Abu Dhabi Reads – The Finalists

Abu Dhabi Reads – The Finalists

And then there were three.

Thanks to everyone who submitted suggestions to us for the “Abu Dhabi Reads” program, which will take place at 5:00 p.m. on November 1 at NYUAD’s Downtown Campus. The event will be an open-ended discussion of one of the following three books: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; Life of Pi by Yann Martel; and The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen.

We invite you to help us choose the book that we’ll read and discuss together by by clicking on this link and voting for one of these three finalists. The form will take mere seconds to fill out and your response will be completely anonymous. You’ll have the opportunity to suggest a book for our spring program, though that isn’t required. Voting ends at 11:00 p.m. GST on September 23, so don’t delay!

Feel free to vote even if you can’t join us in Abu Dhabi on November 1. We’ll be hosting online discussions before and after the live event here on Electra Street.

To help you make your decision, we’ve included brief descriptions of each book. Clicking on a title will bring you to the amazon.com page for the book, which contains additional information. All three books are available in amazon.com Kindle format (though you’ll need to sign into your account to locate them).

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953 and now an American classic, tells the story of fireman Guy Montag, who is living in a nightmarish future.

Montag’s job is not to protect houses from flames, but to locate and burn books and their owners, with the help of a fiendish Mechanical Hound. It is a time when people do not walk the streets or talk to each other, but instead spend their leisure hours lulled into unthinking stupors by four walls of television screens and constant music in their ears. World wars are ongoing, and suicide rates are high.

When Montag realizes how terribly unhappy he, his wife, and everyone around them are, he turns to a secret stash of books and an old friend, putting both of their lives at risk. Bradbury’s novel vividly evokes a world just similar enough to our own to force us to consider the risks of fast-paced mass media and censorship while reflecting on the true value not only of literature and knowledge but of friendship.

— Jennifer Acker


Life of Pi by Yann Martell

Winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize, Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi, is a story, as its narrator says, “to make you believe in God.” Questions of faith and belief—as well as truth, narrative, and the proper way to tame a tiger—are at the core of this novel, in which Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi, for short) finds himself shipwrecked and adrift, floating in a lifeboat with no one but a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker for company.

When Pi Patel, with his family and the animals from the zoo the family managed in Pondicherry, India, set sail from India to Canada, Pi has no idea how dramatically his life will shift, just as readers have no idea, when they start the novel, what surprises await them in the novel’s second half. By the end of the novel, we have to re-examine our ideas about truth and fiction, about faith and belief … and about tigers.

This acclaimed novel has been made into a film, directed by Ang Lee, which will premiere later this month at the New York Film Festival, with a US release on 21 November and a worldwide release in late December.

— Deborah Lindsay Williams


The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen

Why do people stay married? Or rather, how do people stay married? What series of compromises and alliances, conflicts and peace-makings, goes into a marriage that lasts for decades? Is there a point at which, even after ten, twenty, thirty years, one or the other partner decides that enough is enough?

These questions are at the center of Kejia Parssinen’s debut novel, The Ruins of Us. The novel is set in Saudi Arabia and focuses on the marriage of Saudi-born American, Rosalie March, and her handsome, powerful Saudi husband, Abdullah al-Baylani.  After decades of making her peace with the tenets of Islam that govern Saudi society, Rosalie confronts a cultural difference that explodes her complacency. Her progressive, educated husband has taken a second wife—and kept the marriage a secret for two years, even though the woman lives just down the road from Rosalie, in a house that Abdi bought for her.  The crisis in the al-Baylani marriage precipitates a crisis for the entire family, which, in turn, illustrates the fissures that run through contemporary Saudi culture.  The al-Baylanis have two children, Faisal and Mariam, whose attitudes reflect the complexities of modern life, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, particularly in terms of whether or not we can ever hope to understand people from cultures other than our own.  The novel offers unexpected and thought-provoking answers to this question.

Deborah Lindsay Williams

You can also use this link to vote! Remember: voting ends at 11:00 p.m. GST on September 23.

