A common interpretation of the Middle Eastern folk tale collection “One Thousand and One Nights” is that Scheherazade, a new bride, keeps herself alive by entertaining her husband, the king, with a new story each night.
In an original production “Pay No Attention to the Girl,” Brooklyn-based Target Margin Theater explores the stories in the spirit of the intergenerational oral tradition that is responsible for the folk tale collection in the first place.
“There is no definitive version of this collection,” said Target Margin Theater’s artistic director David Herskovits. “It is a tradition of hundreds of years of oral storytelling, and it comes from India and Persia and Arabic language and pre-Islamic and post-Islamic and Turkish. European translators get involved in retelling them, and that’s how we come to know lots of these stories in westernized versions.”
Actor Caitlin Nasema Cassidy said that the tales are often considered a document of Silk Road cultures, as indicated by its European moniker “Arabian Nights,” with stories spanning the continents.
“(The tales) are influenced by storytellers who traveled to France and delivered some of the orphan tales in Paris, and those orphan tales were shaped by the reign of King Louis XIV, and the Syrian storytellers’ journeys across Europe,” she said.
Cassidy’s mother is Lebanese and Syrian. When she first started to work on this material, she felt a personal connection to the stories, she said. But the more time she spends with the material, the more she thinks that these folk tales belong to everyone — and no one.
“I’m so grateful because it’s opened me up to questions of authenticity, and whose story is whose, and who gets to tell which story, and which actor should be involved,” she said.
Cassidy point to a larger trend in storytelling today, one that hinges on the accessibility of information via the internet and the ease of sharing personal narratives, which makes the stories of minorities and the marginalized more prominent.
“Pay No Attention to the Girl” bridges the gap between traditional and modern storytelling through a culturally diverse lens, according to Herskovits. Today’s version is the result of two years of workshops.
“We just experimented with two questions,” Herskovits said. “One: What are the different ways that we could tell these stories? And two: How can we keep reinventing them ourselves?”
In order to incorporate a variety of voices and viewpoints into the script, workshops were audio recorded and transcribed. Even side conversations were incorporated into the script, drawing on oral storytelling tradition.
“Our process is radically inclusive, in the sense that everybody in the room gets a voice in it,” Herskovits said. “The actors, the designers, the stage managers, the people in our administration came into the workshop sometimes and shares thoughts about the stories — everybody gets a chance to tell their own versions. The language that we wind up using ultimately comes from all of us.”
The cast uses minor role transitions as a subtle commentary on the fluidity of these oral stories.
“There’ll be points in some stories where we’ll switch roles inside of the story,” actor Anthony Merchant said. “I’m playing the prince, and then I’m passing off the prince to this person, and I’ll become the narrator and then we’ll switch again. We’re storytellers. I could take on whatever you need me to take on at any particular moment.”
The actors share the words and stories of others and represent not only the voices of their company, but the oral storytellers who first brought shape to “One Thousand and One Nights.”
Geena Matuson is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse University.