NU-Q students tackle issues of Arab identity in six original plays

December 24, 2011

Student screenwriters and actors collaborate to bring stories of “Arab Awakenings” to the stage

Doha, Qatar – December 22, 2011 – Six young screenwriters and five acting students at Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) brought stories of revolution, gender relations, and the struggle between traditional parents and their Westernized offspring to the stage this month, under the theme “Arab Awakenings.”

The students produced six original short plays in a “Collaboration Class” co-taught by Ann Woodworth and Sue Pak, professors in NU-Q’s Communications program.  The course joined acting and writing students in a collaborative process to develop their plays.

“The ideas behind these plays were all revolutionary, hence the name Arab Awakenings- they addressed issues that are not often discussed in Arab culture,” explained junior communications student Motasem Kalaji, who acted in five of the six plays. “Some of these issues include family dynamics, patriotism, and existential dilemmas.”

Sue Pak, who led the students through the scriptwriting process for the course, said it took some time to get the students to write about their own experiences and surroundings. The young people originally wanted to write about New York and other far-off places they’d seen in movies.  “Perhaps it seems easier to write about ‘other people’ as a way to protect yourself. That way no one thinks your play is about you or anyone you know,” Pak commented.

According to Pak, it soon became obvious that the plays were not working because they were too far removed from the actors’ and the writers’ own experiences. “The only way they could create something truly interesting was to start by writing what they knew. That meant taking some very brave steps like leaving New York behind, and setting the stories in areas the students were familiar with- in Saudi Arabia and Doha for example.”

When the students took their plays to the stage on December 8 and 9 to a packed audience of family, friends, and faculty and students from across Education City, they had created characters and stories that dealt with issues concerning many young people in the region.

NU-Q junior Ethar Hassaan found inspiration for her script, “Between Nothing and Something,” in her experience this February, when she traveled to Egypt’s Tahrir Square to witness the revolution on the ground.  Her character Noha, a female journalist, refuses to leave the country with her husband Haytham and rejects his depiction of protestors as “unemployed slum dogs.” In the play’s most memorable line, the character Noha declares, “This is not about being rich or poor. It’s about equality, social justice … freedom.”

Thamer Al Thani, a senior at NU-Q, wrote the script for “Nagging Survival,” which follows a young Arab-American man and his traditional Arab mother as they try to survive a fatal disease outbreak.  As hero Yousef does everything he can to stay isolated from the rest of the infected population, his mother is bent on reminding him of his roots…and finding him a wife.

In a story on loss and acceptance, Dana Atrach of the class of 2013 touches on themes with deep personal significance.  Just as her main character, a pianist named Laith, struggles to accept that his injured hand prevents him from continuing his successful career in performance, Atrach had to give up basketball for a year after she tore her ACL last season. The play “A Little Star” ends on a hopeful note as Laith remembers that it was passion and not fame that drew him to play piano in the first place.

“Watching the show come to life those two nights after this whole process was extremely rewarding, knowing all the hard work we had been through and being able to share that with the community and watch their reactions to it,” said Atrach.

The three remaining plays featured Arab protagonists in struggles with identity. Kaltham Al Thani’s “The Deal” takes place on the set of an Arabic soap opera being shot in a studio in Dubai. A Westernized, teenage boy confronts his troubled father in Lama Al-Abdulla’s “Holding On,” set in Saudi Arabia. In his light-hearted “Another Possibility,” Omer Mohammad’s character Mustafa is confronted by an angel, who gives him the chance to live for more than “paying the bills.”

“I wanted the students to experience the collaborative process of creating theatre. Theatre offers us the opportunity to discover more about ourselves, each other, and the world in which we live. The goal was to provide an arena where students could explore what is important to them, perhaps say what may not be possible to say in their daily lives,” said Ann Woodworth, who staffed the course with Pak and teaches acting as an Associate Professor at NU-Q.

She intends to expand the university’s theater program and has plans in store for another “Collaboration Class” next fall semester, with journalism students joining the communication students to bring “real stories” from Qatar to life.

A week after the performances, Woodworth brought three of the students to a workshop for amateur actors led by Kevin Spacey.  Spacey was in Doha for the production of Shakespeare’s Richard III on December 16 and 17.

Sophomore Saad Khan was one of the students to attend.  He said it was the perfect conclusion to the course.  “Overall it was a very rewarding experience, and I think we have generated a lot of interest in theater at Northwestern,” he concluded.