Organs, Tissues and Candy Games, the inaugural show in the Black Box Theatre at NYU Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Campus, and a collaboration with the acclaimed Zoukak Theatre Company from Lebanon, premiered in early to November to a sold-out crowd. Inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus, the piece was an "investigation into modern day monstrosity. It questions the role of policymaking in scientific advancement and the insatiable pursuit for immortality and security." Following the opening, Salaam checked in with NYUAD Theater and Arts Program Associate Producer Gaar Adams and the Zoukak Theatre Company to learn more about the show, its inspiration, and its conception.
1. Organs, Tissues and Candy Games is "an investigation into modern day monstrosity" inspired by the story of Frankenstein. How did you develop this unique story?
NYUAD: The NYU Abu Dhabi Theater Program's student productions have a history of taking incredibly rich source material — The Ramayana, The Odyssey, Moby Dick, and now Frankenstein — and investigating the ways in which these stories are refracted through a variety of lenses: literature, ritual, storytelling, collective memory, pop culture. The program has had less of an interest in handing actors scripts than in making the cast operate as collaborators in developing the piece together from the ground up — using their own experiences and investigations in the source material to draw a story together.
ZOUKAK: The story comes from an interest in questioning what we consider as monstrous today and how our relationship to death and immortality is shifting with regards to the wars surrounding us and our continuous quest for scientific advancement.
2. Can you tell us about the partnership with Zoukak? How did it come about?
NYUAD: The theater program is deeply committed to affording its students the opportunity to work with a variety of artists and practitioners from around the region and across the globe. We've been incredibly lucky to get to know Maya [Director Maya Zbib] and Zoukak over the past few years, and for that we're indebted to our colleague Catherine Coray for first bringing Maya here as guest of the NYUAD Institute for a panel on Beiruti theater. The way that Zoukak operates as a company — collaboratively and with an emphasis on process and the act of creation — has excited us from the moment we met.
3. What was the preparation like for this show? What was the process?
ZOUKAK: The show was created as a result of improvisation and composition exercises with the team of student actors. The work developed along various dramaturgical lines that intersect with our interpretation of Mary Shelley's novel, dealing with galvanism, cyborg theories, HeLa cells, military technology, gothic feminism...among others.
NYUAD: It's also an incredibly labor-intensive process within a very condensed timeframe. The production went from ideation to opening in seven weeks, and the commitment of everyone involved-particularly the students-was tremendous. Rehearsals began in a small studio and then moved to our gorgeous Black Box facility where the show was ultimately staged. That transition-along with every step of the way-means that everyone needs to be in sync: production, stage management, the director's team, cast, crew, build team, box office, front of house, everyone. It always surprises me when we invariably get requests weeks after the production to re-stage the whole thing — with the schedule of student actors and crew, that is, of course, impossible. Everyone works so hard for a finite number of performances, but there's something exhilarating about knowing that this beautiful creation exists just for a particular moment in time.
4. What aspect of this show are you most proud of?
ZOUKAK: The students did a great job! They really pushed themselves and tried new things and were brave enough to go along with all our ideas. We are also proud to perform the first show in the Black Box of the Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi and to have had a full house of very diverse audience members every night of the show.
NYUAD: You know, for four years, the theater program has operated without a real facility. At the temporary downtown campus, there just wasn't space for a theater. And now that we're able to operate in three beautiful ones, I'm so proud of how these students actors and crew rose to an incredibly historic moment. Three years ago when students staged The Ramayana, it was the first theater production in the history of Saadiyat Island, a remarkable feat when you consider that the island will eventually house some of the most remarkable cultural spaces in the world. And now that the opening of the Louvre and Guggenheim draw nearer — and to know that NYU is here as well — to see these students step up as part of that cultural conversation makes us incredibly proud.
5. What does success look like to you when you are developing the concept for a new show?
ZOUKAK: When everybody in the team feels fulfilled having been part of the process. And when the questions we wanted to ask ourselves at the start of the work echo in the minds of the spectators when they see it, leading them to think about these issues.
6. Zoukak's approach to drama therapy and socially engaged theater is unique, how important is it to spark dialogue or inspection into social issues as a result of a performance?
ZOUKAK: Theater is a important platform for dealing with social and political issues that might not be easily tackled in a given social context. It provides a space for sharing and reflection, and these spaces are becoming more and more scarce in our contemporary world. So it is essential for theater to be aware of this power and to play this role today.
5. How do you endeavor to cultivate an environment of creativity and exchange at NYUAD?
NYUAD: I think there are really two parts to the equation. One, of course, is to engage the full University, and that means creating as many interdisciplinary links between departments and programs as possible. We're invested in having our mainstage student production be not just something for the whole University, but something by the whole University. For example a visual arts class created our full design campaign based on meetings with Zoukak. The literature program held a marathon reading of the original Shelley text, as well as a post-production panel. A music course designed the show's sound. Different faculty members mentored in voice, dramaturgy, lighting design. And, of course, non-theater majors acted in the production. But it's also important to recognize that the University doesn't — and shouldn't —
operate in a bubble and that we have a responsibility to engage with the greater Abu Dhabi community as well, which in turn enriches the university conversation around creativity and exchange.
6. What's next for the theater program?
NYUAD: It feels like the program is never stopping! This semester alone we've hosted over a dozen guest artists, scholars, workshops, and student-led projects — and the list keeps going! We've just finished our annual Global Shakespeare Festival — where students and artists from around the world come to the Arts Center for four days of intensive master classes and performances around the subject of Shakespeare in a global context. As the semester winds down, we're hosting two artists from Grotowski's Workcenter in Italy as well as two other theater-makers from Beirut for a residency. And then next semester, we begin work right away on our mainstage professional production, Theater Mitu's Hamlet / Ur-Hamlet.