Sarah Sakaan & Anna Asli Suriyah: Process & Method

In part 1 we talked about why Sarah Sakaan chose to create Anna Asli Suriyah (I Come from Syria), and now in part 2, we’re talking process, method, and what it’s like being an Arab American artist.

Want to check out the show? Get tickets here. Want to help pay for rehearsal space? Throw some money here.

The origins of Anna Asli Suriyah were personal interviews that Sarah conducted with her Syrian family in Memphis, and that’s where we start in on part 2.

Li88y
What was it like talking to your family, doing personal interviews?

Sarah
That was really natural. Mostly we’d be in the middle of a conversation, and I’d be like is it alright if we record this, and they’d be like, yeah, sure. I didn’t do video recording, just audio. I didn’t want people to be self-conscious. People wanted to talk about it.

Li88y
Was there ever a point where you hit something people didn’t want to talk about?

Sarah
People were being really honest with me. It’s interesting because even within one family there are lots of differing opinions going on, different ideas about who’s to blame. And that’s the thing that’s been hard. My Dad is barely speaking to one of his brothers because of their political opinions. Which is very sad because they love each other. And there’s this realization that if it’s devastating for one family; how are people across the country supposed to rally together if they can’t even have a conversation within their own family.The characters that I’m focusing on are based on my dad, a female cousin who’s sort of like a sister for me, and then my sister, and two very different male cousins.

Li88y
Have you run into any obstacles in your research?

Sarah
There are alot of obstacles, but that’s also part of the reason for me to do it. Just the fact that when you’re looking at footage of soldiers, like we’re doing some work based on the movement of soldiers, and you can’t tell who’s on which side… which is somewhat of an obstacle, but it’s also like a strength, but that’s also part of the point that I’m making. These are the same guys, from the same villages. They’re doing the same actions, with the same weapons, against people who look the same, who are the same in many ways.

Li88y
Why are you choosing to perform the show in Bay Ridge?

Sarah
There’s a large Arab American population in Bay Ridge. It’s important for people to see art being done about them. As an artist, there’s alot of, y’know, like Homeland, terrorist, Islamaphobe stuff, and this is something that can celebrate a culture that is under siege, rather than portray everyone (only) as an awful terrorist. The space that we found is really awesome. Polybe + Seats does alot of site-specific work, partly because of affordability, and because it adds an interesting challenge for the designers. This space has a feeling of Middle Eastern otherness, but is also very homey. All of the conversations I’ve had with family took place in domestic places, and when I walked into Beit Jeddo, I immediately felt yes, this is where we need to do this. When I did the work in progress showing at Brooklyn Winery, I loved that the performance space was in the round, and Beit Jeddo already has that built-in, with lounge seating. It gives the audience a chance to get comfortable before I get right into their face.

Part of Syrian culture has alot of celebrations around weddings, and that’s basically what you do, in the summer in Syria, you go from wedding to wedding. In the play we have an undercurrent of weddings, and Beit Jeddo allows the audience to become a guest at a Syrian wedding.

Li88y
How has it been sharing your personal stories with the actors? And giving them ownership over those stories?

Sarah
Well, I’m not giving them ownership over those stories, basically. The pieces that are direct conversations that I had with my family, I’m performing as myself. The work that we’re devising together as an ensemble has to do with traditional Syrian culture events, like weddings. We’re also working on Syrian and Arab folk tales and folk lore, and mixing that with current events, about what’s actually happening in Syria right now. Because I felt like, when I was just doing the monologues, that it was only my perspective, my family’s perspective, and I wanted to broaden the scope.

Jessica and I have worked together for a long time, and we have an easy way of working together, specifically on devised theater. What we tend to do is create a research bank. I’ve done a number of interviews, and from that have extrapolated research areas that correlate with current events and folk tales. So we have this huge bank of source material in a giant google drive folder, and have assigned the actors a particular article or folk tale and we collaborate on those pieces as an ensemble in the rehearsal room.

Li88y
Like when we were working on Alice?

Sarah
Yes, and where we are now is where we were at the beginning of that, gathering source material and exploring that. I’m editing the monologues that I have, and we’re bringing it in together and working through that. Also we’ve opened it up to the actors, having them bring in what they find compelling in the material, expanding on the conversation. Everyone’s felt really personally connected, and engaged-

Li88y
That’s how it works with Polybe!

Sarah
Yeah, and the actors are all really intelligent and interesting, with different skills and strengths and looks, and there’s an opportunity for everyone to highlight something that they’re really interested in, and develop scenes from that. In a couple of the articles, and even in the folk tales, there’s this theme of birds, of doves, so there’s this play on doves and freedom, homing pigeons, coming back home when you don’t have a home anymore, what is it like to be a refugee, or to be a citizen who is trapped, and then freed… Those kinds of ideas. Polybe + Seats doesn’t do linear storytelling, so these things are all interwoven.

