'Masked' Actors Speak Out

Masked, a play by Ilan Hatsor, translated by Michael Taub and directed by Ami Dayan, a relative of Israeli military leader and hero of the Six Day War. Masked began previews at The DR2 Theatre (103 E. 15th Street) on July 20 and had its official opening night August 2, 2007.

An explosive play about three Palestinian brothers, Masked tackles the cultural divide at the heart of the Middle East conflict. Masked depicts the tragedy of one family torn between obligations, kinship, principles and survival. It is the first play by an Israeli playwright about the Intifada (Palestianian uprising).

Masked won first place in Israel's prestigious Akko Festival for writer Ilan Hatsor (then a first year theater student). Since then, Masked has been performed continuously across Israel and has been mounted in over 100 productions worldwide. The production is directed by Ami Dayan.

The actors in the show are Sanjit DeSilva, Daoud Heidami, and Arian Moayed, all of whom answer a few questions about this powerful show and theatre life...

TJ: How did you each get your start in acting?

DAOUD: The first play I did was in third grade and it was called Sir Hugh of Rutherford. I played Sir Hugh. And I got to wear a cape, which was awesome.  

SANJIT: I never dreamt that I would actually be making a profession of being an actor. I was actually pre-med in college (I was a Double major in Biology and Performing Arts) and I thought I was going to be a Doctor. But as I took more classes and performed in college productions I started to feel more and more ike maybe I was meant to be an artist. So six months before I took the MCATS (the medical exams) I decided to pursue the arts. I thought I would be in film production when I graduated college. But being behind the scenes and watching people act only made me more convinced that I needed to be an actor, and so I went back to graduate school at NYU to really train myself to become the actor I knew I could be. And it was the best decision I made for myself and for my career.

ARIAN: I was Santa Claus' trainer in our holiday Christmas show. Fifth grade. The hit show of Glenview, Illinois.

TJ: Had any of you worked together prior to this show?

DAOUD: We had never worked before but I am so excited tog et to work with these amazing acotrs as well as creative team. This has truly been an experience that I will remember for a long time.

SANJIT: Arian and I did a movie called "Arranged" last summer, and so we knew each other from that. He and I have also been with this piece since last September, when we started doing readings of this play to get people interested in producing it.

ARIAN: Sanjit and I did a movie last year and we've done all of the readings together. Daoud and I have never worked together.

TJ: How did the three of you get involved in this production?

DAOUD: I met Ami Dayan, the director, earlier this year while I was working on a new play at the Denver Center Theater Company. He sent me the play to read and it peaked my interest because it is a play about Palestinians, which you rarely see in American theatre. Moreover, even though it was written fifteen years ago, it resonates today. Arguably, even more so now. That said, I loved the play because it was not overtly political, but a play about a family.

SANJIT: A friend of mine was asked to be in a reading of this play about a year ago, he couldn't do it and he recommended me. Ami Dayan, the Director, and I met for coffee and talked about the play and the character of Khalid and we just clicked. We were on the same page from the start, and a year later here we are making this powerful play come alive eight nights a week!

ARIAN: Producer Seth Goldstein and I have been friends for years. He has always been helping my theater company, Waterwell, with his immense amounts of producing and general management expertise. He's been very generous towards me. Anyway, we just closed Waterwell's Marco Millions (based on lies) and his office emailed me to do this reading of this play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I immediately wanted to say "no" because I wasn't interested in doing a play about the conflict. Most plays about the issue really preach and irritate me but because Seth has great taste, I decided to give it a whirl. Well, I read it in one sitting. I loved it and I remember thinking that this has nothing to do with the conflict but mostly to do with the family. A family story that is universal…that is what sold me.

TJ: What can you tell me about your roles in the show?

DAOUD: I play the oldest of the three brothers. In middle-eastern culture, the oldest son has the greatest responsibility within the family. In the play, my character grapples with the sacrifices that come along with that responsibility. It's funny, my role parallels my father's life in some ways. Like the character I play, my father was the oldest brother, who had to take care of his family during a time of war.

SANJIT: I play Khalid, the youngest brother of the three. He is what Ilan Hatsor, the playwright, describes as, "the man I want to make peace with." Khalid sees both sides of the story and above all he wants to keep the fabric of his family together. He is who each of the older brothers needs and wants to have on their side and in a way he is like the audience, the one trying to figure out who's telling the truth and who's lying.

ARIAN: I play Na'im, the middle brother, who is part of a revolutionary movement. The best description of him is what he says to his brothers, "I fight. Hard and Brutal. Because I think we can make. No one is giving anything away for free. It's a struggle. Otherwise we don't get what we deserve."

TJ: Did you find the subject matter controversial and difficult to perform?

