EVE ENSLER: I’m excited to be here with both of you. I’m a huge fan of your work for a long time. It was very exciting thinking about this discussion—things I wanted to learn from both of you and talk about.
For a long time, I’ve been confronted with this question, “Are you an activist? Are you an artist?” And I’ve always found it an absurd question because the idea that all art is political seems rather inane to me. So, let’s begin there. Is all theatre political in one way or another?
LYNN NOTTAGE: That’s an interesting question. I did a roundtable on political theatre [The Dramatist, Mar/Apr 2014, page 16] and we could never agree on a definition of what constitutes political theatre. “Is all theatre political?” I think in some ways the act of bringing people together in the same space and having them in dialogue in a society that’s designed to separate us, becomes a political act. But in the tradition of provocation as I say it, I don’t believe it’s entirely true, because I don’t think that all theatre is actually political, and nor do I want all theatre to function that way.
Occasionally when I go to the theatre, I want it to simply be a form of escapism, and other times I really want my assumptions turned upside down and to be challenged.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I agree with that. Sometimes we do want to go to the theatre and just kind of chill out. I think it’s often only theatre of dissent, theatre that is questioning power in some way, or speaking on behalf of the marginalized that gets labeled as “political.” Whereas, to me, theatre that is, for example, totally ensconced or in the bubble of white privilege and wouldn’t be called “political.” Yet the negation or the absence of politics or the failure to acknowledge certain histories to me is political. Negation, erasure, ignorance are all political acts.
EVE ENSLER: I understand what you’re saying, and I agree. But part of me thinks: if you look at theatre that helps us escape and is just a blunt commercial reality—a revival of a Cole Porter musical on Broadway, say—that is a kind of politics. It just doesn’t get defined as politics, because it’s not running contrary to the values of the elite or standing up for the invisible. Escapism is a kind of politics, because you have to ask, escapism for whom and to what? (Especially when the tickets cost the average weekly wage of someone working in McDonald’s across the street from the theatre.) I’m not saying that to disparage those things. I like a good escapist musical too, just that ‘escapism’ isn’t a non-political category.
Adrienne Rich once said that the moment a feeling enters the body, it’s political. I love that idea and thought maybe we could talk about that. What does that mean?
LYNN NOTTAGE: It’s actually very beautiful. It makes me think about how I make theatre. I often think about the difference between my intentions when I make theatre and the way in which Brecht intended to make theatre, he wanted theatre that was designed to intellectually distance and make people think. I want to write theatre that makes people feel, because I believe that when people feel, they are more inclined to react and act. Whereas, when people overthink, sometimes the reverse happens, they shut down to feeling.
What is creativity and what is the mission that we charged with? I think it’s that we enter into a dark space, and by the time we leave, it’s illuminated.
– LYNN NOTTAGE
EVE ENSLER: There’s a wonderful quote by Lotte Lenya. One day when she was performing [Brecht’s] work and people were weeping, he was like, “I don’t want people to weep.” And she said to him, “You don’t know what you’ve got.” So even he could not fully accomplish that. You know?
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I guess there are so many ways of interpreting that statement. For me—and maybe this is a somewhat cliché litmus test—I feel there’s this almost direct correlation of that kind of chill up the spine feeling that I get in the theatre and it being something that I think is politically very meaningful and is good art, because, obviously, if it’s evoking that emotion in you, it’s doing something right.
There’s a provocative political element of dissent to it. There’s always something that deals with justice or injustice when I get that shiver. And your work has done that to me [Lynn], and your work has done that to me [Eve].
EVE ENSLER: Speaking of which, there are so many questions and thoughts I’ve been having over the last weeks, but one is: when you set out to write a play, do you ever begin, for example, with a political theme in mind, or an issue that you’re addressing, rather than a story or rather than characters? And if so, how do you then weave that or manage that into a play without it become horribly didactic or polemical? What are the machinations of that?
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I don’t yet have a tried and true [method]. Generally, I’m compelled to write stories that have to do with the Middle East—and more often have to do with Palestine—in part, because I think it’s important to tell these untold stories in an environment that often censors them, but also because those are the stories that come out of me and that have surrounded me my whole life.
In some cases, there will be an image that I’m reading about. For example, in Tennis in Nablus, my play which takes place during the British rule of Palestine in the 1930s. I was doing research about the period because I knew I kind of wanted to write about the British occupation of Palestine, which lasted until 1948, basically, when Israel was created.
Anyway, I was reading a book by an Israeli historian in which he describes two British generals or British officers or gentleman, or whatever, playing tennis in Palestine in the summer heat in the 1930s or ‘40s, or late ‘30s, and using Palestinian prisoners chained at the feet to be their ball boys. It is was very stirring image that speaks to me on many levels and it’s also highly theatrical. So, it was from that very political, historical image that speaks to colonialism and the evil absurdity of it that I worked outwards and created a web of characters. That’s one example.
