How We Turned 1001 Arabian Nights Into Our Own Play

posted Aug 17, 2015, 3:03 PM by Admin NSProductions

Next Stage Productions was born about a year and a half ago. A group of actors and other theatre-type folk were putting on a production of Robin Hood, right here in Clearfield, working with the city arts program. It was our second time all working together, having previously done The Three Musketeers. We started imagining how much fun it would be to have our own theatre group. Standing around in the parking lot of Clearfield Centennial Park, we tossed around idea after idea about how we’d do stuff, what we’d do, what we definitely WOULDN’T do, and making lots of dumb jokes. Before we settled on anything else (like if we’d be non-profit, or who would do all the work, or where the money would come from), we decided to write a new play based on the 1001 Arabian Nights. (I’ll say incidentally that I advocated for this story because other people were leaning toward a western. Nothing against westerns, I’m just not into them.)

In the months that followed, we got to work on two things. First, was creating an actual organization to help us start doing business. We kept tossing around ideas about how we’d do stuff, what we’d do, what we definitely WOULDN’T do, and making lots of dumb jokes. But now we also created a board, applied for a license, wrote by-laws, and did it all in living rooms instead of parking lots. This part was sometimes really hard. We didn’t always agree on everything and didn’t always know how to express what we really wanted. But it was part of the experiment. We wanted to make a group that treated every person’s opinion and talent with equal respect and value. That may not sound very hard – but try it out and see. Then try it out with a bunch of theatre people. Ever heard of the term “drama queen?” Some of us just can’t help it.

The other thing we started was writing Arabian Nights. I think to some people, writing a play might seem like a much harder thing to do than setting up a business. Well, we’re weird. Writing came much more naturally to us. Not to say there wasn’t a lot of hard work. There was. And the process of doing it “our way” (treating every writer’s opinion and talent with equal respect and value) was especially hard. But the thing that really birthed the thing was the standing around and talking. You know, tossing around idea after idea about what we’d do, how we’d do it, what we definitely WOULDN’T do and making lots of dumb jokes. This time, we did it in parking lots, living rooms, on the phone, via email and any other way, time or place possible.

The script raced along to completion, but we ran into some other problems. Remember back when we decided what story to tell, but didn’t think much about where the money was going to come from? That was in paragraph one if you need to go back and review. Turns out that bit us in the butt before too long. We wanted to do the show in 2014, but we just couldn’t find a venue we could afford or enough money to get it together. Rather than not do a play together for a year (which seemed like a terrible idea), we did a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Farmington’s Woodland Park and then wrote and toured our own new piece Epic: an Audience Participation Fantasy Adventure. These shows (together with some oversized rummage sales) raised us a bit of capital to realize our dream of 1001 Arabian Nights. We also made a partnership with Clearfield High to use their space for the show. That leads us pretty much up to casting and designing the show and starting rehearsals. Then, inevitably, an opening night will come. That’s how you do a show.

That’s a lot of info. But there’s more. The actual writing of the show was a really cool process. Here’s a brief recap of what we did. Seeing as how there are literally over a thousand tales to choose from, we had to whittle it down a little, since we wanted the audience to finish the show before they had to file for Social Security. (Just kidding everyone. I know some of you are already on Social Security. It’s cool.) There was a little group of people who were most interested in developing this story, so they took the lead on choosing what tales would go into the play and how we would treat them. Ordering the stories was a big important deal and took a really long time to get right. The writers did a LOT of reading of course, to familiarize themselves with stories were even available to them to use. Some of the stories are very funny. Like, really outrageously funny. We wanted to use a lot of those. But as we went on, we realized that the most important part of our play would be the “frame story,” the relationship between Sultan Shahryar and Scheherazade. The progress of this particular aspect of the story became our guide for everything else in the play. We chose the tales that helped us tell the story of these two characters as we envisioned it. From there, the team of writers split up the parts of the play (which was pretty easy since it is all based individual tales) and began writing scenes. One writer acted as the chief and supervised the work of all the contributors, making suggestions for improvements, and guiding all the writing to our central themes. Every segment of the show had several rewrites and sometimes passed through many hands before completed. We read the play together several times and made changes (and lots of dumb jokes.)

It’s been really fun to work on an original play. Not a lot of people get to do that. It’s also been really fun to contribute writing and ideas not a new play. Very, very few people get to do that. But what has made this thing so ridiculously cool is the WAY we did it. We did it together, as part of a dream made up in a parking lot.

So in many ways, 1001 Arabian Nights is the story of Next Stage Productions. It sounds over-dramatic to say it, but everything we have done has been leading up to this production. It’s a work of our hearts and something we have fought hard with, over, and for. We hope you’ll come see it and enjoy.

