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Julian Oquendo

Haysam Kadri on playing the villain in A Thousand Splendid Suns

A headshot of Haysam Kadri.

This article was first published January 16, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, explores the lives of two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila, both living in war-torn Kabul and married to the same man, Rasheed. Ursula Rani Sarma’s script has been successfully staged at theatres in Canada, London, and California. On January 21st, this theatrical adaptation will be performed for the first time at Arena Stage in Washington, DC.

Haysam Kadri joins DCTS for a conversation about this production, his role as antagonist Rasheed, and his own work as artistic director of The Shakespeare Company in Calgary, Alberta.

How are rehearsals going?

It’s a good group. It’s always a good process with Carey Perloff (the director) at the helm.

What’s different about this production?

With any new script and any new story there’s an opportunity to discover things out of it. I run a Shakespeare Company back in Calgary. When you come back to a play you feel like you’re scratching the surface. This play is so topical now, it resonates with so many people. You travel around America and there’s an overwhelming response.

Every time I do this play I discover new things. I’ve been fortunate enough to do it in Canada as well. I’ve worn many hats for this play: there’s always something to unfold and discover. This will be my ninth or tenth time doing this production, so obviously, it’s doing something right. 

You’ve also directed this production in London?

London, Ontario and Vancouver. It looks like it’s going to continue to have a life in Canada and in the States.

Every time a new person inhabits a new role, they bring a new element to it. You’re always finding different dynamics, interpretations of the line, a different action, energies are different, so if things change. The stories of Layla and Mariam are elevated. They resonate differently with different people and Carey takes what we do across the country. “I discovered this moment here. It might help the actor in this particular case.”

Any particular changes to the play when you move closer to the nation’s capital?

We’re a little closer to the political pulse; we’re in the middle of the political pulse. I’m curious to see how the audience is going to react. We discover new things in different cities. Audiences are different in Canada.  American audiences seem to be very vocal, wanting to express how they feel during the show. Canadians seemed to be more reserved during the show. Americans are one degree away from the story— to Afghanistan. They have a different relationship to the political complexities of the story than Canadians.  It’s very curious to see what the DC and surrounding audiences will take out of it.

With A Thousand Splendid Suns, how important is that you’re seeing a degree of diversity on stage?

What’s important is that we’re giving a voice to the people of Afghanistan, a different voice you don’t see in the media or the news. This is a story set in Afghanistan but this story could happen anywhere. There’s a lot of domestic violence in the play, which is not reserved for one part of the world.

As we start to go and we start to see the voice of Afghan people, you start to see audiences that can relate to those characters. It’s not them and us. It’s a universal story.

This will be our ninth production of this play. It’s not a tour. We’ve spent over 3 1/2 years. It’s been a long process, page to stage. Audiences have been quite affected by it. We’re really excited to have 11 diverse people on that stage of South Asian and Middle Eastern extraction. When you get that, it doesn’t happen often.

Do you recommend the play for someone who hasn’t read the book?

You don’t need to read it. Actually, it’s one of those books you can’t put down; it’s a quick read. It has a built-in audience. it’s always difficult to transpose a novel into a play, to distill it into two hours, but I think we have a very successful adaptation on our hands. 

Tell us about your role as Rasheed.

Rasheed is very interesting character. The audience won’t like him, I will say that. What’s important is to find the humanity in a character that has not many redeeming qualities, and that’s been the challenge as an actor, to make this individual three dimensional human being. He does say things that are off-putting and actually offensive. What’s more important to me is to make this person a human being. He’s also a victim of society and ideology and a lot of the insecurities that he goes through are circumstances. 

How do you see the audience respond to him?

His version of love is distorted. His version of love is based out of a fear. He thinks he’s doing everything right. What makes a guy like Rasheed a villain is that people see his version of love and they’re just appalled by it. It’s quite an interesting character study and interesting to see audiences react. You feel the vitriol.

What’s something about you we won’t be able to find on Google?