This program is co-sponsored by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute.

Remembering CHAOS

Remembering CHAOS

This week we continue our exploration of the collaboration between NYUAD’s Theater program and the Theater Mitu company by looking back at the Spring 2011 production of CHAOS, the first-ever professional theatrical production in Abu Dhabi.

In the spring of 2011, the NYUAD Institute in collaboration with NYU-Abu Dhabi’s Theater Program presented Theater Mitu’s production of CHAOS on the shores of the Arabian Gulf. This theatrical meditation on dreams, faith and the journey of the worker, offered a rare opportunity to the NYUAD community and to Abu Dhabi as a whole. For Abu Dhabi, this production marked the first professional theater piece created and produced in the capital. For the NYUAD community, the production not only marked the beginning of what is to become a thriving Arts and Humanities program, but also allowed a direct interaction between students and the building of a professional theatrical work. It seemed essential that this moment in the history of Abu Dhabi and NYUAD be documented in detail, and it further seemed appropriate that, in the spirit of cross-discipline interaction, this be done by film students at NYUAD. After a lengthy application process two students, April Xiong and Amani Alsaied, were selected to document the production. The result was the fifteen-minute short film, A Journey Through CHAOS.

— Rubén Polendo

A Journey Through CHAOS from Electra Street on Vimeo.


CHAOS was an incredible experience for me. It was my first production in the city, my first professional production, and the first professional production of its kind in Abu Dhabi. As a student, to have the opportunity to engage in work of that level with professional and amazing actors is remarkable. It was a blessing, and more than a year later I still look back on that crazy thing we did with wonder. For me, the play has a special relevance because it explores questions of displacement: departure, unrequited love, living under another person’s system and authority. I resonated with the play when it asked, “What happens to those who leave?”

— Yannick Trapman-O’Brien

An Interview with Rubén Polendo, Part II

An Interview with Rubén Polendo, Part II

Death of a Salesman - Willy and Linda


In his program notes for Theater Mitu’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Rubén Polendo describes the play as an exploration of a question that the company had begun to ask itself in its tenth year of existence: “Did this company become what it set out to be.” Mitu’s production emphasized the character of the salesman’s son Biff “as the locus of this question.” According to Polendo, Biff “is in a complete and utter state of exploration; having once sat as the chosen son, surrounded by dreams — dreams that he certainly helped create — he was the epitome of potential.” But as the play opens, Biff “now sits surrounded by the reality of the world; by age, financial crisis, heartbreak and fear.” Bearing in mind Miller’s original title for the play, “The Inside of His Head,” Polendo sought to create “a stage filled with memories, regrets, and echoes.” Mitu’s production drew from the traditions of Greek tragedy, Japanese Noh drama, Bunraku puppetry, and Vaudeville. Most surprising, perhaps, was the choice to have certain characters represented by objects, manipulated by Bunraku puppeteers dressed in black, their dialogue pre-recorded. In the first part of our interview with Polendo, we discussed the collaborative process through which Theater Mitu creates its productions. In part two,  we focus on the company’s Abu Dhabi production of Death of a Salesman.

ES: How did you decide that some of the characters in Death of a Salesman should be played by inanimate objects?

Polendo: As I read the play, four voices were loud in my ear and in my mental picture: Willy, Linda, Biff, and Happy. Everybody else for some reason felt very canned to me, as if they were pre-recorded. It just felt like pouring your heart out to a  really bad friend, and their answer is, “It’s gonna be all right.” And you think, “You didn’t hear a word I said.  That’s the answer you give to every problem, isn’t it?”  Or you go to your boss, and you say, “Really, I’m in a situation,” and the reply is, “You’re a good worker.  Good luck next week.” As we began unpacking this idea when we were workshopping the play, we realized two things. First, that we often encounter people as functions.  For example, I’ve been in so many offices where I deal with a very kind receptionist.  But, if you ask me about my day, I actually don’t remember him or her.  I just remember the function.  And that provided a vision of the play. We began to play this game with the characters, asking ourselves, “Well, what would he be? And what would she be?”So if a character’s function is to be “the one who answers the phone,” then she becomes a phone. Or if your function is to be bright and brilliant and successful, then — poof — you are a bright and big light that no one can look into.”  It was like having a magic wand.