EVE ENSLER: Did you have a political take that was informing the why you were writing that play, or was it open exploration?
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I’d like to say it was open exploration, but I have a political take. I have great uncles who were arrested or exiled by the British.
EVE ENSLER: I’m thinking about what you are saying and, especially, that underlying element in yourselves—in your being—which is, in part, political. How do you allow that to pour into your writing, and at the same time try to be true to writing characters who are multilayered and complex?
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I think that’s always the challenge. But, for example, I think I force myself to not say, “Okay, even though I feel very strongly about this, I don’t wanna make every Palestinian a hero.” I challenge myself to say, “Who else is in this world? How does it not just become about me and what I would like to say?”
LYNN NOTTAGE: That’s a really interesting. I find that in this day and age, there’s a real resistance to playwrights having strong opinions. I find that audiences and particularly critics want our opinions presented on the stage in a neutered way. They seem afraid of anything that is overtly politically, and as a result I think we as writers unconsciously submerge our ideas and hide our authentic selves. And I don’t know when that trend began or why it’s happening.
EVE ENSLER: But one of the great criticisms I’ve had in my career is that I have a point of view or that I’m a feminist or that I’m polemical. And it always feels like there’s a kind of degradation in that, like it’s not real art, that it’s somehow lesser art. And I think all of us who are writing political work suffer from a declassification; like you’re lower than the others. I’d really like to talk about that, and I would like to vent about it.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Recently, there was a review of one my plays and I felt it was incredibly dismissive because the critic snarkily said, “Oh, this is an issue play,” like it was not worthwhile because it was actually about something.
EVE ENSLER: Exactly. [Laughs.]
LYNN NOTTAGE: Number one, all of my plays aren’t “issue” plays. Number two, what’s wrong with it being an issue play? We live in a world in which issues impact our lives, and why shouldn’t we be exploring them in a form like theatre that reaches 150 people, 200-300 people…?
EVE ENSLER: Exactly. And you’re the person writing it, with a point of view, and a history and a politics. Like every writer there ever was. Like Shakespeare. Lorraine Hansbury. Like Tennessee Williams.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I think those labels are, in a way, mechanisms of censorship and control. I think there is a reason that there’s a stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’ or the ‘crazed fundamentalist Palestinian’ or the ‘hysterical man-hating feminist’, right?
EVE ENSLER: Right, exactly.
LYNN NOTTAGE: There we are.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: But I think those are mechanisms of silencing. It’s like, “Shut the fuck up, or else we’ll label you that.” It’s meant to be demeaning.
EVE ENSLER: And as if real art existed on this other plain of pure neutrality where people don’t have any perspective and they open the doors to the examination of the human soul without any leaning and tilting towards any direction. I mean that notion is so absurd.
LYNN NOTTAGE: It is absurd and frustrating.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: And, frankly, I think it’s usually white men who get that free pass.
EVE ENSLER: You think? [Laughs.]
LYNN NOTTAGE: It’s true.
EVE ENSLER: But I think part of what I’m interested in talking about is how do we create another language for what we’re doing that isn’t within these kind of categories and subcategories.
LYNN NOTTAGE: One of the terms that I started using rather than “political”—because I feel like people are so afraid of it as a label and immediately shut down when you say it—is socially engaged artist. And I find that people are more inclined to lean in and lean forward when you say that phrase because it is more inclusive. And honestly everyone wants to be a socially engaged artist.
EVE ENSLER: Right.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Whereas people are sort of reluctant to be political artists for all of the reasons that we’re discussing here.
EVE ENSLER: But there’s some part of me that still feels very renegade, like I feel like I don’t look to apologize. Or even diffuse the notion that we still believe—at this point in time, with everything that’s happening—that the ideal is to be in some neutral, non-political space, talking about some private matter. Look at the world. How do we not write plays that are socially engaged or political plays? If your ideal is an English drawing room comedy in the late nineteenth century, remember: that drawing room wasn’t a neutral space. It existed because of the servants who kept it going, and the colonial servants across the world, whose stories were kept way offstage. The neutral private space was always a myth. Politics bleeds in from every pore. That’s not to say politics is everything. It’s not. But it can’t be excluded without living in a fantasy world.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I agree. How could we not? I think “socially engaged” is a great way of relabeling it. I personally like “theatre of dissent.” I think we just have to –
LYNN NOTTAGE: – keep pushing back. We take ownership of the labels instead of running away from them. I’ve been saying, “Fine, I will be a political theatre artist, and get comfortable with that. I’m comfortable writing about issues. I’m comfortable writing “theatre of dissent.”
EVE ENSLER: Exactly. It’s sort of like the word “feminism,” and all the words that exist in climates where people come up against things. And people begin to say, “Well, I’m not really that,” as opposed to going, “Well, no, I’m really that, and I’m standing by that.”
