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An Interview with Directors Sarah Stanley & Marcus Youssef
What drew you to this play?
Sarah: I love verbatim theatre. I trust it. And earth magnets. And Rachel Corrie's words and deeds. And the picture of her with the wind blowing freedom across her face.
Marcus: Mostly we create our own plays, writing the plays we produce. Occasionally, however, we come across a play that we think is so important and affecting and different that we just want to go ahead and produce it. My Name is Rachel Corrie is one of those plays. I read it in May, when I was at the tail end of a year teaching at Concordia University in Montreal, and I immediately felt compelled to find a way for our company to find a way to do it. We did an in-house reading of the play here, after I suggested it. The conversation went on for more than an hour after we finished: about the brilliance and honesty of the writing; about the generosity of Rachel's spirit; about the struggle we all face in figuring out how to challenge injustice, particularly when we live in the centre of privilege; about Rachel's maturity and self-awareness; about Gaza; and about young people and the world we are bequeathing to them. Every one of the five excellent artists in the room left the reading going, “We'll do whatever it takes to make it happen.” What I want people to hear is this young woman who made a choice to try to engage with a political issue that seems intractable, that's surrounded with ideological positions. When you hear this young woman's writing, whatever your ideological or political position on the occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is absolutely no denying the unbelievable humanity and intelligence and self-effacement and just sheer commitment to life that's in it. Brilliant writers don't come along all the time and you certainly don't expect it from some 23-year-old leftie activist kid from Olympia.
How did Teesri Duniya and neworld come together for this production?
Sarah: Rights + Past relationship + Collaborative spirit = possible opportunity. Result: Love as dramatic action.
Marcus: Long story. Unpredictable series of events related to rights and thinking we needed to in order to get them and then realizing we didn't and then realizing we wanted to do it anyway. This piece was created and originally performed by British theatre artists, even though Rachel Corrie was an American.
Do you think British audiences would be more sympathetic to the politics of the piece than North Americans?
Sarah: What ARE the “politics of the piece?” Rachel Corrie's observations? The fact that two people (Rickman and Viner) decided to share her private thoughts in a public sphere? Those politics? Or that she can not speak herself? That any verification of her thoughts was taken with the scoop of a Caterpillar? The situation in the Middle East is fraught. Were it not, we would not have the words of a now deceased American woman before us. Billy Bragg would not have written a song. Theatre managers would not have felt compelled to re-think their programming decisions. And countless, literally countless people, would still be walking the earth and telling their lives to their children, to their friends. But in economic terms, I think it was — and remains — easier for the Brits to think about this play than it is and was for the North Americans. Yes.
Marcus: I don't know about the Brits being sympathetic with the particular politics associated with this show. I think they are more used to political art. I think they are probably more generally engaged with political ideas. I know they are much more used to theatre that attempts to engage directly with contentious social and political issues. The fact is, theatre in Britain is much more central to the culture, in ways it never will be here: we just don't have the history of it. That said, the form of this kind of theatre — taken straight from someone's actual writing — does give us a bit of a “reality” hook. The advent of pseudo-real TV and interactive media does make documentary theatre more accessible in some way, I think.
Why do you think so many other companies have shied away from or changed their minds about producing this work?
Sarah: Money. And the comfort and power that money suggests. Rachel Corrie lived. She wrote. She died. There is nothing simpler than this. Her assertions, her discoveries, her observations were hers. They were not intended for a wide release, a big audience. Her actions were a result of her beliefs. These are hard things for us to consider. They are observations regarding the daily occurrences in Rafah during the time that she was there. And so the reflection is not as good for one side of the conflict as it is for the other. But —and I shudder to think it — but should a story of similar circumstance occur on another side or elsewhere, then I am certain it would also have its day and say. We — in mainstream society, in comfortable seats theatre going society —are far from the roots of sacrifice. But sacrifice is what must happen for this story to be told. And for us to continue to evolve. The courage to look in our own gardens in order that we might make room for other gardens to grow.
