TranscriptQuestion: What first drew you to the theater?
Najla Said: When I was a kid, I was super-duper shy and I wouldn’t talk to anyone and when, but I was, I was very, I like loved playing by myself and I was really imaginative and creative and my parents had this idea that if I did, like, a theater class after school, I would somehow open up, and they were right. So I started taking theater classes when I was about eight, or seven, and the minute I was put on stage, I started, I just lit up and I started being comfortable. I think... I think you’ll hear a lot of actors say that they were very shy and for me, I felt... having grown up in New York and being Palestinian/Lebanese, and having grown up in a pretty homogeneous world with, gone to private school and not understanding what I was, I looked different and my parents spoke a funny language, I think I found refuge in theater because I could be a million different things, and it was okay.
Question: Why did you then tell your story as a one-woman show?
Najla Said: I think the way it evolved was really organic and it came out of a journal entry I had written. So, what had happened was I had been acting professionally from the time I graduated from college in the late ‘90’s until about, until, let’s say, 2001. In 2001, actually, before September 11, a group of Arab-American artists, myself included, got together because we’d all sort of met each other but didn't really know... none of us had really explored our identity and we thought it might be interesting to get together and talk about working on a project about Arab-American immigrants in this country.
So we did and we started working on it and then 9-11 happened sort of in the middle of the process. So we ultimately did the play in the summer of 2002, but to do the production, we formed a company. So out of this company grew many things, and one of them was some education workshops that we did with kids. And I had met an Israeli filmmaker named Danae Elon, who is the daughter of Amos Elon, who just passed away... he was an Israeli journalist, an intellectual. And she and I, long story short, were working on a project to do in a private high school that... we both knew a student who went there. She wanted to tell about growing up in Israel and I wanted to tell about being Palestinian. So we decided to each write a piece to perform, 15 minutes, for these kids, a personal piece. And there was another member of my theater company who helped us with it and did her own piece.
And I didn’t know what to write, so I showed them a journal entry that I’d written when my father passed away. I was listening to my iPod and I heard a song that reminded me of this trip I took when I was 18, and I just wrote this stream-of-consciousness thing, that turned into a 15-minute performance. And then a few years later, I had the opportunity to perform it again at an event for Israeli and Palestinian, or Israeli and Arab playwrights, and then I had a working relationship with the New York Theater Workshop and they invited me to develop the piece further. And I kind of had no idea what it was going to be. I had dabbled in stand-up a little bit and I’d been an actress for a really long time, but I didn’t understand how this sort of monologue that was just about my weird family, would end up being an entire play.
But I took the challenge and I ended up working with a dramator and director who really helped me make it into a play. And so it never really occurred to me to have other actors in it, it just... and it also, still to this day, doesn’t totally feel like a play. It’s a piece that I’ve done where I get to show off all my different characterizations and abilities, but it’s purely my story.
So it’s funny because I had dabbled in stand-up, but I didn’t get how to write a joke. I just could... just stand on stage and babble, so this was the perfect way for me to put all that in and still be an actress.
Question: What are the challenges of a one-person show?
Najla Said: It’s lonely, you know, you find that a lot of us who do theater, the reason we do it is because it’s all about interaction with other people on stage and with the audience, it’s a very visceral thing, whereas when you’re shooting a film, you shoot scenes out of sequence and sometimes there’s no one else there, you know, if you’re working with some big movie star, they’re not necessarily going to be sitting across from you, you may just be talking to a camera. So a lot of the love of theater is because of the human and personal interaction. But what I found was, although it’s lonely, it’s incredibly, I mean, once you realize that you’re on stage and, I mean, first, it’s horrifying, you realize, “Oh, my God, if I mess up, there’s no one here to save me,” but then you also realize, “Everyone’s listening to me,” which, without sounding like a total egomaniac, that’s not what I mean, it’s just, it’s lovely, because it really gives the story an opportunity to be heard. There’s nothing else that people can focus on or listen to.
And then the connection with the audience becomes a little more intense, which is lovely. Because in both of these situations, and it’s not always the case, but, in general, I was talking to the audience. So, of course, that brings out the whole other level of difficulties because you’re not used, you know, in theater you tend to have a, what’s called the fourth wall, but it’s kind of nice, too, because you’re really talking to people.
So I find that it can get lonely and tiring to go to rehearsal for eight hours a day and it’s all you all the time, is tiring and it really brings out a lot of insecurities because you’re the only one getting notes and you’re also... and for this experience I was also the writer, so it was just a lot. But it’s also a challenge and it’s a total thrill and once you’ve done it, you’re like, “Whoa! I can do anything.” You’re not, sort of the fear of being on stage, if you ever had, like, I’m not really, I don’t get stage fright, but I do get nervous, like most people, so the idea that, I’ve done this now twice for an hour-and-a-half, both times, I mean, both productions and gotten through a full run, you just sort of feel like, “I can do anything now!”
Interviewed by Austin Allen