The Arabian Nights. Perhaps these words conjure up mystical, exotic visions of faraway lands. With the production at UCSB opening this weekend, there is an opportunity to see these very old tales in a new way.
Written by Mary Zimmerman and directed by Jeff Mills, this adaptation of the collection of stories told by Scheherazade for 1,001 nights to save her life will be presented as part of the dynamic ACTING UP FRONT program.
For the last decade, Mills has been a performer, director and producer with the award-winning BOXTALES Theatre Company in Santa Barbara, with whom he has toured throughout the United States and in Mexico. He has an extensive background in acting and directing locally, nationally and internationally, and is a lecturer at UCSB in the Department of Theater and Dance.
Mills shares his thoughts on this exciting production.
Justine Sutton: So, what is ACTING UP FRONT?
Jeff Mills: Each year, one of the plays in our season is designated an ACTING UP FRONT production. This means that we place more emphasis on performance and less on set, light and costume design. The shows are "actor driven," in that most of the theatrical problems are solved using the actors’ bodies, voices and imaginations. There is no formula to it, and each director has a slightly different approach to the process depending on the particular play. A Streetcar Named Desire was the offering last year and is a very different play than Arabian Nights. But both really work in their own way!
JS: How is this production similar to BOXTALES shows you've done in the past?
JM: The work of Mary Zimmerman and her Lookingglass Theatre Company, out of Chicago, was always a huge influence on the BOXTALES aesthetic. The use of live music, the actors creating images with their bodies, the mixture of direct address storytelling with the enacting of scenes and dialogues are all methods Zimmerman's plays share with BOXTALES.
JS: How is it different?
JM: The first thing is that we're working from a play script. With BOXTALES, we were always adapting the stories themselves. This show is also different in that I'm modernizing the setting somewhat and using contemporary electronic music as well as live music — our second act features oud players Jim Grippo and Clarissa Bitar.
Lookingglass first developed the play in the early '90s, and it has a particular point of view influenced by the first Gulf War. She emphasized the irony that our framing story, Scheherazade telling tales to save her life and the lives of the women of the city, takes place in medieval Baghdad, a city that was being ripped apart at the time by American bombs. She set the play in beautiful period costumes and featured lots of belly dancing. I wanted to de-exoticize the presentation a bit and focus on the universality of the stories. We have some costume elements (each character wears a hat or a vest or skirt), but the actors mostly appear in basic black.
I'd also like to make a statement that is less specifically about Baghdad and more about the rich tapestry of cultural influences that contributed to the genesis of these tales. We are using the Persian pronunciations for the main characters’ names and some Indian costume elements. We are also not using any masks. But the biggest difference is in the staging. BOXTALES always used a straight-ahead proscenium presentation, mostly because we performed at the Lobero and in school cafetoriums.
Arabian Nights at UCSB will be an immersive promenade production, meaning the audience will follow the action around the room. This allows the audience to participate on a level that we’ve neither seen in a BOXTALES show nor at UCSB. This style of performance is big right now in New York and London with companies like Punch Drunk and Fuerza Bruta.
There will be some benches available, for about 25 people at a time, but each story will unfold in a different part of the theater, so there is a lot of getting up and moving around involved. So people should be aware of that. We will have a couple of wheelchairs available for people who are physically challenged or would rather not be standing and walking.
JS: What is the relevance you see of our current society to the Arabian Nights stories?
JM: The relevance lies in Scheherazade's basic message: Nothing can save us from isolation, fundamentalism, hatred, violence and oppression except art, stories, culture, tolerance, the pursuit of knowledge, the cultivation of wisdom and the celebration of traditions other than our own. If we can't commit to preserving these important aspects of our lives as citizens of the world, we are doomed. The reality is that participating in culture in this way is so fun and joyful that it will melt any kind of icy hatred or feelings of isolation.
JS: How do you anticipate these stories will appeal to a modern-day audience?
JM: The tales are hilarious, moving and full of adventure. There's a great combination of highbrow and lowbrow. People will be thoroughly delighted and entertained by how the stories telescope from one teller to another to a story within a story. They will also have great fun interacting with each other and with the actors. In all, we hope to create a joyful sense of real community among the audience members.
JS: What have been the main challenges and rewards of working on this production?
JM: This production has been a joy to work on. I love my cast and my crew. The only real challenge is time. We have very little rehearsal time (five weeks), and with a cast of 17 actors, there are lots of logistical challenges. I know from experience that to truly develop good original work, one needs a lot of time to experiment. But I also know that if we focus on the stories and storytelling, we'll be great.
The Arabian Nights runs May 9-17 in the UCSB Performing Arts Theater. Tickets are available online by clicking here or by phone at 805.893.7221.
— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.