Interview: Kareem Fahmy & Giovanna Sardelli of A DISTINCT SOCIETY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Bring a New Play to Life That Makes the Political Personal

Playwright Fahmy & director Sardelli collaborate on the world premiere running in Mountain View April 5-30

By: Mar. 31, 2023
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TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is presenting the world premiere of award-winning playwright Kareem Fahmy's A Distinct Society in association with Salt Lake City's Pioneer Theatre Company. Fahmy was prompted to write this moving play after reading a news story about the Haskell Free Library straddling the United States and Canada which became a place for a Muslim family to connect after the heinous Muslim travel ban was enacted in the US in 2017. In Fahmy's vision, the library becomes the battlefield for border control. As an Iranian family separated by the Muslim travel ban seeks refuge within its doors, the library's occupants grapple with the power of the law versus the powers of the heart. Giovanna Sardelli directs this drama celebrating the human spirit, which was an audience favorite from the 2021 TheatreWorks New Works Festival Online.

Interview: Kareem Fahmy & Giovanna Sardelli of A DISTINCT SOCIETY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Bring a New Play to Life That Makes the Political Personal
Playwright Kareem Fahmy
(photo by Lisa Arnold)

Fahmy is a Canadian-born playwright and director of Egyptian descent whose career has really been heating up as of late. His plays, which also include American Fast, The Triumphant, Pareidolia, The In-Between, and an adaptation of the acclaimed Egyptian novel The Yacoubian Building, have been developed at theatres nationwide. His many fellowships and residencies include Sundance Theatre Lab, TCG Rising Leader of Color, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The O'Neill, Second Stage Theater, Lincoln Center and New York Theater Workshop. Fahmy is the co-founder of the Middle Eastern American Writers Lab at The Lark and of Maia Directors, a consulting group for organizations and artists engaging with stories from the Middle East. Fahmy received an MFA in Directing from Columbia University.

Sardelli's numerous directing credits at TheatreWorks include last season's world premiere play Nan and the Lower Body and It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play as well as the March 2020 Northern California premiere of They Promised Her the Moon and Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph's Archduke (2019). Sardelli is especially known for working intensively with playwrights to help them develop new work at theatre companies across the country such as the Mark Taper Forum in LA, The Alley Theatre in Houston and Atlantic Theater Company in New York. She has directed world premieres by an impressive roster of prominent playwrights such as Theresa Rebeck, Lynn Rosen, Joe Gilford, Jeff Augustine, Lauren Yee, Zayd Dohrn, Melissa Ross, Lila Rose Kaplan, Matthew Lopez and Zoe Kazan.

Interview: Kareem Fahmy & Giovanna Sardelli of A DISTINCT SOCIETY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Bring a New Play to Life That Makes the Political Personal
Giovanna Sardelli, director of A Distinct Society at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
(photo by Deborah Lopez)

I recently spoke with Fahmy and Sardelli by phone just as rehearsals were getting underway. Fahmy is having quite a moment right now, with three of his plays enjoying world premiere productions in just the past few months. Sardelli is likewise heavily in demand, directing plays at top theatres all over the Bay Area and beyond, in addition to her "day job" as TheatreWorks Artistic Associate and Director of New Works. We talked about A Distinct Society's genesis and lengthy gestation period, why they believe audiences responded to it so intensely during developmental readings, and their joy in collaborating with each other. Both are an absolute delight to chat with - insightful, warm, funny and completely disarming. The following has been condensed from two separate conversations and edited for clarity.

I'm always interested in the development process for new plays. Kareem, what was your idea when you first started working on A Distinct Society a few years ago? What did you set out to write?

Kareem Fahmy: The play is inspired by real events. It was this room [in a library straddling the border between the U.S. and Canada] split in two by a line of tape, and a family was trying to see each other. It was such an exciting and interesting theatrical story, but I didn't necessarily know how it was my story. And then as I sat with it for quite a while, I started to think a lot about what my experience was as the child of Middle Eastern immigrants growing up in that region of Québec.

