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.

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.

Spotlight on Playwright Mary Zimmerman

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.

Mary Zimmerman PhotoQ: What attracts you to doing adaptations as opposed to writing a play based on your own original idea?

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.

To read more, please click here.

The Bonstelle Theatre’s production of The Arabian Nights

February 8, 2013 – February 17, 2013

Remaining Performances-

Friday 8 p.m.               February 15

Saturday 8 p.m.           February 16

Sunday 2 p.m.             February 17

REVIEW: ‘The Arabian Nights’ by Mary Zimmerman proves the power of a story well told

Reviewed by Patty Nolan, The Examiner

Click HERE to read the review on the Examiner’s website.

Yesmeen Mikhail as Scheherezade and Luke Rose as Shahryar  in "The Arabian Nights" at The Bonstelle Theatre.Photo credit:  Patrick Pozezinski

Yesmeen Mikhail as Scheherezade and Luke Rose as Shahryar in “The Arabian Nights” at The Bonstelle Theatre.
Photo credit: Patrick Pozezinski

If you’re like most Americans, any mention of the “1001 Arabian Nights” conjures Technicolor images inspired by Disney. But Sinbad, Ali Baba, Aladdin and the Genie are nowhere to be seen in the Bonstelle Theatre’s new production of “The Arabian Nights.” And for good reason.

When Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman adapted the collection of ancient Persian, Indian and Arabic tales into a resonating stage play, she deliberately left out the stories we know best. Instead of focusing on the fantastic, her funny, anachronistic retelling reveals and revels in the humanistic. Produced during the Gulf War, Zimmerman used the beloved, centuries-old stories to show audiences that, politics aside, we are all very much the same.

View slideshow: ‘The Arabian Nights’

It works. Because we can’t help but understand that we are laughing, or cheering, or feeling sad for the characters in the same way that those ancient people must have.

In this Bonstelle production, directed by WSU PhD candidate Jennifer Goff, we are treated to a colorful, over-the-top show. The scenic design by Leazah Behrens is a lush swirl of carpets, silken drapes, tasseled pillows and all the trappings of an exotic Persian palace. The costumes by Donna Buckley are lavish and clever – designed to help the large cast play multiple roles.

This is still essentially the tale of Scheherazade, the young woman who must weave a new story every night in order to postpone the death sentence imposed by her misogynistic husband, the King Shahryar. But if you’re thinking about bringing the little kiddies, hold off. This version of “The Arabian Nights” is geared more toward the tastes of mature audiences.

The play opens with the king choking his first, unfaithful wife to death. Not so funny. Not so G-rated. These stories include violence, infidelity and even epic flatulence. Apparently, the comedic appeal of a good fart is universal. This show is funny. Surprisingly so. And the huge Bonstelle cast is just wonderful. With each new story that Scheherazade tells, the ensemble brings it to life. Every actor plays multiple roles – some serious, sad and romantic – but many of them are worthy of your favorite bit of slapstick. And we like these characters. We want them to survive, find their true loves and make lots of babies.

And that’s what Zimmerman is trying to tell us. As human beings, our stories are essentially the same. We weep when our hearts are broken. We laugh when someone breaks wind. We yield too often to temptation. But sometimes we do the right thing. And that makes life worth celebrating and sharing. Just like this charming Bonstelle production.

The spectacular Bonstelle company includes: Zyle Christian-Cook (Marcellus, MI) as Butcher and Others, Robert J. Hammond (Troy, MI) as Jester and Others, Ivy Haralson (Belleville, MI) as Perfect Love and Others, Garett Harris (Royal Oak, MI) as Boy and Others, Sharayah Johnson (Birch Run, MI) as Greengrocer and Others, Derell Jones (Detroit, MI) as Pastrycook and Others, Alyssa Lucas (Garden City, MI) as Abu al-Hasan and Others, Sydney Machesky (Allen Park, MI) as Dunyazade and Others, Taylor Morrow (Warren, MI) as Girl and Others, Jackson McLaskey (Mt. Clemens, MI) as Clarinetist and Others, Michael Meike (Clinton TWP) as Wazir and Others, Yesmeen Mikhail (Wyandotte, MI) as Scheherezade and Others, Luke Rose (Harrison TWP, MI) as Shahryar and Others, Laith Salim (Dearborn, MI) as Harun al-Rashid and Others, Nicholas Yocum (Royal Oak, MI) as Madman and Others and Lisa Youngs (Wyandotte, MI) as Sympathy the Learned and Others.

“The Arabian Nights” runs at The Bonstelle Theatre in Detroit through February 17. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12-$15 and are availableonline, by phone (313) 577-2960, or by visiting the Wayne State University Theatres’ Box Office located at 4743 Cass Avenue on the corner of Hancock.