I would love to know in terms of your work, where do you think you’ve been most successful? Where you’ve managed to write a political play that activates people and in doing that what were the ingredients that made that play work especially?
LYNN NOTTAGE: I think for me, it was most certainly Ruined, which is a play that I began working on in 2004. And this circles back to the question that you asked earlier: “How do you begin?” In the case of Ruined, I began with a question. I often I begin with a question that I need to answer, and my search for the answer becomes that play.
Usually, it’s a question that’s hard to answer, because the information isn’t readily accessible. And for Ruined, the question was, “What is happening to women in the midst of the armed conflict in the Congo?” At the time I poured over all of the mainstream newspapers and I couldn’t find the truth, and so I went in search of the answer to that question.
With regards to the impact of the play, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to deliver the information in a way that was not going to turn off or alienate audiences, because in this case it felt important to reach them. I spent three intensive years doing research, interviewing men and women fleeing the conflict in DRC. Then, I went to Rwanda to look at how art could be used as a tool for healing. My intentions with Ruined were very specific, I wanted people to recognize the plight of women in conflict zones and, in some way, feel inclined to act. I felt that my anger could be productive.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to create a work that was very human, that was very political, that had all of the anger embedded in it, but also all of the humanity, which I think is what people leave with. And I found that audiences left the theatre devastated and in some way compelled to do something, whether it was telling someone else to go see the play, donating money to a woman’s organization or reading about the war in DRC with greater empathy and understanding The play clearly had impact, because suddenly we had politicians and activists coming to see it. We had women’s groups come. Prior to that I don’t feel that I’d ever written something that had that kind of ripple effect.
I also think that the play landed at exactly the right moment when audiences were ready to engage with the issue, which I think is key. I think that if it had been written a year later there might have been Congo fatigue. If it was written a year prior, people would be like, “Where is the DRC?” But I think the key to political theatre is opening up a conversation at just the right moment.
EVE ENSLER: So, your intention was to make something that was palatable, that people could hear.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Yes.
EVE ENSLER: Is that always the way we have to create work?
ISMAIL KHALIDI: No.
EVE ENSLER: Because I totally understand that, but sometimes I think what is provocation? What does it mean to create work that isn’t so easy to receive? And is there value to that?
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I think it’s a fine line. I think we all try to walk that line to make it palatable enough that we can get it produced and that people can absorb it in a way that they don’t shut off or want to run out of the theatre, because sometimes, obviously, we want to maximize the number of people to hear it.
And for me, speaking about Palestine, it’s a big issue because as a Palestinian, I agree with what Edward Said said: Palestinians are denied permission to narrate. And so, part of the narrating is saying, no, I’m not going to give you the narrative you want, that fits into the box that is most comfortable, that is safest, right?
I’ve not yet had plays that have reached the number of people and had the kind of acclaim and success and dissemination that either of you have. My first play, which I wrote and performed as a solo show when I was 23-24 years old—so this was 2005 in Minneapolis at Pangea World Theater—was called Truth Serum Blues. And it was very personal, and I think to this day, it’s probably one of the most radical pieces of I’ve written because I didn’t give a fuck about reaching an audience. I hadn’t been put into the situation of asking, “How do we become successful commercial playwrights?” It didn’t occur to me.
EVE ENSLER: I want to speak to that. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. It seems like the commercial world of theatre has even begun to limit our ability, our willingness to be provocative. When I was younger, I didn’t care what audiences thought about my work. I just wrote my work. And it was outrageous, and it was difficult and if people left, they left. It was more to say what had to be said. There’s almost this bubble over us now because of the radical commercialization and capitalization of American theatre.
LYNN NOTTAGE: It’s true of both nonprofit and commercial theatre.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: And it’s also just so hard to make a living, but I agree, and I think that can affect one’s writing. I think there’s been a time where all of us have thought, “Oh, my God, am I writing the play that I think people want to hear?”
LYNN NOTTAGE: But I think it’s different; writing what you think people want to hear, and writing a play in a way that people can hear it.
EVE ENSLER: Yes. But there’s a thin line…
LYNN NOTTAGE: There’s a thin line, but I think that you can write a play that doesn’t pander to the audience and forces them to sit up and be alert.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: Yeah. I think that good writers can do it. And I think we have the power to be subversive without people knowing; slipping through the censors, as it were. I knew when I wrote Tennis in Nablus that because I was talking about a moment before 1948, before the creation of Israel, I knew I would be able to talk about Palestine in a way that the censors wouldn’t allow were it a play taking place post-’48. I was able to take advantage of a strength that we possess as radical writers, which is that we are often much smarter than the people that would censor us. But the timing also matters. And I imagine with Ruined, these things kind of aligned so you could say what you wanted to say, and you were able to reach an audience too.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Reach an audience, yes, but it was like a perfect storm that allowed that particular play to be heard at that moment. Do I think it would have had the same impact today? I don’t know if that would be true. I don’t know whether people would listen.