The political event that most shaped me during that time was this rising nationalism that climaxed in 1995 with a referendum for Québec separation. There was a razor-thin margin where we were just a handful of votes away from the country of Canada splitting up. So it was a big event in Canadian history and a big event for me. I wasn't a particularly political-minded person growing up. My family didn't sit around talking about politics a lot, so I grew up a little clueless about a lot of political things. The first time I ever went to a political protest was actually in Washington Square Park the day the Muslim ban was enacted (in 2017).

When I started writing the play I was thinking about my own history with a political awakening, or a sense of how politics literally affects me. I think the first time I experienced that was in 1995 when I had just turned 18 and was voting for the first time in my life, in this huge moment where the whole country's future was at stake. I realized I had convinced myself at the time that all the people around me - friends and teachers and everybody - shared the same ideology that Québec separating from Canada was bad. But I remembered a couple of days before the referendum having a party at my home only to find out that a good friend of mine was like "No, I totally support Québec separation." It turned into this huge thing where suddenly all of these 18-year-olds were having this political debate. It was like "Oh, I get this now. This does affect our lives."

The story that ended up being a big part of the play is the story of Declan, this young Irish immigrant in Québec and his experience of being forced into the French school system. That wasn't my story, but could have been because a law called the Charter of the French Language was enacted in Québec in the 1970s (still in effect by the way) that all immigrant children have to go into the French school system. So by that law, I should have gone to a French school, but my parents managed to get permission to send me to English school because my older siblings had already begun in the English school system.

So I started wondering how my life would have been different if I'd gone to a French school, if I had been alienated from all of my classmates. In thinking about that, thinking about my sort of "political awakening" in 1995 and then going to this protest in Washington Square Park, the play started to coalesce in my brain. That it was not so much a play about this specific event of the Muslim ban, but a larger story about how any kind of nationalist movement or nationalist identity has both good and bad in it.

Giovanna, when you first read A Distinct Society a few years back, what made you want to program it for the TheatreWorks New Works Festival?

Giovanna Sardelli: The first thing was that I loved every single character and saw their intrinsic goodness. I could find my way towards each one of the characters, and they seemed like everyone I knew - good people trying to wrestle with policies, trying to wrestle with all the conversations that are so necessary right now about dismantling racist structures and how you fit into that.

And what I was so drawn to was that this play acts on so many levels. There's the deeply personal father-daughter relationships that run through it, then there's just people trying to figure out how to exist in the world, and the belief that a policy that doesn't really impact them slowly starts to encroach on every single person and work its way into their psyches. It just felt so human to me. It felt like the conversations I was having. That's what really struck me.

I saw the TheatreWorks New Works Festival Zoom presentation in 2021, and I had that same reaction. What did you learn about the play from that experience?

GS: I think the thing we most learned was the robustness of the relationships. I thought it did a wonderful job of making the political personal, without being a political play. So the thing we most learned was that was in fact true. Our virtual reading was in my opinion one of the most successful virtual readings that I did, partly because it came late in the world of trying to figure them out, but also because we at TheatreWorks committed to doing the full union week and really giving it time. We were able to have great conversations and engage in development work about the story, so we left feeling very confident about this story.

KF: The TheatreWorks workshop was really exciting and did start to give us a flavor of what the play would feel like onstage. And we did get feedback. The audience wrote comments, and those things definitely found their way into the play. So it was extremely beneficial, but to me the ultimate expression of the play is this thing we're about to do, which is put it onstage with all of the pieces, cause that's the way the play is meant to be taken in. It's not meant to be read, it's not meant to be listened to on Zoom. You're supposed to be in the audience with these characters.

GS: And what we discovered in presenting it in a red state like Utah [last month], was people were able to access the story without feeling as though any of their politics or decisions had been [attacked]. They were just simply learning the impact in a very human way. People responded beautifully to the play, to the story, and conversations began in a more open-minded and open-hearted place. I think that was partly because all that time we'd spent working on the play remotely really let us talk about who these human beings are. Who would they be if the Muslim band didn't impact their lives right now, what would they be doing? The play leads with heart-centered humanity.