I have three daughters. I love being a dad. [Thousand Splendid Suns] is a story about two women. I’m surrounded by women in my household. This play resonates when you see the friendship of two women: the adversity, the harrowing tale that they go through and the sacrifice of love. I think about my kids and it’s hard to be away from my family, but this play really puts into perspective the privileges we have in this part of the world. I don’t take for granted what it is to live in the western part of the world. Puts things into perspective as the father of three girls.

And I’m a Nationals fan. The Expo’s were my team when they moved.

What about your work as artistic director for The Shakespeare Company in Calgary?

Shakespeare became one of those things; I fell in love with it. I threw my art into the classical works. When I got to Calgary, it was just serendipitous. I got back and auditioned for the artistic producer role:  It’s been 7 years [I’ve worked] as an artistic producer.  And Carey Perloff just directed our version of Merchant of Venice. 

You also have something called Hammered Hamlet?

I’m always finding ways to make Shakespeare accessible. There’s always a stigma, because it’s taught in English class and taught in academic exercises, it’s quite a dry biscuit to swallow so we do shows that excite and inspire. And sometimes we do shows that entertain. We do shows where 3 of the 5 actors take shots in front of the audience before the show and we auction off to a king and queen of the house to dictate when the next shot goes. They’ll stop the play to say when the actors get to take another shot.

Let me tell you, Shakespeare sober is already quite a complex exercises. It was brilliant. We sold out three weeks before we opened.

It’s a novelty concept. We sprinkle that in there with our traditional shows. It brings a different demographic of people. We saw a completely different audience base. It was an exciting experiment and we learned a lot.

You aim to deliver a different accessibility to Shakespeare?

When high school students read it in English, it’s such a dry exercise because it’s being taught as an academic exercise. It’s taught cognitively and not creatively. Our attention spans are really short.  To sit down for three hours and hear English as a second language, it’s a tall task to ask from an audience, in my humble opinion.

What we’ve done is we’ve reverse the stigma and the perception by calling it “Lean and Mean Shakespeare,” by making it exciting and by doing those little things: drunk Shakespeare, we did a zombie Shakespeare (people afflicted by the plague). We brought in a younger demographic and build up future audiences. We also do traditional shows: period and hard-hitting Shakespeare.

I did a version of Hamlet and took it down to 2 hours and 10 minutes. 

Thank you!

Exactly! Because I’m interested in making it accessible to a wider range of people. There are very few people, I’m gonna be honest, who are going to want to sit through a three and a half hour Shakespeare without getting bored. It hurts me to slash it, but you want to make it exciting and you want to bring people to the theatre.  It makes a difference that people go into a show and 7 and are out by 9:15 pm. Psychologically, that’s a big deal. “Great, I’m gonna go to another one.”

shattering glass ceilings: Charlene V. Smith makes history with 8 play cycle of Shakespeare’s histories

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published January 10, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

Charlene V. Smith is not shying away from a theatrical marathon. As the artistic director for Brave Spirits Theatre (BST), Smith and the company’s productions have often focused on learning contemporary lessons from historical, usually action-packed, plays. The company’s tagline: Verse and Violence, acknowledges the nature of what you can expect from them, an appreciation of the writing of that era, and an acknowledgement of the violent drama involved.

And this year, Smith will be the first woman in the world to lead an eight-play cyclical staging of one of the most dramatic arcs of William Shakespeare plays: Richard the Second, the Henry plays, and Richard the Third.

Starting with Richard the Second in January and culminating in a marathon performance of all eight productions during the summer of 2021, BST sees these plays through a feminist lens, and promises a look at they can reflect on issues of gender and race today.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’ve been doing theatre my whole life. My mother was one of the co-founders of Bay Street Players, a community theatre in Eustis, Florida. It’s where she and my father met, and where I grew up with my brother and sister. We all spent a lot of time together at the theatre, and there were several productions where all or most of us were involved. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to keep doing theatre for the rest of my life.

What brought you to DC?