EVE ENSLER: There’s something about self-censorship that I want to talk about because I think there are ways in which we’re told, “That’s too much,” or, “You’re going too far.” I hear this constantly, “Tone it down. It’s too this. It’s too that,” or even when you’re writing characters, like rape survivors, “You don’t want to say that. People will be way too disturbed.” My question is: what do we gain by doing that, and what do we lose by doing that? And I think even the fact that you made a choice to write a play at a certain time because you knew that was acceptable, that’s self-censorship to some degree. And we’re constantly doing it. I know I’m constantly thinking, “Just write the play and worry later.” But even while I’m writing it, I’m hearing the voices in my head.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Yeah, it’s hard. I have a shutoff valve in my head that’s constantly shutting me down and I have to reopen it and allow those ideas to flow freely. I hate to even confess this aloud, but the reality is that as a playwright, we want our work to be produced.
EVE ENSLER: Exactly.
LYNN NOTTAGE: And let’s be totally honest, we know if we write about certain things, the play is not going to get produced. And we can’t pretend like we’re not aware of that. It’s a matter of becoming really dexterous so once that shutoff valve kicks in, you can reopen it and allow those ides to flow freely. I think it means going to a very scary place, going to place in which you allow yourself to be vulnerable, and also be prepared for the onslaught of criticism that you’ll face, which I think it’s okay. It’s the dangerous space where interesting theatre is made.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I think that’s where as writers, we can play an important role in supporting each other—maybe this is naïve—in building a community and saying we have each other’s backs to say whatever we want to say, when we want to say it, and to actually protect each other and encourage each other to take chances.
EVE ENSLER: I think it’s really interesting to think about how we could do that more, because I don’t really sometimes find, particularly in New York, that we have such an all-embracing community where we have ways to protect each other.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Yeah, how do we do it?
EVE ENSLER: How do we do that?
LYNN NOTTAGE: How do we encourage each other to be in the audiences at talk backs so when people start asking the provocative questions, you don’t feel so alone up there on the stage? So, you feel like you have a community that’s there to act as a buffer.
As writers, we can play an important role in supporting each other in building a community and saying we have each other’s backs…
– ISMAIL KHALIDI
EVE ENSLER: Right. The other night I went see Nirbhaya, a beautiful play about Jyoti Singh. It’s so beautifully rendered and it’s really women telling their own stories about being rape survivors. And I felt like that was my play, too. The same way I felt when I saw Ruined. I felt like this is our play. But because we live in such a dualistic, fragmented, separated culture where everybody is taught to fend for themselves, we don’t see that. I’m interested how we build systems that really support that, [and] in hearing your thoughts on how we do that.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: Well, part of it, I think, is that the most radical amongst us don’t want to be artistic directors or New York Times critics. And that’s not to say that there [are] not great artistic directors out there, there are.
But at the same time, if you [Eve] were an artistic director or if you were writing reviews in The New York Times, she wouldn’t be different, right? Because at the end of the day, there are gatekeepers, right? I wanna rewind really quickly about having each others’ back. For example, I’ve seen every Arab and Muslim actor I know die on some TV show or film playing some horrific terrorist. I’ve had a lot of conversations with them and they’re like, “Well, we gotta make a living.” So, we can’t overlook the commercial aspect of things in order to put bread on the table and pay the outrageous rent in New York for many of us.
I mention this because I’ve actually had trouble casting plays of mine because these Arab actors are doing TV stuff. We all know that the roles that Arabs and Muslims are given are vile, vulgar, racist, and horrible 99% of the time. And yet, all the actors I know have to take those roles. When I’ve talked to them, I have the luxury of saying, “Well, you all should strike. You all should make a statement. You all should walk off these sets until the roles change.”
It is very easy [for me] to say that, and it’s easier said than done. It’s not likely to happen anytime soon. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be that hard. Why can’t we do that as writers and as actors? Why can we say, “This is outrageous!”?
LYNN NOTTAGE: But I think that there was a time when we did it. I think there was a time when there was more of dissent. There was more community theatre, I’m talking about when the Negro Ensemble Company and the New Federal Theatre were really thriving, and you had the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater literally serving a community in need. But I feel like those institutions are being allowed to die. And with it, I think there’s a certain kind of and certain voices that are being squelched as a result.
I think that we need to continue to nurture community. Even though we may not have the institutions, I still think that there’s ways to keep people united, and we do a very bad job at that.
EVE ENSLER: Maybe something can come out of this where we think about how we do it in a more intentional way. Even if we met regularly and just supported each other. I think that to survive, emotionally and intellectually, as an activist or a political person at the moment, you need to know that people have your back, because the culture right now is very mean. It’s a very like it/don’t like it culture. It feels murderous and assaultive. And if you take any wrong step you get fired. How do we keep encouraging particularly young playwrights and people who are just beginning to find their voice to take chances?