What was fascinating to learn when we did the first leg of this world premiere production at Pioneer, was that even with all the development that we did with it online, because it had never been 3D, the rhythms were off around anything related to action. So Kareem did a lot of "Oh, yeah, this line has to move up to here." And "Oh, right, it takes time for a human being to go from here to there, so what fills that time?" All that stuff that you usually work out in physical readings and workshops. Suddenly we realized the rhythm is different now that we're all moving and breathing and living in the same space.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the virtual reading in 2021 was that it reminded me of a Hitchcock movie -

KF: [laughs uproariously] Really? Tell me more about that! I love Hitchcock!

Because it's a fairly intense drama set in a seemingly benign location. I see correlations to North by Northwest with Cary Grant in the cornfield or Teresa Wright visiting the Santa Rosa Public Library in Shadow of a Doubt.

KF: That's part of the thing that attracted me to the story. How could such an idyllic, simple, beautiful place like a library in a small town be a place where so much drama could happen, you know? It's not Hitchcockian to me, but I like your analogy.

I also enjoyed that it was an engrossing potboiler and not just a political tract.

KF: Yeah, that's the trap of trying to write something timely. This is totally a "me thing," but I like to think a really good play can and should live forever. And I think both can be true, right? I want to write plays that are rooted in something real, in something timely, but make them feel timeless.

Kareem, you tend to write characters we still don't very often get to see onstage. Is that something you consciously set out to do or are you just reflecting the world as you know it?

KF: There's two things going on here. We might need to fact check this, but I think I might be the first-ever writer of Middle Eastern descent to have a world premiere at TheatreWorks. [Ed. Note: This does appear to be correct.] And that's a theatre that's been programming plays for what, like 50 years? Similarly, with the production of A Distinct Society at Pioneer Theatre in Salt Lake City, I know for a fact I was the first Middle Eastern playwright there. The "firstness" of that is a little hard to kind of wrap your brain around in 2023, that here is an entire subset of writers that have never been represented. So some of these characters, particularly my Middle Eastern characters, are new to audiences because theatres have not programmed plays by Middle Eastern writers up to this point. So there's that.

And then of course every writer is to some extent writing from their experience. So there are parts of Declan that are very much my experience, but there are also parts of Manon, the French-Canadian woman, and I am not a middle-aged white Canadian woman. But I understand her experience, I empathize with her, I knew people like her to a certain extent. Even though the events of the play which take place in 2017 are starting to feel like history now, the play is getting done at three theaters around the country this year. I was like "Wow, how did that happen?" And then I was like "Oh wait, it's the characters." The characters feel alive, they feel real, audiences really relate to them.

Interview: Kareem Fahmy & Giovanna Sardelli of A DISTINCT SOCIETY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Bring a New Play to Life That Makes the Political Personal
(L to R): Vaneh Assadourian, Kenny Scott, Carrie Paff, James Rana & Daniel Allitt
star in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's world premiere of A Distinct Society

Since the run at Salt Lake ended just a few weeks ago, have you made many changes to the production?

GS: Well, we have some new cast members, so that's already very different, the conversations they're bringing. You know in the first pass, you're just making it happen. We had a great cast in Salt Lake and they were lovely, but there were things we didn't get to because we were solving other problems or still learning about the play. The beauty of this run is we know so much more about the play after seeing a production with an audience, so Kareem did go in and make some really smart surgical changes in the script, but nothing too dramatic.

I believe you've known each other for quite some time. How did you originally connect?

KF: Well, we had worked at a lot of the same theatres. Primarily I was a director for many years, and so when we first encountered each other I think we were both directing in the same theatre festival. And then I was lucky in that when I had an early draft of A Distinct Society, we have the same agent and he was like "Oh, I think Giovanna would really like this play." She was one of the first directors that had read it and immediately responded to it and said, "It makes so much sense for TheatreWorks."