And then we realized that this technique could highlight the family’s predicament. How isolated and lonely you’d feel if you had to go, not to a person, but to an object and ask, “Please help me.”  And that object just goes, “Well, good luck, see ya at the football game.”

ES:Why was Happy the only member of the family to be represented, at certain points in the play, by an object, in his case a punching bag?

Polendo: As I was reading the play, Happy kept coming in and out of the picture. Almost in a sci-fi kind of way, as if I could see him and then suddenly not see him. I would read a scene, and Happy would feel just as human and just as present as the rest of the family.  But then I would read the next scene and feel like he’s almost starting to lose his humanity and become just a  function, an object.  And then he’s back.  And then he’s forward. To me, he felt like a hybrid.  So, in our production, he’s actually conceptualized as a hybrid: he’s an object, but he’s not recorded: he’s mic’ed.  So he sounds a little bit like the recorded characters.  You don’t see his face most of the time, but then there’s moments when you flash back in time and you do see his face. I was trying to convey the sense that if things keep moving in the direction that they seem to be moving for the family, in twenty years Happy would be just one of those object-characters, just a punching bag.

ES: So it’s a mixture of metonymy and reification?

Polendo: Absolutely. Our hope was to create a grammar of representation, so that the closer they get to an emotional truth, the characters have a different relationship to this object presence. And for me, at least, the core of the argument was to create this kind of loneliness around Willy Loman.  I would argue that the woman whom he had the affair with, even someone with whom he had this romantic life was just somebody else using him to get what she needed. Again, it’s a kind of function.  And it breaks my heart.  The character of Willy Loman breaks my heart.

There’s a funny thing that I want to share. So here we are working on the piece, and I’m talking about “metaphor” and and “the soul of the artist” — you know, these large statements.  And two weeks into rehearsal, one of the actors asks, “What did your father do for a living, Rubén?”  And I said, “Oh, he was a salesman.”  And I literally stopped. Stupidly enough — this is completely true —  here I am saying that, you know, Willy moves me, and I understand that family, and blah, blah.  Forgetting that my father was a salesman!  He just was.  He was a car salesman.  And he literally went from being the top of the line to getting older and becoming less successful to actually no longer being employee of the year, ’cause he’s now 55. And there’s no retirement plan. The whole thing. And I, literally, almost started crying because … “Oh, my God!” Here I was living in metaphor and all this incredibly “intelligent” rhetoric.  I guess now it’s no secret why that play moves me so much.

ES: One result of making Happy part of this kind of metonymic reification is to train more of the spotlight on Biff.

Polendo: Maybe the most controversial aspect of our production, actually, is that we think of it as Biff’s play.  We really framed it as being about his journey. The metaphor I always use is that the rock that breaks the window to get us into this house is Biff. I think he becomes our proxy. It’s almost as if Biff has been allowed to go inside Willy’s head and view all the relics of their lives. Maybe at another point in my life, I will view the play through Linda’s eyes, but for now it’s Biff. He’s a proxy for the artist, because he’s this big dreamer trying to be allowed to dream that dream and not to have to say why he’s dreaming it.

ES: And, of course, Biff, like you, is the son of a salesman.

Polendo: That’s right. Which is so arrogant, right? [Laughs.]

ES: Where there any changes in your conception as you began to work with the play?

Polendo: The biggest change that there was was there used to be a chorus, an actual full chorus of twenty actors, ten men and ten women, all in their 60s. And they sat at the side.  They were the ones who actually gave the actors playing Willy and Linda their masks for any time when they wore the masks. And all of the monologues that Willy had were actually done by the chorus.  I wanted the presence of that age and gravitas, but somehow it didn’t work.  It just thinned the conversation out too much.  And so we let go of that.

