Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too


Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

Yasmeen Tajiddin

November 2019

Nobody says she was born a chemist, but somehow, if you’re an artist or a singer, people assume you were born with that talent. 

Going into my Playwriting class, I thought it was a class where I would be comfortable. I took Intro to Creative Writing last semester and wrote a couple of scripts for an acting class. How hard could it be?

The answer? Really, really hard. Every week we talked about another aspect of playwriting that I had not considered the week before. What are the characters’ relationship to the setting? What is the visual language of your play? What is each character’s personal ideology and how do they clash? And my personal nightmare: what does your character sound like?

Apparently, everyone can’t speak like me, so I had to think more actively about how people speak. Every YouTube hair tutorial became a lesson in the use of “like.” Every idiom I unconsciously use on a daily basis became an important choice in my writing. Eavesdropping became research in the ways people speak. All these moving pieces had to boil down to seven to ten pages every week, each script better (I hoped) than the last.

            Vocal Ensemble, on the other hand, was something I knew I would be terrible at. My only experience with reading music was playing cello in the 5th grade, and I have to concentrate embarrassingly hard to hit all the notes in “Happy Birthday.” There was a lot of room for improvement.

Eavesdropping became research in the ways people speak.

On one of the first days of class, the professor stressed that we needed to do vocal warm-ups every day. Similar to my experience in Playwriting, I found there were so many more elements that go into choral performance than just hitting the notes. While it isn’t the common understanding, people who can sing well study. Rather than a thing you’re simply good or bad at, a singing voice can be developed by regularly “exercising” it. Sure, someone can be born with a good singing voice, but if she doesn’t know how to shape her mouth for certain vowel sounds, or how to control her breath for higher or longer notes, or where to place a note for the best resonance, she won’t be nearly as good as she can be. I, like most people, did not know all these elements went into singing, let alone what they meant. The reality is, every piece of music is dissected and analyzed before it is fit to be performed in front of an audience. 

We don’t often think of artists as scientific or meticulous in terms of their processes. But when an audience hears a polished choral performance or a scene from a play, they are actually hearing the hours of work that went into each performance. The recent Open Studios event helps demonstrate that fact: for our thirty-minute Open Studios singing performance, for example, we spent an hour and a half each week of the semester learning and refining the same four songs. By the time we performed, I felt like I was taking a test I’d studied for extensively. It felt like a relief to put our final product in front of an audience and hear positive reactions; simultaneously, performing reminded me of sections that I still needed to work on.

Photo Credit: NYUAD Arts & Humanities


Like STEM, writing and singing demand extensive research, studying, and practice. A very small portion of artistic skills are innate. So while I did think I was a good writer who could improve, I now know how and what to improve on. And while I’m not the best singer, I know that I can get better and sing something harder than “Happy Birthday.”

Yasmeen Tajiddin is a creative writing student with a minor in Arabic at NYU Abu Dhabi.

The Seams Behind a Seamless Production

The Seams Behind a Seamless Production


The Seams Behind
a Seamless Production   

Yasmeen Tajiddin

October 2019

At the beginning of the semester, when I was chatting with one of the actors in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, he casually mentioned he’d had twenty-four hours of rehearsal that week. Twenty-four hours. A full day.

After I saw the production though, it all added up. In a little under a month and a half, the cast and crew constructed an entire world on a small, intimate stage. From the shadow puppetry to the musical numbers, every detail felt intentional. This accomplishment would not have been possible without a considerable amount of work put in behind the scenes—all of which was concealed from the audience.

Ana Karneža as the judge Azdak in the NYUAD production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, directed by Orlando Pabotoy.

Photo Credit: Waleed Shah

Tori Mondello, a lighting operator, spoke to some of the work that had to be done before the actors even stepped into the Black Box.

“We had about a week of prepping the Black Box […] and that was just on the lighting side. We hung lights for them, made presets (positioning options for lights that have to be set manually) to where we thought they would need light, etc.”  

