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I asked the design team of Company One’s 1001 what their inspirations and processes were to create the otherworldly space of the show. Here’s what they had to say:

Costume Designer Lisa Polito

I wanted to respect that the play is written to be a trunk show and make it fun and kooky, but also make it look edgy and reconsider these stock characters and the Arabian Nights stories that we’ve heard before. My process was really a matter of trying to understand Megan’s vision and from there bring in my own flair.

I had to look at Orientalist paintings to get a color scheme and understand more about textures. Normally my work is very dark, so it was a great opportunity to bring out these vibrant colors that I wouldn’t normally do. It’s almost this bastardization of all these stories coming together but they all cohesively live together.

Sound Designer Arshan Gailus

Very early in the process Megan had stated, and it’s written in Grote’s script, that it’s important certain storylines don’t feel more real than other storylines. What I took away from that is they should all feel foreign and dreamy. Any of the bizarro-magical-Arabia-land scenes are going to feel foreign to us regardless of what we do with them. For me the key was thinking about everything that way, including things that might be more familiar to us; letting them feel bizarre and foreign.

[The Alan and Dahna dance] is one of those moments that’s highly notated in the script. What was key for me both in the beginning where it’s a clubby feel and at the end which is more Zen, Sufi business, that throughout it should feel like a cathartic mind-space-zen feel. That’s something true about the club feeling anyway. That’s why people go to clubs, to have their mind erased by a massive wall of sound. I tried to preserve that feeling through the whole thing.

There’s a number of moments when this catastrophic event is referenced from different angles; from different levels of either abstraction, to a stylized version, to a more real version. I found that very interesting sound-wise: how to make that read as the same catastrophic thing, but what it might look like from different viewpoints, distances and times.

Set Designer Christina Todesco

We started with more of a club atmosphere; I wanted to make it this dangerous place, maybe what raves used to be in the 90s, but a place where anything could happen. It contains people’s dreams, hopes, but also danger and adventure. There’s also this strong feeling of vaudeville play in it, where actors come to this space and play and invent. I think that’s the hopeful sentiment you come away with, that there was a lot of fun had onstage, even though there were a lot of dark and heavy themes; the idea of the trunk show, pulling anything out of a box and becoming that thing, creating this entire story, inventing and entertaining people.

There were a lot of images of Arab bazaars that were really enticing, but that’s not where this story is told. This story is told within the actors’ imaginations, so to describe a bazaar and all of its things is really distracting and completely superfluous. What’s so interesting about a bazaar? It contains a lot of collections, there’s abundance. So dealing with the BCA Plaza’s shape and character, how can we create a feeling of abundance, of space, of adventure, of romance? We created a space that was a collection of columns, and ottomans, and things that could be transformed. The intent of the space is to be able to transform with the stories. There wasn’t one specific image that sparked me, but a collection of images that we overlapped and stripped things away from. The process mimics the content, in a way.

Props Designer Jason Ries

What really struck me the first time I read the script was how important the process and the story was, both in very overt ways and in very subtle ways. There’s a lot of language in the script about how who we are is a collection of stories. That struck me particularly strongly because I’ve been lucky enough to work for the last couple of years with the sister cities program between Somerville and Tiznit, Morocco. In getting ready for the trip and learning more about Morocco, we found that in Arabic culture that one has a story in one’s heart, it’s a lot like DNA or fingerprints. What was new to me was how embedded in the culture the story is. What I continued to come back to was that each of the items in the show has its own story. Props as much as any other design element really modulate over the course of rehearsal. You have to get rehearsal props in hand, but they do have their own journey.

One of the books I picked up that we’re using as one of the dusty Islamic tomes is a book of all the page ones of the New York Times from the last century. I brought it to use as a rehearsal prop to get a sense of the size of the thing we were looking at. The cast looked through it, reading what happened when. That resonated for me in terms of how they interacted with the stories.

I hope what we’ve done is create a simple world from a properties perspective where it makes sense that the few pedestrian pieces that we have and the more intense pieces that we have make sense that they stand alone. There’s never more than a couple hand props in one scene at a given time, and there’s some scenes that don’t have much at all. We’re not creating an Arabian bazaar or Alan and Dahna’s apartment, we’re creating little bits and pieces both real and fantasy.

At the end of this it’s going to be hard for me to walk away from the lamp. There’s a sense of connection even though it’s used in a very short moment. It’s very valuable to what we’re doing here because it’s so evocative.

Lighting Designer David Roy

Most of my inspiration came from sources that Megan talked about with me: a bunch of old movies that we watched, different books and visual things we came up with. It was really a collaboration between me, the director and the set designer to come up with a bunch of different images that would be iconic. From there it became a process of how to get some of those images into the theater.

I tried to do a lot with color to move things between different worlds. This show jumps back and forth in different presentation modes so there’s a lot of different angles that are used. I really like the footlights. We made the decision that a lot of the show would be kept darker and very shadowy. There’s 32 scenes in the show so there’s a lot of variety that we had to be able to find. It’s a big fantasy show that goes everywhere pretty fast. It was challenging on that front but I feel like it’s coming together.

