Spotlight On: Jennifer Goff, Director of ‘The Arabian Nights’ by Mary Zimmerman

Photo: Stephen

Photo: Stephen Boatright

Now that the gorgeously designed, directed and performed The Arabian Nights has come to a close at the Bonstelle Theatre, take a moment to reflect on what audiences witnessed onstage with a behind-the-scenes style interview conducted with its director, PhD. candidate, Jennifer Goff. For more information about Jennifer, check out her website!

Q: What approach did you take when directing The Arabian Nights?

A: My overall approach to the play was to start with the stories themselves. This is a story made up of stories – about the power of stories. We really wanted to look at what it is that stories do, how they function and how these particular stories have been passed down through the centuries. These stories began being passed down orally and weren’t even written down until a couple hundred years after they first started circulating.

We wanted to explore the beauty of taking these stories, which are usually only read, and put them on the stage. The theatre itself is such a three-dimensional, interactive way to tell stories, that it really became a celebration of the power of storytelling. Storytelling is something that is not only entertaining, a lot of fun, emotional and exciting, but it’s something that actually can change a person and affect the world. I think you really see that very clearly through Scheherazade’s story – this is a story about stories and what they do to, and for, people.

Q: What was it like directing your first play at the Bonstelle Theatre?

A: Well, directing at the Bonstelle is a very different experience than I’ve had in a long time. First of all, it’s bigger! Most of the productions I’ve directed, both here and professionally over the last decade or so, have been on smaller stages…where the audience has a very intimate relationship with the performers. The challenge with a huge stage like the Bonstelle is still giving audiences an intimate experience, even though they’re much farther away. Directing has really been a lot about working with the actors on how to communicate, not only with each other, but with the audience. It has been a big adventure but these students are so energetic and marvelous that…they taught me a lot along the way as well.

Q: What role did movement play in this production?

A: Movement was a huge part of this production.  The Arabian Nights and most of Mary Zimmerman’s work are part of what’s called the Chamber Theatre Tradition, which is basically a combination of narrative storytelling and theatre. There is a very interesting combination of “acting out” and becoming the characters, yet also still being you while relating the story.

Most of the actors play multiple roles and although you can see it in their lines, costumes and in the stories themselves, the physicality of each character becomes really important. The audience should be able to see an actor as a new character and know before they even speak that they are someone else. Movement has been a huge part of delineating all these different characters and stories. It’s been really fun.

Q: Was it important to you to convey Zimmerman’s original message of the play?

A: It was very important to me to try to honor what Mary Zimmerman was attempting to do when she adapted this piece. She first adapted The Arabian Nights in 1992, right in the middle of the first Gulf War conflict. She was really responding to the “us versus them” mentality that is a part of “war time”. She was disturbed by this idea that we could somehow separate ourselves from what was “over there” and that they were somehow “not us.” She wanted to look at stories – a very famous set of stories –  and use them to introduce Western audiences to this culture that was so “over there” – far away – letting these Western audiences see that there’s really a whole lot more that we have in common than what we have different.

It’s interesting because the time period these stories come from is known as the Golden Age of Islam. It was at that point when Baghdad was the center of culture, trade and commerce. In the 13th century, Baghdad was sacked by the Mongol army. At the time, Baghdad was home to this amazing library called the House of Wisdom. One of the first things the Mongols did when they sacked the city was destroy the library. They took the documents, which were from all over the world and just threw them in the Tigris River. The saying goes, that on that day, the Tigris River ran black with ink as the streets of Baghdad ran red with blood.

It’s the idea that stories are what make us who we are, so it wasn’t enough for the Mongols to kill the people; they wanted to try to kill the stories. But you can’t – because once the stories are heard they live on. So here Zimmerman was, taking these stories and saying – you can’t separate the people from their stories. You can’t separate us from these stories or from these people. It’s a really beautiful message of unity and inclusion and understanding.

Q: Do you believe the message of The Arabian Nights is still relevant today?