Anthony Buck, Director

Origins of 1001 Arabian Nights

posted Aug 4, 2015, 8:29 PM by Admin NSProductions   [ updated Aug 4, 2015, 8:45 PM ]

I just conducted an extremely scientific poll. And by that, I mean I asked my Facebook friends whether or not they knew who Scheherazade is. The results are still trickling in, but when I finally gave up and started writing this post, about 66% of responders said “yes” and about 33% said “no”. Then I asked the cast and crew of our show to do the same. I realize that since we have a lot of the same friends, the scientific nature of this poll just plummeted due to my really poor research methods. But I’m a musician and a theatre person, not a statistician. For reals, what do you want of me? Anywho, the cast and crew had pretty variable results. Some had levels of “no” up to about 65%, some only around 35%.

I’m not very surprised at how many said no. When I was teaching high school, it seemed to me that a startlingly large percentage of my students didn’t know stories that I just thought EVERYONE knew. I’d think to myself, “This is our cultural heritage! How do people not know about this?”

But what if I asked, “Who has heard of Aladdin?” or “How about Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves?” I bet we’d get a whole bunch more yesses. Well, let’s see about how this is all related.

To clear it up for those of you in the “no” category, here’s who Scheherazade is. She is the heroine of an extremely old collection of tales from India, Persia, Syria, and Egypt. And by extremely old, we mean references to it in the 700’s. The story goes like this: a wealthy and powerful Sultan discovers his brother’s wife is unfaithful, and then that his own wife is unfaithful. The Sultan has his wife and her partner executed. He concludes that all women must be unfaithful and then goes on a reign of terror. Each day, he marries a wife and then has her executed in the morning before she can betray him. This goes on for an alarming amount of time until finally a brave and clever woman volunteers to be the next wife, determined to stop the murders. This brave and clever woman, my friends, is Scheherazade. Before the Sultan has a chance to kill her, she starts telling her sadistic, serial-killing, revenge obsessed husband/monarch the most interesting story. Just at the climax of the tale, she says she is tired and must go to sleep. But if the Sultan would like to hear the end, she’d be happy to tell it the next evening. The Sultan’s curiosity is piqued (it was before TV after all) and lets her live. He probably said, “I’ll likely kill you in the morning,” But the next night, she finishes the story, much to the Sultan’s enjoyment and then starts another. I think you get the idea from here. Every night a new, fascinating story and Scheherazade saves her life again. This goes on for a thousand nights, after which the Sultan decides this Scheherazade lady might not be too bad and lets her live.

Of necessity, Sultan and Scheherazade become less and less important characters in the story and the tales become the focus of the work. But some pretty interesting things happen in the tales. There are only a very few stories that repeat characters. Almost all of them are completely new plots and characters. That’s a huge number of short stories! Also, think of the structure of the whole work – it’s a fictional character (Scheherazade) making up stories about other fictional characters (a story within a story). But it doesn’t stop there. In several of those stories, characters make up stories about other fictional characters, making layers and layers of story-telling. For example, the Tale of the Fisherman and the Jinni (which we’re using), embeds in it another tale, and within that, 3 more tales! It’s pretty cool. Murder mysteries, courtroom dramas, comedies, horror stories, sci-fi and fantasy: all sorts of things come up in this collection.

Strangely enough, the Arabian Nights are not particularly well regarded in the Arab world. According to Robert Irwin, "Even today, with the exception of certain writers and academics, the Nights is regarded with disdain in the Arabic world. Its stories are regularly denounced as vulgar, improbable, childish and, above all, badly written." Well… we like ‘em just fine anyway.

Now for the stuff you’ve all been waiting for: Ali Baba, and Aladdin. Where did these two most famous tales come from? 8th century Syria or 10th century India? Nope. How about 18th century France. Here’s the story: Antoine Galland was making a financial killing translating the tales and selling them one at a time. Every day, the throngs of Frenchmen seeking literary thrills from exotic locales forked over their hard-earned francs for Galland’s translations. But when the tales finally ran out, Galland didn’t want to run out of money. So instead of translating, he wrote two new ones. Thus we have Ali Baba and Aladdin, the least authentic but most popular of the 1001 Arabian Nights.

Sinbad the Sailor is one of the originals though. Sinbad had seven voyages, all of a totally fantastic nature, in which Sinbad always outwits his way to success, adventure, and wealth. The idea that Sinbad was a swash-buckling demi-hero is made up by modern audiences looking for a hero. Sinbad is actually luckier than he is heroic.

So, did you know who Scheherazade is? Some of you did. But almost all of you know some of her stories, whether they are Indian, Syrian or French; from the 8th, 10th or 18th century. What I love about Scheherazade most is her ability to use words, stories and ideas. Even though she’s only fictional, she is a heroine worthy of emulation – she uses her brain, her heart, and her imagination to save her life instead of violence, force, or intimidation. And she doesn’t only save her life, she saves the lives of countless other women who would have fallen prey to the Sultan’s murderous appetite. And even beyond that, her voice echoes down through the centuries. And that’s pretty cool.

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