ES: The chorus was meant to be a conscious invocation of Greek tragedy?

Polendo: Absolutely, but it was too overt. But they helped Justin [Nestor] create the character of Willy. If you are a young actor and you’re playing a 65-year-old man and you have ten 65-year-old men watching you, you’ve gotta be on your game! You can’t do a cartoon, because all of them will say, “Hey, I’m not 100.  I’m 65!” Plus, you had a very healthy 65 year old, a very tired 65 year old, a very neurotic 65 year old. It gave Justin a palette. The same with the actor who played Linda. You have ten 65-year-old women, and one of them is looking at you saying, “I just came from Pilates.”   So they really had to play emotion, weight, and memory in a very sophisticated way. It was  a really big gift, having those men and women their for the rehearsals.  Going back to the the scientist that I feel like I was trained to be, it really was a laboratory of  exploring and experimenting.  But it just didn’t work.

ES: The Greek tragic tradition is still evoked, though, by the production’s use of masks.

Polendo: Definitely.  The idea of tragedy, particularly Greek tragedy is one of the two big artistic and theoretical motifs that run through our expression of the piece.  One is Greek tragedy and the other one is Japanese Noh.  Both were present from the beginning of our conversation.  Miller talks about it endlessly in terms of his relation to tragedy.  Death of a Salesman is a tragedy, and he’s following a certain tradition in terms of that. Meanwhile, the formality of Japanese Noh became really important to us. Noh has the shite character [pronounced sh’tay], who is the masked character.  And the idea is that this character is, in a way, the most graceful character, but it’s the one that holds all the secrets. There’s also the ai character, the witness.  And then there’s the waki character, the character that moves out of the norm. And that’s what you see in our production: Willy and Linda are these shite characters with their masks and holding all the secrets; Biff functions as the witness; and Happy functions as a waki character, this creature that’s outside of the norm. And then when it came to staging and some further conceptualizations, Greek tragedy became huge. We were intersted in the idea of really trying to encounter catharsis and also creating spectacle as a kind of tension that deals with sacrifice. I think Miller was interested in those things.

ES: Were there any American theatrical traditions that you were also interested in exploring?

Polendo: As a company, we’ve been obsessed with vaudevillian tradition. Vaudeville has two modalities. One is comic vaudeville, which is probably what’s most familiar and best documented by silent film or early animation.  It has these incredible routines, which are not unlike commedia dell’arte (which, of course, is a masked tradition). Then there’s another form that got broken a bit more, which is dramatic vaudeville. The best version of that is in silent horror films, when you’re seeing the damsel in distress tied to the train tracks and the evil guy with the moustache. Both are what I would call hyper-theatrical, because it’s a very studied vocabulary that requires large gestures so the audience can see them.When we brought those elements, including vaudevillean song, to Miller’s play, it just worked. It created a rhythm that’s linked to vaudeville, which extends from about the 1910s all the way to 1930s.  It just cracked the play open.

ES: What difference, if any, did the context of Abu Dhabi make in your staging of  Death of a Salesman?

Polendo: It made a lot of difference. Abu Dhabi is place where people’s identities are really tailored to their functions. Jobs, labor, and work really define so much of life here. And Willy is a kind of ex-pat: he has been absent from the life of his family, because he’s always been on the road and working in his attempt to provide. And that experience is part of this place, where so people are coming here to work and being separated from their families. Whether it be in our own community, in labor communities, in ex-pat communities, this idea of  work becomes really key; in some cases, as with Willy, you just begin to have this dual life.  And so, for me, the play becomes a cautionary tale about keeping those lives connected and keeping some semblance of truth in link.

