After the spectacular first weekend and before this upcoming weekend’s final performances of The Arabian Nights at the Bonstelle Theatre, let’s take a moment to learn more about the Tony Award-winning playwright, Mary Zimmerman. In 2010, Zimmerman participated in an excellent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle during the Berkley Repertory Theatre’s production of The Arabian Nights.
A: I don’t know that I have any original material in me. Ninety-nine percent of what I’ve adapted in my career comes from an oral tradition. There are many print versions of “The Arabian Nights,” but oral versions predate them by 1,000 years. It’s the same with other things I’ve adapted – the Greek and Roman myths. I used Ovid’s permutations of them (she won her 2002 Tony for directing “Metamorphoses,” which she adapted from Ovid), but the myths are thousands of years older.
I like epic things. They tend to have very fantastical elements, which you have to figure out how to stage. That’s thrilling for me. When you write for the stage, you don’t write anything that’s hard to do on the stage. But these stories have no regard whatsoever for how difficult they’re going to be to put on a stage, like turning into a bird or riding on a camel train or flying on a carpet. And the challenge of how to present those things imaginatively and not too expensively is kind of what I’m in it for.
Q: What influenced you to tell stories from other cultures?
A: I’ve always had a huge attraction to literature from all over the world, including non-Western. My mother was an English professor whose specialty was French literature; My father was a physics professor. I first read “The Arabian Nights” when I was 10 or 11. I had an awareness of a big world, even at a young age. I was from Nebraska, but I lived in England and France when my parents had teaching jobs there. So maybe that had something to do with my attraction to these stories.
Q: In “The Arabian Nights,” storytelling can literally save a person’s life.
A: There’s a story that’s very funny, and it’s improvised each night, called “The Wonderful Bag,” in which two cast members – and it’s different every night – have to name the contents of a bag they’ve both found in the marketplace to prove it’s their own. It’s an exact comic mirror of what Scheherazade is trying to do: to pull things out of her mind on the spot. The actors, figuratively, are in the same spot she’s in. They’re going to live or die with the audience if they’re funny or not.
Q: Did you think when you wrote the “Nights” that we’d still have soldiers in the region 20 years later?
A: I kind of did. There are amazing coincidences from the text and real life. One of the final stories takes place on the Basra Highway. When the Iraqis were fleeing Kuwait, that was the highway they were on when we bombed them as they were leaving. There’s a bridge that Harun al-Rashid hides under in my favorite story, “The Mock Khalifah.” All of those ancient bridges, except for one or two, were destroyed in this last war, intentionally. Those bridges were 1,500 or 2,000 years old. So there are echoes and resonances.
Q: Do kids in the Middle East grow up with these stories?
A: I was invited to the United Arab Emirates to do a workshop in the “Nights” at a women’s university, and they did know some of the stories, but not super thoroughly because there’s a high sexual content to a lot of these stories. What is so interesting about this text is that in the West, it’s been somewhat Disneyfied and made into a children’s book, so adults don’t pay much attention to it. And in some of the countries of its origin, it’s been banned for being too adult.
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The Bonstelle Theatre’s production of The Arabian Nights
February 8, 2013 – February 17, 2013
Friday 8 p.m. February 15
Saturday 8 p.m. February 16
Sunday 2 p.m. February 17