Marcus: I think it has brought some companies face to face with North American culture's resistance to the idea of political and/or collective responsibility for our government's positions, for the things that happen in the world that are done in our name, or that we profit from. A huge part of what we as a company are trying to do in our work is find ways to engage North American audiences around difficult, contentious political material. Often this means finding ways to subvert the didactic nature of a lot of political art. In this case, for me, it means being courageous about what we believe, and continuing to find non-didactic, accessible ways for people to engage with ideas that challenge generally accepted notions largely perpetuated by the mainstream media and dominant political interests. It's what Rachel was trying to do, too. And one of the things that makes me so excited about doing this play is that she had an intuitive resistance to hermetically sealed dogmatic opinion. She questions herself constantly in the show, and makes fun of herself. Which makes the tragedy of her death even more powerful and grief-inducing, at least for me. The actual content of the play is terrifying to a lot of us, I believe, because in it one of the things Rachel's experience leads her to is an unapologetic condemnation of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
She condemns no individual or group of people; she condemns the actions of a state. And it's fascinating to see how this can be reduced to patently false accusations of anti-Semitism, largely by people who have, by their own admission, not read the play. They couldn't have. To call this play anti-Semitic is absurd. Period. But it's interesting to see how much anger and fear a single North American's testimony to Palestinian suffering can trigger. Interestingly, there are regularly any number of vociferous condemnations of the occupation within Israel itself. The debate, in fact, is much more alive there than it tends to be here.
The script is pieced together from letters, emails, journal entries — writing that was not originally intended for the stage. What makes it theatrical?
Sarah: For me, the theatre is about mortality, above all else. We will die. The theatre is the place for this. It is the place to begin anew and end again. It is a place to contemplate the limits of our humanity. She lived. She wrote. She died. It is a story that we all know well. But in the theatre the “how” of Rachel Corrie's life, the scope of her record and the fact of her death, unfold unstoppably and unflinchingly before us. As if foretold. Had only we the tools to listen... Without an “us” in the space with “her” this story might have remained as a sad headline. Now it can become our worry stone our seat of mediation, our opportunity. Love as dramatic action.
Marcus: Taking my cue from Sarah ... what's more dramatic that a privileged kid from a few clicks from Vancouver choosing to go live in a war zone? What's more dramatic than putting yourself in front of a bulldozer to stop the destruction of a pharmacist's home? What's more dramatic than death? What's more dramatic than what is done to a politically-charged death in the hyper-mediated age of the internet? Where words and video and pictures are written and uploaded and stored in the giant privileged world brain for anyone to look at?
Your directing credit is very specific – you are collaborating, not co-directing. How does that relationship work?
Sarah: I am the director. Marcus is the collaborating director. I take the final decisions and am there for all rehearsals. Marcus and I jam on EVERYTHING. I think it is a squash image. We are both on the same side of the net but we are playing off of each other to get the most wicked shot. Whoever gets the shot scores the point. In this game all points go to My Name is Rachel Corrie.
Marcus: Sarah is top-dawg, out of necessity and because it makes sense. I can't leave my family for four weeks of rehearsal in Montreal. I also am most excited creatively about the opportunity to be — as a relatively inexperienced director — mentored by Sarah, who is one of my heroes. We followed a similar path, out of Queen's University and Kingston to National Theatre School. And I am blessed that Sarah shares a desire to have me fully engaged in the process of bringing this production to life. So I'm a collaborator. I'm very proud of this, how we've managed (again, at neworld) to continue to not let traditionally defined structures define how we go about doing the work.
Both Teesri Duniya and Neworld are multicultural companies. For this show, you've cast Adrienne Wong, who is mixed-race Asian-Canadian, to play a blonde Caucasian American who refers in the script to her “international white person privilege.” How do you think this will affect our perception of the character?