DAOUD: I really don't find the play controversial because for me, the play is a story about three brothers and their struggles and devotion to one another.

SANJIT: I never found the play controversial, in fact I was so happy to finally read a play that presented a complex, on the ground portrait of what really goes in armed conflict and how intricate the decisions you make to stay alive are. And more importantly how the family structure is devastated by such situations. I do find the play incredibly hard to perform seven nights a week, because it does start to take an emotional and physical toll. We have to truly live it every night otherwise we cheat our audience of the power of the story they come to see.

ARIAN: With regards to the subject matter, it wasn't.  I believe this is a story about three brothers in extraordinary situations with extraordinary stakes. That isn't controversial. That is human. Performing though is a whole different story. This show is an hour and 10 minute bullet. Once it starts, it finishes. So preparation is everything. Each night the three of us take a moment before the show and check in with one other. We give ourselves different focus points and different challenges to really push us to get to those emotional places this show takes us on. 

TJ: Did you do any kind of background or outside research on your own to help you prepare for these roles?

DAOUD: Being Palestinian, I've always had a desire to learn the history of my roots. This play gave me the opportunity to delve deeper. I was also fortunate that all I had to do was pick up the phone and get first-hand stories from my parents who grew up in the occupied territories. But really, my process was one of discovering the dynamics of this family. So I guess growing up with a sister helped too. Ok, now I think I've given every family member a shout out.

SANJIT: I was already pretty well read up on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but I did more specific research on the day-to-day realities of life on the ground for families living in Palestine. A great help to me was Joe Sacco's graphic novel "Palestine" about his experience there in the 90's.  My life experience was also something that I draw on for this play. I am originally from Sri Lanka, a country that has been devastated by civil war for the past 25 years. My parents fled our country because of the situation and I have vivid memories of the stress it caused us. This play means so much to me, because it doesn't just reflect the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it also has greater resonances all over the world, where families are torn apart each day: Rwanda, Bosnia, Congo and unfortunately the list goes on and on.

ARIAN: Luckily I knew a lot about the conflict before working on this show and again, I don't think this show is about Israel/Palestine. That's almost a backdrop. I think this show is about the brothers. So…I called my brothers a lot and talked to them. Getting in tune with my brothers is what this show is really about. They were my research.

TJ: Arian- I see you were doing double duty doing another show while doing this.  How did you swing that? Must have been difficult.

ARIAN: You know, while I was doing it I really didn't think it was that hard. The moment it was over, my body collapsed. And looking back on it…it was insane. Masked is an hour and ten minutes. We would usually start around 8:05 for late seating. The show would end around 9:15. A cab would be waiting for me outside (hailed by Carly, our company manager). I jump into the cab with my costume for The/King/Operetta  (a show that I helped create with my theater company, Waterwell). In the ten minute cab ride, I had to change my clothes from a Palestinian resistance fighter to President LynDon Johnson. From raggedy clothes to a presidential suit. From dirt and mucky hair to clean shaven and gelled-back authority. I would arrive at the Barrow Street Theater, depending on traffic, at around 9:25-9:30. THE/KING/OPERETTA starts at 9:30. I immediately jump on the stage and we began The/King/Operetta, which is rock operetta based on the last year of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Two different shows, to say the least.

TJ: How has the audience reaction been to the show?

DAOUD: The beautiful thing about this play is that the story is universal. So, there is a real range of reactions because the audience is different every night. It is wonderful hearing the different ways it affects and touches people from such diverse backgrounds.

SANJIT: From the major reviews to people I see after the show, people seemed to be really moved and devasted by this show. It's not everybody's cup of tea, as it is such an intense piece of theatre, but we have been performing to sold out houses every night and we are excited and overwhelmed with the great response we have been getting.

ARIAN: Some people are angry. Some people are moved. Some people tell us their personal experiences with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We just met a guy who had seen an actual interrogation in the Occupied Territories. We met an Israeli soldier who had lost his leg in the war with Lebanon. We've been preached at. We've been lauded. Whatever the response it has been extreme, which is similar to the extreme responses that people have to the conflict.

Thanks, guys!  Tickets for Masked are $35.50 - $55.50. Masked plays Tuesday at 7PM, Wednesday - Friday at 8PM, Saturday at 4 & 8PM, and Sunday at 4PM. Tickets can be purchased by calling Telecharge (212) 239-6200 or going to www.Telecharge.com.  Tickets can also be purchased by going to the DR2 Box Office (103 E 15th Street). The box office opens 2 hours prior to each performance and is open on Saturdays from 2-8PM.  For more information, please visit: www.MaskedThePlay.com.

Photos by Aaron Epstein:  (top) Arian Moayed and Daoud Heidami; (bottom) Sanjit DeSilva and Arian Moayed

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