I came to DC after college on what I assumed was a temporary stop on my way to New York City. I had heard there was a good theatre scene here, so it seemed like a friendly place to take the first steps into a professional theatre career. I was only here for about six months when I realized I wasn’t leaving.

Why this cycle, why now? 

In some ways, I’m doing the cycle as early as I thought I could get away with it! The longer answer is that I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s history cycle in 2008 and walked out of that experience determined to mount my own cycle at some point. Once Brave Spirits Theatre was growing and I started thinking about when we could do it, the year 2020 popped out to me. It was far enough away (at that point) to give us planning time, and it allowed me to make use of the clever tagline “History is 2020.” The year 2020 in of itself contains circles and repetition, and that hindsight always allows us to see much clearer the consequences of our actions, political or personal. I also knew then that we would be experiencing an election cycle during most of the project, though, of course, I couldn’t have predicted how painful and fraught our own political process would become.

I hope these plays will help us all think about the systems of power in our own society, the harms they cause, as well as who benefits from them, who is complicit in them, and who are the people always left cleaning up the messes.

What’s the story on how Brave Spirits got started?

So many coincidences and strange twists of fate! Victoria Reinsel and I were randomly paired together for a callback for The Comedy of Errors for the Virginia Shakespeare Festival in 2010. You always get very little time at these things to prepare with a stranger, but we went in together and something clicked. I remember thinking, “this woman knows what she is doing.”

We agreed that we loved how much Shakespeare there was in this area but we were both still yearning for a different kind of Shakespeare than what we were seeing. We wanted DC to have a company that was passionate about text work and that gave more focus to female artists and characters.

How did the Richard the Second rehearsal process look like for you and the actors? Are you prepping for the next production already?

I spent a couple of years on a very complex spreadsheet. I had to figure out how we would rehearse and perform eight plays on a non-equity schedule, ie, with only nights and weekends.

How does each play get the rehearsal hours it needs, and how do we do all this without burning people out who are also working other jobs? Due to venue availability, we ultimately split the project across two years and I think that has turned out to be a positive choice. We’ve been overlapping the first four plays in the rehearsal room since the beginning.

How many directors are going to be involved for this two year stint? 

Two. I am directing this year’s four plays and Jordan Friend, artistic director of 4615 Theatre Company, is directing next year’s four plays. The two of us have also had many conversations about the overall vision and arc of the project and we are staying involved in the other person’s half. He’s also composing and music directing for these first four plays, along with offering feedback to me from a director’s eye. I’ll be playing Margaret of Anjou in the second four plays when he takes over the directing reins.

Are you expecting to keep the same production team throughout the two-year period?

The hope is that the entire acting ensemble and production team will stay with the project the entire way through. 

Are there any moments from the cycle that you’re most excited about staging? 

I’m really excited about the Henry the Sixth plays in general – they are so rarely performed, even less so in three parts, and I love them dearly. For the plays I am directing, I have been most nervous from the beginning of the choruses in Henry the Fifth — how do we stage them in a way that makes sense in the context of the cycle as a whole and supports the way in which we want to critique these men in power?

I’ve found in the past that the moments in plays that I am most nervous to work on end up being the most rewarding. I’m hoping that will prove true here as well.

With such a busy/tight marathon scheduling, how are you (and the actors) keeping your spirits up?

I know we are very lucky that this cast bonded quickly and easily and remains close and friendly. They are excited each night to be working together and that really is what makes this all possible. They’ve also found their own traditions – this is a cast that is drinking lots of tea together and they chat and catch up each night in the kitchen as the water is boiling and the tea is brewing.

Your Twitter seems to be set to post the same thing every day?

Yes, I do! For those who don’t know, every day at noon, my twitter account posts a reminder that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. It is my own way of acknowledging the history we are currently living. And though my followers are used to it by now, every so often one of them responds because seeing it on a particular day hit them in a particular way. It’s an important reminder that more of us wanted to work for a better future and a sobering reminder of the way our antiquated and undemocratic electoral college subverts the will of the people.

