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Behind the Scenes: Collaborators and Friends

Playwrights’ Corner
Adi Hanash and Patrick Vassel

James: So much of your play is about honor and responsibility to family. I’m curious how this helped you in creating the characters and world of Nothing Left to Burn and if you, personally, felt these sorts of familial pulls in your life?

Adi: Family has always been an important part of my life and culture. It really drives so much of who I am and where I’m going. When researching about Bouazizi’s life, we kept coming back to the same theme - a really lovable man.

Patrick: In our research, we found many articles and interviews that talked about how important Mohamed Bouazizi’s family was to him – which is true both universally and particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.  In thinking about how to establish the stakes of life or death in the play, Mohamed’s commitment to his family is such a driving force. 

A: When trying to figure out why someone would do what he did, we started with the idea that someone in that region of the world without very much would place his family first. So much of the play grew from that initial assertion.

J: There is a beautiful cinematic quality to the play! It feels like a romantic-comedy-action-adventure-documentary-Buster Keaton film set in North Africa! How did you go about finding ways to make these film-like moments in the play feel super theatrical? 

P: That is the best hyphenated description ever – thank you! A lot of those moments came from our creating the imagination of Mohamed – his imagining of things that he would not actually have seen on a daily basis and his longing for a more exciting life.

A: From the onset of writing this play, we didn’t want it to be a play that shamed the audience for not knowing more about what was happening or for having more than Mohamed. We wanted him to have a childlike fascination and joy of the world that would be infectious and relatable.

P: To be honest, a lot of those moments also came from the two of us pushing each other to be more creative and to write more fun, funny, theatrical scenes.  Making the other person laugh has been and continues to be a major part of our process.

J: I love the use of double casting. I think it’s an incredible way to achieve the sensation that the world is epic. Your doubling choices seem very nuanced and intentional. Tell me about the choices to double cast in this play.

P: The play actually began as a one-man show – we imagined it might just be Mohamed.  It became clear after a couple of months that we wanted other people to help bring this world to life, but the sense of simplicity has been important to us all along – we wanted the sense that the other characters exist as extensions of Mohamed’s imagination.

A: We have actually played with multiple variations of the double casting along the way, even entertaining double casting the sisters as the soldiers. We wanted the double casting to range from fun fantasy sequences to a sense of suffocation and repetition in the world of the play—the idea that the people who are his closest friends could also be the soldiers harassing him.

P: It made sense to have actors play more than one role, and as we explored that it became more fun to imagine the different characters each performer could play.

J: Mohamed’s imagination is so wild! Where did the imagery for the fantasy scenes in the play come from? How do you imagine they will materialize on stage?

P: Adi and I met doing theater in college twelve years ago.  We’ve been best friends ever since and we know each other so well – so many of those fantasy sequences came out of our attempts to make the other person laugh or to surprise them or to just keep pushing on what we thought this play could do.

A: Our friendship definitely helped during long writing sessions! The process, since the beginning, was about having fun and exploring without hesitation. Patrick and I work really well together. We never immediately shoot down any ideas. If someone comes up with an idea, we would both run with it as far as we could. Even ideas that we eventually abandoned yielded some of my favorite moments in the play. It was amazing how many times we would abandon the core idea and run with something else that came out during the process.

P: One of the first moments we created was Mohamed’s imagination of how his first date will go – with full on “Lady in Red” blaring and a mirror ball.  When we realized that actually worked, it pushed us to keep coming up with even more ridiculous, wild ideas – always pushing on this gap between what Mohamed can imagine (which is limitless) and his reality, which is so violently limited. 

J: I don’t want to give away too much of the end of the play, but you do give us the terminus of Mohamed’s journey right from the start. I love that! We fall so deeply in love with Mohamed and we are also aware of where he is headed. Why the choice to reveal the destination for the central character at the beginning of the play?

P: This play began one night in January, 2011, when Adi and I were eating dollar slices somewhere on 9th Avenue.  We were talking about the revolutions that were breaking out in the Middle East and about Mohamed Bouazizi and the self-immolations and protests that sparked what would become the Arab Spring.  Adi asked, “What if we wrote a show about Mohamed Bouazizi, and the play begins with him coming out and saying ‘This is a love story. Unlike most love stories, this one ends with me setting myself on fire.’” That line hasn’t changed in four years of development and it’s been our jumping off point every time. 

A: This has never been a play about what happens at the end. We tell the audience from the onset how the play will end because we want them to always have that in the back of their mind. In my mind, the play succeeds if we can convince them in the first third of the play that the ending won’t happen, that Mohamed is too happy to do something that extreme. Then as the play goes on, we want the audience to start to see things unravel and start to understand why the ending might happen. By the end of the play, we want them to understand why the ending is going to be the way it is but to hope that it was a lie. That something in our play changes what actually happened, and there is a chance for a happy ending. If we can get the audience to follow along with us like that, then we think they will truly empathize with what Mohamed went through.