She emphasized that the seamlessness of the play should be credited to the people who were a part of tech along with the actors. It can be easy to allow the tech work to fall to the wayside because it isn’t noticed the same way the actors are during a production, but the lighting, sound design, entrance and exit cues, and prop organization are a vital part of any theatrical piece and enhance the actors’ performances.

Crowd scene from The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Photo Credit: Nikith Nath

This work was particularly important in this production because of the limited time the cast had to prepare. The director, NYU-NY Affiliate Faculty Orlando Pabotoy, highlighted the necessity of a clear structure, which he and the crew communicated to the actors, in order to have a polished product by the end of their rehearsals. Elements like the blocking (an actor’s movements), music and lighting design had to be set in stone before rehearsals to give the actors a solid jumping-off point.

These pre-set constraints helped move the rehearsals along, and affected the actors’ ability to freely and completely explore all the possibilities for their roles. Pabotoy explained, “If you [the actors] had more time, there would be more time to explore other possibilities […] but that doesn’t mean there’s no time for that […] It happens within the structure.” The actors were free to explore, in other words, but within the enabling constraints that had already been established.

Mother-in-Law (Nabiha Nahyan) washes the Invalid (Hubert Eric Garrish) as Grusha (Bernice delos Reyes) turns away.

Photo Credit: Waleed Shah

The performance though, was anything but constrained, especially during the musical numbers. Anyone who saw the production would be convinced that the show was originally made to be a musical, but the music was actually created for this show by composer Fabian Obispo.

“We had separate music rehearsals, and we had to tie it into the story we had to tell,” explained Archita Arun, an actress in the production. Once the music was smoothly integrated into the production, the musical numbers became the most expressive and compelling parts of the play.

Grusha (Bernice delos Reyes) at the trial, flanked by Ludovia (Archita Arun) and Simon (Carlos Páez).

Photo Credit: Waleed Shah

Despite the long rehearsals, lost sleep, and high levels of stress, every person I asked said they would definitely be a part of the production again.

 “This was my first time operating a show,” Tori Mondello revealed. “To be constantly aware for almost three hours, double checking cue numbers and having fast reflexes when the stage manager gives the go was difficult, but very rewarding […] I would do it again!”

Azdak (Ana Karneža) has a dilemma.

Photo Credit: Nikith Nath

Actress Stalina Guberchenko said,“I met the most amazing people who created a warm atmosphere for both professional and creative work. All of them inspired me to move further, collaborate and create.”

During the final curtain call, the actors’ camaraderie with everyone on and off stage was palpable. I got the sense that they valued all twenty-four of those hours together and the countless hours that came after.

Stalina Guberchenko in
The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Photo credit: Nikith Nath

Yasmeen Tajiddin is a creative writing student with a minor in Arabic at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Community Reading: The Great Gatsby and Gatz

Community Reading: The Great Gatsby and Gatz


The Great Gatsby and Gatz

Electra Street Editorial Staff

September 2018

“Forget great,” writes Maureen Corrigan in So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (2014). “The Great Gatsby is the greatest—even if you didn’t think so when you had to read it in high school.” 

For Corrigan, “Gatsby’s magic emanates not only from its powerhouse poetic style—in which ordinary American language becomes unearthly—but from the authority with which it nails who we want to be as Americans. Not who we are; who we want to be. It’s that wanting that runs through every page of Gatsby, making it our Greatest American Novel.”

At the recent Community Reading event held at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery and co-sponsored by the Gallery, Electra Street, and the Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi, it became clear that the novel resonated deeply not just for Americans, but also for readers from around the world—and, in fact, had a particular resonance for readers who had come to Abu Dhabi from somewhere else, not unlike Gatsby, Nick, Tom, Daisy, and Myrtle coming East in the novel.

