ReOrient 2023 Festival Celebrates a Resilient Return Under Sahar Assaf 

by Vidhu Singh, ReOrient Publications Dramaturg

As a dramaturgy team member of the third partnership between Golden Thread Productions and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, Publications Dramaturg Vidhu Singh takes you behind the scenes of this year’s ReOrient Festival of Short Plays and entices audiences with the aesthetic flavors this experience offers.

About Vidhu Singh: Vidhu Singh is a dramaturg, an Expressive Arts Facilitator, and an advocate for South Asian theater. Cal Shakes honored her with the 2020 Luminary Award in dramaturgy. She holds a Masters degree in Dramatic Art from UC Santa Barbara and a doctorate in Asian Theatre from UH Manoa. (Photo: Jay Yamada)

Founded in 1996 by Torange Yeghiazarian, Golden Thread Productions has carved a unique place for itself in the American theatre to become the premier platform for the cultivation of Middle Eastern artists and plays in the U.S. After Torange stepped down, it was critical to pass the torch to an artistic leader who would keep the hard-won flame of Golden Thread’s work alive. Fortunately, after a global search, the person who took on this artistic mantle was Lebanese theatremaker Sahar Assaf, Golden Thread Productions’ new Executive Artistic Director since April 2021.

Sahar showed up with an appreciation for what Torange had fostered and a curiosity to understand the needs of the Golden Thread Productions community. During her first six months, she met one-on-one with over eighty community members, including funders, Resident Artists, board, and audience members, and heard them speak about what mattered most. Almost all of them unanimously upheld the ReOrient Festival as the program they cherished the most! Over a 2-year production cycle, Sahar has successfully brought back Golden Thread Productions’ core programs culminating in ReOrient 2023 Festival.

Sahar Assaf welcomes the artists at the First Rehearsal of ReOrient 2023 on Sept 5th. (Photo: Nakissa Etemad)

ReOrient 2023 is celebrating its triumphant return after a four-year hiatus since the pandemic delayed theatrical events worldwide, marking the 21st iteration of this signature program. It is the first ReOrient Festival co-produced by Sahar Assaf and Amal Bisharat, who is a Palestinian American multidisciplinary artist and Golden Thread’s artist-in-residence this year and, along with Sahar, one of five directors for the Festival. Golden Thread Resident Artist and Iranian American theatre artist Nakissa Etemad, who has guided previous ReOrient Festivals in its dramaturgy teams and casting, once again brings her wealth of producing and dramaturgy experience to the festival as its Lead Dramaturg. It’s a unique opportunity to witness such an ambitious venture helmed by three dynamic MENA (Middle Eastern North African) women theatremakers!

The ReOrient Model:

“The value of ReOrient is in its (production) model. For instance, this year we have 43 individuals working on the program - I did the math! Between playwrights, dramaturgs, directors, designers, staff members, crew, and cast. The model is very exciting for me because I believe in theatre as a collaborative genre of making art. It is an excellent example of what Golden Thread is. You look at our team this year and you have a big spectrogram of representation. People from different cultures, languages, ethnic backgrounds, even theatre experiences. It’s a perfect example of a collaborative, healthy, enriching process of making theatre.” (Sahar Assaf)

The ReOrient 2023 CAMP participants who attended in-person outside University of San Francisco’s Performing Arts and Social Justice Program, annual host for the CAMP retreat. (Photo: Lorenzo Fernandez-Kopec)

It truly takes a village of artists to make ReOrient happen! This Festival’s six-play format dictates that the artists - such as designers Carlos Aceves (sets), Briana Lisette Cardenas (costumes), Maxwell Bowman (lights & projections), Bahar Royaee (sound & compositions), and Vincent Chau (props) - collaborate amongst themselves on the entire evening’s presentation. In this fashion, micro artist family constellations, such as clusters of playwrights, directors, dramaturgs and ensemble, have been created in the larger galaxy of the Golden Thread Productions family.