LYNN NOTTAGE: I’m gonna say something provocative: I think that the fight for inclusion in some ways is what is killing the individual voice –
EVE ENSLER: I couldn’t agree more.
LYNN NOTTAGE: – because the minute that you’re included, you begin catering to the mainstream. And that mainstream is really not that interested in voices of dissent. They’re not interested in the individual African American voice or the Arab voice. Yes, we keep fighting and we want the bounty that comes with inclusion but on the other hand, once we get there, we feel like, “Oh, no. We’ve lost the sense of self.”
ISMAIL KHALIDI: And we’re siloed off, right? You’re brought in as the tokenized whatever –
EVE ENSLER: – you’re made to be acceptable as you get in, as opposed to holding some radical edge or radical descent –
LYNN NOTTAGE: Around the edges.
EVE ENSLER: I think part of having solidarity means you keep having each other’s back so that you keep pushing your edge, whether or not these systems are including you. I don’t think my dream is to be included. My dream is to change the fucking world and make it better.
LYNN NOTTAGE: You put your finger on it. We don’t want to be included, we want to be heard. We just want the space in which our voices can be heard. Unfortunately, right now that means making compromises in order to enter these commercial or nonprofit spaces that round off our edges.
EVE ENSLER: Maybe what we need to do is have a festival once a year where we just write the plays that we don’t censor at all, and just do three days [of uncensored plays].
LYNN NOTTAGE: I think I told this story for our political roundtable, but I wrote a play that was very political and very dangerous, which no one came to see. Everyone hated it.
It was called Por’nockers, and I think it was an incredibly prescient play done at the Vineyard. It was about a group of radical idealists who feel like they’re not being heard and the decide to blow up an FBI building and inadvertently kill some children. It was supposed to be a farce, and really was supposed to draw attention to the fact that we as a culture had stopped listening to voices of dissent.
We did the play at the Dance Theatre Workshop and it was enormously successful. People queued to see the play. Then the Vineyard Theatre picked up the play for a fuller production. And then Oklahoma City happened. And the day we opened was the Million Man March, and the play suddenly became so radical and so political that people literally sat in the audience with their arms folded and could not engage with it at all.
And I still remember the actors being so upset. Scared. Someone called in bomb threats before the performances, and the police had to come with dogs to sniff out the theatre. And the Vineyard ended up having to close it early because we had no audience. But it was about something really, really real. It struck a nerve. It was too much “in the moment” for comfort.
EVE ENSLER: I had a similar experience, not as extreme, but I wrote a play called Treatment, which was about torture in the US military, and really it was really during Abu Ghraib and during everything that was going on in Guantanamo. And people don’t want to know things while they’re happening. They really don’t want to know things while they’re happening. They can see it five years later and be fine, but they feel so overwhelmingly guilty. And I’m not unhappy I did that show, but I really learned how hard it is for people to have something in their face, at the moment that they’re participating in something that they’re deeply guilty for. And I still think there’s a reason to do at that time.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I think that’s the exact moment. I felt like the play that I wrote was designed to speak to America at that very moment, but unfortunately audiences couldn’t engage. People were overwhelmed.
EVE ENSLER: Yep.
LYNN NOTTAGE: No one has ever produced [Por’nockers] since. Which is kind of incredible to me. No one has ever done that play.
EVE ENSLER: It’s not accidental. I think that’s a really good question: what are the pitfalls of writing plays about real-time issues?
LYNN NOTTAGE: I think there’s a way to talk about issues that are happening right now. You look at police brutality and racism. I think that there are people who want to go into theatres, be with their community, and have these very issues discussed on stage. A lot of times it’s incredibly cathartic. But often, the people who should be in that theatre are not.
EVE ENSLER: Exactly. I think we have reverse problems, like the people who come to see plays within a commercial theatre are people who have money for the most part. So those people are coming to see your political work as entertainment to a large degree. And the people you want to reach with those plays are often hard to reach. And then the opposite is true, when it comes to the people you want to get plays in front of, often, there’s no mechanism to reach them: to get them into those seats to see the play. They are shut out by the economics of it—it’s really expensive—and by the social conditions. Too often, they think isn’t for them, that it’s for rich people.
LYNN NOTTAGE: And I think some of the onus should be on us as playwrights. I’m teaching this course called “American Spectacle,” which is looking at outside of the proscenium. And I think we’re so attached to the proscenium and feel like that’s the only way for us to have a dialogue with audiences. And the audiences I want to have a dialogue with are not coming. And so why do I keep going back to that same institution? Shame on me. I should be going out trying to create the spaces where my audiences can freely come.
The theatre companies are continuing to build bigger and bigger. The bigger they get, the more seats they have to fill, so unfortunately the edges get buffed off of the plays because they have to serve the center.
EVE ENSLER: I want to speak to that because I can’t agree with you more. I think as a playwright, you have a playwright’s ego. “What does it mean to be a playwright? What’s a good playwright?” And it’s all connected to the proscenium.
