In Conversation with Morgan Norwich and Johnnie Walker – “Scheherazade” at the Next Stage Theatre Festival
Interview by Madryn McCabe
I sat down with Morgan Norwich and Johnnie Walker, director and writer, in a busy café to discuss their latest production, Scheherazade playing now as part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival.
MM: So why don’t you tell me a little bit about Sceherazade?
MN: Sure! It’s an adaptation of 1001 Nights, with the twist that the story is more from the perspective of the character of Scheherazade, who, while she is the teller of the original 1001 Nights, we don’t get to know too much about her. So we created a world where she lives in this crazy, totalitarian society where they’re killing a young woman every morning at dawn, and with a weird anachronistic, modern spin on it with lots of sex, which is also inherent to The Nights, and lots of pop cultural references. That’s about it, wouldn’t you say?
JW: Yeah. In a way I feel like we’re just unearthing the sex and violence that were totally there all along. The Nights have really been sanitized and ‘Disneyfied’ over the years. Sometimes certain bits of the stories go by so fast that you don’t take the time to think about them. But even the whole setup for the story, that there’s this king that marries a different woman every day, sleeps with her, has her killed and marries another one the next day… It’s sex, and violence and sexual violence that are so at the core of the whole thing. But if you say it quickly enough, you sort of skip them somehow. So it’s not like we’re shoving all this new sex and violence into it. It’s already there. I think we’re giving it room to breathe and say “Look at all the stuff that was here this whole time that you missed”.
MM: So was this a story that you had always wanted to tell, or was it that you set out to find a show that was the untold story? Why this story?
JW: That’s a good question. It’s been so long…
MM: How long have you been working on it?
MN: Over two years now.
JW: Yeah that would have been about fall of 2010.
MN: So even longer than that.
JW: And that was a very short, early version of the very beginning of the play that was like a little workshop. And then we came back to it the year after that a bit more seriously.
MN: We did a workshop of it with just two actors, just focusing on the characters of Scheherazade and Dunyazade, the sisters, and out of that workshop came this idea for the world of the play being this dystopian, but also very familiar, wedding-obsessed culture, and all the ideas of consumerism layered into the existing narrative. That came out of that workshop.
JW: I’ve always been into the character of Scheherazade, even just the name I like.
MM: So what about Scheherazade is appealing to you?
JW: Just the idea that there is this totally brutal regime that she’s living in, this insane tyrant running the country, and that her plan to take him down is all through art. And it’s totally pacifist. She’s just smart. She’s smarter than everyone, a really good storyteller, and she doesn’t need to come up with some… It’s a very genre show in a lot of ways, it feels very genre-ish, where it has this dystopian, almost science fiction without the science feel to it. I’m kind of a nerdy guy in a lot of ways. I like seeing a superhero movie, or we’re both fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and things like that, and in the last couple of years I have noticed seeing a lot of this stuff that, even though those shows or movies are really smart and have a lot of sophisticated things to say, it ultimately comes down to people punching each other. And that usually is the only way to solve problems. I love how that is not what Scheherazade is about. Never in part of her plan is “Oh I’ll trick him with this story, and then I’ll shoot him in the face”. That’s not what her deal is. And in the show I think we’re trying to examine “Is it possible to have that? Is that kind of resistance possible? Where does it work and where doesn’t it work? Where can a plan like that really succeed? And where can it really fail?”
MM: So is it possible to change the world through creative, non-violent means?
MM: Is this the kind of play you guys are always looking to do? These strong female-centred shows?
MN: For the most part. I consider Johnnie to be one of the best feminist playwrights, of the male feminist playwrights for sure.
JW: Oh that’s so nice! I like that!
MN: Well I do. I always have. So another really large show that we did a few years ago was called Eight Girls Without Boyfriends which, I don’t think Johnnie realized this when he wrote it, was sort of a witte-fem inspired, cabaret piece that was also about these empowered female characters. So I don’t know if it’s something that’s always been conscious, but it’s been the kind of thing we’ve always done just because of who we are.
JW: I think both of us are really interested in feminism and gender and also sexuality.
MN: One of the other things that Johnnie and I do when we’re not doing shows is we work with an all-male burlesque troupe called Boylesque T.O. so we’ve been in the last few years exposed to the burlesque community and the gender play on it because, with the exception of me, it’s all guys in the troupe. I feel like probably a lot of my experience with both the male burlesque troupe and other female burlesque troupes that I’ve hosted with since we started doing that has informed a lot of certainly the staging of sexuality that’s gone into the show, but also, when you’re around sex-positive people all the time you get a good attitude about that kind of thing and you want to express it onstage.
MM: After having seen the show last night, I can say there’s a lot of sex in the show, but it’s funny, a lot of it is very light.
MN: Except when it’s not! And then it’s not.
MM: Right. And for the most part, when there’s sex in other plays, you can see it coming and you feel like “oh there’s going to be sex and I’m going to be uncomfortable seeing this with all these other people” and you guys just put it out there. It’s very “it is what it is” and then you move on to the next part.
MN: And so you didn’t feel uncomfortable? Oh good!
MM: And the audience loved it. They thought it was really funny. Especially, I would say, the older members of the audience. So do you usually get a good reception from people for this kind of work?
JW: Some people have actually said that this show is a departure for us in a lot of ways. That level of sexuality is not in our previous shows.
MM: So why make such a departure?
