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The power of storytelling underpins Arabian Nights production

Stories can capture the imagination of a king.
Stories can capture the imagination of a king.
The Arabian Nights, photo: Mike Hipple Photography

Mary Zimmerman’s highly individual adaptation of the tales of Scheherazade is the latest offering from the University of Washington’s School of Drama. As with other Zimmerman works such as Metamorphoses or The Secret in the Wings, her play Arabian Nights invokes the magic of storytelling to change people.

Leah Adcock-Starr, a second-year student in the Professional Director Training Program at UW, selected the work for her local debut. Prior to coming to Seattle, Leah was the Teen Programs Coordinator for the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company. She created and directed Work of Heart, an original musical odyssey with Interact Arts Center, and directed a promenade STOMP–inspired production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Upright Egg Theatre Company.

Recently she discussed how Scheherazade’s battle to save her life through storytelling and the works of MacArthur Genius award-winner Zimmerman inspired her.

Why did you decide to do this play?
Scheherazade. She is a hero of mine. Scheherazade uses story to create change. She tells stories to save her life (and her sisters) and to redeem a King’s heart. Story is her ‘weapon’ against atrocity and injustice. The weapon she wields is narrative. I am profoundly inspired by that. The opportunity to tackle the story of King Shahryar and Scheherazade, and give it to an audience, is one that I simply could not ignore.

What is about Zimmerman’s work that intrigues you?
Zimmerman takes the mythic in scope, the epic scale, and the classical human story and puts it on stage in front of a live audience. In order to do this kind of work you need to be inventive and creative with the theatrical tools you are provided. The world must transform and it must do so in front of your audience. That’s a magic moment. The challenge and opportunity to dazzle and be dazzled is exhilarating.

As the director of this production, how did you decide to create Scheherazade’s world?
Before the rehearsal process began with the actors, the design team and I generated ideas together about what each story might look like. We determined that our ‘storytelling tools’ would be a few pieces of silk, a handful of poles, the actors’ bodies, and the audience’s imagination. Early in rehearsal, the ensemble, our choreographer, and I spent time creating the physical language for the world of the play using the ideas generated in design conversations as a launch point. The physical world of the play that is living on stage now is a collision and combination of ideas from every artist involved with this production. This kind of work demands a great deal from the actors who take it on. They must be physically specific and clear and connected to the reality of the moment even when, especially when, the story requires a heightened style. The imaginative rigor required is intense. It is the same for the audience.

So which of Scheherazade's stories resonate the most with you?
That’s kind of impossible to answer. It is like asking me to look at the night sky and name the most beautiful constellation. The answer will change every time I look up.

If you were asked to adapt a myth or a book for the stage, which one would you like to do?
The Bible? Just kidding. Maybe. The Old Testament is as epic as you get and populated with incredible characters and is profoundly moving. What an impossible delicious challenge it would be! But there are so many stories on my list. I've got a shadow puppet Odyssey in my head somewhere and another piece that takes on the whole of the Trojan War. But most recently I've been thinking about and wanting to reconnect with a book that had a huge impact on me, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It is a sprawling sweeping family saga with biblical themes and all sorts of tragedy and beauty. That would be an incredible undertaking.


The Arabian Nights opens tonight (Feb. 28) at Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse, 4045 University Way NE. Performances continue Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm until March 9. Tickets are available from UW Arts Ticket Office.

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