Since I last wrote in late August, STC has prepped for the arrival of the company of Yäel Farber’s Salomé, and four weeks of rehearsal have unfolded. In other words, it’s been four weeks since my last post, and it feels like a lifetime.
Of the projects we’ve done in my five seasons at the theatre, this one is probably the most artistically ambitious. It’s the kind of show you train for as a dramaturg, a real thrill and milestone in my career, unlike any other professional experience I have had in 10 years of doing this professionally.
Yaël is certainly one of the most unique theatre artists I’ve worked with. She’s South African but lives in Montreal, and she has mounted productions in Africa, Europe, and India. Though she has had rave reviews for New York mountings of her productions, this is her first work to be written and rehearsed on American soil. And she has assembled a company from around the world for it: actors hailing from the United Kingdom, the Middle East, Australia, New York, and locally.
Two of the cast members are from Syria. Ramzi Choukair, who plays John the Baptist (or “Iokanaan,” his real name) is actually from the same town as John the Baptist. His home, which he hasn’t seen since the Syrian Civil War began, lies 40 meters from John’s head. He lives now in Marseille. The other Arab cast member, Lubana Al Quntar, is Ramzi’s close friend, and a trained Syrian opera singer. Amazingly, she lives in Northern Virginia. After Ramzi was cast, we knew we needed to find a rehearsal translator for him, something we’ve never had to do for a show before. After reaching out to local members of the refugee community, we have ended up with a group of three rehearsal translators. When we did a one-week workshop this past May, the room rang with Arabic, French, and Hebrew intermingling with English. The polyglot world of Salomé was being created.
Rehearsals have mostly been closed— Yaël considers the rehearsal room a sacred space—but I have been lucky enough to participate in discussions of the material. Yaël has a profound sense of duty to this story, which she considers one of the pivot points in world history. Most people know the Salomé story from Oscar Wilde’s play or Strauss’s opera, but we discovered during the research process that biblical accounts are much scarcer in detail and profoundly different in their emphasis. For instance, there’s mention of a dance, but no seven veils, and Salomé isn’t even identified by name. As with The Critic, being in the room with the material always allows you to look at the world with fresh eyes. In this case, we were looking at the material and building it from the ground up as well. Yaël came to understand this as a story of an occupied people dealing with a Roman colonizer, and the dance of this one nameless woman as an act of immense moral courage and political agency.
In late August, Yaël invited me up to New York to help her take notes on discussions with the design team. It quickly became clear that Susan Hilferty, one of the most accomplished of American theatre designers, has worked as a kind of additional dramaturg on the show, curating a series of choices with Yaël on how the sets and costumes will function together. They have created a dramatic world that evokes something both ancient and modern, ritualistic as well as politically charged.