Writing as Global Engagement: Ayad Akhtar

by Ayad Akhtar

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

Post image for Writing as Global Engagement: Ayad Akhtar

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

CARIDAD SVICH: You are not only a playwright, but also an actor, novelist and screenwriter. How do you , if at all, find yourself negotiating these related yet distinct creative identities?

AYAD AKHTAR: I think of myself as a dramatic storyteller, irrespective of the form. I think it’s how my mind works, how I process the world, experience. Seeing things in movement, in a particular kind of movement native to the dramatic form: Movement through reversal to points of recognition. I think I’ve always been this way. Interested in opposition, in the movement between poles of possibility, in what changes when this kind of movement happens.

CARIDAD SVICH: Are they ever in conflict? For example, might an idea for a novel suddenly become a play when you would rather it would be a novel?

AYAD AKHTAR: Each idea seems to have some natural inclination. Some require more interiority, others less. Sometimes an idea seems to call for a kind of being-with the characters that can only happen when actors incarnate people, and allow for the sort of corporeal possibilities that arise, the fierce devotion — even love — that a portrayal can occasion. Other times, the imagination of the reader is best allowed to make what it will without this sort of concreteness. So far, there hasn’t really been a conflict for me.

CARIDAD SVICH: Do you approach each form of writing – prose, drama, screenplay – differently? If so, how? In regard to innovation – the huge, encompassing topic of this salon – how do you seek the new? Push yourself and challenge yourself as an artist – via form and/.or content, or both?

AYAD AKHTAR: Inventiveness to me has to do with meeting the audience in a place of aliveness. Formal innovation can be the portal to that, but often formal innovation can actually be an impediment to the kind of directness I seek. I do think that having an awareness of the history of a form is important, but if you find yourself — as an artist — in dialogue with that history more than with the audience, then you might find yourself sacrificing something at the level of aliveness. Creative engagement with the world means not only engagement with the tradition, but with the world we are living in now. Brecht is kind of a paradigmatic figure for me in that regard, an artist who sought to speak to the world in which he was living, even if it meant that the work might not speak quite as powerfully to posterity as it did to those in his own time. I suspect someone like Beckett stands at something of the other extreme.

CARIDAD SVICH: When I work with younger writers, often the topic of whether to write a “universal” story invariably comes up. Sometimes there is this fear of being too “local,” or too “culturally specific” because there is a misguided assumption that locality in writing, might, in turn, potentially alienate an audience. Of course, we know that theatre, to choose one medium for this conversation’s purposes, is about transformation. I don’t live in Shakespeare’s Illyria or Mantua or Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans or August Wilson’s Pittsburgh, but when I witness the work, I enter the space metaphorically. All to say, have you ever wrestled as a writer with this very question of universality? And how have you gone through and past it conceptually and in practical terms in your works?

AYAD AKHTAR: Absolutely. It has been the central crossing of my writing career. I had a very formative experience in high school with a literature teacher who introduced me to writing. She had a passion for the great European modernist tradition, notably the writers of the French Existentialists and the Central European writers like Musil, Mann, Rilke and Kafka. I read so much of that stuff in my late teens, I means tons and tons of it. And I carried around a kind of assumption for years — without even realizing it — that writing in a universal way meant to me writing in a way that was specific to a particular tradition. Of course, that tradition — however wonderful — had very little to do with the specifics of my experience as a young Muslim-American in the Midwest. And so for the longest time, I had this feeling that I couldn’t write about my own life. Or if I did, it would have to be in some veiled or elliptical way, with identity somehow erased or at the margins, pressing in. I wrote like that for ten years, and it didn’t amount to much. It just didn’t have life. I was trying to hard to be something I wasn’t. Sometime in my early thirties, I realized what I was doing. And I realized that it wasn’t just an issue in my writing, but in my psychic make-up. On some level, I was running from who I was. Once I started to realize this, everything changed. And not just on the level of content, but form as well. I had resisted the familiarity of movie narrative structure, of the immediacy of movies. After all, that was what I grew up on, film and TV. So as I started to write more about what was familiar to me, I began to gravitate more and more to telling stories in film-inspired form, whether I was writing a play or a novel or a movie.