JW: We wanted to tell this story. We both came at it from different angles, and it was important to the both of us in different ways. And in the same ways also. So I think you need it for the story. When I was writing it, I didn’t throw in any orgies that aren’t in the original plot and aren’t integral to the plot.
MM: It’s funny that you say that because going into the show I thought “Oh we all know the story of Scheherazade” but apparently we DON’T really know the story. You had said earlier that it’s really the untold story. It’s been so ‘Disneyfied’, and we really know more about the stories that she tells versus the story of her.
JW: Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sinbad are the ones that all rise to the top. And ironically, those are the stories that are in 1001 Nights where no original has been found. They were all translated in the 1800s into French by this guy Guillaume, and those three stories, which have become the most popular, no one has found the original that he translated from. So there’s a lot of speculation that he actually wrote them himself, inspired by the tales. It’s kind of hilarious that those have become the iconic stories. When you read the tales, almost every story are as good as those, as good as Aladdin. There are so many amazing ones that we don’t know. And in the show itself we have these moments. Like, right before the first orgy scene, they come on and do this sort of tasteful sexuality.They’re sort of posed in a silly way and she says, “slaves let us bathe and let us lie together” which, in the translation that we’re working from, is directly in the text. But I thought that was so sanitized. It’s a translation of a translation of a translation. Somebody has put their 20th century, prudish, Westernized idea of what that means. But really, think about that for a minute. What does ‘let us bathe and let us lie together’ mean? It doesn’t mean ‘scrub my arm and let’s have a nap’. It’s a big orgy. That’s what that means. There are these details that came out and it’s very explicit in the story that Scheherazade’s whole plan can’t start until she and the king have sex. It has to happen to complete their marriage. And it’s specific about the fact that her younger sister is in the room while that happens. In the original, she’s actually under the bed.
MN: We didn’t go that far!
JW: We even toned it down from that! But it’s one of those things that people just glide past in the text. “Oh yeah, Dunyazade was lying under the bed, then she came out with a plate of food”. No! Wait! Give that a moment. She’s in the same room as her sister while she is sort of raped by this tyrant. It’s a huge deal. And you need to give that its time. So it was about unearthing these bits. If this happened in real life, it would be a big deal. And the narrative isn’t quite letting it be.
MN: One of the things, right off the bat in rehearsal that we talked to the actors about was checking their own assumptions about the story and the world because of all of our ‘over-Disneyfied’ childhoods. We literally got to a point where everyone got one Disney’s Aladdin reference per rehearsal and then we had to shelve it and put it away. As much as so much of the play has ended up being cartoonish, which works for the kind of satire we’re doing, it didn’t help to go back to images in our heads of the Disney movie.
JW: Would you say that we’re dealing with A Whole New World?
MN: I would, but I can only say that once today! That’s the rule.
MM: Are you able to do this show because it’s part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival?
MN: Yes. Next Stage provides a lot of resources in terms of giving us the space, the box office, the technicians, stuff that’s really difficult to afford for even a small show. But when you’re dealing with a cast of eleven, plus three designers, plus stage manager, plus producer, the cost just grows and grows. Having the context of the festival is actually what has made it possible.
JW: And the cache too.
MM: So because it’s part of THIS festival, you can put on THIS play? Would you have been able to find the support, not just financially, somewhere else? Do you think you could have done this play without being a part of this festival?
MN: I don’t think something like this, even at the Toronto Fringe, we could have pulled off in the same way. Because it’s a smaller festival, we get a little bit of extra support, in terms of media stuff in particular.
JW: We were successful in some of our grant applications, and I think that’s partly because we were part of this festival. It’s a known entity. Even though it’s not that old as a festival, I think it has a great reputation. It’s a kind of risky show in a way for the performers, so to be able to hand them the script and say “we’re doing it here” is nicer than “here’s this crazy show with orgies and stuff, and we’re going to do it in a garage”.
MN: There’s a safety net, for sure.
MM: Do you have anything else in the works? Maybe want to give us a preview?
MN: This show has been so all consuming! We’ve got burlesque stuff happening immediately after, and I’ve got something in the Rhubarb Festival. But it’s going to be very weird for this to be over.
JW: We also do our show Redheaded Stepchild, that’s coming up. We have a show that we did in Edmonton last year called Amusement that we’re hoping to do in Toronto at some point. We don’t have an exact plan for that yet, but hopefully we’ll get something together.
MM: So to wrap up, in three words, why should people go see Scheherazade?
MN: Natasha [Greenblatt] in the show sent a really good email inviting someone to come that said “There are three orgies and a knife fight” so I’m going to say Three Orgies, Knife-fight. I can hyphenate that, right?
JW: I was just going to say Butts, Butts, Butts. When we got into the costumes, I realized there are a lot of butts in this play. So there’s a butt for everyone!
Presented by Nobody’s Business theatre
Written by: Johnnie Walker
Directed by: Morgan Norwich
Where: Factory Theatre
Monday, January 13th, 2014 at 7:00 p.m.
Thursday, January 16th, 2014 at 5:15 p.m.
Friday, January 17th, 2014 at 9:15 p.m.
Saturday, January 18th, 2014 at 6:45 p.m.
Sunday, January 19th, 2014 at 9:15 p.m.
Tickets: $15 . For online sales, go to www.fringetoronto.com. Tickets can be purchased by phone at 416-966-1062, or in person at the venue. For more information, go to www.nobodysbusiness.ca.