NYUAD Literature professor Cyrus Patell asked whether the real love story at the heart of the novel might not be Gatsby’s infatuation with Daisy, but rather Nick’s infatuation with Gatsby, who emerges as “great,” after all, only because Nick’s narrative portrays him that way. Novelist Siobhan Fallon noted that each of the several times that she read the book, it changed for her, with different elements coming to the fore depending on whether she was a teenager, a college student, or a mature, practicing writer. Novelist and journalist Miguel Syjuco recounted how the novel moved him as an aspiring young writer in the Philippines, giving him insight into the privileged milieu in which he had been raised. NYUAD Literature and Creative Writing student Ayah Rashid noted that both the movie and the 2013 film adaptation directed by Baz Luhrmann brought alive the excesses of the Jazz Age, while offering us ways of thinking about the ways of life we experience in Abu Dhabi today. And NYUAD Literature professor Deborah Williams, who served as moderator, described the book as a novel of the Emirates, because it is a novel about self-reinvention and mobility, in which the major characters have all come to New York’s “East Egg” and “West Egg” from somewhere else. The wide-ranging conversation that ensued touched on the “universal” aspects of the novel and the ways in which Fitzgerald draws on old literary forms like epic and tragedy, as well as the ways in which The Great Gatsby (and its re-presentation in the form of the Elevator Repair Service’s theatrical piece Gatz) resonates with the current #MeToo moment in the United States.

We’d like to keep the conversation going, here on line, and we invite Electra Street readers who have read the novel, seen one of the film adaptations, or attended a production of Gatz here in Abu Dhabi or elsewhere in the world, to leave a comment below.

What is it about Gatsby’s story, as told in novel, film, or stage production, that resonates with you? What did you see in it that you’d like others to see?

To prime the pump, we invite you to look at one of these pieces:

  • Electra Street editor Deborah Williams’s 2016 column on the novel from the pages of The National.
  • Electra Street managing editor Chiran Pandey’s discussion of the ways in which Gatz offers up a model of literature as a deeply communal experience.