Something I now see very clearly — and which writing teachers are always saying, but which I just had to figure out for myself — is that the concretely-felt particular is the best portal to the universal. It took me a very long time to understand just how true this is.

CARIDAD SVICH: Your play The Invisible Hand premiered at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2012 under Seth Gordon’s direction. The play centers (for readers on TCG Circle who may not be familiar with the play) on the plight of an investment banker being held for ransom in Pakistan by Islamic militants, and the complex and thorny relationship that develops between the kidnapped banker and his captor. While the play is structured, in part, along the familiar designs of a thriller, it actually becomes, as the 75 minutes of its run time play on, a lesson of sorts on international finance and an ambiguous morality play. In Disgraced, the posh dinner party – the rich who might and do behave badly – a trope audiences recognize quite well – turns into a fiery debate and exploration of radical Islam and terrorism – and matters of faith and identity. Might you speak to both plays and their dialectical structures?

AYAD AKHTAR: I am interested in engaging audiences as profoundly as I can. Which means engaging not only their emotions, but to engage them on the level of intellectual imagination, and also to meet them in the matters that have to do with their own lives. In Disgraced, I wanted to engage the audience’s desire to be in that room, with a group of sexy people on the Upper East Side, living the life, talking about ideas. I wanted them to feel as I sometimes did when watching the Woody Allen films I loved so much in college, Manhattan, Annie Hall, Hannah & Her Sisters. I wanted to be one of those people. And this meant I invested so much more deeply in those stories. With The Invisible Hand, there is a different kind of audience implication at work. The play is about finance, about the stock market, and I am fully aware that so much of the audience is personally invested in these matters. On a daily basis. Indeed, after the play was over, audience members would sometimes seek me out to ask me what stock tips I had, whether I thought they should sell Apple, etc. It meant that the play was making them think about their own 401k(s), about their personal finances, etc. Some of this was by design, an awareness on my part that writing this play a certain way meant it would draw viewers in more deeply. Audience engagement, that’s what it’s always about for me.

CARIDAD SVICH: And also too to the processes with both in the practice hall and production? Did conversations arise, for instance, with your respective artistic/creative teams about the politics of representation?

AYAD AKHTAR: There were lots of discussions around this with Disgraced. At the end of the day, though, while these discussions were helpful in getting actors understand more clearly what the play was about, these discussions were not necessarily creative in nature. More than anything, the discussions were about making everyone just a little more comfortable with something that wasn’t very comfortable at all. It’s a difficult play, and there isn’t a simple discourse that can sit neatly atop it. In many ways, Disgraced is about the limits of discourse when it comes to race and identity, and so the trouble is never resolved. That’s not always an easy place to leave an audience as an actor.

CARIDAD SVICH: Prejudices audiences may have walking in?

AYAD AKHTAR: Again, there were discussions about this, but they were not of material importance to the creative work.

One of the wonders of working with director Kimberly Senior on the play was that she understood how to keep the actors focused on the play itself, and not on what the play could be said to be saying, etc. I do understand the desire to feel that one is doing something responsible, but that is not — in my opinion — a matter of concern for the artist. This sort of focus on the optics of representation can be an impediment to the exploration of things-as-they-are. I don’t think of art as an alternate universe that is intended to correct the dissonances of the world we are living in. If anything, art — as I see it — should thrust us more deeply, more humanly, more completely into those very dissonances. As such, Disgraced is resolutely not a corrective, not a public relations gesture intended, say, to humanize Muslims or some such for an audience that might be riddled with prejudices. Another way of saying it: Dialogue with the audience in the form of a simple dialectic intended to oppose their prejudices is perhaps an admirable goal, but I don’t see it as an artistic one.

CARIDAD SVICH: Prejudices and/or discomforts actors may have in playing the flawed natures of your characters – particularly Amir Kapoor in Disgraced?

