With “the ‘breath’ of ‘Romeo & Juliet’ ” but none of its language, University of Arkansas M.F.A. graduate Kholoud Sawaf’s “10,000 Balconies” sets a love story against the backdrop of contemporary Damascus — a setting inspired both by its author’s Syrian roots and by the artists who have contributed to the play over the last three years.
With a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art in 2016, Sawaf’s tale was developed for the stage during a series of workshops in Northwest Arkansas and in New York. Now, “10,000 Balconies” gets an “immersive” staging at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville this weekend.
This is a “story of love in contemporary Damascus,” and it’s said that it has a relationship to Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet.” I think, though, when most Americans hear the word “Syria,” they don’t think of a love story. We think about the war going on there — about the reports we read on Al Jazeera and elsewhere in the media’s global coverage. How much of what we hear about the war in Syria should we expect to be reflected in the play?
This is a great question. While the play doesn’t ignore war, it’s not a war story. It’s about a place, and the people of that place through a certain period in history. So certainly nothing in common with the news reports that are covering Syria.
But since this is the only piece of theater a Fayetteville audience is exposed to about Syria — and the first work with this perspective on the stage of TheatreSquared — it’s a big step and comes with a lot of responsibility. I’m grateful for all the artists involved that are aware of that and handle the work with the needed cultural competency and sensitivity.
It’s hard to believe we first wrote about this play — or the beginnings of it — in 2016! Since then, it’s been workshopped and developed in quite a few settings, yes? Surely the core elements of the story remained, but I wonder whether or not the play you’re putting on stage feels to you like a totally different one from the one you started with.
Yes, I actually originally started the idea of this project in the summer of 2015 at the Hangar Theatre [Ithaca, NY]. Then when I found out about the Doris Duke grant, I reached out to TheatreSquared about the project and we talked about the possible collaboration.
It’s in a completely different place now in a very exciting way! It has taken the “breath” of “Romeo & Juliet,” but it’s nothing like it. There are a lot of similarities of what the original vision left, but also a lot changed. I had always wanted a strong presence of rituals, music, movement and imagery, which is very much present in the work, but the piece is not parallel in plot and doesn’t use any of Shakespeare’s language.
I understand that right now you’re working through a struggle with the visa process. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be experiencing that, let alone doing it while in the U.S., creating a play set in Syria. How personal is this play to you?
Yes, I think it’s tricky to explain how challenging it is to be able to get the needed visa support and paperwork in place while creating a piece of art like this. I’d love to use the opportunity to show gratitude to the national theater community outside of Arkansas that showed support through my visa process. I’m grateful that through the last four years I was able to travel and work nationally, and meet artists and organizations who played a major role in providing institutional support to my visa renewal now that the grant (as well as the relationship with TheatreSquared) are coming to an end. There were, luckily, great institutions out there who really genuinely wanted to support me as an artist and help ensure my safety, and I’m grateful.
I certainly haven’t yet created anything that feels as personal, as raw, and as close to my heart as “10,000 Balconies,” but what is even more amazing is to walk in every day to a rehearsal room filled with brilliant artists who also feel the work is special and [who] genuinely care about the mission, and truly believe in the work. It’s truly the best part of my day to be with them in a room working on this. They are also now great ambassadors for the work locally, as it’s tricky to do such specific cultural outreach alone.
I’d love to highlight the role [of] my friend and collaborator, Laura Shatkus, who has been a great force in the creation and the execution of the work. She’s a great example of someone who is proactive and who listens and feels brave to say “I don’t know, and I’m going to learn,” and takes steps to do so. It’s a great example of what ‘building bridges’ looks like. The room has different levels of closeness to the culture, and that is intentional, because it supports the mission of the work and offers a chance for actors who are very close to the culture to bring that, and other artists who are less close to help “translate” that into this audience.
Hadi Eldebek, a New York-based musician who’s a performing member and composer with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, is providing the music live, along with members of the cast. What’s the instrumentation like, and how did you approach soundtracking this story?
Due to budgetary constraints, we weren’t able to finalize the collaboration with Hadi until really late in the prep process. (Thanks to King Fahd Center and to the Fayetteville Public Library for providing the additional support.) But, most of the work that I had hoped would happen before will be happening during the workshop process. We are very excited to have Hadi on board. We come from a shared passion of cultural references and understanding of music in storytelling. I can’t wait for him to arrive and for us to work tirelessly to bring his amazing talent to a room that is already exceptional. We are also working with Ramzi El-edilbi, who will be our choreographer and who also bring great artistic and cultural richness.
I couldn’t help but notice the bit in the press release noting that “due to the immersive nature of this performance, seating is limited.” What can you tell me about that, and about the physical environment of the play?
It’s actually a combination of being in a small space and with a big cast — 10 people on stage. I really wanted the audience to be part of the journey, and to be along with us and to not have a separation between audience and performers, which is what we meant by “immersive.” We will not be asking the audience to “participate” in the show, but we are utilizing the aisles and will be very much performing “with them” as opposed to “for them.”
“10,000 Balconies” will be performed at TheaterSquared in Fayetteville Aug. 30-Sept. 1. Showtimes are at 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Get tickets here.