And that was years ago now! Actually, the longevity of that relationship and our constant back and forth about the play over all these years I think has really deepened our collaboration because she's just gotten to know the play so well. She's just a very thoughtful and actor-centric director, which is really great. And also because she appreciates and understands the fact that I'm a director in my own right, we've been able to find a nice collaboration where it's like we're looking at everything, she's looking at the text, I'm looking at the direction, we're looking at it together. It's true collaboration in the best sense of the word.

Giovanna, given that Kareem is quite an established stage director himself, is it ever at all uncomfortable negotiating boundaries with him?

GS: It's never uncomfortable, but there were a few moments where I would say "I got this. I'm good!" [laughs] But what's wonderful is that because he's an incredible storyteller we can actually work together to figure things out, we can talk on a different level. I can tell him, "Here's why I'm doing this. Here's why our set will look like this, which will impact these moments. I've got it figured out." He's been really lovely, and I have to say that's very challenging for somebody who could do it all to be so respectful, to sit back and let us have our process as he's been doing. It's been a really good working dynamic and very fun.

Giovanna, it seems to me one of the hallmarks of your work is your keen visual sense. Your stagings are always really visually interesting and also give me the basic information I need to make sense of what I'm seeing.

GS: That's really lovely to hear. Thank you for that. I began as an actress, so I'm a firm believer that the world you create for an actor either holds them, spurs their imagination, makes them comfortable if that's what you want to do, or it makes them uncomfortable. How does an actor relate in the world in which you've put them?

I've been so lucky to work always with fantastic designers who help me. We talk about what's important, what do we want this space to look like, what themes are we trying to illuminate through the physical design, and what opportunities are we creating for actors and storytelling in this design? [Scenic designer] Jo Winiarski and I have worked together several times, and I just love what she has done for A Distinct Society.

But I don't actually have a director's stamp that I'm aware of. I think my skill is that I read a story and really examine "How does this story need to be told? How is this story going to unfold? What is its rhythm? What is its center and how will I get to that and support that?

Well, three productions that you directed over the past year or so - It's a Wonderful Life, Monument or Four Sisters and Nan and the Lower Body - were so different from each other that I was searching for any commonality among them, and I really think it's that visual interest, that visual clarity.

GS: Maybe my training was old school, but I believe every stage picture tells a story and I Iearned this early on. I had staged a play, maybe my third Off-Broadway show, and Joan Marcus, one of the most famous photographers in New York, came in to photograph it. She would go click-click and then there'd be silence, and then she'd go click-click, more silence. In hearing that, I realized "Oh! There's nothing visually interesting for her. She feels she has caught my entire story in a very limited number of camera clicks." [laughs] And I didn't like that so I went back and started marking in my script when I heard her camera click and when there was nothing, and I realized my staging was too stagnant. Something about that moment made all of my training, all the things my teachers were trying to teach me, suddenly fall into place, and I went "Oh, of course. A picture's worth a thousand words, so what story does it tell?" And then I started really framing and shaping and sculpting so that the story exists on multiple levels.

You've been working with Kareem on developing his play for quite some time now, which is just part of the deal when you're Director of New Works, because no play is written and then goes up onstage the next day. But after all that time and effort, when a run at TheatreWorks is over, is it ever hard to let go of a play and send it out into the world?

GS: Yes and no. I feel very proud when a play goes into the world. I also love going and seeing other productions of a play that I developed and know really well. It's hard if it lands in a theater where I want to work and I wonder why I didn't [get the gig]. You just go "Aw, c'mon, I wanted to do it there!" [laughs] But I've been doing this a long time, and I really try to be grateful for the moment that I'm getting with the story and care for it in the hopes that it has a long and robust life when it leaves my hands.

Kareem, your husband John McManus is also quite an accomplished writer -

KF: Yeah, way more accomplished than I am! [laughs]

Do the two of you ever get involved in each other's works-in-progress, or do you prefer to do your own thing separately from each other?

