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

Photo: Stephen Boatrightstephenboatright.com

Photo: Stephen Boatright
stephenboatright.com

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.

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REVIEW: Bonstelle’s ‘Arabian Nights’ is fun

Reviewed by Robert Delaney, Detroit New Monitor
Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Arabian Nights at the Bonstelle

Dunyazade (Sydney Macheskey) Shahryar (Luke Rose), and Sheherezade (Yesmeen Mikhail)
Photo: Patrick Pozezinski

A young woman saves her neck by telling fascinating stories to the prince she has been forced to marry in “The Arabian Nights,” the current production at Wayne State’s Bonstelle Theatre in midtown Detroit.

Tony Award-winner Mary Zimmerman has adapted the famous collection of Persian, Indian and Arabic tales, “The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night,” for the stage. Under Jennifer Goff’s direction a youthful and energetic undergraduate cast has great fun performing it — and that fun is shared by the audience.

It would, of course, be impossible to include all of the tales in one play, and Zimmerman has chosen to leave out some of the more familiar ones — such as those of Sinbad, Aladdin and Ali Baba (which were not actually in the original collection) — in favor of some less well known stories.

Yesmeen Mikhail is the storytelling enchantress, Scheherazade, and Luke Rose is her homicidal husband, Shahryar. They both also portray other characters, as do all of the cast members.

Also very impressive are Laith Salim as Harun al-Rashid, Lisa Youngs as Sympathy, and Nicholas Yocum as the Madman. Scenic designer Leazah Behrens has given us a fanciful set, and the costumes designed by Donna Buckley are (who would have thought I’d ever be able to say this) “right out of the ‘Arabian Nights.’”

“The Arabian Nights” continues this weekend, through February 17, with performances at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and at 2 p.m., Sunday afternoon, at the Bonstelle Theatre, 3424 Woodward Avenue, a block south of Mack and just a few blocks south of Orchestra Hall. For ticket information, call the WSU Theatre box office at (313) 577-2960 or go to www.wsushows.com.