The Plays:

Speaking of playwrights, in this year’s format, six short plays will make up the theatrical evening: Stamp Me by Yussef El Guindi, Closure by Arti Ishak, Data Queen by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, A Massacre by Katrin Arefy, Picture Bride by Judith Boyajian Strang-Waldau, and The Suicide Bomber by Hamed Sinno. Of this year’s selection, Sahar Assaf shared:

“I am very excited about the lineup this year. The plays are not asking permission. They are not trying to be apologetic, nor are they trying to make the ‘other’ understand them. They just take space and tell the story.” (Sahar Assaf)

The plays take us on an exhilarating journey with a variety of styles - absurd, surreal, farcical, meta-theatrical, digital, poetic, gritty, dialogue-centered realism - expanding our capacity to find ourselves in these unique characters and stories. Stamp Me offers a glimpse into the absurd anguish of Ahmed, a Muslim tourist hoping to immigrate, who makes a ‘pilgrimage’ through the line at the airport’s International Arrivals Terminal to meet the officer who will seal his fate. In Closure, an intimate ‘Chicago-style’ two-hander, a strained meeting occurs between two former childhood school rivals, Amal and Amina - one who conformed to Arab American community norms of success and ‘fitting in’, and the other who felt like a Queer Muslim outcast - but is closure really possible between the two? In Data Queen, the politics (and data) of Sam and Joel’s relationship leaves even their therapist Sharon perplexed. In A Massacre, office workers respond nonchalantly to the discovery of a pile of corpses in the office and deflect their attention from the violence before their eyes. In Picture Bride, we experience the pathos of the young Armenian girl, Ani, who crossed the ocean to escape the Armenian genocide of 1915, only to find herself trapped in a loveless marriage to an older man. In a farcical play within a play, Hamed Sinno’s The Suicide Bomber, characters invented by a playwright rebel against his narrative and meld into each other - what role does the character dressed as a tub of chocolate hummus play?

Dramaturgy 101 - the Midwives for the Plays:

Dramaturgs aid the playwrights in the development of their scripts - all but one are world premieres this year. The ReOrient Dramaturgy Team also provide contextual information to both festival artists and audiences. ReOrient 2023 Festival marks the third collaboration with the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) through the curation of Nakissa Etemad who also serves as LMDA’s Regional VP of Metro Bay Area. The partnership brings together two organizations that value challenging cultural preconceptions through provocative programming and dialogue. Be sure to check out the dramaturgs’ program notes and playwright messages curated by the team in the Festival Program!

A constellation of Dramaturgs (left to right): Nakissa Etemad, Marina Johnson, Vidhu Singh, Heather Rastovac Akbarzadeh. (Photo: Sheila Devitt)

ReOrient CAMP 2023:

On June 30th, 2023, Golden Thread launched its ReOrient CAMP, a three-day creative retreat inviting artists to brainstorm ideas, and envision how to bring the six singular stories to life at Potrero Stage, offering them a unique opportunity to dream in advance of the pressures of the impending production in the fall. Executive Artistic Director Sahar Assaf welcomed the impressive gathering, inviting them to consider Golden Thread their artistic home, and to show up as their whole authentic selves. Creating a home and family for their artists, and audiences, makes Golden Thread Productions special. Powerful words were read aloud from the company’s Manifesto by Founder, Torange Yeghiazarian:

“ ‘The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.’ This is what Che Guevara said. And this is what I want to end with. Love each other. Bring love into your work and creative process. Let love guide your critical analysis and hopes for the future.” (Torange Yeghiazarian)

Amal Bisharat captures CAMP Day 1 attendees - Playwrights, Directors, Dramaturgs, Designers, Staff. (Photo: Amal Bisharat)

The excitement at the ritual of making theatre in-person was palpable. Along with Bay Area-based artists who joined in-person, many artists joined virtually from across the globe, reflecting the international breadth and impact of the ReOrient Festival: Sound Designer Bahar Royaee from Tehran, Playwright Hamed Sinno from London, Dramaturg Marina Johnson from Jordan, and Dramaturg Heather Rastovac Akbarzadeh from Sweden. As Sound Designer Bahar spoke, night broke into dawn in the window behind her in Tehran, yet her enthusiasm did not wane! Artists also participated from across the nation - Telluride (Colorado), Lewes (Delaware), Seattle (Washington), Chicago (Illinois), Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.