Thematically, I think that’s what happened.  In terms of audiences, what I’m so excited about is that I think that the grammar of the piece, despite how strange and crazy and conceptual it was, was understood.  It was really understood.  I think there’s often a little bit of underestimation about audiences in Abu Dhabi.  I’ve been privy to some artistic conversations in other institutions, and sometimes when something artistic is conceived, there’s the immediate response: “Oh, no, no, Abu Dhabi audiences, you know, they might not get that.” I don’t know that I agree. There were many people in that audience who see theater all the time. And there were people who told me, “I’ve never seen a theater piece before, ever.” But it wasn’t “Oh, I don’t go to theater. I didn’t get it.” And it was a diverse audience. We had students come in from the women’s college at U.A.U.E. in Al Ain.  We had our students.  We had workers from our cafeteria who came to see it, which was awesome.

ES: It sounds as if you’re making a case for the power of theater.

Polendo: Yes, absolutely.

ES: So, what’s the power of theater for you?  I mean, what can theater do that other art forms don’t do?

Polendo:  The kind of theater that interests me is a theater that creates  a sense of commonality and a strength in community. We see a predicament — whether it be comic, tragic, or dramatic — that’s so incredibly dense and incredibly well articulated and incredibly human that all you can do as an audience is actually witness it as a reflection of yourself.  It’s the predicament, so that when you see somebody wrestling, for example, with ideas of love and trying to rid yourself of jealousy or imperfection or doubt — when you see that on stage, then you as an audience respond: “I understand that.  I actually understand that.  I have those feelings.  I also don’t have answers.” And there’s something about that spark that we  need, because it creates a kind of strength.  Theater can create a place place where you really can commune in that strength.

But, actually,  I don’t understand theater.  That’s the center of every theater class you’ll ever take with me.  I don’t understand theater.  Justin, who is the actor who plays Willy, I know him. He’s one of my dearest friends.  It is a mystery to me why an hour and ten minutes into Act One, I’m crying over him. I’m worried about him. He’s the same man. And I’m a smart man: I know it’s Justin. I know he’s gonna be okay. I know I’m having dinner with him at 11:30 that night. But  something happens in that theatrical moment that engages my imagination and my heart and my soul.  That mask merges into his face.  That costume becomes something that man has worn his entire life. There’s something in that transformation that is incredibly unique and revelatory. It becomes a moment in which spirits join and imaginations join. It becomes a strengthening moment.

ES: Would it be fair to say that, with Death of a Salesman, you’ve taken a piece of classic American drama and transformed it into a piece of world drama or brought out the world drama within it?

Polendo: Yes, and it’s interesting, because we’ve always done the reverse, brought pieces like the Sanskrit epic, The Mahabharata, to the U.S. With Death of a Salesman, we’ve actually taken it and made it this global theatrical creature, so that you’re no longer looking at it and saying, “Well, I don’t really understand America in the ’50s.”  Instead, it became this other place. It became an almost dream-like landscape full of metaphor and symbol. And that starts opening up the play so that it can be played in Abu Dhabi, in Japan, and back in the United States. The only thing that I ever ask of our sources is that they’re able to hold all our crazy and wonderful and strange ideas.  And sometimes they don’t, and we have to admit, “Ah, that’s not for us.”  But Death of a Salesman held and held really strongly — I would say even bloomed for us.


Interview conducted by Norina Miszori and Cyrus Patell

[Photos by Nikolai Kozak, courtesy of Theater Mitu. Top: Julianna Bloodgood as Linda and Justin Nestor as Willy in Theater Mitu’s production of Death of a Salesman; middle: Julianna Bloodgood; bottom: Justin Nestor.]

An Interview with Rubén Polendo, Part I

An Interview with Rubén Polendo, Part I


Last fall, after directing Theater Mitu’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at NYU Abu Dhabi, Rubén Polendo sat down with Electra Street to talk about the production and its genesis. In part one of the interview, we explore Theater Mitu’s creative process. In the next part, we take a closer look at Death of a Salesman.

ES: How did you come to be involved in directing theater?

Polendo: I had  a bit of an unorthodox journey into theater. At university in the US, I actually studied biochemistry. But as I always tell my students, as a point of sanity, that every second of your journey defines your journey, but doesn’t lock you into anything. So, I studied biochemistry.  I have a knack for the sciences, and I still get very obsessed with problem-solving, anything from the most trivial puzzle to big problems that need to be solved. And I have a love for experimentation.