Gatz: Making a Novel a Communal Event

Gatz: Making a Novel a Communal Event

Making a Novel a Communal Event
Chiran Raj Pandey
September 2018
I recently watched Elevator Repair Service’s production of Gatz on a Friday afternoon and night at the NYUAD Arts Center. Spanning eight hours, including two intermissions and a dinner break, the show stages F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, from start to finish.
The scene is set in a typical office in the ‘80s. Scott Shepherd stars as the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway—or, more precisely, as an office worker who gradually transforms himself into Carraway before our eyes. Shepherd’s “Nick” is a middle-aged man dressed in a drab shirt and pants with a coat the color of every fallen leaf in the fall. It is the setup for an elaborately boring life, one marked by indefinite bouts of loneliness and dullness. When he cannot get his computer to start, after repeatedly hitting the keyboard, Nick then finds a paperback copy of The Great Gatsby, and begins to read it out loud. What, ultimately, is Gatz? Gatz is what loneliness is, the dull, eventful crackle in the back of your head as you hammer on the keys of your work computer as though to force it open. It is an attempt at a community. Gatz is an aggressive challenge to the godforsaken idea that writing—and reading, for that matter—must happen in solitude.
Laurena Allan as Myrtle and Scott Shepherd as Nick in the Elevator Repair Service’s production of Gatz at the Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi.
Photo by Waleed Shah for The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi
“I’m a writer. I write best in solitude,” my Creative Writing professors tell me, and I, too, have nodded along to that more often than I’ve disagreed with it. I return to my writing and to reading when I feel especially lonely, and reading makes me lonelier. Over the weekend in a Facebook group for NYUAD Literature and Creative Writing majors, I wrote that our program refuses to socialize in our scholarly work. After classes, all of us return to our dorms or to our private spots in the library to finish the readings for the next day, while STEM students are happy to organize study groups, often with teaching assistants or professors. It may be that the technical requirements of STEM assignments allow its students to work in that way. But I believe that it is also our ideology of literature—especially the psychological and social stipulations around its most prominent child in the Anglo-European tradition, the novel—that keeps us from mingling and making this discipline a communal practice.
I return to my writing and to reading when I feel especially lonely, and reading makes me lonelier.
In Gatz, the narrator’s unusual and daring act—reading the novel out loud—transforms the very idea of the novel. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, 150- pages-long in a typical edition, is not meant to be read out loud, at least in our modern times. The Anglo-European-US novel is associated with individualism, increasingly so in the twentieth century—when individualism thrived as an outgrowth of capitalism and consumer culture. Not only does the novel enable individualism, it encourages it. But alongside individualism has always been its ugly twin, loneliness, long married to the novel—both in the act of writing and reading it. Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz shows us a way out of the dark and lonely hole of “literature” as we currently understand it. Shepherd’s performance as Nick Carraway mines Fitzgerald’s text for humanity. Carraway’s “I” becomes more than just an internal monologue in the mind of the reader: it becomes narrator-as-storyteller, part of a simpler but undeniably more enjoyable orature.
New York Times critic Ben Brantley on Gatz in 2010.
Source: YouTube.
In a review of Gatz published by the New York Times, critic Ben Brantley describes Gatz as a dramatization of the individual act of reading: “Boy meets book. Boy gets book. Boy becomes lost in book.” To me, that is a false and ultimately reductive characterization of this complex work. Instead, Gatz dramatizes the possibilities of meaning-making when reading becomes a communal act. The show does not take place in the mind of the reader; it materializes in the very real and tangible space of a corporate office in the 1980s. Nick Carraway is born of the leftover bones of Shepherd’s first character, whose middle-aged life, spent in the dreary and dying office has led him to reminisce: “In my younger and more vulnerable years …”
Gatz dramatizes the possibilities of meaning-making when reading becomes a communal act.
Shepherd’s full transformation into Carraway towards the end of the play, when he shuts the paperback and speaks directly to the spectators, is powerful—as it should be—because it suggests to us the possibility of an impossible convergence between the real world and fiction. But, I add to that, it is only realizable when the whole world is involved; when we are all huddled around the fire and open to listening to each other, when Nick Carraway feels welcomed by the community to tell his Jazz Age story. Gatz bears in its novel hands the written text of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and takes it back home to the orature of its narrator. It reveals to us Nick Carraway’s sad and poignant, sometimes funny, and always extraordinary voice, and ultimately, it is made possible by Nick’s listeners—Shepherd’s reader, his colleagues in the office on the stage, and the play’s audience. This production of Gatz marks the beginning of the possibilities of imagining literature as a communal event. Let us take it even further and redefine our forms and genres to be predicated on and informed by the community, to make literature the all-encompassing field that can accommodate this production of Gatz comfortably under its expansive human wing.
Chiran Raj Pandey is a student of Literature and Creative Writing at NYU Abu Dhabi. His artistic practices include fiction, poetry, literary and cultural criticism, theater, and music. He is the managing editor of Electra Street.
Gatz, directed by John Collins and presented by the Elevator Repair Service Theater Company, was staged three times at the Arts Center at NYUAD from September 21 to 24. The production travels to NYU’s Skirball Center in New York, where it will run from January 23 to February 3. Join us for the Great Gatsby Community Read on Thursday, September 27, at 6:30 pm in the Reading Room at the NYUAD Art Gallery. Register here. The event is co-sponsored by the Arts Center at NYUAD, the NYUAD Art Gallery, and Electra Street.
An Article about a Play about a Play

An Article about a Play about a Play

Hamlet_UR Hamlet Photo

In case you missed Theatre Mitu’s production of Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet that premiered at NYUAD’s Arts Center on 16 April, here is—not a review, but more of a reflective program guide to a theater experience unlike many others.