Sarah: Comes back to theatre. No matter who it is who steps into her role, NO MATTER WHO, the only job they have is to tell the story according to the text left with which to tell it. They — in this instance Adrienne — are the storytellers and Rachel Corrie is “the character.” This character was an incredibly beautiful Olympian struggling with the question of — among other things — international white person privilege. I can't imagine why anyone would need someone who looks nothing like Rachel Corrie but has BLONDE HAIR to tell me this. I can't imagine it. Why? We are implicated in the Middle East and that “we” is truly international.
Rachel Corrie was literally white but we are missing the point if we limit the speaker of her truths to women who look close to her physical aspect. And on top of this we are mostly likely doing a direct disservice to the very nature of her work. But basically Adrienne is the best woman for the role. She is going to knock us back and push us forward. She is the woman we want to see play this role. And we are sure audiences will too. Positive in fact.
Marcus: I will quote from my side of a lovely exchange I had with Cindy Corrie, Rachel's excellent mom:
We feel like many things are unique and exciting about our production. Rachel will be played by a terrific young actress named Adrienne Wong. Adrienne is mixed Asian Canadian which is causing a big kafuffle within the local theatre community! How can Rachel be played by a non-white person they ask? How can, in Rachel's words, “international white person privilege” be embodied by a half-Asian Canadian? Which for us begs a couple of questions: how can a real person be embodied by any actor? And, in Olympia, or in Vancouver, is the international white person privilege Rachel so accurately named really just the purview of actual, pure-bred white people? What about me (a half-Egyptian Canadian son of an immigrant-done-good businessman)? What about the hundreds of thousands of Asians in both our corners of the Pacific Northwest? As our Israeli-Canadian lighting designer Itai Erdal thundered, “Adrienne is the most CANADIAN PERSON I KNOW!” In typical Middle Eastern fashion, Itai thunders about everything. As an IDF veteran he also argues that ISM activists in Israel are largely defined by their accents and political views, not their skin colour. When I go to Egypt, I'm considered Canadian, no matter how Arab I look.
Given the controversy that surrounds this play, do you have any apprehensions about your production?
Sarah: My only apprehension is that we do it right. That we do it well. That we do it justice.
Marcus: I am full of apprehensions, but mostly I think they're good ones. My biggest apprehension is that people make judgements without coming to see the play. Come see it. Come see it if you disagree. Come see it if you have no idea. Just come see it. I dare people not to be moved, not to be pushed towards a conversation, an argument. Our first reading was fractious and hot, as one of our designers, who's served in the IDF, struggled to make sense of his conflicted reactions to the play, and Camyar and I struggled to remind everyone of the conflict's history and Sarah talked about how the conversation we were having was what the play triggers, not the play itself.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this production? Are you hoping to move people to political action? If so, how?
Sarah: I hope it leads people towards grief. I hope grief leads towards a renewed curiosity. A personally, politicized curiosity. I hope people will feel like doing something, anything, in the name of their own beliefs. I hope people hear the last words of this play as a reminder and a warning both. A reminder that within each of us is a heart that has felt the power to change the world. A warning that without the candour and commitment of people like Rachel Corrie walking on our streets, flying in our planes, preaching in our churches, schools and parliaments, without the story of personal courage that she most fully represents, we are doomed. We could be her. And so to grief.
Marcus: I like what Sarah says about grief. I also don't like to burden storytelling or art or whatever you want to call it with the responsibility of inducing action. Who knows what events lead us to take action in our lives? We are talking about culture, which, in my view, is made up of innumerable experiences — visual, aural, personal, mediated — that bind an unimaginable number of people together, and bind the individual to his or her sense of self. A little play performed for a couple of thousand people isn't going to have a lot of impact on that. It ain't Canadian Idol. It is much closer to the diaries and journals Rachel herself wrote: for no or miniscule audiences, an attempt (perhaps) to make sense of that which doesn't seem to, an attempt (perhaps) to take responsibility by opening up to another's experience, a willingness to be moved. That's what I like about her writing. That's also what I like about how we're working on this show.
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