San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions is entirely devoted to plays from and about the peoples and cultures of the Middle East. The company’s remit encompasses many very different nations, cultures and individual voices, and Golden Thread’s ReOrient festival of short plays gives a strong sense of that diversity.
The eight short plays in this year’s festival are split into two rotating evenings, and the event also includes a double bill of family-friendly pieces by Fairytale Players based on Iranian and Armenian folk tales; a recital by Syrian-American soprano Saousan Jarjour performing Middle Eastern folk songs reinterpreted through a jazz lens; and the ReOrient 2015 Forum of panel discussions about Middle Eastern theater.
KQED spoke with Evren Odcikin, Golden Thread’s director of marketing and new plays, about the festival’s diverse offerings.
Golden Thread also produces full-length plays, but it seems like ReOrient is really the company’s flagship program.
It’s our signature offering at this point. It was founded in 1999, and the idea was to represent the Middle East, which is a very complex and diverse region. When you’re a small company producing only two shows a year, that’s really hard to do. So the festival was created out of a need and wish to represent more communities and more artists, and also to be able to showcase the diversity of nationalities, ethnicities, stories and artists of the region. The short play format really lends itself to that. It ends up being a celebration of the region as well as a great introduction for people who might not know much about the Middle East, because it’s so diverse and the offerings are so wide ranging.
There are several Palestinian-themed events in the mix this year. Tell us about that.
This year that we had quite a few plays submitted that are dealing with Israel and Palestine. The plays featured in the festival that are by Palestinian writers or are about Palestine are Bitterenders by Hannah Khalil, who’s a Palestinian-British writer based out of London, and The House by Tala Manassah and Mona Mansour. Bitterenders is about a Palestinian family sharing their house with an Israeli family that has gone missing, and they have to figure out what’s going on. The House is kind of an interesting play, because they’re writing a trilogy, and we produced The Letter, the first play of the trilogy, at the last ReOrient. This one is a Palestinian American physics professor and his daughter, who’s a philosopher, dealing with the idea of being Palestinian through putting up these very nonprofessional plays, trying to figure out how to tell a story to an audience. They take a theatrical trip through the house that Kamal, the father, grew up in. It’s about how that house exists for him and also for his daughter, who’s never been there. We also have this amazing panel discussion that became possible through our ongoing partnership with Theater Without Borders: we’re bringing together Palestinian writers from all over the world to talk about what it means to be a Palestinian writer in the diaspora.
Can you give us a sense of the breadth of the offerings in the festival?
We have Ceasefire by Ken Kaissar, an Israeli American writer writing about the Israeli-Lebanese conflict. We have Yussef El Guindi — who’s one of our family members at this point, we’ve produced so much of his work — writing about the Syrian conflict in terms of a couple dealing with this idea of home and what you leave behind. We have Hassan Abdulrazzak, an Iraqi British writer, writing about Saddam Hussein’s final days. And then we have Silva Semerciyan, an Armenian British writer, writing Turning Tricks, which is about Eastern European human trafficking. The nice thing about it is that it can be Middle Eastern writers writing about the Middle East, Middle Eastern writers writing about the immigrant experience of Middle Easterners, or non-Middle Eastern writers writing about the Middle East. And finally, it could be Middle Easterners writing about something that’s not about the Middle East, because Middle Eastern artists think about other things too. This is the one place where we can put all of those plays together and really create a different conversation about what the region’s about and what the artists of the region are about.
What are some of the considerations in picking plays for the festival?
At the end of the day we’re trying to find the best writers with the most unique voices, and we’re trying to find the stories that are not told elsewhere. That second part is quite important to us, because the Middle East as a region is quite misunderstood, and a lot of the stories that are in the mainstream media, or mainstream theater even, tend to be very one-sided and one-dimensional. It’s important to us that we’re giving voice to the reality of the Middle East, and that reality tends to be more complex that people expect. A lot of the audiences who come, especially those that might not be of Middle Eastern descent, are usually surprised by the plays, the voices, the characters, the relationships they see. That’s what I like, because as someone who’s grown up in the Middle East, what I experienced growing up is very different than what I see in the news every day.
ReOrient 2015 runs September 10–October 4 at Z Below in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit goldenthread.org.