Andrea Assaf on Combining Poetry and Digital Media to Heal a Post-9/11 World

Andrea Assaf is a writer, director, performer, cultural organizer, and the founding Artistic Director of Art2Action Inc., an interdisciplinary theater company that uses devised work to drive social change.  Her production Eleven Reflections on September, which ran recently at La MaMa in New York, is, in her company's words, a "poetry/spoken word-based, multi-media performance on Arab American experience, Wars on/of Terror, and 'the constant, quiet rain of death amidst beauty' that each autumn brings in a post-9/11 world."  She spoke with us about the redemptive power of poetry when regular language fails, and about her efforts as an artist to engage with the injustice of the contemporary world.   

STAGECLOUD: Tell us about the genesis of Eleven Reflections on September. What brought you to create this piece?

ANDREA ASSAF: Eleven Reflections on September began as a series of poems. I am Lebanese American. In September 2001, I was also a New Yorker. I began writing, because I needed to. I needed an outlet for all the complex, and sometimes contradictory emotions I was feeling. And as tragic things kept happening in the world, I kept writing about these themes: 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the increasingly frequent confrontations with my identity as a person of Arab descent, and eventually the Arab Spring. Whenever I'm in the U.S. north east, the month of September is particularly poignant for me – full of memory, and littered with images of the fallen.

In 2007, I had the honor of receiving a Hedgebrook residency, for "women authoring change," and began developing the individual poems into a series. In 2011, I received a Princess Grace Award for Directing, and had the opportunity to create a new theatre work, commissioned by Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis. It was then that I began to experiment with the combination of Spoken Word and Middle Eastern music, to develop this work into a fully staged theatrical production. I knew media would be a very important element, and was fortunate to collaborate with Pramila Vasudevan, who created this extraordinary design combining text animation, abstraction and documentary footage. I am very grateful to all the artists who have contributed their brilliance to this work, including the musicians in the original production -- especially Aida Shahghasemi who has continued with the project since 2011, Tim O'Keefe and Salah Abdel Fattah who are featured on our CD, sound designers Owen Henry & Keegan Fraley; and the incredible artists who have joined us for the NYC premiere -- choreographer/dancer Donna Mejia, violinist Eylem Basaldi, and percussionist Natalia Perlaza. It's a stunning ensemble.

Because this project is designed to be responsive to the events perpetually unfolding, in the Middle East and our problematic U.S. relationship to the region, I feel like this work is never done. Each time I come back to it, there is more to reflect on. There are many things not yet written. But even as I am always writing these poems, I feel compelled to speak them. They must be heard, seen, embodied… They stand witness to the historical moment we are living in, and to the history we are creating, right now. We have to feel it, in real time, together. We have to talk about it. And art helps us do that.

S: How does your background as a poet inform your writing for the stage? What does poetry allow you to communicate that would not be possible with conventional speech?

AA: Being a poet absolutely informs my writing for performance. Even when I'm writing prose, I value the poetic elements of language--such as rhythm, metaphor, symbolism-- as playwright, and even an essayist. In the case of Eleven Reflections, as I mentioned above, the entire text is poetry. There is no narrative. And yet there is a journey, through the metanarrative of the times we are living in. Poetry grounds us in particularities of experience along the way.

I had a wonderful English teacher in high school who once said, "If you can say exactly the same thing in prose that you said in your poem, then it's not a poem." I believe that. Form alone communicates things that conventional speech cannot. And when we attempt to convey unspeakable things, such as what human beings do and survive in war, we must depart from the conventional, if we are to communicate anything truthful at all.

So much of what I am exploring in Eleven Reflections has to do with the disintegration of meaning, and therefore the disintegration of language as a vehicle of meaning, in the face of human atrocities. And I attempt to reconstruct language, through poetry, as I search for the possibility of reconstructing hope. When language can no longer contain all that, there is music, and embodiment.

S: If 9/11 brought forth a "constant, quiet rain of death amidst beauty," what is the proper way to live and respond in such a world? How can theater prepare us to do that?

AA: This is a wonderful and difficult question. I don't know anything about what is "proper." But I do have beliefs about what is ethical, and what kind of responsibility artists have in the world. I can tell you how I must live, and how theater helps me stay alive. I must live in a way that acknowledges the injustice of what we, as U.S. citizens, have done, and continue to do, and all the deaths that result from our decisions and military actions. I must hold that truth, and speak about it, and not allow myself to become numb or complacent. I must commit myself to the possibility of change, and hold myself accountable for what I participate in, willingly or otherwise. Simultaneously, I must acknowledge that beauty, love and celebration still exist, even in the worst of times. Through theater, I try to create something beautiful, even in the midst of pain, to honor the gorgeous tenacity of the human spirit. I see my work as an artist as to transform destructive energy into creative energy.

S: Any other upcoming projects you'd like to promote? Or anything planned for the future of Eleven Reflections on September?

AA: Yes, we do have future plans for Eleven Reflections. On June 14th, we'll be performing excerpts at The Apollo Theater's Soundstage, as part of the Women of the World (WOW) Festival, thanks to the support of Kamilah Forbes and Hi-ARTS. We hope that the New York version of Eleven Reflections, with this extraordinary cast of women artists, will continue to tour in the U.S. and internationally. I'm also in the early stages of developing new projects, including a play titled DRONE. Please follow Art2Action on social media, and visit our website for updates!