Staging Khaled al-Khamissi’s ‘Taxi’: Anywhere The Show Will Fit

Brian Farish, Rewan El-Ghaba, and Kevin Dean, and Yasmin Galal are the core of The Thousand Tongues, a new Cairo-based theatre company that will be staging a theatrical version of Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi starting this January. The production, which will run alternately in Arabic and English, will open at a new performance space, VENT, on January 22. ArabLit messaged with Founding Artistic Director Brian Farish and Literary Director Kevin Dean about the project:

taxi-e1294666246694ArabLit: Why Taxi?

Brian Farish: I’ve done a lot of adaptation work; it’s one of my ways to create performance texts. I think I learned the most about adaptation when I worked under the direction of two experimental directors at the Moscow Art Theater American Studio to adapt War and Peace for a four-hour performance.

I decided to adapt Taxi almost as soon as finished reading the opening monologue. Kevin Dean told me about it, and as soon as I saw that it was a collection of monologues and scenes (between the author and the drivers), I knew I had to at least give it an initial rough draft. As I went deeper with it, I actually worried whether it was still relevant. The interviews were done with drivers in 2005-2006. But then after June 30th and July 4th this year I began to see that the work was a really excellent illustration, by way of the personal experiences of the drivers, of the nuances of the struggle of humans to gain and preserve their dignity. The stories are historical artifacts that remind the reader (and our audience) of what has changed and what hasn’t. I think it will really be a rewarding communal experience for our audience to see and hear these stories. We’ve found some really exciting ways of staging the text that I hope will electrify the audience.

AL: Can you give us any hints about what these are?
 
BF: I think it’s the kind of thing you have to see in the room.  I think my describing details would get tiresome.  Suffice it to say that we’re populating every corner of a nightclub with hilarious, disgusting, brilliant characters.

ArabLit: Why “installation theatre”? Where will it be held?

BF: The piece lends itself to this style of performance, which I love most. Actually, it demands a kind of experimental adaptation; it wouldn’t work if you wanted to adapt it into the traditional “well-made play” format and stage it on a traditional proscenium or thrust. Actually you could stage it that way, but it would be a major snooze.

I believe that the form of theatre in which audiences are sternly told to shut up and sit quietly in the dark while actors perform on a distant stage is dying or is dead already.

I believe that the form of theatre in which audiences are sternly told to shut up and sit quietly in the dark while actors perform on a distant stage is dying or is dead already. Theatre people act like this isn’t true, but we all know it is. If people want to sit and watch a story in the dark performed by actors they’re not allowed to interact with, they will watch a movie. That’s the reality.

But people still crave community. They want to be together laughing, crying, dancing, bumping up against each other physically in the real world–so that’s what we do. We don’t ask audiences to shut up or turn off their phones or sit down. The performances happen all around the space and they are broken up often by music, which allows audience to dance, drink, and discuss what they’ve seen. There will be times when there are up to 3 or 4 performances happening simultaneously. Audience members can watch whatever part of a performance they want, walk away to another performance, or leave, if they like, without any guilt. I’ve done this style of work before, but not here in Egypt and not with this script. I don’t honestly know what will happen. In rehearsal I am working with the actors to build into the performances the facility to deal with audiences who talk back. Actually, we will have “plants” in the audience calling out with questions or comments, encouraging other audience to do so as well. Of course I am preparing contingencies to keep things from descending into utter chaos, but I think in the end the audience will respect what we’re trying to do. I’ve just decided to trust them.

Our first venue is VENT, a new bar/club/performance space downtown at 6 Qasr Al Nil, just a short walk from Tahrir. I am so immensely excited about what they are doing there. Their vision is to create exactly the kind of experimental, risky venue that young Cairenes want. They’ve decided that we’re going to be their opening show and we are thrilled.

After VENT we will be all over Cairo. I’m working with my scenic designer to create highly portable set pieces that we could put in any warehouse, gallery, park, plaza, or street where they will fit–just not theaters. We don’t do theatre in theaters.

After VENT we will be all over Cairo. I’m working with my scenic designer to create highly portable set pieces that we could put in any warehouse, gallery, park, plaza, or street where they will fit–just not theaters. We don’t do theatre in theaters.

AL: But basically anywhere else? Will the shows sometimes be publicly accessible, then, or it will always be somewhere you can collect tickets?

BF: We will be selling and collecting tickets for all performances in all venues, so we will find ways to control entrance to and exit from the performance area. The prices may change depending on the venue and target audience, especially if we end up leaving Cairo for other Egyptian environs. I remember Khalid Al Khamissi saying to me in our first discussion that he wanted to engender cultural pursuits in all regions of Egypt. He expressed his disdain for insular Cairene pretension in extremely colorful terms that I don’t think I should exactly quote him on, but basically he said, “[Forget] Cairo.”

AL: I love the bilingual idea, although I’m not quite sure how it functions as a “bridge”?

BF: Maybe it’s as simple as two groups of audience from two language communities having a connection simply through having seen the same show. The same experience will be in each of their consciousnesses. I am confident that this performance will give English speakers a look into the hearts of Egyptians that they never could have imagined. I remember being stunned when I read the book and it’s one thing to read words on a page; it’s another to see a human put all of their will and heart into those words right in front of your face.

