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(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)

TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–Middle Eastern American Theatre series

JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.

TAOUS KHAZEM: I am an actor, teaching artist, director and sometimes playwright. Currently, I work in Minneapolis with a theatre company called The Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. We create original plays through improvisation with about 40 adult actors with and without disabilities. I also teach theatre to kids with SteppingStone Theatre and Children’s Theatre Company. I am on the COMPAS roster of professional teaching artists. I am a Many Voices Mentee this year at the Playwright’s Center—I just wrote my first full-length play. I am working on a second one-woman show based on my three years of living and working as a theatre artist in Algeria. I also work with a variety of theatre companies in the Twin Cities as an actor and I do commercial on-camera work.

JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?

TK: I identify as an Algerian-American. Sometimes to simplify I call myself an Arab-American. Among certain members of the North African community I specify that I am in fact Berber-American (Berber’s are the original people’s of North Africa). This identity has greatly influenced the work that I do. The first play I wrote was called Tizi Ouzou, inspired by and loosely based on my experiences traveling in Algeria (my father’s homeland) between 2003 and 2006. I am now working on a second solo show based on my time actually living in Algeria from 2008 to 2011. I have a love-hate relationship with Algeria. It is a constant source of inspiration, curiosity, and creativity for me. However, when I spend long periods of time there I become overwhelmed and frustrated. I married an Algerian theatre artist. In the Twin Cities have been cast in specifically Arab roles twice.

JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?

TK: I wonder about this. I don’t look particularly “Arab” or “Middle Eastern.” I do think that some theatre companies see me only playing “Arab” roles whereas other directors see me in a more general way. On the other hand some opportunities have been made available to me: the Many Voices program at the Playwright’s Center, playing an Iraqi woman, playing a Lebanese American superhero, feeling that I have a unique story to tell in creating my own work.

JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?

TK: Experience accumulates in our bones, in our muscle memory. Having a venue, a place to explore cultural questions creatively is important. Having collaborators with shared experience is vital. The Playwright’s Center recently connected me to playwright Mona Mansour who is also half Middle Eastern and American. It is so interesting how a connection can be made quickly with a simple shared experience of being half and half.

JL: What is the current state of Middle Eastern Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)

TK: I assume this means Middle Eastern Theatre in the U.S? (I could talk for hours about the state of theatre in Algeria…) The “Middle Eastern” community is so broad. Algeria is very different from Lebanon; Egypt is very different from Oman or from Iran for that matter. North Africans tend to hang out with Francophone communities rather than Levant communities. There are only a handful of theatre companies, that I know of, that are dedicated to producing Middle Eastern theatre. I think we need more playwrights writing roles for Middle Eastern performers. And then theatre companies reaching out to actually find talented performers of Middle Eastern heritage rather than just casting people with the “look.” We need more work bringing out the complexities being Middle Eastern (Arab, Muslim…) in the US today. I love Yussef El Guindi’s plays. They are funny and biting at the same time. I want to see work that has nothing to do with “1001 Nights” (which keeps popping up in plays written by non Middle Eastern playwrights).

JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?

TK: Read more new plays! Work with playwrights to develop work that cuts across culture. Work with ensemble or physical theatre based companies to invent new ways of telling stories from multiple perspectives.

Taous Claire Khazem teaches theatre to youth, young adults and adults with disabilities at SteppingStone Theatre, Stages Theatre, The Children’s Theatre and Interact Center for the Arts in the Twin Cities. She lived in Algeria for three years and taught theatre workshops in Casablanca, Morocco; Amman, Jordan and Albi, France. In Algeria, Taous worked with 7 women to gather folktales from elders in order to create an original production in the city of Bejaia. She developed a six month long theatre training course in acting, directing, scene design and playwrighting for 37 women from Algeria’s second biggest city, Oran. In addition, she has taught teachers in Algeria how to use theatre as a method for teaching English in the classroom in conjunction with the US Embassy Algiers and the British Council. In Oran, Taous created the theatre company Daraja Theatre performing in Paris, France and in Yaoundé, Cameroon; as well as in every major Algerian city. In the Twin Cities she has performed with Pangea World Theater, Frank Theatre, Dreamland Arts, Off Leash Area, Interact Center and Savage Umbrella. In 2009 Taous was named Performance of the Year by Minnpost for her work in Frank Theater’s Palace of the End. She performed her one-woman show Tizi Ouzou St. Paul and Bemidji, MN, Portland, Seattle, St. Paul, Washington D.C, Alexandria (Egypt) and for the US Embassy in Algiers. Taous trained as an actor at the Jacques Lecoq International Theatre School in Paris, France and holds a B.A in theatre and French from Macalester College. She is a Playwright’s Center 2012 Many Voices mentee.

Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.