Hotter Than Egypt is a co-production with Marin Theatre Company. Dramaturg (and Marin Theatre Company Associate Artistic Director) Nakissa Etemad is passionate about the art of dramaturgy.
Dramaturgy exists as an undercurrent throughout almost every part of the theatrical process, building worlds and bringing attention to aspects of a play in different ways from the set, costumes, lights, sound and acting. For this reason, it’s one of the least understood facets of theatre. This in no way diminishes its importance.
What is a Dramaturg?
According to Hotter Than Egypt Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad, the best way to think about a dramaturg is as “the midwife in the birthing of a play.” She explains, “The dramaturg is the person who focuses on the storytelling, analyzes the play as a piece of literature. We’re the advocate and representative of the playwright, sounding board for playwright and director, a mediator and diplomat. We represent the audience before the audience gets there. We put the play in its context and provide background research that pertains to the characters and world of the play. We’re archeologists and anthropologists, rebuilding a real world on stage. We are also the number one fan of the playwright and the play!”
Nakissa didn’t always know she wanted to be a dramaturg. It wasn’t until she studied abroad as an exchange student in Paris and took critical studies classes that she embraced her love of the theatre. “I saw in Paris that people made careers out of being artists,” she says. When she returned to her undergraduate program at University of California San Diego, Nakissa interviewed for admission into a too-full acting class, and when her professor (also the Associate Artistic Director at San Diego Rep) learned of her classes and interests, he suggested she’d be a good “dramaturg” and to come work as his literary intern. From there, Nakissa became the dramaturg on the first show he ever directed there, dramaturging professionally at San Diego Rep while going on to get her MFA in Dramaturgy from UCSD.
So what makes a dramaturg? Moving quickly between the artistic and the analytical and living comfortably in the overlap lends itself to the field. Nakissa’s family contributed to her own love for it. “My father was a literal rocket scientist. He was the first Iranian in the American space program (called Mr. Apollo in Iran) – he was an engineer, and I have that brain in me. I love logic, I love structure, I love analysis – I have a very mathematical brain. I also have my mother in me, who’s a multimedia collage artist and painter. I want to be creative, work with people, work from the heart, focus on imagination, but I also love reconstructing the parts that make the whole. Dramaturgy is perfect for how my brain and heart work.”
The Dramaturgy of Hotter Than Egypt
One aspect of theatre that heavily involves dramaturgy is the new work development process. As a World Premiere, Hotter Than Egypt went through rigorous steps to get to the version actually performed onstage. It was for the 2020 Colorado New Play Summit that playwright Yussef El Guindi asked Nakissa to dramaturg the development process. The two had known each other for quite a few years (they’re fellow Resident Artists of Golden Thread Productions in the Bay Area) before working together on the play, but she’d never dramaturged for him. She says, “I read the play to see if I connected with the material and I loved it after about 3 pages. I love the two cultures coming together. It helps the characters redefine their own identities as well as learn from other people how to live their lives, how to experience things in a new way. I love the passion of the characters and the discovery that each character has – those small moments of connection that show how travel can profoundly change your perspective.” In addition to the brilliance of Hotter Than Egypt itself, Nakissa was drawn to the play for more personal reasons. “I’m Iranian American, and part of the Middle Eastern diaspora along with Yussef. I want to introduce my culture – Egypt is different from Iran, but similar in a lot of ways – to non-Middle Eastern audience members, and to celebrate it with our own communities. I’ve always in my life felt a duality of culture, so I’ve always responded to plays that discuss that. It’s a culture clash, a culture collision, but also a culture coming-together, a culture blending.”
One of the most exciting parts of the show isn’t even part of the show itself: Hotter Than Egypt is a co-production with Marin Theatre Company. Ultimately using the same design, cast, and core creative team, bringing the play to both Seattle and then Marin “extends the life of the World Premiere process and contributes to the legacy of the play.” New play development doesn’t end until the show freezes for opening, and even then, as is the magic of live performance, the play is still a bit different every night. Audiences play a huge role in that. Nakissa relates, “Yussef’s writing lifts off the page when it’s read out loud. He often tells me that he understands the play most when he hears the audience reaction, so to provide him two sets of audiences, two different communities – we’re all going to learn so much about the play.” Hotter Than Egypt’s journey will continue from ACT to Marin. “We want to give our company time and space to live longer with the piece, while the staging will be reworked for MTC’s proscenium space.” It’s difficult to maintain the foundation that play development at ACT built for Hotter Than Egypt without a great team of collaborators working on it. A hugely important part of the process is that the playwright, director, and dramaturg are on the core creative team for both productions. As Nakissa says, “I love the relationship we all have. It’s the perfect union.” Ultimately, that’s the goal of dramaturgy: to create a union of collaboration and build a world where everyone’s creative ideas can not only coexist, but thrive together.