The Challenge of Taking the Stage Alone

Question: What first drew you to the theater? 

Najla\r\n Said: When I was a kid, I was super-duper shy and I wouldn’t talk \r\nto anyone and when, but I was, I was very, I like loved playing by \r\nmyself and I was really imaginative and creative and my parents had this\r\n idea that if I did, like, a theater class after school, I would somehow\r\n open up, and they were right. So I started taking theater classes when I\r\n was about eight, or seven, and the minute I was put on stage, I \r\nstarted, I just lit up and I started being comfortable. I think... I \r\nthink you’ll hear a lot of actors say that they were very shy and for \r\nme, I felt... having grown up in New York and being \r\nPalestinian/Lebanese, and having grown up in a pretty homogeneous world \r\nwith, gone to private school and not understanding what I was, I looked \r\ndifferent and my parents spoke a funny language, I think I found refuge \r\nin theater because I could be a million different things, and it was \r\nokay. 

Question: Why did you then tell your story as a \r\none-woman show? 

Najla Said: I think the way it \r\nevolved was really organic and it came out of a journal entry I had \r\nwritten. So, what had happened was I had been acting professionally from\r\n the time I graduated from college in the late ‘90’s until about, until,\r\n let’s say, 2001. In 2001, actually, before September 11, a group of \r\nArab-American artists, myself included, got together because we’d all \r\nsort of met each other but didn't really know... none of us had really \r\nexplored our identity and we thought it might be interesting to get \r\ntogether and talk about working on a project about Arab-American \r\nimmigrants in this country. 

So we did and we started working on \r\nit and then 9-11 happened sort of in the middle of the process. So we \r\nultimately did the play in the summer of 2002, but to do the production,\r\n we formed a company. So out of this company grew many things, and one \r\nof them was some education workshops that we did with kids. And I had \r\nmet an Israeli filmmaker named Danae Elon, who is the daughter of Amos \r\nElon, who just passed away... he was an Israeli journalist, an \r\nintellectual. And she and I, long story short, were working on a project\r\n to do in a private high school that... we both knew a student who went \r\nthere. She wanted to tell about growing up in Israel and I wanted to \r\ntell about being Palestinian. So we decided to each write a piece to \r\nperform, 15 minutes, for these kids, a personal piece. And there was \r\nanother member of my theater company who helped us with it and did her \r\nown piece. 

And I didn’t know what to write, so I showed them a \r\njournal entry that I’d written when my father passed away. I was \r\nlistening to my iPod and I heard a song that reminded me of this trip I \r\ntook when I was 18, and I just wrote this stream-of-consciousness thing,\r\n that turned into a 15-minute performance. And then a few years later, I\r\n had the opportunity to perform it again at an event for Israeli and \r\nPalestinian, or Israeli and Arab playwrights, and then I had a working \r\nrelationship with the New York Theater Workshop and they invited me to \r\ndevelop the piece further. And I kind of had no idea what it was going \r\nto be. I had dabbled in stand-up a little bit and I’d been an actress \r\nfor a really long time, but I didn’t understand how this sort of \r\nmonologue that was just about my weird family, would end up being an \r\nentire play. 

But I took the challenge and I ended up working \r\nwith a dramator and director who really helped me make it into a play. \r\nAnd so it never really occurred to me to have other actors in it, it \r\njust... and it also, still to this day, doesn’t totally feel like a \r\nplay. It’s a piece that I’ve done where I get to show off all my \r\ndifferent characterizations and abilities, but it’s purely my story. 

So\r\n it’s funny because I had dabbled in stand-up, but I didn’t get how to \r\nwrite a joke. I just could... just stand on stage and babble, so this \r\nwas the perfect way for me to put all that in and still be an actress. 

Question:\r\n What are the challenges of a one-person show? 

Najla Said:\r\n It’s lonely, you know, you find that a lot of us who do theater, the \r\nreason we do it is because it’s all about interaction with other people \r\non stage and with the audience, it’s a very visceral thing, whereas when\r\n you’re shooting a film, you shoot scenes out of sequence and sometimes \r\nthere’s no one else there, you know, if you’re working with some big \r\nmovie star, they’re not necessarily going to be sitting across from you,\r\n you may just be talking to a camera. So a lot of the love of theater is\r\n because of the human and personal interaction. But what I found was, \r\nalthough it’s lonely, it’s incredibly, I mean, once you realize that \r\nyou’re on stage and, I mean, first, it’s horrifying, you realize, “Oh, \r\nmy God, if I mess up, there’s no one here to save me,” but then you also\r\n realize, “Everyone’s listening to me,” which, without sounding like a \r\ntotal egomaniac, that’s not what I mean, it’s just, it’s lovely, because\r\n it really gives the story an opportunity to be heard. There’s nothing \r\nelse that people can focus on or listen to. 

And then the \r\nconnection with the audience becomes a little more intense, which is \r\nlovely. Because in both of these situations, and it’s not always the \r\ncase, but, in general, I was talking to the audience. So, of course, \r\nthat brings out the whole other level of difficulties because you’re not\r\n used, you know, in theater you tend to have a, what’s called the fourth\r\n wall, but it’s kind of nice, too, because you’re really talking to \r\npeople. 

So I find that it can get lonely and tiring to go to \r\nrehearsal for eight hours a day and it’s all you all the time, is tiring\r\n and it really brings out a lot of insecurities because you’re the only \r\none getting notes and you’re also... and for this experience I was also \r\nthe writer, so it was just a lot. But it’s also a challenge and it’s a \r\ntotal thrill and once you’ve done it, you’re like, “Whoa! I can do \r\nanything.” You’re not, sort of the fear of being on stage, if you ever \r\nhad, like, I’m not really, I don’t get stage fright, but I do get \r\nnervous, like most people, so the idea that, I’ve done this now twice \r\nfor an hour-and-a-half, both times, I mean, both productions and gotten \r\nthrough a full run, you just sort of feel like, “I can do anything \r\nnow!”

Recorded on May 11, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Rehearsing for a one-woman show can get lonely and tiring, but once you’ve successfully passed the challenge you feel like you can do anything.

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