  1. Show up to the Arts Center 30 minutes prior to the show. Not fifteen, because by then the line gets ridiculously long and if you haven’t gotten your ticket by then – tough luck.
  2. While lining up, go through the pamphlet and notice the 6-page bibliography. Silently question (or out loud, depending on whether or not you want to make small-talk with the stranger in front of you) whether or not you’ll be able to understand the play without knowing any of the works cited. Find the N-Sync song within the bibliography, and laugh because maybe you’ll be okay. Silently/out loud curse yourself for not being as worldly and intellectual as the bibliography clearly expects you to be. Maybe if you took that one theatre class with that one professor from that one Ivy League school, you would’ve been more prepared. Stupid class registration.
  3. Continue lining up. Realize that you don’t know what to expect.
  4. Make a lame joke about how this play-slash-theatre piece will “exceed your expectations,” partly because you don’t really have any.
  5. Hamlet is the one where the guy’s wife goes “UNSEX ME HERE,” right?
  6. Listen to director Ruben Polendo’s opening remarks, and then be ushered into the theatre in groups. Realize you’re not going to a conventional play. You’re not going to be sitting down for the next hour and fifteen minutes.
  7. Walk around the set pieces at your leisure, trying not to bump into people while also appreciating each individual piece while also keeping in mind that you can’t stay in one exhibit for too long because at one point rock music will play from a plastic box in the middle of the set to signal the staged performance.
  8. Hear the rock music and gather to the centre of the theater. If you’re early, watch as people slowly trickle into the front. Feel a sense of collectivity as your pulse quickens to the beat.
  9. Watch as Aysan Celik and company dominate the glass stage. They’re elevated above the rest of us, they’re caged and yet clearly in charge. Everyone is in awe.
  10. Repeat steps 7 – 9 two more times.
  11. A female voice, almost like a robot, says “the installation is now closed”. There is no curtain call. You clap anyway.The performance ends.


Before I went to this Theater Mitu production of Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet , I had to admit something to myself: I am sick of Hamlet. God forbid, though, that a literature major should say that. What many others saw as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, I saw as a play about an arrogant (but, I will admit, really witty) teenager who messes everything up because he feels like he can – as if seeing a ghostly apparition is the same as getting supernatural powers.

None of that mattered, though, because Theater Mitu’s production has very little to do with being a faithful representation of the Bard’s play. When you walked into the theater space, you were greeted by a scrolling synopsis of the play, where certain words change on screen in a way that completely alters the meaning of the text (ie. Horatio as Hamlet’s friend/lover/buddy/soldier). If we take the opening piece as a sort of introduction to the rest of the installations, it becomes very clear from the onset that whatever the audience believes Hamlet to be won’t necessarily be seen for the next hour and fifteen minutes. I suppose that’s the problem that Theater Mitu’s production wanted to tackle: when everyone thinks they know what Hamlet is, who’s to say what the right interpretation is?

This epistemic dilemma is at the heart of the production. As the audience waited in line to enter the installation, Ruben Polendo encouraged everyone to take their time with the exhibit and experience the pieces in whichever order they please. This wasn’t a play to see with your group of 20 friends, where your opinions become heavily influenced by what your current crush thinks. You’re encouraged to be on your own and revel in your isolation. In a way, I suppose, the isolation makes you like Hamlet: with all the deception surrounding him, only Hamlet can say what it’s like to be Hamlet.

I guess that makes Hamlet (the character) like us. No one can really know what it’s like to be you except you yourself: the experiences you go through, the choices you make on what influences you is all a matter of subjectivity. Aysan Celik plays a minor role in the individual set pieces – standing in a corner with her back to the audience while an old reel of Hamlet plays on her naked back – but onstage, as Hamlet, she mixes with the flurry of it all. As soon as the rock music stops, the actors perform alongside videos looping on the monitors attached to the cage. All the while, audience members shift around the cage, hoping for a better look. It’s very chaotic, but also very funny. At one point Celik/Hamlet performs a piece where she stands trial while mimicking the gestures of a 60’s singer (think Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) on the screen. The famous “to be or not to be” speech gets re-imagined as a playground rhyme-slash-tap dance piece.


Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet was a lot to take in. If I were to sum up the piece, it would be about Hamlet’s struggle to find himself – or herself, for that matter. The video pieces that cut into the onstage performance, coupled with the diversity of the installation pieces suggest aspects of our experiences: what influences us, as well as what we choose to influence. Although each installation piece seemed utterly detached from everything else, each piece draws from Shakespeare’s play. Everything is influenced by Hamlet, but onstage Hamlet is influenced by everything. The beauty of Theater Mitu’s piece stems from the very fact that it does not resemble the original play, and you could easily get away with a marginal knowledge of the original text. As I was walking around, I noticed people of all ages experiencing the show. I’d bet that only a handful of people could recite the whole play by heart, and that some people in the audience have never read Hamlet at all.

