UCSB Theater/Dance Presents THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, Now thru 5/17
The power of storytelling is paramount in our latest ACTING UP FRONT production, Mary Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights. Director Jeff Mills (from BOXTALES Theatre Company) and his seventeen-member cast will amaze and beguile as they enact Scheherazade's tales of love, lust, comedy and dreams. Great storytelling needs nothing more than an empty space, the voices and bodies of the tellers and the engaged imagination of the audience. There is no more fitting material for our ACTING UP FRONT style than tales from the Thousand and One Nights.
In Thousand and One Nights, better known in English as Arabian Nights, Scheherazade's cliffhanger stories prevent her husband, the cruel ruler Shahryar, from murdering her. After 1,001 nights, Shahryar is cured of his madness, and Scheherazade and Shahryar live happily as equals. The Arabian Nights adaptation offers a blend of the lesser-known stories with the recurring theme of how the magic of storytelling holds the power to change people. The Arabian Nights will bring many of these tales into the present day and focus on the relevancy of their eternal themes.
In ACTING UP FRONT, the costumes, scenery and lighting are designed to provide a "silhouette" of a world, rather than a fully realistic depiction of one. Discussing how The Arabian Nights is particularly suited to the ACTING UP FRONT program, director Jeff Mills says, "We provide an empty canvass and some riveting stories and the audience will create the setting and the costumes in their minds all while watching the tales unfold. In a strange way, having detailed sets and costumes would diminish the creative experience of the audience." ACTING UP FRONT allows for an intense focus on character, relationships and the actor's ability to create an imaginative world for an audience where the actors and the words are at the forefront of the production. This approach allows for tremendous freedom, creativity and engagement of the audience, and it allows us all to hear these great plays in a fresh, newly revealing way.
Jeff Mills is an avid lover of mythology, folktales, and storytelling. He cites Mary Zimmerman and Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago being a huge inspiration for his theatrical family and himself. Locally, BOXTALES Theatre Company in Santa Barbara conceived much of their artistic mission based on the work of Lookingglass. He describes the plays Zimmerman developed in the late 80's and early 90's and her adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, The Odyssey, Ovid's Metamorphoses and The Arabian Nights as exciting to the BOXTALES Theater Company members "because they brought these stories to life in such a visceral and relevant way. They created images and characters that were like whispers - requiring the audience to involve themselves in the creative act of amplifying and filling in and connecting the dots with their imaginations. The audience and actors became collaborators in this magical communal event."
With such a large ensemble, The Arabian Nights give many of the actors ample opportunity to contribute their talents the production. "We have many, many strong women in our department and The Arabian Nights has so many great female characters. We've been able to cast quite a few women who have not yet appeared in our main stage productions," says Mills.
ACTING UP FRONT presents a different directing challenge, but Jeff Mills feels perfectly at home in that particular creative environment. "It's the way we've always worked with BOXTALES. As a director you have to have a lot of ingenuity to come up with creative solutions to theatrical problems that would normally be solved with a prop or a design element. In this style the actors themselves provide all the elements we need so I engage their creativity as much as possible. As a movement artist I love using the human body to create architecture, objects, forces of nature, animals, whatever we need!"
Audiences can expect to see a much different production of The Arabian Nights than previous productions. The downplay of the exotification of "Arab" culture that Jeff Mills hopes to achieve is confronted with a long history of just that kind of imagery. The most famous stories that come from the collection of tales - Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and some of the Sinbad stories were in fact made up by European writers in response to the overwhelming fascination with "Arab" culture that emerged after the Enlightenment. The stories in A Thousand and One Nights come from India, Persia and Turkey as well as from the region that we call "Arabia." "There is, in fact, no way to pin down any particular culture from this collection. I'm more interested in finding the universality and currency of these stories," says Mills. The audience will see much of the show in modern dress with various costume elements trickling is as the show progresses. "These are relevant stories and I want the audience to feel that all these events (even the magic ones) could happen today," he concludes.
There are great thematic connections between many of the plays in this season, making The Arabian Nights a perfect addition. "I think the most obvious one is with The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls but Top Girls also explores many of the same themes," states Mills. "I think all of these plays deal with how women continually find themselves victimized and overpowered by men and the ruling patriarchy. Scheherazade spins yarns that remind her oppressor of his own humanity until he is able to let go of his anger and bitterness. Just like in Russian Girls, storytelling is an act of survival. In both plays, the characters who can compose, control and express their own stories, are the ones who can control their own destinies."
This year's ACTING UP FRONT production is presented in a promenade-like style where audiences should be prepared to participate fully in the show. Jeff Mills hopes to enchant the audience on such a level that they let go of whatever obsolete anger and bitterness that they may be holding on to in favor of the freedom and joy that storytelling can create.
The Arabian Nights performs today, May 9 - 17, 2014 in the UCSB Performing Arts Theater. Tickets are available online at www.theaterdance.ucsb.edu and by phone at 805.893.7221. Visit the Theater & Dance website for more details: ww.theaterdance.ucsb.edu.