cassidy introduced herself to the assembled audience as “David Herskovits” and welcomed us all to the show.
Cassidy’s response when we met and I asked her about this speechifying moment of blatant misidentification: “David made the speech during a developmental workshop. Then he made it my job one night and said, ‘You be me.’ Everybody thought it was funny. Now he feeds me lines to add before I start, like: ‘Sorry for the one-bathroom situation.’”
As part of the pre-show speech, Cassidy explains the name of the new performance space, The Doxsee: it is named after the aforementioned founding member and resident lighting designer Lenore Doxsee, who passed away in 2017.
“The speech started as one-word bullet points and I would improvise around them,” Cassidy explains to me later. “I didn’t want to improvise the Lenore part, though, so David wrote that for me. I was at the Mourning Becomes Electra performance the day after Lenore died and I remember Moe making the speech to the audience about her, so it is so moving to me to make a similar speech now explaining why the space is named for her.”
And then the show began.
I watched from the high corner of the balcony, my legs dangling off a riser, seated two steps above David Herskovits, who is known to watch every performance.
And the show itself? It was exuberant, intellectual, boldly experimental and then, at times, traditional in its storytelling. I heard a line that reminded me of the Cat Stevens’s song “Boy with the Moon and Star on His Head” and then another that reminded me of Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatre. It was a whirling dervish of a show. By the end I was a little dazed. I both knew and didn’t know what I had seen, but I would remember it like I think it was intended, as a sleepless dream about my own relationship to cultural appropriation, gender, narrative, and, connected to both, fabrication. I’m sure someone else had a different takeaway—which goes to David’s response when I pressed him in our interview about the timeliness of drawing on a narrative from the Islamic world: it obviously means something to each individual, but that meaning is not prescribed. It is as open to interpretation and re-translation as The Thousand and One Nights.
There was a line that really moved me, a line I would discover I remembered completely out of context from the central event of the story from which the line was derived:
“I require you of yourself.”
Coincidentally, this line was the one that had generated the longest conversation among the actors and everyone else working on sorting through the many layers of possible translations of the work when they were devising the play. It can be interpreted as purely sexual (given the actual context of the sexual encounter whose consensual nature is the central question that sparks the many stories contained in the piece). It can be brief and utterly ambiguous. Or, it can be, as I heard it and teared up about it, the fundamental truth about love between two people or love between one’s self and a mirror.
Target Margin, since 1991, has tilted the familiar so that it becomes new and has illuminated the unfamiliar such that it resonates as completely personal, which one can now say applies to the new and stabilized home of this rogue, roaming theater. Based on my observation of the audience coming to it, and discussions with Target Margin artists, there is not yet an exact synergy between the company and its surroundings. But everybody involved is trying to find that synergy by looking through a newly skewed frame.
Target Margin is invested in where it is now. The staff goes to community board meetings. They are developing a relationship with their councilperson, as they never did when they were administratively centered in Fort Greene. They are in the process of figuring out how to be part of what is already there rather than only bringing their existing audience somewhere new. And yet, retaining and building that audience is equally important.
While they developed and rehearsed Pay No Attention to the Girl, the cast and crew kept the large sliding garage door open and invited anyone passing by to stay and watch for a while. And they did. Not the Park Slope parents or Williamsburg hipsters; not the Manhattan conquistadors venturing to discover bold new boroughs; but the people who actually live and work in the community. Some would stand outside looking in for the duration of a scene. Some would come into the space and sit down for an hour or more. Most were at least curious about the new neighbor on the block. One resident from a few garage doors down introduced himself as a maker of breakaway glass. He offered: “If you ever need a glass wall that’s meant to be broken, we’re right down the street.”
Stephanie Weeks talked to me about Sindbad’s highly human trait that keeps him leaving home every time he comes back to it. Says Weeks, “You just escaped a near death experience; you don’t want to hang out for a little bit?” He wants to keep going. “It’s about the sense of longing and fulfilment,” she concludes, as she looks toward the adventure she is about to undertake, never having worked on a piece that might be non-linear and even non-textual.
Target Margin’s new season is at once like its new home and like it always has been: a firmly rooted high seas adventure. And not at all pretentious.
Pay No Attention to the Girl ran March 22 – April 21, the first section of a larger theatrical adaptation directed by Herskovits.
1001 LABS, four productions of various tales led by four diverse artists, runs May 31–June 23.
The season will also feature a series of free community events in 2018, bringing local residents, artists, activists, and scholars together to discuss the political, social and artistic influence of The Thousand and One Nights.
The DOXSEE and Target Margin Theater’s new home is located at 232 52nd Street in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn.
Jim Knable is a playwright, songwriter, and writer of cultural articles and fiction. His latest play, Master Wilder and the Cabala has been developed through production at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Previous productions at MCC Theater, Soho Rep, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and Target Margin, among others. Published by Samuel French and Broadway Play Publishing. In March, he wrote about Brave New World Rep for The Brooklyn Rail.