There was this amazing study that came out a few years ago that tracked Hillary’s approval ratings – she was always more popular when she was doing a job and less popular when she was applying for a job or a promotion. Our society still punishes women for seeking power and I think about that a lot, especially with the material we are rehearsing now.

Ken Ludwig’s new play shares how his parents met during World War II

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

Once you know who wrote the play, there’s little doubt about whether Dear Jack, Dear Louise has a happy ending. The playwright — Ken Ludwig, one of DC’s most prolific and most produced comedic theater writers — is the younger son of the main characters, and the Arena Stage premiere wrapping up this weekend focuses on how his parents met.

The writer has over two dozen performed productions in his repertoire, with a quarter of them having premiered in DC-area theaters. Ludwig is widely recognized for the classics Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo and othersWith Dear Jack, Dear Louise, Ludwig — who’s best known for his parodies and farces — has taken a slightly different approach in writing the story of how his mother and father first met and fell in love in the early 1940s. 

Before they ever saw each other face-to-face, Army doctor Jack Ludwig and Broadway chorus actor Louise Rabinoe wrote letters to each other — at the suggestion of their parents — while Ludwig was stationed in Oregon and Rabinoe auditioned for roles in New York City.  

“When you’re a playwright, you think about, ‘What means most to me?’” Ludwig said in a recent interview. “I adored my parents. I knew they have lived through this very interesting past of meeting by letter and spending the first part of their relationship only knowing each other by letter. Because it was World War II and they were 3,000 miles apart, it’s always been on the back of my mind of writing a play [about my parents].”

What results is not just a story about Ludwig’s parents, but a snapshot of how members of the “Greatest Generation” found connections in a fractured world. 

When asked about casting choices, Ludwig says he wasn’t going for physical resemblance. 

“I didn’t base the choice on look-alikes at all,” he said. “A couple of people who knew my parents said that [the actors] both kind of look like my parents, with the wire-rim glasses for my dad and my mom as a brunette. I was looking for people who could capture the spirit of these characters.”

He explains that he wasn’t aiming just to tell the story of his own family — though their distinctive personalities help enliven the play while offering a look at the World War II era.

“I was trying to represent the spirit of the age,” Ludwig said. “Dad was a serious, shy, soft-spoken doctor who took doctoring very seriously, and mom was a much more flamboyant young woman who wanted to be in the theater.”

Expertly portrayed by actors Jake Epstein and Amelia Pedlow, the two have an inherent charm and chemistry on stage. They don’t read directly from the letters they’re sending out, but instead have a conversation with each other while facing out to the audience. 

Ludwig cited a reviewer who likened the postal courtship to online matchmaking today — a gratifying element in the play, he says, though it was entirely unintentional.

“[As the writer pointed out,] seen on stage, writing letters looking outwards is not dissimilar to people currently getting to know each other on social media. I didn’t think about that for one instant while I was writing the play,” Lugwig said. “The fact that it feels like that is great. It just shows that meeting and getting to know someone is a universal feeling that probably hasn’t changed in 2,000 years.” 

When writing the play, Ludwig knew that in order to tell the story in this format, he would have to build it from the memories of the letters, rather than from the letters themselves.

“Before my mother passed away, she destroyed the letters,” Ludwig said, explaining that his mother saw the letters as an intimate portrayal of their relationship. “I had to make the letters up from scratch. I knew the outlines of what happened. I knew that my mother met my father’s very large family all at one time. … I knew all the important points.”

In retrospect, Ludwig says not having access to the actual letters proved both pivotal and fortuitous.

“I was thinking recently, maybe having the letters would have been stifling and not produced the same kind of play,” he said. “Accuracy was not my goal: This is a play. I needed to dramatize it, make it enjoyable to watch — tragic and comic, and all the things we do with plays. I think it ended up being a very good reflection [of] them as how they must have been at that age.”

As a DC resident since the mid-’90s, Ludwig has seen the city and its theater scene evolve. He moved to the city to be close to his family; he and his brother have generally lived within three or four blocks of one another throughout their adult lives.