But I remember when I made the decision to give The Vagina Monologues away for free during part of the year, people were like, “Are you crazy?” And I was like, “I want the play to be done. I want the play to reach women. I want it to go everywhere.” And what I learned from that is: that going to where people are is the most powerful theatre. Theatre that lands in communities, gets played in churches, gets done in banks… We’re tribal beings. We want to be included. But how do you work against that enough so that you can free your work to be done in spaces and where communities can come together?
LYNN NOTTAGE: I think we have to investigate what we consider success. And I think for many playwrights, success is defined by being in these very large institutions that have a strong subscriber base that rewards them with applause and six percent royalty checks.
EVE ENSLER: Exactly.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Success really should be reaching the audiences that you want to have a conversation with.
EVE ENSLER: Okay. Speaking of that, could you describe when, in a production of yours, you have had the greatest feeling of satisfaction and happiness?
LYNN NOTTAGE: That’s so hard. Happiness is so elusive. [Laughter.]
EVE ENSLER: Just when you felt like, “This is the work I wanna be doing.”
LYNN NOTTAGE: I’ve had a few moments like that. I had a small moment when I was in Cambodia rehearsing Ruined. One of the women who was directing had been a victim of the Khmer Rouge. She was so overwhelmed by a brutal moment in the play that she lost control and shouted at a younger woman, who didn’t understand the implications of what was happening in the scene. In that moment, the director revealed a little piece of her history, and in doing so rocked the world of the young actresses in the room. And I thought, “Oh, something’s happening. There’s a conversation that’s going on across generations that is really important and really exciting to me.”
There was another moment when I went to see a production of Ruined in Chad. It was quite a lovely production put on by a local Chadian theatre company. In Chad, theatre is considered to be quite subversive. If you’re a woman who does it, you’re considered to be a prostitute. If you’re a man who does, you’re considered to be a prostitute. They have very few artists, not just artists, but visual artists, musicians, and novelists there who are working professionally. And so, this company very bravely produced Ruined. There was this one man in particular who was playing Mr. Harari, who stood out because he was just the worst actor I’d ever encountered. Awful.
Everyone else was giving it their all, but every time he came on the stage, I literally was hating on him, because his acting was so bad. He was ruining my play.
At a cocktail party a couple nights after the show, the actor who I was hating on came up to me and I was like, “Oh, God. I have to speak to this guy.” And he said, “I want to tell you why I’m in your play.” And I said, “Okay.” He said, “My daughter is an actress and she and her company perform, basically, agitprop theatre, about reproductive rights and AIDS and things that touch the lives of rural communities in Northern Chad.”
Once, his daughter was performing, and afterwards all of the women in her company were set upon by the police, beaten and raped. And he said that he went to the local authorities seeking some form of recourse; couldn’t find it. He went to the national authorities, couldn’t get any help. And he said, “I am in this play to stand in solidarity with my daughter.” And I thought, “This is why I do what I do.” This man in this moment found an outlet in which he could say to the government, “You’re not gonna stop us from doing what we love and from reaching our people.” It was an example of art providing a form of spiritual sustenance. Was it a moment of happiness? Yeah, it was a moment of happiness and sadness and very complicated emotions.
EVE ENSLER: And what about you?
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I haven’t had the chance to go to have a lot of my work done in the Arab world yet, which I would be very interested to see, or even overseas. I think for me, those performances that have taken place in smaller theatres in the community or universities have been interesting in how they subvert a bit that relationship of ‘we’re the passive audience. We’re paying, sitting, and then leaving.’
I want to go back to what you were saying about The Vagina Monologues and reaching people. One project I’m working on, called Break the Wall, with another playwright named David Zellnick, is kind of based on the way that The Vagina Monologues was out in communities and also Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, which was free and available and being performed all over.
We are curating an archive of short plays about Palestine/Israel based, in some way, on documentary evidence by a variety of writers from all backgrounds—so not just Jewish, not just Palestinian, not just Arab, or Muslim—and have this free resource of short plays online. A mix of well-known and not-so-well known playwrights. And say, “This can be done for free. Wanna do it in the Sidney Opera House? You can. You wanna do it at Signature or the Vic, at the Alliance, or Berkeley? You can, but these are also for street corners and community centers and classrooms.” So yeah, shit, let’s have that good strong work available and free.
I think we need to do more of that.
I love that plays are like these beautiful milkweeds that you shake and then they just kind of like flitter out and away.
– EVE ENSLER
EVE ENSLER: Looking back at The Vagina Monologues, people got some information through the internet, but it was mostly person-to-person. And I think that’s what moved me so much about it. Somebody would see it and say, “I wanna bring it to Pakistan,” and I love that plays are like these beautiful milkweeds that you shake and then they just kind of like flitter out and away.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I think this is more conducive to that kind of milkweed affect because people know it can be done cheaply, easily, quickly.