Global CAMP participants attended via Zoom. (Photo: Amal Bisharat)

Festival Lead Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad played a pivotal role in guiding the group CAMP discussions and leading initial playwright interviews about their inspirations, bringing passion and clarity for the individual Dramaturgy and Design discussions for each of the six plays. The CAMP offered a safe creative space in conversations led by the dramaturgs for playwrights to further share the urgency of their work (answering the question why this story now?) and to clarify specific developmental goals; for directors to clarify their visions for the plays, and for designers to discuss ideas for designing six plays as one unit. Discussions in the New Discoveries Session on Day 1 focused on design ideas and challenges. For instance, in Arti Ishak’s Closure, the characters meet at a bench by the iconic Bean sculpture in Chicago, but could the design be an abstracted version of a bench (unnaturally long, short, or circular?). In Katrin Arefy’s A Massacre, the design dilemma was the five dead bodies piled up in a heap center stage - would they be chalked out body shapes, body dummies, or real bodies of actors? In Hamed Sinno’s The Suicide Bomber there is an explosive finale that involves blood - could this be shown theatrically without making a mess on stage (red ribbons? water shooting up under red lights?) Each challenge posed a curious piece of the puzzle waiting to be discovered.

A rendering of the final stages of the ReOrient 2023 Scenic Design envisioned by scenic & multimedia designer, Carlos Aceves. (Photo: Carlos Aceves)

The ReOrient Ensemble:

On Day 2, a boisterous ensemble of actors joined the CAMP and the plays were heard out loud for the first time! The Festival’s versatile nine-person ensemble embody 17 roles: Sofia Ahmad, Hamzeh Daoud, Emily M. Keyishian, John Fisher, Neamah Hussein, Rose McAvoy, John Pasha, AeJay Marquis Mitchell, and Arielle Tonkin. They are skillfully directed by Sahar Assaf, Susannah Martin, Adin Walker, Amal Bisharat, and Becca Wolff.

Six of the Nine Actors at the ReOrient 2023 CAMP (l to r): Hamzeh Daoud, Neamah Hussein, John Fisher, Emily M. Keyishian, John Pasha, Rose McAvoy. (Photo: Amal Bisharat)

A reading of Katrin Arefy’s A Massacre at the ReOrient 2023 CAMP. (Photo: Amal Bisharat)

After the first read-through of the six plays, the artists who gathered at CAMP popcorned their impressions of the plays and explored ‘What’s the story of the festival we want to tell through these plays?’ It’s vital to capture the audience’s imagination with a narrative journey informed by a variety of styles and themes. With a short-play format, the story might punch you in the gut or evoke laughter, but by making a cohesive aesthetic experience in one evening the audience will be carried by the journey’s ebb and flow. Scenic design, sound & original compositions by Bahar Royaee, and lighting & projections by Maxwell Bowman will all enhance the storytelling.

Order of Plays:

Order of Plays Discussion (order version #5) led by Lead Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad at the ReOrient 2023 CAMP. (Photo: Nakissa Etemad)

On Day 3, a lively session called Order of Plays Meeting, was facilitated by Lead Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad, who intrigued us with a game to decide on the optimal order of plays. She placed the six plays’ names along with running times on colorful pages on a white-board, and rearranged them as the conversation evolved. How are these plays in conversation with each other? In charting the flow of the evening, she created parameters for the game inviting us to consider questions such: as what is the story we are telling with these six stories, what is the audience’s experience, what is the actors’ journey through the evening, and how much set-up time is required for each play? She emphasized:

“ReOrient is not the dominant culture’s play festival, so we have an added responsibility to create an evening that’s inviting and accessible and not too alienating up front. We want to draw a diverse audience as well as teach people about the Middle East….” (Nakissa Etemad)

As the Festival’s Lead Dramaturg, Nakissa’s knowledgeable yet playful attitude, became an invitation for the artists assembled to argue passionately about the order of the plays. Assisted by Executive Artistic Director Sahar Assaf, acting Vanna White for Nakissa’s board of tiles, the pages moved wildly across the board before any consensus was reached for the final read-through! The Order of Plays Meeting highlighted the role of dramaturgy as well as the uniquely collaborative aspect of the festival.