“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” he said, highlighting his affinity for the National Mall and its museums and galleries. “It’s a great place to raise my family — a wonderful place to live.”

Ludwig ties those feelings to an “innate optimism” that also explains his affinity for comedy. He just wishes it were more widely shared.

“That’s why I write plays — to give us a sense of hope,” he said. “When people do Shakespeare classes, they teach HamletKing Lear, the Scottish play, all the tragedies. They don’t teach the comedies. There’s no reason for that. It’s crazy. The comedies tell us as much or more about life than the tragedies do. … I think what gives us hope for the future and makes us better people and makes us think about each other in a kindly way is comedies that give us a sense of hope. That’s what I try to write.”

Edgar Dobie, executive producer for Arena Stage and a longtime friend of Ludwig’s, finds that hope present throughout his body of work. Arena has produced a number of Ludwig’s plays, including Shakespeare in Hollywood and Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery. “His biting wit and ability to find grace within farce have brought him international acclaim,” Doble notes in the program for Ludwig’s latest play.

As far as Ludwig is concerned, DC merits recognition as one of the great theater cities of the world.

“It’s a vibrant, vital, wonderful theater community — dozens of professional theater companies doing tremendously great work, and I love the theatre community. I wish we did more comedies — but maybe I don’t, maybe that’s the reason I can do my comedy,” said Ludwig, pivoting to an examination of the art form. “When I say comedies, I don’t mean frivolous comedies; I mean works that give us a sense of hope.”

In the production’s program, Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith describes Dear Jack, Dear Louise as a standout from much of Ludwig’s work, a romance that swept Smith in each time she read the script: “Dear Jack, Dear Louise is a departure from Ken’s usual writing, and I think it’s his finest play yet. True, there are fewer hijinks, less door slamming, and only two actors; yet the play manages to capture all that we love about Ken’s voice — his ability to close the void between people with compassion and laughter.”

Having written prolifically for years, Ludwig is no stranger to changes and evolution in his craft. After focusing early on farces, he shifted toward more complex comedies and adaptations, drawing multiple awards, including two Olivier Awards, two Tony Awards and — locally — two Helen Hayes Awards. 

For DC’s Everyman Theatre, he created a new adaptation of Thorton Wilder’s version of the classic restoration comedy The Beaux’ Stratagem. For the Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo, Maryland, he has adapted multiple works, including Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol and ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. 

His most produced work, Lend Me a Tenor, is widely renowned and performed across the nation, with two Broadway runs and more than 25 productions set for 2020. Described by publisher Samuel French as “a madcap, screwball comedy,” the play is not without the potential for controversy — set in 1934, the zippy show as recently as 2015 included a moment when a character, preparing to play Othello, donned blackface. 

Amid the political controversies surrounding politicians such as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ludwig said he has reconsidered the original staging and removed this element from upcoming productions.

“The issue was never ever raised in the history of doing this play, but I just felt that, in terms of where our world is, and what is the right thing to do, I just changed the play,” he said. 

At least one company that had planned to mount Lend Me a Tenor raised objections to the revisions and canceled instead.

As far as the reaction to his most recent premiere, Ludwig looks forward with optimism — though he’s made no decision as to whether any future plays will resemble the scale of Dear Jack, Dear Louise.

“I’ve been thrilled that people are going and that people are loving [Dear Jack, Dear Louise],” Ludwig said. “I’m just happy people like it. Now, for the first time I’ve written a play that had just two people on stage and digging deeper into their lives. I don’t know if this will continue as a trend or not.

Might we see more productions that touch on an emotional and historical core?

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe, when I sit and think what my next play is gonna be. If the next idea is a comedy, I’ll do that. It truly goes play to play.”

THE 29Rooms festival Features interactive Art and Social Media opportunity

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

Whether it’s a social scene to get to know a stranger, or a space for internal reflection, 29Rooms: Expand Your Realityoffers just the right backdrop. This inspired, eclectic and culturally conscious festival — featuring interactive workshops, installations, performances and more — invites guests to engage with the work of approximately a dozen female artists from DC and across the nation. 