Much like in Hitchcock’s Vertigo it’s very hard to determine who’s telling the story, where they’re telling it from and which part of the story you’re in and never come to an answer: it’s all endless twists. The way the show interconnects, we tried with the blocking and lighting to hint at things to come. There’s a moment in the end of the show where that comes together in a good way.

Dialect Coach Liz Hayes

Straight out of the gate I talked to Megan, our director, who had some solid ideas about where the “Scheherazade world” as we came to call it lived; this place in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between heightened British English and American English, this 1940s Mid-Atlantic dialect. We started watching movies from that era, and we thought the way those films handled heightened speech was an interesting choice for the Scheherazade world. It serves the stories very well. It’s a varied landscape of vocal choices in the piece, and especially the actors quadrupling and quintupling themselves in the piece have done a lot of vocal work distinguishing one character from another. We were after clear character distinction in what they were wearing, how they moved and how they sounded. It was a real gift coming onto this project to work with a director who encouraged some big vocal choices and honor the fact that vocal choices that are important.

Everyone’s doing a great job of embracing this heightened, stylized language. They’re having fun and chewing on these delicious words they get to say. Ben [Gracia], as the One-Eyed Arab gets to say a string of descriptive fruits and really has a lot of fun with it. Lonnie [McAdoo]’s characterization blending Osama bin Laden with Vincent Price is over-the-top and awesome. The differentiation Ruby [Rose Fox] is making is really delightful when Juml the slave-girl has to take on the characteristics of Maridah the princess, lisp and all. It’s delightful to sit back and hang on for the ride.

    

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West Side Story

An example of a club scene that becomes transcendent a la the dance of Alan and Dahna. Please comment and leave your thoughts if you wish!

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I really wanted to include a poem by Persian Sufi master Hafiz in the program notes, but he unfortunately got bested by Rumi (darn!) So I thought I’d include the poem that I was hoping to put in the program on the blog for you all to read. The poem was translated by Daniel Landinsky. 

GOD’S BUCKET
 
“If this world
Was not held in God’s bucket
 
How could an ocean stand upside down
On its head and never lose a drop?
 
If your life was not contained in God’s cup
 
How could you be so brave and laugh, 
Dance in the face of death?
 
Hafiz,
There is a private chamber in the soul
That knows a great secret
 
Of which no tongue can speak.
 
Your existence my dear, O love my dear, 
Has been sealed and marked
 
“Too sacred,” “too sacred,” by the beloved – 
To ever end! 
 
Indeed God
Has written a thousand promises
All over your heart
 
That say,
Life, Life, life,
Is far too sacred to 
Ever end. "


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Poe's "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherezade"

Many 19th century authors besides Flaubert were influenced and moved by The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, Edgar Allen Poe, apparently, being one of them. In his parody/sequel of the Thousand and One Nights, Poe has Scheherezade tell Shahriyar the last of Sinbad’s adventures, where he journeys to a land much like the Victorian Occident. Reads very much like Sindbad’s Ikea speech - of course, for the sexism, you have to wait till the end. 

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The French band “The Orientals” performs in their music video for “Ali Baba Twist.”

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The Journal of the 1001 Nights

I’m getting a lot of these illustration things from this wonderful blog dedicated to information re: Quitab Alif Lailah ua Lailah. I’m in the middle of perusing it right now, but feel free to check it out, it’s quite actively up-to-date. It’s run by Michael Lundell, a PhD candidate at UCSD focusing on the Nights. Thanks Michael!!

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Dalziel’s Illustrated Arabian Night’s Entertainments - The Dalziel Brothers were a prominent Victorian engraving firm that illustrated countless books during the late 19th century. Check out some of there engravings for Burton’s translation of Arabian Night’s Entertainments, first published with the engravings 1865.

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Walter Crane's Illustrated "Aladdin, and the Wonderful Lamp"

Take a look at this children’s version of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” illustrated by Walter Crane (scroll down, it’s the last story on the page.) We were talking a little about the inherent racism in a lot of the 1001 nights (filthy blackamoor cooks, etc.)

In this illustrated edition not only is Aladdin of some unidentifiable east Asian ethnicity, all of the villains/servants are black. When Aladdin and his mother ask the Genius of the Lamp for food, “a black slave instantly entered with the choicest fare upon a dainty dish of silver, and with silver plates for them to eat from.”

Aladdin, now rich and surrounded by slaves, from Walter Crane's "The Frog Prince and Other Stories" (Routelidge, 1874)

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Check out the comments on the video, that’s one of the more interesting parts too. To me this real life interview is an odd reflection of the scene between Dahna and Alan Dershowtiz.

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Theatrical trailer for the 1940 technicolor classic The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Talk about western perceptions of the east going a little overboard … you can also watch the entire film on youtube here. EDIT: The film is no longer available! How sad! We fortunately have the DVD of the movie, so if anyone’s interested let us know. Also Ruby found this wonderful essay about the film, definitely worth a read.

In that same vein, here’s Elizabeth Taylor’s entrance into Rome from the 1963 film Cleopatra. Happy Orientalisming!