Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Unfolding 'A Map of Myself': Ahead of Sara Abou Rashed's Solo Performance, an Interview with Director Larry Smith -- by Ken Stasiak

Theater Preview and Interview

A Map of Myself: A 70-Minute, One-Woman Revolution on War, Immigration, Language, Home, History and Everything in Between
written by and starring Sara Abou Rashed
Stage 773, Chicago
November 16, 2019 | 7:30PM
Info and Tickets

Interview with play director Larry Smith conducted and written by Seth Saith contributor, Ken Stasiak

Larry Smith (Wikipedia bio) founded Smith magazine in 2006 and is the creator of Six Word Memoirs.

Not only a publisher, his writing has appeared in The New York Times, Popular Science, Men’s Health, Salon, Slate and other popular outlets.

He’s also my editor, having established the Six Word Memoirs website and books including The Best Advice in Six Words and Six Words Fresh Off The Boat, to which I have contributed.

So it was with some surprise I found out he was directing a new play, A Map of Myself, written and
performed by a 19-year-old Syrian poet named Sara Abou Rashed.

Not only that, but the play has received rave reviews.

Seeking to satisfy my curiosity ahead of seeing A Map of Myself at Chicago's Stage 773 this Saturday, I reached out to Larry who graciously granted me the following interview.

I was really impressed with Sara. She is mature beyond her years with a true poet’s sensibilities. How did you meet her? 
I first met Sara Abou Rashed in 2015 at the Thurber House, a nonprofit writing and literary center in Columbus, Ohio. Our storytelling connection started in a familiar way: with her Six-Word Memoir:
“Escaped war; war never escaped me.” 
I wanted to know more, and have been fortunate both to work with Sara to shape the story behind those six words, and get to know her as a person and an artist. Even at the age of 17, speaking in a new language, Sara was most talented natural storyteller I had ever met. She took part in a few of my Six Words Live shows in which storytellers start with a Six-Word Memoir and then share the backstory in about 10 minutes.

After a show at the Tenement Museum in New York City in December 2018, we went out for Sara’s first slice of New York pizza. I asked her if she thought she could do a whole hour about her life. She told me that was a dream of hers. We got to work, and now our show at Stage 773 will be our thirteenth performance of A Map of Myself.

I knew about your writing background but never knew you had a background in theater. Tell me more. Have you ever directed a play before? 
I don’t have anything approaching a formal background in theater. But I’ve worked with hundreds of storytellers to get them ready to share a story in 5 to 20 minutes, without notes, on many stages over the past decade. As I coach them, we work on elements of live storytelling like presence and body language. But for sure, a 70-minute play with lights and visuals was a whole new ballgame. I was lucky to have great theater mentors in Columbus, and many others who were helpful ears and eyes along the way

What did you find most challenging about directing and staging a one person show? 
Mostly time. Sara is a full-time student at Denison University and I have many hats running the Six-Word Memoir project, doing workshops with companies and in schools, and being a father and a husband. You need time to do anything, of course, but when it’s something like theater that was largely new to me, I needed both time and a lot of quiet among life’s daily chaos to figure out how to be a producer and director. You find the time for the things that matter; and so Sara and I both did.

Did you edit A Map of Myself? 
I worked with Sara on every part of the play — in person, on Google Docs, and via lots of hours on
Facetime. In terms of the writing, she wrote the play and I was her very involved and vocal editor. Sometimes we would talk for an hour and decide to change just two or three words of the script. I we both loved every minute of it.

What part of Map of Myself is most memorable for you and why? 
The talkbacks and audience discussion after each performance. Every one is different, every one is inspiring.

What has your directorial debut taught you? Would you like to do more theater? 
These three words: trust the process. And two more: trust yourself. In many ways everything I’ve been learning about storytelling my whole life led to directing Map. It was often scary and challenging, but, again, the generosity of the theater community kept me going and believing in myself and in Sara. I hope to be part of more theater experiences in the future.

In a sense this play is a follow up to Fresh Off the Boat. What fascinates you about the immigrant experience? 
Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America was a book that I wanted to do long before this current administration. It came out a few months into the Trump presidency and of course took on a new urgency and importance. But the themes the book addresses six words at a time and that Sara digs into in her poetry and in A Map of Myself are timeless:
Who are we as a nation? How does my family’s journey to America tell the story of this country as a whole? What kind of America do we want to be?
Both Fresh Off the Boat (my book and ABC TV show I partnered with to make it) and A Map of Myself answer these questions — and many more — through great storytelling.

What’s next for A Map of Myself? 
We’re back to Ohio for a show at Otterbein University and then working on bringing it to more venues across America.

What’s next for you? 
Bringing A Map of Myself to more venues across the country so as many people as possible can experience it; working on a new Six-Word Memoir book around life at every age; continuing to do talks at conferences and leading workshops at companies and in classrooms.

As always, thanks so much for your time and support Larry. 

Sara Abou Rashed has provided us with an eye opening vision as to the immigrant experience. Come share it with her this Saturday and witness the performance of someone I think we’re going to see a lot more of in the future.

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