Curating New Worlds – Culture City :: SRQ magazine article by Dylan Campbell
Portraits by Wyatt Kostygan of Adam Ashraf Elsayigh outside the Asolo Repertory Theater
In Sarasota, a new voice in the theater has arrived– one with an experience so different that the worlds it organizes give us no choice but to reflect on our own. Adam Ashraf Elsayigh began his first season as Literary Director and Dramaturge at Asolo Repertoire Theater last November. An Egyptian immigrant and playwright, Adam’s award-winning plays, such as Revelation, which won the Himan Brown Playwriting Award, explored how immigration and homosexuality complicate American identity. He sat down with SRQ to discuss his unique journey and how his artistic vision is influencing his new role at Asolo Repertory Theatre.
SRQ: You grew up in a Muslim household in Dubai, but had access to American cable television and attended a British school. How does this intersection of culture inform who you are as an artist and what you do as a playwright?
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: It informs everything I do. I grew up in many different places, each informing how I think about the world and how I organize new stories. When I arrived in the United States, I struggled with the label of “American playwright” or “immigrant playwright”. I’ve come to realize that being an immigrant is part of what makes me an American playwright—I write about topics like immigration and homosexuality that haven’t historically been seen as American. As a playwright and playwright, I aim to complicate American identity. When I develop new pieces, I ask myself: “How do we approach the subjects of immigration? Are all of our coins Americana coins? What does it mean to work with immigrant playwrights? How do we describe the nation?
What will you do as a playwright and literary manager at Asolo Rep?
I define dramaturgy, especially in my role at Asolo Repertory Theatre, as cultural translation. This process takes shape in three different phases. The first phase of my role takes place when the play is still in development. When I describe a playwright to someone who doesn’t do theatre, I will always say: “When a novelist submits a first draft of a novel to a publisher, there is someone who analyzes it. They analyze the structure of the novel, what it means and how the reader will react to the novel before giving their opinion to the novelist. That’s what I do with plays and playwrights. As a playwright myself, I am trained in acting structure and analysis – understanding what drives a play. I enjoy working with writers to help them achieve the best, most vulnerable, most exciting, and most dramatic version of their work.
The second phase occurs once the game is locked down and in development for production. I support the creative theme, from the actors to the director. On the institutional and theatrical level, this also means that I often accompany creative teams trying to produce, decode, understand and interpret the text. For example, in our next production of Our Town, a play written in 1934 but set in 1901, much of the language is no longer the language we use. Providing actors with the modern equivalent of this language informs how they move and process text. Finally, the third phase – where the more traditional definition of the term comes into play – occurs when the coin is about to come out. The term “dramaturgy” comes from a 19th century German Enlightenment theory that says everything from the moment the audience hears the title of the play to the moment they leave the theater is part of the experience. of the room. My job is to organize this experience, giving the audience knowledge, notes and ideas that help them better digest the piece. It’s putting the text in conversation with the wider world.
How do you organize the audience experience?
It could look like 100 different things, from creating the poster to creating the email audience members receive when they purchase their tickets. If it’s Our Town, this email will include a video about what it was like to live in 1930s New Hampshire. If it’s Grant Horizons, there might be a tour virtual retirement home where the characters live. In theatre, this includes curating discussions – what is the audience experience and how do we take them on a journey beyond the text? It’s about finding innovative ways to connect the audience to the play. If you’re doing a Zoom production, for example, it creates a way for the audience to engage with each other when they’re alone in their apartments.
How would you balance the operational aspect of putting the finishing touches on a part with the work on developing a new part?
Our production manager, Michael Donald Edwards, told me, “There’s no set job description for a playwright, because you have to take on the role and decide what it means to you. I think if you interviewed all the institutional playwrights in the country, their daily work would be very different. At Asolo, because we are a production theatre, a lot of my focus tends to be supporting the creative team and supporting the public element rather than working with playwrights on text development.
That being said, my training as a playwright is mainly in the development of new plays. It’s working with new pieces and cultivating emerging writers. Part of what attracted me to Asolo was the opportunity to foster the development of new plays in an institutional theatre. Our Ground Floor series, which runs concurrently with each season on our main stage, gives me the chance to do just that. It is focused on the development and crafting of a play, not to serve as an end product, but to support the playwright.
Can you explain the season selection process at Asolo Rep and how a script goes from development to production?
I am by no means the ultimate decision maker – Michael Donald Edwards is. However, the selection of seasons is a collaborative process. Michael, Céline Rosenthal, our associate artistic director, and I will probably read 70 or 80 plays before we get to the six, seven or eight that we produce. We will each meet on a weekly basis and discuss our thoughts on the plays we read and whether they would be good for our audience. Each of us couldn’t have more different tastes from each other which made for such a wonderful learning experience. When it comes to production, each piece is different. Some plays are two-handed (only two main characters) that don’t require a set and the playwright submits a very good first draft. More often than not, however, plays will take five solid years of development along with countless hours of workshops. Due to the scarcity and digital reality of our world, not all major parts will be developed. Not all large developed parts will be produced. You just have to enjoy the process itself. If you don’t, you will always be unhappy in the theater.
How do you guide playwrights to a space where they can create their most vulnerable and authentic work?
First of all, it’s about making sure that I don’t write the play, which is to say that I would never sit down a playwright and say, “This character doesn’t work, because this what he should really do is this. Instead of me saying, “No, that’s actually not what you want to do,” what I would say is, “Tell me more why. Why does this character have to perform this action? Perhaps a playwright’s most important skill is knowing how to ask really good questions. This process involves gaining the trust of the artist while trusting their vision. I want to be someone who helps them write the play they want to write instead of someone who forces them to write the play the “right way”.
Moreover, I try to create spaces that allow the playwright to do his best. I don’t believe you should write only what you know, but I do believe it’s important to help the playwright understand the context and culture of their story setting. In the writer’s room, I want to bring in people with the right identities and the right cultural knowledge to help tell the story in the most authentic way. This could include adding a cultural consultant, another playwright or suitable actors for the roles. This process applies when telling stories set in any culture, regardless of race or background – I need to know the limits of the playwright’s knowledge, so I can call on the good people to best help serve the story.
In your writings, you mentioned that you often return people who haven’t had the chance to be fully represented and who overlap with your own experiences. How does this inform new stories?
When I came to American theater as an immigrant and playwright, I had this grand artistic vision of wanting people who look like me, sound like me, or share certain identities with me to be represented on stage. This vision, however, has not merged with the productions of institutional theaters – traditionally, the playwrights of these establishments are not people who look like me or share my experiences. It made me realize that to achieve my vision, I couldn’t just be a playwright, but I also had to be a curator and artistic producer. This same impulse explains why I want to produce something like the Ground Floor series. This explains why I am interested in conservation and being part of the spaces in which I can be in this role. However, I am aware that the stories that I want to champion and that I want Asolo to present will be culturally different from our audience. The question then becomes, how do we tell these stories in a way that not only translates and excite our audience, but also makes them feel like they’ve been changed by the experience?