Order of Plays Discussion led by Lead Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad at the ReOrient 2023 CAMP, assisted by Executive Artistic Director Sahar Assaf. (Photos: Amal Bisharat)

After a final read-through to test out the latest order of plays, the company said their “see-you-soon’s” with the intent of allowing the CAMP’s creative ideas to marinate over the rest of the summer.

Context for the Plays:

During the two months after CAMP, the ReOrient dramaturgs sprang into action, gathering vital research to create “Notes & Context” info sheets for the company of artists about the plays, each packed into a compact double-sided sheet of paper, modeled after the length of the short plays they supplement. Research Dramaturg Vidhu Singh’s info sheet on Hamed Sinno’s The Suicide Bomber digs into Background Information on the Temple of Dendur, as The Suicide Bomber is set in a backstage dressing room of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City behind ‘a set made to look like the Temple of Dendur.’ This Temple shows up as a motif in the playwright’s work: it’s also the future site of Sinno’s ‘site-specific operetta,’ Westerly Breath. In the info sheet on Data Queen by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, Dramaturg Marina Johnson dives into different therapy practices such as PACT Couples’ Therapy (‘The Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy’) and highlights a variety of resources (such as The Queer Couples Center) since Data Queen is set in the playwright’s invention of San Francisco’s hottest new couples’ therapy practice called Odyssey where Sam (20s, Lebanese immigrant) and Joel (40s, White boyfriend) will unearth the messy dynamics of their relationship. In Heather Rastovac Akbarzadeh’s info sheet on Picture Bride, she teaches us that ‘thousands of picture brides also came to the east coast of the U.S. through Ellis Island in the late-1800s to the early 1900s, particularly during the ethnic cleansing campaigns against Christian minorities in the late Ottoman period.’ Picture Bride’s protagonist, Ani, is sent to the U.S. by her mother to escape the Armenian genocide. These handy-dandy info sheets created for the company to aid in the rehearsal and design process offer insights into distinct aspects of each play’s background, themes, and characters, all in tasty bite-sized nuggets of information essential to the creative process!

ReOrient 2023 Festival participants gather for the First Rehearsal in September at The Annex, Golden Thread Productions. Global participants attended via Zoom! (Photo: Sheila Devitt)

The Work Ahead & the Importance of ReOrient:

The entire company reunited for ReOrient 2023’s First Rehearsal on September 5, 2023 at The Annex, Golden Thread’s Offices above Potrero Stage. A warm welcome and introductions made everyone feel right-at-home, setting the tone for the creative process ahead. Remarks were shared by the playwrights and directors, then dramaturgical and design presentations were followed by a brisk read-through of the plays. With rehearsal and wellness protocols reestablished, the ground was laid for a 9-week-long journey that will (inshallah) carry this mighty vessel safely through the waves and swells of the rehearsal process, designer runs, tech, dress rehearsals, previews, opening night, and three-week run of the ReOrient 2023 Festival.

Historically, the ReOrient Festival has bridged the MENA diaspora with the MENA region, challenged popular perceptions, and reflected its glittering mosaic of stories, voices, cultures and identities. ReOrient reflects a slice of the multitude of cultures in Bay Area society and the U.S. - and what is possible for the MENA region and the world. This extraordinary theatrical endeavor to cultivate empathy and spark joy could not be more timely in our burning world! With the spotlight on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and ongoing planetary wars and crises, ReOrient models how a family of 43 artists of divergent backgrounds and beliefs can collaborate, problem solve, embrace varied points of view, and reimagine our world. This is the soothing balm - the medicine - that will ReOrient us towards our collective humanity. With the ground prepared and the seeds sown by Founder Torange Yeghiazarian, now it’s time for Sahar Assaf and this generation of artists to harvest the fruits of this labor of love and to cultivate the next cycle of growth for Golden Thread Productions.

The ReOrient 2023 Festival is not to be missed! It runs from October 16th to November 4th, 2023 at Portrero Stage.

Full Cast of ReOrient 2023 Festival (l to r, clockwise): John Fisher, AeJay Marquis Mitchell, Neamah Hussein, Arielle Tonkin, Sofia Ahmad, Hamzeh Daoud, Emily M. Keyishian, Rose McAvoy, John Pasha (Photo: Amal Bisharat)

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