KF: Well, he's the person that essentially commanded me to write this play. He came across the article before I did back in 2018. He texted it to me and all he said is "You're gonna write a play about this." And I'm like "Is this homework? Is this an assignment?" [laughs] I was resistant to the idea at first because it did feel like I was being given a task. But I sat with it for a long time because he was just like "This is so your story to tell." And what's beautiful is that he helped shape so many of the events in the play.

I wrote most of the first draft in early 2019 when I was doing a fellowship at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I had all this time to myself just writing this play, and then John came to visit and stayed with me in this teeny-tiny apartment they put me up in. There was not even a chair or a couch so we had to sit on the bed, and I would read Manon and he would read Bruce, and then he would read Shirin and I would read Declan. We would go through the scenes together, and he really helped unlock the characters for me.

You want truth in the writing, but to get to real truth you as the writer have to kind of dig into yourself, more deeply than sometimes you might be willing to. John's the perfect person to say, "I know you well enough to know you're pulling punches here. You need to push yourself harder, you need to go deeper into what your impulse is." So I have a coach kind of saying, "Get back in there!"

It's similar to working with Giovanna, similar to working with the actors. Plays are made collaboratively, they always are. I think playwrighting is the most collaborative artform out there because you can't make a play by yourself. I don't know what the play is until the actors are reading it out loud and the designers have done their work.

What else do you have in the pipeline in the coming months?

GS: We just did a New Works Festival in partnership with Montalvo [Arts Center], and all of those writers, those plays, those relationships are very exciting to us. I was very happy that all four of the artists were new to TheatreWorks, which is just ridiculous. With [San Francisco native] Chris Chen being one of them, you go "How could that be?" So - those human beings are now in the fold, and those stories are in our consciousness and we are thinking about them.

I'm planning another New Works Festival for August, and then we have just announced a new commissioning program. We're supporting exciting artists - Jeffrey Lo being one of them. I'm so pleased that he's our first [Susan] Fairbrook commission. So it's really an exciting time at TheatreWorks.

KF: I have another play called American Fast, which had one production earlier this year, is in rehearsals for another right now and then has two more to go in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. And then because I'm always trying to reinvent myself, I'm going to be writing a comedy, like a real comedy. [laughs] I like to think all my plays are quite funny, and in fact A Distinct Society got a ton of laughs at Pioneer, which is intentional. I want to apply that skillset to write a play dealing with America's obsessions with conspiracy theories and cults, like the Church of Scientology and Q-Anon. It's about a crossword puzzle writer and her relationship to her best friend of 30 years who has become increasingly pulled into the world of right-wing conspiracies and deals with the polarization of American politics.

And then I'm writing a play that is inspired by some pretty gruesome real events that also happened in Canada. Back in 2017 and 2018 there was this string of murders in Toronto and all of the victims were gay Middle Eastern or South Asian men, and it was discovered it was a serial killer who was preying specifically on that community. So I'm writing a play that is very loosely inspired by those murders and of the way in which Muslim brown men are often thought of as the perpetrators of crimes, so when they become the victims how do we show up and support them?

And then a few months ago, I went to the Haskell Free Library for the first time, and just being there I realized that A Distinct Society is actually the first in what is going to be a cycle of three plays, all set in the Eastern Townships of Québec. I'm gonna write a sort of follow-up, a play tied to A Distinct Society through the character of Declan. It's him a few years later, involved in a completely new story, but dealing with the sequelae of the events of A Distinct Society. It's going to be set in the city of Magog, a lakefront community in southern Québec that is a summer tourist destination and is about the fact that the lake there is supposed to have a sea monster in it, like their version of the Loch Ness monster.

All of those plays sound really intriguing, not to mention quite different from each other.

KF: Now I've just gotta write 'em! [laughs]

---

A Distinct Society will be presented April 5-30, 2023 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets and more information, visit TheatreWorks.org or call (877)-662-8978.




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