The DC Armory in Southeast is hosting the touring festival — which opened Friday and features multiple art stations, or “rooms” of Instagram-worthy installations — through Sunday, Oct. 27. With some minor variation to the art installations, the tour highlights local artists for some of its pieces.

Refinery29, the digital media company behind this event, has an audience of young women in mind, but the event offers a celebratory environment likely to appeal to anyone who enjoys a curated selfie. 

This is the first year the festival is making a stop in the District, having made its previous appearances in Los Angeles and New York. Since the event’s launch in 2015, reviews have focused on the social messages behind the art, and, of course, its photogenic appeal. Organizers encourage guests to pull out their phones and share pictures of themselves engaging with the art on social media. Each room’s introductory placard provides a brief description of the installation, along with a number of suggested Instagram hashtags to promote the work. 

And each room offers a slightly different message or theme. 

“Some of our rooms have very simple prompts … asking for [the] audience to engage [in order] to power the room and bring them to life,” says Olivia-Jene Fagon, who oversees 29Rooms as creative director of events and experiential at Refinery29.

In one of the rooms — centered around A Conversation With Your Inner Child byBarcelona-based movement artist Carlota Guerrero — attendees are asked to write out messages to their inner child on pink Post-It notes that line the walls. In the middle of the room is Guerrero’s statue of an adult reaching out to a child. 

Another set of rooms forces strangers to interact. A Blind Date With Destiny requires exhibitgoers to sit across from one another with a wall between them, leaving only the other person’s hands visible; after receiving a quick tutorial, the participants are asked to perform amateur palm readings. On the opposite side of the Armory, the room 29 Questions features prompt cards that help guests get to know each other.  

Most rooms try to share a powerful social message. A Long Line of Queendom is a monument and tribute to the experience of black women, both as individuals and as a group. Messages such as “Say her name” and “My hair ain’t up for debate” are written on the walls of the room. A golden carpet leads up to an altar. 

Of course, the biggest draw for some attendees is the “Instagram-able” feel of the festival. A room called No Filter plays with light to enable you to “experience creative lighting methods … to see yourself,” making it an excellent and easily transformed space for taking a selfie.

Other rooms, such as those set up by 29Rooms corporate partners, are really just promoting a brand. Prudential Financial, for example, put together an “escape room” activity that prompts a group to complete challenges and build toward financial wellness. The ACLU, the event’s nonprofit partner, has a “Values Stand that resembles a New York City bodega and promotes the American values and rights the organization protects. 

The rooms that were curated by individual artists will likely be the biggest draw for local patrons, and deservedly so. Trap Bob — a DC-based visual artist, illustrator and animator as well as creative director for the women-centric collective GIRLAAA — designed the images for a staircase installation, one of a number of contributed pieces for The Art Park in this year’s festival. 

Installation-based artist Yvette Mayorga, another contributor to The Art Park, presents a playful work with a subversive, solemn message that highlights issues of immigration. Using a cake frosting-like material, child-like coloring, industrial materials and the American board game Candy Land, Mayorga has created a conceptual framework that juxtaposes the border areas of the U.S. and Mexico. This piece travels along with the rest of the tour. 

“It was a great opportunity to think about my paintings in a 3D form across the country,” Chicago-based Mayorga says. “That’s super exciting to me — to have elements that have become synonymous in my work come to life and travel across the country.” 

The chance to reach audiences across the country is also part of the excitement for Trap Bob.

“[Refinery29] really allowed me to experiment,” she said. “I was able to brand the staircase with my designs and have this message that would go to all these different places and resonate with so many people.”

Trap Bob also notes that she has seen how social media has contributed to her installation’s value. “It’s amazing that people are not only taking pictures but [also] relating to the theme. I’ve had people with these captions and tagging me and stuff. … I feel like I just got to know hundreds of thousands of people over the past couple of months.”