NEW YORK CITY: The news is a fast, fleeting 24-hour cycle that is hard to keep up with, especially compared to the theatre, where it can take years for an idea to make it to the stage. The long process of creating theatre can inhibit performing artists from addressing news stories and currents events in an immediate way. Noor Theatre is attempting to address this imbalance by responding to headlines in the U.S. and in particular the Middle East as they happen, via a new format called 48 Hour Forum. On Monday night, May 18, at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, five playwrights, five directors and 20 actors will produce five short plays in a mere 48 hours.
Founded in 2010, Theatre Noor aims to support, develop and produce the work of local artists of Middle Eastern descent. And while the company has produced its share of full productions, including Food and Fadwa at New York Theatre Workshop, the 48 Hour Forum arose from a desire to address media representation of the Middle East.
“What are we to do with all the news that’s coming out of the Middle East—the sort of frustrating events, the frustration around hate speech versus free speech and Islamophobia in this country?” wondered founding artistic director Lameece Issaq in a recent interview. “We are a Middle Eastern theatre company, and we feel responsible to engage in conversations around these kinds of events and happenings.”
But the 48 Hour Forum won’t just be created by artists of Middle Eastern descent; playwrights, directors and actors of diverse backgrounds have been invited to join the conversation. John Walsh, Pia Wilson,Victor Malana Maog, Shana Gold, Connie Hall and Jesse Perez are among the pool of participants. Playwright Keith Josef Adkins, no stranger to using theatre to respond to headlines in the news, will also be writing a play for the 48 Hour Forum. Adkins’s project Facing Our Truth: Short Plays on Trayvon, Race and Privilege, was a theatrical response to the George Zimmerman trial in the shooting of Trayvon Martin; it ran as part of the New Black Fest in 2013.
The 48 Hour Forum not only aims to spark discussions about how events in the Middle East affect different communities and to allow for an immediate, human response to sensational news items; it’s also a fun challenge to see how quickly theatre can be ripped from the headlines.
Issaq and Maha Chehlaoui, cofounder and founding executive director of Theatre Noor, have already been busy researching, reading and perusing news sites for headlines to use in the forum. At the time of the interview, Issaq hadn’t solidified which stories the forum will focus on, but perhaps that is one plus of the 24-hour information cycle: the options are limitless.
“For example, the Syrian refugee problem, or maybe what happened in Texas last week,” said Issaq, referring to the shooting on May 3rd at the controversial “Draw the Prophet” contest in Garland, Tex.
Issaq and Chehlaoui will choose 10 different headlines which the playwrights will randomly draw from a hat on Saturday night. They will then have 12 hours to write their plays and 36 hours to mount it.
If this all seems too fast—well, that’s the point. “We love the idea of having a larger conversation in a super-quick, very creative and ‘don’t think too much’ kind of way,” Issaq said.
Such a quick turnaround might seem intimidating, but playwright Mona Mansour (The Hour of Feeling, The Way West) is up for the challenge. As a Middle Eastern-American playwright, Mansour is no stranger to the topics the forum will tackle.
“This is something that has been such a long time coming, in my opinion,” said Mansour. “I’m really glad that Noor is doing this.” She has been checking in on news stories this week about the Middle East and South Asia, including the ceasefire in Yemen and the bus attack in Karachi, Pakistan that killed 43 civilians. “I think that most of us, whether we are Middle Eastern or not, it feels so overwhelming.”
As she heads into the two-day challenge, Mansour says: “In some ways what we are about to do is embracing the impossible, because it is almost impossible even to know what we think sometimes when there is such a barrage of news all the time. I love when the theatre tries to do the impossible, and I think that is what a lot of good theatre is.”
All profits from the 48 Hour Forum will benefit Noor Theatre and their work to develop, support and produce the work of theatre artists of Middle Eastern descent.