La MaMa Blogs: 6 QUESTIONS: Andrea Assaf

Friday, May 15, 2015

6 QUESTIONS: Andrea Assaf

The is the final weekend of performances for Eleven Reflections on September at The First Floor Theater @ La MaMa.  We got to ask Andrea Assaf six questions about the show and her work!

1. What was the original inspiration for Eleven Reflections on September?

In September 2001, I was a New Yorker. On September 11th, I happened to be in Washington, DC -- where I saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon before I watched the Twin Towers collapse on the news. My apartment, back in New York, was on 13th St., below the line, so I couldn't return home until the 17th. I lived near Union Square, which, as I'm sure you remember, was a hot bed of demonstrations, memorials, reporters, police... I was daily confronted with my city mourning, my identity as an Arab American, the smell and ash... At some point, I needed to write. Writing is my way of process, of expressing intense emotion, of healing myself. For a decade, I was writing and collecting poems about this: the experience of 9/11, the wars that the US is currently involved in, directly or indirectly (Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Somalia, Pakistan), the contradictions of identity, the many ways violence manifests in everyday life. In 2011, through the support of a Princess Grace Award, I had the opportunity to pull these pieces together into a full-length theatre work, commissioned by Pangea World Theater. And that's how the project began.

2. What do you hope that audiences will come away from the show with?

A heart-centered experience, and a new way of talking about the impact of war. Perhaps new perspectives, new ideas, they hadn't considered before. Unanswered questions. The motivation to care about what our nation is doing in the world, beyond our borders. A seed of hope. And the inspiration to take action, no matter how small, to make the world a more peaceful place.

3. How has the piece evolved as you have been working on it?

When I first began developing the theatre production, based on the poems, it was Spring 2011. The first version ended in a very heavy place, with the disentigration of poetry and identity, into a kind of linguistic shrapnel -- the piece we now call "Judgment." But when the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt began, I knew immediately that I had to imagine a new ending -- that the Arab world was entering a new era of possibility, as the "Arab Spring" was just beginning. I had the feeling, in 2011, that something was being reconstructed… As the struggle for liberation raged across the region, the spirit of fire and hope continued to be felt in the lingering vibrations of Tahrir Square. In the 2011 version, the show ended with Tahrir. But as I came back to this work in 2015, to create the New York premiere, I knew once again that I need to create another ending, to address the complexities, and sometimes horrors, of revolution, or at least to suggest that we don't know the ending yet ... As a work built to be responsive to current events, it is always evolving.

4. Do you think of your work as political?

Absolutely, it is political. When you are a racialized body, there is no escaping the political. As Arab Americans, people of Middle Eastern descent, we have been irrevocably politicized, whether we like it or not, as a result of U.S. policies in the Middle East, tragedies such as 9/11, the on-going wars, and the mainstream media's sensationalist response to it all. To the extent that I am recognized as Arab, I experience the consequences of our nation's racism and xenophobia that is directed toward Arabs. So when I write poetry, which is a very intimate form, it necessarily has political dimensions. I'm also a queer woman of color. So whether I write about love or war, well, it's still political. And this project especially, Eleven Reflections on September, is very consciously, intentionally taking on the political dimension.

5. Who has inspired you?
Dora Arreola, Artistic Director of Mujeres en Ritual Danza-Teatro, has definitely inspired me. She is a brilliant director, choreographer and performer, whom I've had the honor of working with, on various projects, since 2001. I have learned so much from her over the years, it's hard to imagine how my work as a theatre artist without her inspiring and highly disciplined influence, especially in terms of movement aesthetics, and the visual dimensions of directing. Dora is an exceptional artist, who brings a global vision to everything she does.

I've also been very inspired by Suheir Hammad. In 2008, I had the incredible honor of directing her in a stage production titled breaking letter(s), based on her as-yet-unpublished writing that became the book breaking poems, a genius work which won an American Book Award in 2009. It was an extraordinary experience, spending intimate time with her poetry and her process, and I think it influenced me deeply. Our aesthetics are different, and many of the poems in Eleven Reflections on September had already been written, but directing that piece with Suheir gave me an opportunity to explore the relationship between text, media and movement that continues to be of interest to me in Eleven Reflections...

I'm also incredibly inspired by the collaborating artists have worked on Eleven Reflections... and contributed their brilliance to this work -- particularly Aida Shahghasemi, who's been performing with me since 2011, and has profoundly influenced this work deeply. Her voice has a purity that touches people, on a soul level, and it's very moving -- even to me, after all these performances together, every time. And all the musicians who have worked on this project -- Tim O'Keefe and Salah Abdel Fattah who originally developed the music in Minneapolis in 2011, and Eylem Basaldi and Natalia Perlaza, who have reinvented it with such skill and wonder for the NYC production. And of course, Pramila Vasudevan, who worked so closely with me to develop the conceptual landscape of this piece, as we were creating the video design. Our fabulous sound designers, Owen Henry and Keegan Fraley. And in this newest version, the incredible contribution that Donna Mejia has made, with her gorgeous stage presence, and deep knowledge of Arab and North African movement vocabulary and aesthetics -- her collaboration has taken this work to another level of beauty and embodiment. All of these artists impact the way I understand the work, the way I perform it, and ultimately, the vision we create together.

6. What does working at La MaMa mean to you?
It's incredibly meaningful for me to perform at La MaMa. I first moved to New York City in 1991, and the East Village has always been my neighborhood. I've been going to see remarkable performances at La Mama since I was 18 years old. I also had the honor of meeting and speaking with Ellen Stewart's on a few occasions, and witnessed her extraordinary, epic production of Romeo and Juliet. I've also had the great fortune of visiting La MaMa Umbria, for the International Directors Symposium. I've worked with resident artists Potri Ranka Manis and Ping Chong, and there are so many artists I love here. Rehearsing at 47 Great Jones is like coming home. To now be an artist presenting work at La MaMa, here in New York ... is like growing up, coming full circle, coming into my own. It's deeply gratifying, and I'm honored to be here.

La MaMa presents
Written & directed by Andrea Assaf
Live music by Aida Shahghasemi & Guest Artists
Choreography created & performed by Donna Mejia

Now - May 17, 2015 - FINAL WEEKEND!

The First Floor Theatre @ La MaMa
74A East 4th Street
(between Bowery and Second Avenue)

Tickets: $18 Adults; $13 Students/Seniors; ten tickets priced at $10 available for every performance - in advance only - while they last!

For Tickets and Info: CLICK HERE

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