THIS FALL, I will be ringleading the ten performances of Layla Means Night premiering at ODC Theater (October 30-November 3, 2013). Layla is a re-imagining of Director/Choreographer/Auteur Rosanna Gamson’s earlier work, created in New York City in response to the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center, and the fear and xenophobia that it sparked.
I joined the cast about six months ago as Writer/Translator/Performer. So my role is varied: I write text for Layla, translate and perform poetry in it, and as mentioned, will be its ringleader. In this newest iteration of Layla Means Night, Rosanna has created a totally immersive experience: think never-ending wedding banquet meets séance, set in a super-artsy pop-up three-ring circus. Layla takes over the entire building—at ODC—studios, hallways and the theater itself, which will be dismantled and reconfigured. Audiences are sorted into three groups by gender (one group of women, one group men, one group mixed), each group simultaneously traveling different routes through a series of experiences designed to engage all five senses. Each group basically gets a different show. There will be food and drink, a live score, ODC’s teen company to act as the auxiliary cast, as well as guest dance artists, which with the Rosanna Gamson/World Wide’s ten performers, the guides, and me, brings it to about thirty people in the cast. Rosanna’s goal is for the audience to be surprised, seduced and a tiny bit shaken up, and to join the conversation we will offer, to talk to each other during the show and afterwards. We hope they will ask me questions during the performance.
Layla takes as its point of departure the frame story of the One Thousand and One Nights, which is Daastaan-e Hezaaro Yek Shab in Persian, or Alf Layla Wa Layla in Arabic. It’s the story of a king, maddened by his first wife’s infidelity, who marries a virgin every night and beheads her the next morning in order to protect himself from further betrayal. His last bride, the Persian Shahrzad, AKA “Scheherazade,” saves herself, her people and the king from his madness by spinning thrilling and fantastic stories night after night, proving both her fidelity and the life-saving power of a good story. Layla is a serious examination of violence, and of objectifying and vilifying cultures that one doesn’t understand. The story of Shahrzad is about balancing on the knife’s-edge between keeping your listener entertained and transforming him/her through the power of your storytelling. With Layla, this transformation is achieved by engaging one to one, turning the spectator into an active participant.
What I grapple with working on this project is the fact that any mention of a performance inspired by the Nights conjures images of djinns and fairies and magic lamps and harem pants. And of course of the mighty “Scheherazade,” reduced in Western Orientalist depictions to an enticing half-naked woman confined to entertaining a domineering man who can do as he pleases and have as many women as he wants. Which is far from the truth. She is much more than that, you will see. Something else that occupies my mind is the possibly culturally dismissive notion that, of course, I, a woman of Persian/Iranian decent, would be doing a ‘native’ project, which further highlights the problematic nature of cultural translation and expectations. Instead, I collaborate on Layla Means Night because it is an exploration into the colonization of cultures and violence towards women.
And about having some untraditional fun going to the theater.
And about working with artists you enjoy spending time and solving problems with. Rosanna is one of those people. Here is the heart of things we discuss through texts, emails, phone calls, in person rap sessions, and even psychically:
Rosanna Gamson: Why are you working on this project with me?
Niloufar Talebi: For several reasons: I love writing for and participating in a performance art work. Also, I have always wanted to set the record straight about Shahrzad, who is fetishized as the archetype of the (Middle) Eastern woman, if you will. In subverting that skewed image of her, I will indirectly set the record straight about myself, being of Iranian decent (like Shahrzad), that I, and my Iranian sisters, are no Orientalist male fantasies. When I was a new-bee immigrant and in my early twenties, I remember getting comments from men that basically amounted to, “You are an exotic beauty like a woman in a harem.” These comments made my skin crawl, even if they came from a place of earnestness. With Layla Means Night, I want to assert the deeply courageous role Shahrzad volunteered to. Which had a profound impact on her society. Which, if people are paying attention, is asserted by Iranian women all the time. Look at the uprisings they incite. Perhaps because Iranian women are enshrouded in veils of a different kind these days, it is easy overlook their astounding contributions and mistake them for being oppressed. Which many Iranian laws today do. It’s one of those complicated situations.
RG: You never questioned the form this work takes. What appeals to/scares you about being part of such an untraditional structure with three audiences?
NT: This open and multidisciplinary form is precisely how I make art myself, so there is nothing unusual or scary about it. When you and I were introduced by a mutual artist friend, it took us five minutes on the phone to ‘get’ each other. We speak the same language, creatively. As a hyphenated artist, I have the opportunity to create through my multiple faculties in Layla Means Night. What scares me is that the final iteration will be a great ‘spectacle,’ but without a totally poetic arc and denouement. My primary goal is to help you catalyze a truly ensemble-created narrative.
RG: Well that’s what scares me too! I’m hoping there will be an arc and a denouement. I worry about it from 2:30 to about 4:30 most mornings. But we actually need three arcs that finally meet in one superlative and poetic denouement. Oy vey iz mir! (I learned making the last piece this means “woe is me.” Now I say it all the time.)
RG: Does it scare you that Layla is based on such a canonical work?
NT: Not at all. In a way that makes it easy. My work for the past ten years has been bringing new poetic voices to the foreground, and experimenting with and shaping new forms of expression from my mixed background. Paving that path has been much more challenging than tackling something that is already in the public consciousness. On the other hand, I know what you’re asking: there are already so many pre-formed opinions around canonical works that it is almost sacrilegious to touch them. But the rebel in me loves re-imagining, re-inventing and updating old notions.