The “bridge” bit also refers to initiatives of our Literary Wing to generate original works in Arabic and English, which I am incredibly excited about.

The “bridge” bit also refers to initiatives of our Literary Wing to generate original works in Arabic and English, which I am incredibly excited about. I will let Kevin Dean take that one.

We have some educational initiatives we’d like to start as well, in which we bring a simple staging of two 15-minute adaptations of English and Arabic classic plays around to schools in Egypt–a kind of theatre-in-education strike team. We’d do those all in colloquial Egyptian (aameyah) so it would easily grab the attention of Egyptian kids and give them a first way in to literature, building a kind of bridge.

AL: Have you started contacting schools, or is this still in the works?
Auditions for Taxi. From the Thousand Toungues website.
Auditions for Taxi. From the Thousand Toungues website.

BF: We have not yet taken concrete steps forward on this initiative.  The company has really only existed since August of 2013.  Things have exploded for us; so many people are fascinated by the core idea of the company.  I feel like I’ve pushed a snowball down a mountainside and now I’m racing to keep up with the boulder it’s become.  We’re taking one step at a time, though, and just trying to get TAXI rolling along.  Producing Mohamed Mahmoud Moustafa’s play, the first consummation of the relationship between our literary and performance arms, will be the next step this spring.  And then this summer we will likely start gathering performers to create work for the education initiative that would tour schools beginning in the 2014-2015 academic year.  I will need more help to do that also.  It will become a very complex project.

AL: Do you plan/hope to travel with the show?

BF: Absolutely! We want invitations from every corner of the world! This was another reason that I have conceived of a portable and flexible production. Our plans at this moment today only include touring within Cairo, specifically to one of the plazas of the palaces of Islamic Cairo, but things are developing so quickly that that could change within the week. If you know of any opportunities or organizations who would be interested, please send them my way at brianfarish [at] thethousandtongues [dot] com!

AL: Was it you and Rewan who adapted the text? Did you work with Khaled al-Khamissi?

Khaled Al Khamissi did not work with us on the adaptation. We met with him in September (of 2013) at his foundation, Doum, and, when he heard our production concept, he gave us his enthusiastic support.

I did the initial draft in English, working from the English translation by Jonathan Wright and, to the extent of my rather limited Arabic, the original Arabic. I gave the draft to Rewan ElGhaba, my co-director, and she did the first Arabic rough draft. She translated the new scenes that I had written in English, inspired by the book, and then lifted as much as possible directly from the original Arabic novel.

The performance draft that we’re working with now includes translation work by a brilliant guy named Mohamed Mahmoud Moustafa and more adaptation and original writing by our Literary Director, Kevin Dean. The Egyptian ensemble members themselves also fleshed out scenes that were inspired by just a few lines in the book using improvisation in rehearsals.

AL: It opens when in January?

BF: Yes, the dates it will be running in January 22, 25, 26, 27, 29 at VENT starting at 8 pm each night. The first 3 nights will be in Arabic and the last two in English.

AL: Ah! I misunderstood. I thought each performance would be bilingual. But there are alternating English/Arabic nights. Staging essentially the same show?

I saw a performance recently that had equal parts Arabic, English, and French all within the same show. While I appreciate how ambitious that is, and there are people more brilliant than I who I’m sure picked up every word, it made me feel stupid and bored. I want our audiences to feel smart and exhilarated.

BF: Right, exactly–same show, same actors, changing languages from week to week. We want the show to be accessible for multiple language communities, and our actors are brilliant enough to pull it off. I saw a performance recently that had equal parts Arabic, English, and French all within the same show. While I appreciate how ambitious that is, and there are people more brilliant than I who I’m sure picked up every word, it made me feel stupid and bored. I want our audiences to feel smart and exhilarated.

AL: Can you explain more about what your “literary wing” is? What plans you have there?

There are a lot of young Egyptians with great stories to tell. Its the job of the Literary Wing to provide a platform for their voices.

Kevin Dean: As you know, great theater is driven by great writing. That’s where our Literary Wing comes into play. Just as we hope to seek out young and brilliant Egyptian actors, we also want to connect with the country’s best and brightest literary talents, especially those who are writing for the stage. In this sense, the two halves of the company — theater and literature — go hand in hand, each one driving the other. There are a lot of young Egyptians with great stories to tell. Its the job of the Literary Wing to provide a platform for their voices.

Last week we awarded our first literary commission to Mohamed Mahmoud Mostafa, a Cairo attorney who is working on a series of short plays about his experiences at various court houses and law firms in the city. He gets to see a different side of life, both the legal details and the emotions that accompany the winners and losers of any courtroom battle, and we believe that the future performances will be dark and funny and, most of all, important.

We hope to continue awarding commissions like this. After a while, we will have a collection of the plays that we have produced, and these can be gathered into an anthology, printed, and distributed to theater companies around the world. We want plays that will not only move Egyptian audiences, but global ones, too, and so why not take these stories and distribute them far and wide?

I’m looking forward to seeing just how much we can do.

mlynxqualey

2 thoughts on “Staging Khaled al-Khamissi’s ‘Taxi’: Anywhere The Show Will Fit

Comments are closed.