AYAD AKHTAR: As I’ve addressed this to some degree above, let me just comment on the matter of flawed characters. I see drama as the result of our flawed natures, as an inquiry into those flawed natures. Our flawed natures are the entire subject of drama. Without flawed characters, there are no stories. No life in the work, no sense of recognition or reality in the work, no vitality, and above all, no audience engagement. As you can tell, I feel pretty strongly about this!

CARIDAD SVICH: You majored in theater at Brown University and then studied acting with Grotowski abroad for a year. How did training with Grotowski shape you as not only an actor but as a writer? How has it affected your process of art-making?

AYAD AKHTAR: Working with Grotowski was this single most formative experience of my early adulthood. But it wasn’t the “Grotowski form” that so affected me. His aesthetic was deeply informed by his Eastern European sensibility and had very little resonance for me artistically. It was his example. The singularity of his uncompromising vision, the way in which he had so fully shaped his life to his calling. He had a peerless intellect, a wide-ranging understanding not only of the theater, but of the human, and all of this was married to a staggering capacity to sit in the questions, not reaching for answers. Keats called this capacity “negative capability.” G had it in spades, and being exposed to it fundamentally affected not only what it meant to me to be an artist, but affected my understanding of what was possible as an artist.

CARIDAD SVICH: Many of the contributors to this blog series have stressed the difficulties of making work that is or may be classified as “innovative” within the larger scope of an industry that may place its market values elsewhere. How sometimes, oftentimes, the very question of value – what is granted value culturally vis a vis box office returns and so forth – can confuse the issue itself of innovation, and indeed – and this is the term I prefer – the making of visionary work. How do you see the role of the market and the role of the cultural work we do as artists as in or out of sync? And in what ways do you think action-able steps can be taken towards a more sustainable arts culture within the wider culture of society and politics?

AYAD AKHTAR: I have a particular point of view on this matter that is, perhaps, unusual. I spent a bunch of years making a living writing screenplays, and I learned a lot from it. I learned from the traditional forms. I learned from the demand of making the work engaging page to page. I learned from the pressures of the audience, the market, the producer. In film, if you can’t make a scene work, you get fired. And “making a scene work” is not something that you define. Others are defining it for you. Of course, that orientation has its dangers, but it bears noting that there can be much to learn from approaching work this way as well. I have sometimes felt that in the American theater, the writer is accorded too much authority. It doesn’t always foster an environment where engaging the audience is as important as it should be.

CARIDAD SVICH: Some of my colleagues feel that perhaps, after some time in US theatre where work being made looked inward – toward domestic concerns and so forth – that theatre-makers are starting to look outward again – to make work with a global lean/perspective, to position their making and thinking about work outside of narrow definitions of identity, nationhood, and such. What responsibilities do you think we have as artists to keeping the global and local in dialogue, dialectical or not, in our art-making? And how can we educate our audiences to think beyond the “kitchen sink?”

AYAD AKHTAR: Again, to me it isn’t really a question of responsibility. Other than the responsibility to do good work. That’s what is going to get people thinking and feeling. I think the danger with the narrower frame, the proverbial kitchen sink, is that it does seem to foster an idea of art as a kind of expression of what we already know. Art as self-expression, as it were. I like to think of art in a different light, as a process of engagement, a creative involvement with the world. Pushing beyond the known is part of that process, I believe.

Ayad Akhtar was born in New York City and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is the author of American Dervish, published in 25 languages worldwide and a 2012 Best Book of the Year at Kirkus ReviewsToronto’s Globe and MailShelf-Awareness, and (Oprah) Magazine. Ayad is also a playwright and screenwriter. His stage play Disgraced played at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater in 2012, and won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. As a screenwriter, he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay for The War Within. He has received commissions from Lincoln Center and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Ayad is a graduate of Brown and Columbia Universities with degrees in Theater and Film Directing.

Caridad Svich received a 2012 OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theatre, a 2012 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award for GUAPA, and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits, based on the Isabel Allende novel. She has edited several books on theatre including Out of Silence (Eyecorner Press), Trans-Global Readings and Theatre in Crisis? (both for Manchester University Press) Divine Fire (BackStage Books), Out of the Fringe (TCG), and Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes (Smith & Kraus). caridadsvich.com