EVE ENSLER: Lynn, I really responded to what you were saying about the Chad thing because I think those moments when you see your work in another context and you realize how some whole other group can take it and transform it into their particular reality that you never could have imagined. I saw The Vagina Monologues performed by Pakistani actresses in Islamabad for the first time. It was a covert production that later went public.
They had a screen the men actually sat behind because they weren’t allowed to be in the same room as the women. After that production, the Pakistani actresses brought it publicly to Lahore and Karachi. I think those moments are when you go, “Look what’s possible if you get out of this [proscenium] frame that we’re talking about.”
I was thinking about theatre as form of revolution and a revolutionary form. And maybe we could just open that thought out as a possibility.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I often say that theatre should be at the vanguard of change, but so often I feel it isn’t. But I do think it’s in a unique position to bring people together in a communal space and to have an exchange of ideas. Too often, it doesn’t lead to anything other than a round of cocktails afterwards in which we have these very lengthy conversations. But I do think that it has the potential to be a revolutionary form.
EVE ENSLER: Me, too.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I think that I continue to do theatre, particularly the kind of theatre I do, because that potential is there.
EVE ENSLER: You know that amazing scene in Birdman where they talk about the play and everybody just goes out and has drinks…
LYNN NOTTAGE: Yes.
EVE ENSLER: What is holding that back? What is stopping that? What are the things we need? What are the obstacles we need to overcome?
LYNN NOTTAGE: I think it’s economics. I think that it is too expensive, that it’s not an inclusive form, that it’s one of the last bastions of segregation. When I go into most theatres, I’m usually one of two people of color seated in the audience. And that includes some of the African American theatres I attend, which I find even more frustrating. And that that has to be changed. I keep going back to the institutions that are building these enormous buildings, mistakenly thinking that that’s where theatre needs to take place, and I really don’t believe that anymore.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: And it’s the degree to which we’ve already talked about that content follows that model as well, right?
LYNN NOTTAGE: Our stories are designed for the proscenium.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: They cater to power. That’s the fact of most corporate entertainment, including theatre, right? It has a very cozy relationship to the status quo. And so it’s both in the economics of the building itself, and paying in some way or another to get into the building that determines who’s there and who isn’t there and how it is presented.
EVE ENSLER: And that it’s serving that system. All the structures are keeping everything in its place.
LYNN NOTTAGE: But then looking at videos of Bread and Puppet and some of these revolutionary political s from the 1960s and ‘70s – they understood something fundamental: in order to effect change, you have to go to the people. So they paraded their art, and they broke outside the proscenium and created new audiences. And in the case of The Living Theatre, they’d begin in the proscenium, invite people up onto the stage, and then together break free of the proscenium.
And I think that some of that impulse should be woven into how new theatres are being designed. I sense young playwrights wanting to break out of the proscenium and make their stories more expansive, more inclusive, more adventurous, but I also feel their reluctance to do so, because of the nature of the institutions supporting them.
EVE ENSLER: And there were also Happenings. I loved Happenings. You would just go to the theatre and something would start and then it would happen. And there was something so radical about that and so in the present tense, and so with the audience, with the actors creating it together. And I think we’re so afraid of that now. It involves interaction. It involves being together in this. And the Internet brings dislocation and separation of human beings.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I think theatre can be and has been revolutionary. The more dangerous and the more accessible it is and the more it questions power, the more it fulfills its potential to be revolutionary. If poor people cannot access it then it cannot be fully revolutionary. Theatre is segregated today. And that’s a huge problem, but our society is immensely segregated right now. It’s reflection. It’s a microcosm.
EVE ENSLER: Where do you live?
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I live in South America, these days. In Chile. I kind of needed to get out of New York, away from the corporate commercial pressures of doing this and doing that and feeling competitive. I just needed to be out of it for a while. Self-exile.
There’s so little public funding for the arts that for writers to make a living in the U.S., we do have to depend on these nonprofit institutions and commercial corporations. And that’s part of what keeps us from writing and doing revolutionary shit in the streets. We’re scared of starving.
LYNN NOTTAGE: We’re scared.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: And we’re also scared of leaving New York because we are convinced, is where it’s happening. And so all of those things I think contribute to that inability to be revolutionary in certain ways.
EVE ENSLER: I want to speak to something about you moving to Chile. About six years ago, I moved to Paris. I’ve lived there a lot. And also, I’m in the Congo a lot. And it’s really helped me. There’s something about being out of this striving culture—and also seeing and doing my work in other countries—that’s giving me such a perspective on what work can do.
I think sometimes it’s important for artists to leave here to really get a frame of reference. So many people in this country are unawake to the struggles, to the crimes we’re perpetuating on people outside this country. It’s so important to inform your work about what’s going on out there.
LYNN NOTTAGE: But I think that a lot of us are willfully ignorant, we choose not to engage because it’s safer not to see it. Because once we see, then we have to do something.