I studied abroad and  ended up getting myself involved with a group of theater makers. It completely changed my life. I ended up traveling to India and living there  for the better part of a year or so. And that journey enabled me to start crafting a different kind of experimentation, an exploratory procedure that has formed the core of my company. When I came back to the U.S., I went through my graduate school program and started investigating directing in a more concrete way. In the middle of that was when my company was born with the idea of experimenting with and attempting to create a whole theater experience — a theatrical experience that is rigorously visual and emotional and intellectual and spiritual. All in the same moment. And the question became, “How do you train for that experience?” That started my research, which is to investigate training methods around the world, to investigate how people train their focus, how they train their emotions, how they train their spirit, how they train their physicality. And the company, which is a permanent group of collaborators, came together in an attempt to research that, to codify it into a training methodology, and then to create work with it. We’ve been able to create two kinds of works; explorations of narratives that exist, be it a poem, a play, a musical. The other work is the creation of a non-narrative, conceptual production, that is based around a theme or a thematic idea. Death of a Salesman, for example, was such an existing narrative.

ES: What made you settle on doing a production of Death of a Salesman?

Polendo: My company tends to function in cycles of work. There was a moment when we investigated mythologies. And that was our “myth cycle” that we traveled through.

ES: What idea did you explore in the myth cycle?

Polendo: We explored the idea of fear. And then we went through this “fear cycle” to explore it more. This became part of a cycle that I affectionately call “the negation cycle.” And what it actually was, oddly enough, was me sitting with my company and making a list of all the things that our company doesn’t do and doesn’t like, doesn’t have an affinity for, or has some judgment over.

We made a long list. It was a very joyful meeting. We all laughed. “Oh, and I hate this.” “Great.” It went on the list. And someone said, “You know what I really hate? You know, I hate Eugene O’Neill. Put him on the list.” And Arthur Miller made it on that list: that‘s something Theater Mitu would never do. You know, it’s old. It’s stodgy. It had a kind of dust on it that we weren’t interested in.

Q: So why did you finally end up producing Death of a Salesman?

Polendo: Well, we really have to try and investigate the works through a new series of doorways and pathways. At the end of that “negation meeting,” I turned to the company and said, “This list has to be our next three years. Because if we sit as artists asking our audience to open and engage and grow, then why is it that we allow ourselves to be on safe territory and say, ‘We don’t grow. We don’t push.'” And we all sat there in shock looking at this list, stunned.

And then we went from “Theater Mitu doesn’t do that” to “How would Theater Mitu do that?” And we started going down that list. We explored the idea of a musical. Theater Mitu doesn’t do musicals. And so we did this incredibly radical adaptation of an American musical called Hair. Our version was all done with electronic music. It was 40 actors with shaved heads. It was completely stripped of color. And it was an exploration of freedom, of rebellion outside of the framework of 1968 America, which is what the piece is based on.

There were a couple of other pieces that we explored with similar chutzpah. Death of a Salesman became one of them. Actually, Death of a Salesman didn’t appear on our list: it was Arthur Miller. Our vendetta was with Arthur Miller. [Chuckle] We started looking at his different plays, and as we read, the plays started to influence the conversation we were having as artists.

One idea that became important was this: as you grow up and grow older, as the company grows older, what happens when you reach a point when you realize that the dreams that you have didn’t come true? Is it a moment of devastation? Or can it be a moment of hope and possibility? Is it a moment of failure, or simply another epoch in your life that you’ve entered?

So, we were having this conversation as a company, and it was both professional and personal. We’re thinking the conversation is ridiculous, but we’re also crying. And we’re finding that these questions are compellingly articulated in Miller’s work, especially Death of a Salesman. It really started entering the blood of the company. And so the play could not not be the next piece. It just had to be.

ES: And now?