Li88y
Have you found much conflict in being an actor and a creator at the same time?

Sarah
I’m dealing with that. It’s a new skill for me. I’m the lead artist and the lead writer, and it’s… and I’m collaborating as a scene partner. It is interesting, and challenging, and in the rehearsal room I drop some of that. My instinct is to play, to go along for the ride, then Jessica and I go back to discuss what we thought worked, and in what direction we want it to go.

Li88y
It’s like rehearsal is creating a draft and then you go back and edit it intellectually.

Sarah
Exactly. And it feels like we have alot of time, we go up in August. And our production team is great. The thing that’s been amazing has been the overwhelming support that everyone has had for the project, even with our fundraising. The funding process has been really great so far Brooklyn Arts Council awarded us two grants, the Local Arts Grant and the Community Arts Grant, which is amazing. I’ve done some volunteer work with AAANY who wrote a letter in support of the project, saying that it would be great to have it in the community. It all came together, and the owners of Beit Jeddo has been great. NAAP, The Network of Arab American Professionals has been really supportive, and they’re really excited that there’s some art being done that’s talking about Syria, and Arabs, that has Arabs in it, and is taking place in an accessible way.

Li88y
Was it important to you to have actors of middle eastern descent as well?

Sarah
The end result was yes, but not really. The cool thing was that because it’s a play about Arabs, and we’re doing it in a neighborhood with a large Arab population, it is a nice opportunity that I was able to have Arabs in the cast. But it’s mixed, we’re not all Arab. What was more important to me was to have Arabs and non Arabs working on the play together. Within Syria there’s a really diverse population, and that’s part of what’s being damaged and compromised now. Syria has always been a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims, both Shia and Sunni, have lived and worked. There’ve been problems, as there will be, but historically it’s a place where everyone has lived at one point. There are blonde/blue-eyed Syrians, there are dark Syrians, tall, short… so like, to show just general dark men with beards, or a fully covered, dark eyed woman, wouldn’t have been an accurate portrayal. It’s pretty cool to be an Arab American artist, and to get to do a play about Arab Americans, and cast other Arab Americans, that doesn’t happen like ever. There are a few amazing women that I met, at the Middle Eastern American Women in Theater Conference, Leila Buck, Noor Theatre Company, Heather Raffo, who did 9 Parts of Desire.

Li88y
That moment when she’s talking to her Grandma on the phone…

Sarah
Yeah. Yeah.

Li88y
Top ten performances all time.

Sarah
Mmm hmm. That’s another thing that was really cool. In this whole course of me deciding to do this piece, and going from a solo piece to where I want to incorporate other people, I didn’t want to lose the fact that I’m playing these men and women in my family, and it’s a family piece for me, but I was invited to, and attended, the Middle Eastern Women in Theater Conference, which just happened to be along the road of when I was doing this piece.

Li88y
Perfect.

Sarah
Perfect. And I met these amazing women from all over the Middle East who were convening in New York at NYU Abu Dhabi on Washington Square Park. And I was like “Okay, wow, I’m not the only one who’s finding the opportunity to make stories, but how interesting that all these women started all these pieces as solo pieces, about identity and isolation.

Li88y
Why do you think that is?

Sarah
We all started off as actors, and I think it’s an easier medium in which to start off. To do a solo performance is to take responsibility for telling the story and delivering it, for standing there and being exactly who you are. It was amazing to be surrounded by the support of these women, who are my seniors by a few years. And they’re doing voices of their fathers, and speaking in Arabic, and I was like it’s not only me doing this. We could share this experience.

Li88y
I saw Noor’s play last year, then ran home and made baba ghanoush. Why do you think it’s important for people are Arab American, or even specifically Syrian, I mean here you are, you grew up in America, you’re an American kid with this deep background, why do you think it’s valuable maintain traditions from your family’s country?

Sarah
You either kind of accept it or deny it. It’s part of your identity. It’s a shared culture and history. And nothing is served by having it fade away.

Here are some rehearsal shots.

Jessica Brater, directing; the actors: from left: Nuah Ozryel, Pascale Seigneurie, and Sarah Sakaan

 

photo2

Nuah Ozryel and Pascale Seigneurie.

photo3

Nuah Ozryel and Pascale Seigneurie.

photo4

Nuah Ozryel & Sarah Sakaan.

photo5

Nuah Ozryel & Sarah Sakaan

Sarah and the ensemble.

Pascale Seigneurie, Nuah Ozryel, and Sarah Sakaan

 

 

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