EVE ENSLER: And you have to change your life.
LYNN NOTTAGE: But you’re in a really unique position to travel because of the foundation that you’ve set up and the work you do. You created that life for yourself, but so many artists are trapped by circumstance.
EVE ENSLER: I think if you want to travel, you’ll find a way to travel. I had no money and I traveled. I think there’s a way to amass enough income to get yourself someplace and get a bag and go. And even if you don’t travel, then travel in your mind. Read. Get informed. This country is so insular, so myopic.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I think we’ve undergone this period of siloing off into identity politics, right? And there’s something very valuable in identity politics, but I think that’s also a way of kind of saying, “Listen, you talk about Arab Americans, right? Fine. You talk about Latino issues and you do your shit, and none of you are connected. Stay in your silos and your ghettos. None of your struggles are connected.” And that’s a form of dividing and conquering.
EVE ENSLER: Part of what we’re taught in this culture is you will have your niche. You will have your African American niche. I will have my feminist niche. You will have your Palestinian niche… and in the next years in my life (and it’s happening organically), I wanna write about environmental crisis. I wanna write about mystical journeys. I do not want to be locked in my niche, but I see how hard it is.
LYNN NOTTAGE: That’s funny, because I just finished writing a play about elephant poaching, and I feel really nervous, because I’ve stepped outside my “niche.”
EVE ENSLER: What are the ingredients of making art, of making theatre that activates people?
LYNN NOTTAGE: I’ve been thinking a lot about what is creativity and what is the mission that we charged with? I think it’s that we enter into a dark space, and by the time we leave, it’s illuminated.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: That’s beautiful.
EVE ENSLER: How do we create that art?
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I think it’s constantly pushing ourselves not to be safe. We talked about it at the beginning, right? The self-censorship and safety. For me, it’s about finding ways to not be safe and touch people at the same time. And that’s hard. I find poetry does that. I find that history is my way of doing that.
EVE ENSLER: I also think it is finding ways to keep the censorship bugs away, so we keep bearing down on those truths we don’t even want to admit to ourselves. Those truths that when you say it out loud, you go, “Oh, my God. Is that in me? Do I have that thought? Am I that person? Could I be…?” I feel that’s what breaks open passages for people to tell the truth. And I think so much of where we’re living now is people not telling the truth about their own lives or their own hearts or their own journeys or their own racism, their own sexism, their own classism. Because we don’t have space to talk about that stuff.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I feel very emboldened by this conversation.
EVE ENSLER: Me, too.
LYNN NOTTAGE: I’m going to go out and be a tiny bit more brave, because I do think that self-censoring is one of our main adversaries in this war.
EVE ENSLER: And I have your back, Lynn. And you can call me anytime. I mean it. I have your back, too. But we’ve got to say that to each other.
LYNN NOTTAGE: You have to say that.
EVE ENSLER: You have to say it out loud and say, “I’ll be there for you. And if people come for you, I’ll be there for you,” because even if we don’t love everything each other does, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’re trying to break through something. And sometimes we do better at it, and sometimes we do worse at it. But we have to be in solidarity with each other.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: Absolutely.
EVE ENSLER: If One Billion Rising has taught me anything, it’s about solidarity. How do you rise for each other’s issues? How do you stand up for each other? How do you go the distance with other people? Not just walk up to the door, but through the door.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: And that butterfly effect is astounding. I mean real solidarity, not bullshit solidarity. Real solidarity.
EVE ENSLER: Yep.
LYNN NOTTAGE: Way back, you asked, “How do we create community?” I think we teach. I think that we pass it onto the next generation. Tell them that there are options. I think that they see two options: the commercial proscenium and nonprofit subscription. We have to say that there’s a different strand of DNA that they can follow.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: Right.
EVE ENSLER: And I also think it’s by having discussions like this together because we don’t do it and we need to hear from each other and we need to know that we’re in a similar boat.
EVE ENSLER is a Tony Award-winning playwright, performer, and activist. Plays include The Vagina Monologues, translated into over 48 languages, performed in over 140 countries, Emotional Creature, The Good Body, and O.P.C. Her books include Insecure at Last and the critically-acclaimed memoir In the Body of the World, which she also adapted and performed onstage. She is founder of V-Day and One Billion Rising, both global movements to end violence against women and girls. www.eveensler.org
Born in Beirut, ISMAIL KHALIDI is a Palestinian American writer whose plays include Truth Serum Blues (Pangea World Theater, ‘05), Foot, Tennis in Nablus (Alliance, ‘10), and Sabra Falling. Khalidi is co-editor of Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora (TCG, 2015). He received his MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. www.ismailkhalidi.com
LYNN NOTTAGE is a playwright and a screenwriter. She is the first, and remains the only, woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice. Her plays have been produced widely in the United States and throughout the world. www.lynnottage.com