A: I think the message is extremely relevant.  We’ve been in conflict in the Middle East actively for the last ten years. Especially with the way warfare happens now, it’s so easy to disconnect ourselves and forget that there are real people involved in this, on both sides of the conflict. Any steps we can take to remember the people and the little strings that are connected so intricately between us and everyone – I think that will humanize us and reminds us that we all have a lot in common.


Wayne State faculty member helps Detroit Public School students use theatre to educate peers about nutrition


DETROIT- As public knowledge about healthy food alternatives in Detroit becomes more widespread, one Wayne State faculty member is giving students from Detroit Public Schools the chance to educate peers about nutrition through public service announcements (PSAs) they write, perform and produce. Mary Elizabeth Anderson, Ph.D., assistant professor of Theatre in the WSU College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts, director of WSU’s Performance/Exchange program and resident of Birmingham, Mich., recently was funded by the Kresge Foundation for the Detroit Garden Classroom: A Healthy Kids Advocacy and Media Project. The project will launch a team of about 30 “student health advocates” from Spain Elementary/Middle School in Detroit to create innovative, engaging PSAs about how to eat, live and thrive in Detroit.The PSAs will be distributed to DPS schools and made available on DPS and WSU websites.

Dr. Mary Anderson

Anderson said the project gives 6th- through 8th-grade students the chance to not only be leaders in their own school but ambassadors to other DPS students in solving one of their most urgent problems. “This project is very much a response to what teachers and students name as the most pressing issue of Detroit Public Schools right now,” Anderson said. “In every school I visit, I hear the same question: ‘How can we get our students to eat healthier and lead more active lifestyles?'” The PSAs will be inspired by the student health advocates’ trips to local gardens, markets and SEED Wayne-administered healthy corner stores. During these visits, students will meet performers from WSU’s Performance/Exchange program, who will give interactive lessons on the food cycle, seasons, local plants, life cycles, and important aspects of good nutrition and digestion. “The pairing of science and drama is designed to engage the student health advocates in the joys of outdoor play and learning at various locations in the city, while providing them with important decision-making skills in nutrition and healthy living,” Anderson said.

The project will involve a partnership between Wayne State’s Performance/Exchange program and visionary Spain drama teacher Beth Dzodin-Fuchs, who has seen firsthand the deleterious effects of poor nutrition on student achievement, and has dedicated the past two academic years to integrating health education into her playwriting classes. “Poor nutrition is immediately noticeable in drama classes, where children are using their bodies and their imaginations and are really learning by doing,” Dzodin-Fuchs said. “If children are getting good nutrition, they are able to focus and achieve a higher order of thinking skills and have a more effective learning experience.” The Detroit Garden Classroom will take place during the 2010-11 school year. It’s one of several expansions on Anderson’s Performance/Exchange project, which began with Wayne State students performing at DPS schools. Through Anderson’s vision, the program has expanded to be more interactive and responsive to community issues.

“I see community engagement as a responsibility and a privilege for the arts at WSU, especially in terms of carrying out the university’s urban mission,” Anderson said. “To be living in and of your time and to respond – that’s the responsibility of an artist. Hopefully, this project will lead to many more that make people think and engage creatively to solve the problems of our time.”

Wayne State University is one of the nation’s pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information on research at Wayne State University, visit

The Kresge Foundation is a national, private foundation that seeks to influence the quality of life for future generations by creating access and opportunity in underserved communities, improving the health of low-income people, supporting artistic expression, assisting in the revitalization of Detroit, and advancing methods for dealing with global climate change.

Theatre Department at I-start/FestiFall

Here at the Theatre Department, we like to make sure we get out and about to spread the good word of theatre to newbies and old friends alike. We want to make sure everyone is welcomed and situated.

This week saw the team journey to the Wayne State University I-Start/Festifall gathering. More than just a Club Fair, I-start/Festifall was aimed at incoming freshman to orientate them to the Wayne State’s offerings socially and course wise.

Here are some shots of the team in action: