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A Closer Look: Sylvia Khoury

Playwrights’ Corner
Sylvia Khoury

Take "A Closer Look" at the stories being told in this year's Playwrights' Week festival with this series of interviews, of the playwrights and by the playwrights! In this installation, Dominic Finocchiaro (The Found Dog Ribbon Dance) talks with Sylvia Khoury (pictured left) about her new play, Against the Hillside.

DOMINIC FINOCCHIARO: We go back quite a ways, to when we were first-years together at the New School in 2012. How would you say your writing has changed since then? Do you still have the same relation to theater, and are you interested in similar themes as you were then, or do you see a shift or movement as regards your relationship to playwriting & the theatrical world? 

SYLVIA KHOURY: I love this question. I think you, Dominic, will remember me jittery as a caged animal in our first year writing classes. Truth be told, I came into theater in an extremely spastic way. I had gotten into medical school my junior year of college and was afraid that going straight after college would mean some kind of self negation. In my panic, I found out you could go to grad school for writing, so I wrote my first play, and ended up at the New School. In all honesty, my relationship to theater prior to that rash life decision was basically zero. Not that I wasn't artistic. I used to make movies about aliens and haunted houses with my friends growing up (high art), and I'd always written for my own edification, but I never thought of it as a serious means of communication or anything like that. So in 2012, when we met, the only things that I understood were that I wasn't sure I wanted to be a doctor and that I didn't know how to write a play. But something much deeper happened to me over the three years I spent at the New School. I understood that with mastering the form came a kind of responsibility to tell stories that pull the world apart and make us think about how we live. And I noticed the plays I was seeing left me restless. A whole world existed outside of Manhattan, but that wasn't reflected in the theatrical landscape. I started to understand the tremendous power of trapping people in a room for an hour and a half with the inside of my head, and have tried to be rigorous about what I fill that time with. In other words, when we first met I felt like some kind of stranger in the theater. Now it feels like such an obvious part of me that I look back at that time and laugh. I would say I take it very seriously now, much more so than when I began.

DF: In your great interview with the folks over at The Interval, you talk about how you tend to be drawn to subjects that have "America written all over" them. Can you expand on that a little bit more? What does it mean to be an American playwright or write an "American play" in the 21st century? How does Against the Hillside fit into that?

SK: I tend to think less about what it means to be an American playwright than what it means to be an American. And I think that right now, being an American means living in a certain state of self-denial about what we perpetuate in the world and the position of privilege that we occupy. Maybe a few generations ago, we could claim ignorance and cultivate our own gardens. That's not good enough anymore. We have information. It might be inconvenient, it definitely complicates our view of ourselves, but it's reality. I really believe that writing an "American play" in the 21st century means obliterating this myopia and examining how we live and what that does to the rest of the world. Against the Hillside is my first attempt at this, and by no means do I think it's completely successful. I just think it's time to start grappling with the ripple effects of our actions. It's uncomfortable and it should be. 

DF: I was lucky enough to see a workshop of this play last summer at the Kennedy Center, and I am interested to know more about what your specific goals are for this iteration of the piece. What have you learned over the course of work-shopping this play over the last year plus? Are there any questions you're still trying to unravel? What is the most cogent thing you've learned from your collaborators in the rehearsal room as you've developed this piece? 

SK: I am the first generation in my family who hasn't had to flee some kind of war. My grandfather fled Turkey during the Armenian genocide, my grandmother fled Algeria during the Algerian Civil War, my father fled Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. That being said, I have a much easier time inhabiting the Pakistani characters in my play who are experiencing drone warfare as just that - warfare - rather than the American characters who are experiencing drone warfare in a very different way. My recent efforts in the play have been geared towards fleshing out the American experience and making it more specific. I've spoken to many people who have served in the Air Force and I'm trying to bring more nuance to what it means to survive in a military setting. I'm also planning on pulling apart my third act and introducing more mysterious, theatrical elements that were in the play in its very first draft. We'll see! 

DF: As a writer, you've never been afraid to tackle politics or current events in your plays. What do you think a writer's responsibility is when it comes to dealing with politics in their work? Would you consider yourself a "political" writer, or do you dislike that box? Is Against the Hillside a "political" play? 

SK: The language surrounding "political plays" is so weird, because the plays that tend to get lumped into that category are plays that I usually avoid at all costs. In other words, I don't want to use the hour and a half I have with an audience to download information into their brains about Pakistan. That is boring and they can do that by reading an article. I am more interested in asking an audience to think about the consequences of their way of life, and how those consequences affect the daily lives of people we don't think about. I think my predominant political view is that all human life has value, and that there are too many lives that we profoundly affect as Americans but that we never spend time trying to understand. That is really the central impulse for all of my work.

DF: On top of being a badass playwright, you're also in medical school! How do you manage to juggle these two worlds? Can you talk a little bit about how studying to become a doctor informs your plays, and vice-versa? Would you be a different playwright if you weren't also a soon-to-be doctor, or do you try to keep these two sides of yourself completely separate? 

SK: I think being in medical school has a few different impacts on my work as a playwright. First, I have less time to write, which has been incredible for my writing. When I was in grad school, I had three whole years to write and I was completely unmotivated. Now, I have to be strategic with my time, and writing has regained that stolen, sacred quality. I'm writing more than I ever have before. The other way that I think medical school has helped deepen my writing is that I am even more attuned to peoples' needs and their wide range of experiences. I'm very interested in Psychiatry, which does on a micro level what I think writing does on a macro level - bring those parts of ourselves to light that we try to hide from ourselves.