Polendo: And now, of course, are you kidding me? I love that play. I think it’s a genius play. And I’ve ended up having this mad romance with Arthur Miller. We’re hoping to do The Crucible somewhere down the line. Doing Miller really allowed us to grow and to enter a whole other conversation. And I think all of those pieces of the negation cycle have done that.

ES: We’ve heard that your working with Theater Mitu on a Hamlet project. Do you think of that as part of your exploration of fear?

Polendo: That’s exactly what it is. The project was born out of my going to every company member and asking them what it is that they would be most afraid of doing. Justin Nestor, the actor who played Willy Loman in Salesman said, “Oh, I don’t know. I wish that there was something like Medea for a man. I would totally say that.” And I’d say, “Well, you know, there’s Macbeth.” And he said, “No, that’s not the same.” And then I had a female actor, Aysan Celik, who said, “I wish there was like a Hamlet for a woman.” And I said, “Well, you know, there’s Medea.” And she said, “That’s not the same.”

And so then I sat at this meeting and, “I’m gonna announce, you know, what we’re going to work on this season.” And I said, “Medea.” And the female actor, Aysan, said, “Oh?” And I said, “And after that, Hamlet.” And the male actor, Justin, said, “Oh?” And then I said, “Except that Justin [chuckle] is gonna playing the role of Medea, and Aysan’s gonna be playing the role of Hamlet.” And the reaction was, “Oh, exciting! Terrified.”

That literally was the arc. And then it was up to them to say yes or no. And the answer became “yes.” And so Medea was born. And now Hamlet is in the process of being developed.


Interview conducted by Norina Miszori and Cyrus Patell

[Photo of Rubén Polendo courtesy of Theater Mitu.]

Staging The Ramayana

Staging The Ramayana

In March, New York University Abu Dhabi presented its first student production, an adaptation of The Ramayana by director Rubén Polendo, at Abu Dhabi’s Manarat al Saadiyat. The production was staged in collaboration with Polendo’s New York-based company, Theater Mitu. In Spring 2011, Theater Mitu presented an adaptation of CHAOS (inspired by the Short Stories of Luigi Pirandello, the film Kaos by the Taviani Brothers, and the dance piece Kaos by Martha Clarke) on the Abu Dhabi Corniche beach; last fall, the company staged Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at NYUAD’s Downtown Campus.

This is the first of several pieces that will be devoted to an exploration of Polendo’s work with NYU Abu Dhabi and Theater Mitu.


[Program Note for The Ramayana by Rubén Polendo]

The Ramayana is one of Hinduism’s two sacred epics. It is one of the longest poems ever written (in its most common form, roughly 16 times longer than The Odyssey and The Iliad combined; in its longest form, roughly 25 times longer than the Christian Bible). The manifestation of this poem into a theatrical form involved the funneling of the hundreds of stories within The Ramayana. The goal was to focus on the journey of Rama and Sita within the epic. In so doing some stories were fused with others: while some characters are in reality an amalgam of several characters from the original poem. This serves in both keeping the story focused and forming an attachment with the characters. It is here where a “retelling” of the story occurs. After reviewing many translations, Wayang Kulit plays, Nepali Charya Nritya narratives, Sri Lankan Ritual and Kathakali Dance Dramas of The Ramayana, I have focused on the story I believe The Ramayana holds. The approach has been spiritual, yet not theological; it has been specific, yet not anthropological; above all it has been mythological. The piece is explored in the framework of Joseph Campbell’s myth as a shared human dream. In so doing I have gone deeper into some of the characters and have imagined their journey. Though the story of The Ramayana is most definitely within this play, the emotional journey of the characters is an imagined one. Such an amazing and wise text as that of The Ramayana holds so many stories within it, that I would hesitate to call this a definitive interpretation of the epic. Instead it is simply my retelling of the story that is The Ramayana.


Two NYUAD students, Ayaz Kamalov and James Hosken, are completing a documentary film about the process of bringing the Hindu epic to life onstage in Abu Dhabi. Electra Street spoke to Kamalov and Hosken about their film. The interview was conducted by Norina Miszori, with assistance from Brook Fowler and Zahida Rahemtulla.