At the end of the day, though, the “true meaning” of Hamlet doesn’t matter. We may argue about the merits of deconstructive theater and how much a play should resemble the original text, but with Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet, everyone’s a winner. When I saw the show, I tended to focus on ideas of psychology and the self, but that’s not to say that that’s the only thing I noticed. In fact, I could’ve written this article about the portrayal of sexual relationships, the idea of love in general, the role of gender…the list goes on. What I think of Hamlet may not be what you think of Hamlet, but it doesn’t matter.

Oftentimes when we approach a canonical piece of literature – especially with Shakespeare – we get obsessed with finding out what the “correct” interpretation is, what the “true meaning” of the text is, and what Shakespeare meant the play to be. While we should take into consideration all these things, the beauty of studying these literary texts also comes from the idea that we inject our own meaning into it. Different readers will approach Hamlet in a different way, and that’s what Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet strives to achieve. It’s not a theater performance meant to represent Hamlet in the years to come, but rather an invitation for the audience to re-experience what it’s like to construct meaning for themselves.

[Photos courtesy of Theater Mitu]

Weird History: Headspace 1.0

Weird History: Headspace 1.0

In 2013, four NYUAD students began interviewing their classmates about their experiences in Abu Dhabi. As the starting point for the interviews, they used seven questions: Why are you scared? Why do you feel repressed? Why do you feel liberated? Why do you regret coming here? Why do you love it here? What are you hiding? Why are you proud?

These interviews developed into a documentary theater piece called Headspace, which invited the NYUAD community to think about what it means to be a student — particularly a female student — in Abu Dhabi. Headspace was performed for two nights, to a packed audience of staff, students, faculty, and administrators; the show sparked tears of laughter and recognition among everyone in the audience.

After the show, the four creators, Valentina Vela, Sachi Leith, Laura Evans, and Veronica Houk, talked with Cyrus Patell and Deborah Williams about the project’s origins and their creative methodology. We are presenting excerpts from that interview to commemorate that first Headspace and to set the stage for the second Headspace, which will be performed on Saturday, December 13 at 2 p.m. in the Amphitheater.



Valentina Vela: I was working on political theater in a theater class, and my professor, Deb Levine, asked what I would talk about in a political theater piece. I told her, “I want talk about our experience and about all the hard conversations we’re not having in a way that is not the Real AD Show, not open mic, not cafeteria conversation — to open a forum for more conversations.

So I took a little bit of the model of “Occupy Wall Street”: as soon as it started, people began saying that they should document it. So they started interviewing people and performing it to the same people who were occupying Wall Street. People were performing their own realities, and you could take a break from occupying Wall Street to come and see somebody talk about occupying Wall Street, and then come back. A community steps out, thinks about what it’s doing, and then regenerates and continues growing — that, I think, is what we wanted to do.

Sachi Leith: I was excited about writing it, more from the standpoint of writing about “the university” than writing about women. And then over the course of the project I think it was the gender piece that became more important for me.

Vela: We created a list of things we want to talk about. And that informed our questions, but then after we did the interviews there were so many other things to talk about that we kept adding questions and adding questions. The list became huge, so we created this post-it wall that had all these issues that we wanted to talk about. Then we sub-divided it for writing. And then as we started writing we were, like, “I think it is about so much more. And I want to talk about this now.”

Laura Evans: One of the things that was difficult was that you do the interview, and in the moment, you’re like, “Yeah, I totally get what you’re saying.” And then three weeks later you’re looking at a transcript, and when you look at it, you think, “What?” I mean, people don’t speak in coherent or well-formed sentences at all!

Vela: And they contradict themselves.

Evans: And then when you show the material to the actors, they go through the lines and say things like “This makes no sense: my character is not being coherent, has no intention.” But all I am thinking is, “Man, this is just somebody sitting on my couch, like, crying about their lives.”

Leith: Like Valentina was saying, sometimes things don’t make sense. But, as writers, we want things to make sense, but it’s not the point that they make sense. It’s the point that there are all these contradictions. And how do you bring that out without making it just seem like you’ve made a mistake.