RG: Do you feel responsible to your own voice? To your cultural heritage? To my vision of you?
NT: All of the above. Mostly to my own voice, which is inclusive of upbringing, cultural heritage and personal visions. About your vision of me: you seem to have an uncanny intuitive feeling about me as an artist and a person. So I’ve trusted you from the very beginning and put myself in your hands.
RG: Are you scared it’s going to suck?
NT: I am totally terrified!
RG: You are not an actress per se, why do you think I asked you to play both yourself and me (Rosanna) in this piece?
NT: Don’t forget I’m also ‘playing’ Shahrzad. So that’s three roles in this piece. I don’t know! I would love to hear your answer.
RG: You look intelligent and you’re a bit of a ball-buster. I got all that in five seconds watching your online (performance and talk) videos. If you told me something I’d believe you. I’d think, “She’s telling me something important and interesting. I better pay attention.” So I guess I believe in first impressions.
Also, there’s this magic performance triangle that exists between the performer (Niloufar), the character (Shahrzad) and me, the creator (Rosanna) and in the middle of the triangle is the illusion I’m trying to bring to life. I want you to talk to the audience directly in the intimate second person. In some ways it’s easier for “performers” to do this juggling trick than “actors.” You can’t surrender identity; you have to be a “real” person, and confident and generous. Plus, you have the vocal ability (which I knew before I invited you to collaborate) and you understand there is truth and power in finding the right metaphor: it illuminates both sides of the comparison rather than just drawing an equals sign between them. That’s poetry.
RG: What would you want to tell men about women?
NT: That they are nuts to be afraid of us. We add so much value. If I were a man, I would want as many women on my side as possible. So I would be engaging women all the time. Look at all the men who treat women like people and know their value—they are surrounded and loved by so many women!
Niloufar Talebi: Rosanna, why do you care to tell this story?
Rosanna Gamson: I am telling my own story. I’m interested in my relationship to my audience, my relationship to my imagination, to fantasy, to men. This self-reflexive structure gives me new ways to investigate the things I am interested in: intimacy, sex, a certain morbid fascination with violent death and the transformative power of storytelling.
NT: This makes me think about my audience, actually. I think of myself as simply, an artist with an eclectic audience. But then comes the more specific subcategory: an artist born of Iranian parents in the UK and raised in Iran, Europe and the US. As that, I occupy a complicated middle position between these cultures. I’m concerned that Iranian audiences have gotten used to seeing art that’s referencing or glorifying what they already know in the way they could already imagine. I hope they will venture out of their comfort zone and connect to my hybridized work personally, even if they were first, or even only, attracted to art that self-identifies as Iranian—which mine doesn’t.
NT: Are you scared it’s going to suck?
RG: I am totally terrified!
NT: Do you feel responsible to my voice and cultural heritage? To my reaction to your work, because I’m of Iranian decent?
RG: About heritage: I think that would be a little presumptuous. And I think you would not be timid about letting me know if I’m being a cultural vampire. We’re trying to make a new weird world with its own logic and illogic; its own time, gravity, barometric pressure, etc.—so authenticity is not a worry. My job is to make all the different moving parts, of which there are many, feel authentic and real within the world of the piece.
NT: That’s exactly it! We are “trying to make a new weird world with its own logic and illogic; its own time, gravity, barometric pressure, etc.” That is just so exciting to me and I don’t feel that we are bound to “pressures of authenticity,” per se—we are trying to shed light rather than enshroud, yes, but first and foremost, we are obliged to our authentic and aesthetic visions. I realize some people will gasp! reading this.
RG: About your voice: yes. I think you need to connect to what you are saying, how you are presenting yourself. I don’t want you to leave yourself behind in order to “perform,” so yes, I feel responsible to your voice. And I was afraid you wouldn’t like what I did with your writing. But I don’t think that’s because you’re Iranian. I think it’s because I’m insecure and wanted your approval. Plus I loved hearing it played by other actors—it changes the context to have Gabi (who looks like Miss Maine Blueberry Pie of 1995) say things you wrote emphatically in your own first person. And I didn’t want to have to fight for it. And you were totally cool, Alhamdulillah. (Do Iranians say that too?)
NT: Yes, though it’s an Arabic saying (Praise/Thank God).
NT: What would you want to tell men about women?
RG: Whoooo boy. I think this IS the denouement. And why I am making the piece. Et cetera. Figuring this out is part of my process. Plus I need to stop being a smart ass going to the infinitely deep well of snappy retorts to respond to this question. Privilege blinds? Power corrupts? We could do so much better, and I think we are all complicit in fucking things up. Essentially, Golden Rule, brothers: treat others as you would like to be treated.
NT: Does it scare you that this is such a canonical work from another culture?
RG: No. I already did a piece about Einstein and Newton, Freud’s theory of hysteria, Mexican/American communication problems and Jews in Poland during WWII. I also used Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagun as the jumping off points for a piece. So I think if I earnestly, and with open mind and heart, do the investigation into these seminal works, I can be as inspired by them as anyone else and not feel timid about it. I also think living in Los Angeles. The push of cultures on each other, and the cultures’ adaptation to and infiltration of “American” culture (and how we think about what that is) is right up in your face all the time. The relationship of identity, assimilation and appropriation is a huge conversation here. I think it’s more interesting to have the conversation with people who come at it from different points of view.