Supporting creative work by women
Betty Shamieh is a renowned, thought-provoking playwright, who was awarded a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship in Drama and Performance Art. Her play Fit for a Queen received its world premiere at the Classical Theatre of Harlem last year. Her previous works include The Black Eye and Roar, which premiered Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop and The New Group, respectively.
Shamieh’s The Strangest–loosely influenced by Albert Camus’ famed novel The Stranger–evokes Arabic oral storytelling traditions with the Fourth Street Theatre turned into a cafe. The Semitic Root production, directed by May Adrales, runs March 12 through April 1.
Shamieh spoke to Works by Women about going to Syria for research, working with May Adrales (interviewed by WBW HERE) and why visiting the library is great for inspiration.
WORKS BY WOMEN: You traveled to Aleppo to research The Strangest. Tell me about that experience.
BETTY SHAMIEH: I found Aleppo to be an incredibly beautiful and vibrant city in 20I1. I have traveled extensively in the Middle East and expected a smooth trip. I was there to research the roots of the ancient oral storytelling traditions. As long as you wanted to speak of art, people were open and happy to engage. But they were understandably cautious if the subject turned to questions that affected their daily lives, which always delve into a discussion of politics. It did not seem like a place rife with revolution when I arrived. Within a week, that changed dramatically. I stepped out of a restaurant after a quiet dinner one night and found myself surrounded by throngs of loud, angry, yet peaceful protestors of all ages. It seemed like I had stepped into a different world, which is how many of the people of Syria felt when the civil war erupted.
WBW: Flash forward six years later and the political climate in the US is different than it was then. How does the The Strangest speak to this moment we’re in?
BS: One thing that I find interesting about this political moment for artists of color is that we are less shocked by the current state of affairs than most people seem to be, perhaps because we have felt disempowered and disenfranchised for so long. There is that saying that if you are not angry you are not awake. Well, I feel people of color have had to have been awake longer than most, we haven’t had the luxury of feeling our rights were secure and our communities were safe. It is surprising to many of us how surprised the nation seems by the election and its aftermath. I wrote The Strangest after I was asked to adapt The Stranger into a workable theatrical text for an important artistic director that I admired, and found myself entirely uninterested in the idea of bringing to life the French characters of the novel. The Strangest is set in French Algiers in the 1940s. I’m deeply interested in historical plays and have written several in the past decade, though I always try to stop myself. They are hard to sell, much harder than plays like my contemporary immigrant family portrait, Roar. American theatre is a place where small family dramas are considered our greatest works (i.e. the plays of Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams). But big ambitious theatrical plays are the kind of work I am interested in creating lately. They are what I feel American theatregoers are actually hungry to see. When I delve into a different moment in time, in a different culture as I do in The Strangest, it becomes clear we are still dealing with many of the same problems of racism, nationalism, violence, and economic inequality.
Alok Tewari in The Strangest, photo by Stephanie Keith.
WBW: The Strangest is described as an immersive theater experience. How has that been imagined for the Fourth Street Theatre? What may the audience expect?
BS: The audience can expect to enter a recreation of a traditional Arab coffeehouse, where masters of the oral storytelling tradition told tales and fables of the Arabian Nights for centuries.
WBW: What has it been like working with director May Adrales on this piece?
BS: May is the best of the best. She’s brilliant at dramaturgy and a wonderful collaborator, continually challenging all artists in the room to bring their best selves to the table. If there is any justice in this world, she will continue to get the opportunities she deserves to be a leader in our industry.
WBW: What is your writing process like? What first sparks an idea for a play? How do you know to continue pursuing it?
BS: I think a writer trains their mind to always be looking for stories. But it is hard to describe how and why I decide to invest a major portion of my life making one story come to life as opposed to another. It’s a sort of chemistry, not unlike how we inexplicably choose to befriend and invest a great deal of our time in certain people as opposed to others. When I fall in love with an idea for a story, I am someone who writes that tale in several different forms.
WBW: What or who inspires you these days? Why?
BS: I tend to be inspired to create art when I am being exposed to art. I make it a point to expand my knowledge, particularly to become familiar with the art and literature of various cultures. I recommend to my students who feel blocked that they browse the shelves of libraries. There is something wonderful about being exposed to books in a random way that I think is important. By searching on the internet, you are limiting how you receive information. In a library, it is much easier to become exposed to subjects that you didn’t even know existed, which is always ripe with the potential for inspiration.
WBW: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
BS: Don’t forget to have a good time.
For tickets to The Strangest, visit Brown Paper Tickets. The Semitic Root production runs March 12 through April 1.