ES: In the past year, NYUAD has already begun to establish a presence in the theatrical scene of Abu Dhabi with productions such as Chaos and Death of a Salesman. What distinguishes The Ramayana from these?

Hosken: The Ramayana is specifically a student production. During our interview with Rubén Polendo, director of the NYUAD theater program and artistic director of Theater MITU, he defined a student production as a production done by a university, directed by a faculty member or external person, with student actors. If you look at Chaos, there were student apprentices but MITU actors, whereas The Ramayana’s cast only included student actors.

ES: I know you filmed every aspect of The Ramayana, both pre- and post-production. With so many different types of footage, what is the focus of the documentary?

Hosken:  Before we had defined anything about the documentary, we decided to see where the raw footage would naturally lead. So we entered with only the vaguest of vague ideas of how the final product would look. We hoped that as the rehearsal process went on, something would emerge. The problem we encountered was not that nothing emerged, but that everything emerged.

ES: What do you mean when you say “everything emerged’?

Hosken: I mean, we could do a documentary on any aspect of the process — we could take the perspective of the director, the students, the apprentices — and it would be compelling. What we finally decided on was an interview-based documentary about the actor’s journey in The Ramayana. That is the perspective we are currently taking. Again, the final draft may be completely different.

Kamalov: What we can say about this piece for certain is that we are not creating a “making of theater” documentary. The piece is about “the Ramayana experience.”

Hosken: We are trying to capture the essence of the show instead of literally portraying it. This is quite difficult since the final cut will be 15 minutes.

ES: Besides the time frame, what were some of the other challenges you faced?

Hosken: We are still in the process of editing, but both Ayaz and myself have things that we hold dear to us. Any filmmaker forms an attachment to what he shoots. Ayaz will want to include his footage, I will want to include mine. There is then a difficult conversation that must happen, in order to keep with our vision of the documentary, and in the end, we do have to let some things go.

ES: What do you hope the audience will take from your documentary?

Kamalov: The whole idea of the documentary is to show the audience the process the cast went through. As for audience engagement, the purpose of any documentary is to give a critical distance. The audience should not view our documentary as a retelling of The Ramayana, but as an insight into the work that was done, and why.

Hosken: When thinking about the audience, we want to create something that a person completely detached from NYUAD could see and understand. Before our final cut, we are trying to get someone completely removed to screen it, to see if it makes sense, and if it can stand alone as a piece about the production. We are trying to create a self-contained story.

[Photo: Yannick Trapman-Obrien as Rama in NYUAD’s production of The Ramayana. Photo by Jack Dixson.]

Pictures of Cosmopolitanism

Pictures of Cosmopolitanism

As part of the summer colloquium “Cosmopolitan Ideas for Global Citizens,” each incoming NYU Abu Dhabi first-year student was invited to submit a photograph, taken in his or her local community, that captures something crucial about the nature of cosmopolitanism. The students were asked to title their photographs, but not to indicate the locations in which they were shot. Some students concentrated on the root of the word cosmopolitan, cosmos. Their photographs of wide expanses of the sky allude to an orderly world system. Other photographs depict the wide array of choices in the modern world, from commercial goods to friendships that cross boundaries. Cosmopolitanism is often associated with cities with diverse populations.  Several photographs focus on the urban fabric of such cosmopolitan places, while others focus on the cultures that gives cities distinctive identities despite the effects of globalization.

Some of the results are presented below. Together they offer a compelling portrait of the richness of contemporary thinking about cosmopolitanism, while evoking the rich variety of cultures that have come together at NYU Abu Dhabi.

To mark NYU Abu Dhabi’s inaugural January term classes, twenty-seven of the photographs will be on view at 19 Washington Square North (on the NYU New York campus) in an exhibition curated by Kerry Barrett.

[Click on a thumbnail below to enter a slide show at that picture.]