Vela: It would happen that we’d write a part that looks like a story, and it makes complete sense. And then one of us would say, “But you’re not voicing all the contradictions.” And then someone else would say, “Look at this interview,” which would just mess up everything. We had to accept those changes and stop the piece from being this perfect sphere and make it more into this weird rock with so many angles.

Veronica Houk: The question of authorship got really complicated. Because the four of us were working together. One of us would sort of put the wheels in motion, or maybe two of us, and then all of us had our fingers in everyone’s work. So all of our work is essentially everyone’s. Plus, when we wrote it, we sometimes combined lots of different interviews. And then it was performed, and someone else helped design interactive media and mise en scene. So, this represents creative collaboration between the four of us — and the community too. It felt complicated.

Cyrus Patell: Was the work of Anna Deveare Smith important to you? Her work is similar, although she tends to start with a trauma of some kind. There’s a riot. People are killed. She goes and interviews participants or she gets a transcript and then she crafts a monologue out of it. But it is always a monologue when she does it. … And then she tries to get across the specificity of all of these people: for example, she plays a Korean shop owner in the L.A. riots after Rodney King. And she’ll make you want to believe that she’s inhabiting that persona. There’s a kind of very local specificity that she’s getting at. But you tried to work more with composite characters. What difference does that make?

Leith: We live in such a small community. And, unlike Anna Deavere Smith, we’re presenting this directly to the people that we interviewed and directly to people who know the people that we interviewed. So we didn’t wanna say, “Oh, like, I am half Taiwanese and from Vermont,” because– you know, everyone will know who the  “I”  is. Or, “Oh, I’m Colombian but I live in Peru.” Here, where everybody knows everybody’s business, we didn’t want people to be sitting in the audience wondering, “Do you think that’s…so and so?”

Vela: On the day before opening night, we realized that we might be exposing somebody, and so we had to change words. The four of us had a horrible fight [laughs] at the end about that, but we had to change it.

Leith: But that was part of my dark time, I guess [laughs], because everything started to sound the same and started to sound like really, like, nicely put together and over-edited — we had taken away some of those distinctive qualities of people’s lives or people’s speeches. Like the ironing the grilled cheese scene. The first time we wrote that, it was really strong. And very opinionated. The first time we wrote it, there was a lot of, I guess, my anger in it. And then we edited that out, but we fought about that a lot. It ended up being funny, the way the actors did it, but I will never be satisfied just because it — it always feels like we’re going too easy on them.


Patell: So, if Headspace were going to become a tradition at NYUAD, what aspects of it would you propose should become the tradition?

Leith: I think the interviews. I would do all of the interviews again.

Evans: Yes, exactly. When the community talking to itself about itself, it’s so powerful.


Patell: Can you imagine performing this particular piece in four years when everyone who’s here now has graduated and it’s another community?

Houk: I think it could be performed in another space. But the feeling would be completely different. At this show, it was fantastic seeing professors curled up in front, even professors I had in particular thought were very intimidating. But then they were curled up on a beanbag, like, next to, like—

Evans: A student. [Laughs.]

Houk: And they were laughing at all of our kind of crude jokes. And I thought, “Oh, hey. I could maybe talk to you at some point in my life.”

Evans: I think that it’s representative of now. But I think that maybe in six years there might be the need for another Headspace.

Vela: When you think of pieces like Laramie Project, it’s so grounded in its political and social context. But then when you see Laramie Project Ten Years Later, it’s revisiting the same project with a different perspective. And I think that’s more along the lines of what it would be to revisit Headspace in a few years.

Leith: This project, all the interviews and all of our processes are more of like—some weird form of history.


Going meta in Headspace: authors Vela, Evans, Houk, and Leith onstage.

Going meta in Headspace: authors Vela, Evans, Houk, and Leith onstage.


Members of the NYUAD community are invited to come see the next version of “weird history” created by the Headspace team: hear your voices and the voices of your community, and think about what the Headspace project should be for next year.


[Please note that this interview has been condensed and edited. All photos are courtesy of Nikolai Kozak.]