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In the end, though, you don’t have 37 characters on the stage. How do you go about refining all this content down to something that’s manageable and engaging in a theatrical setting?
That process is extremely difficult. Each person we spoke with, tragically, had a story that was equally compelling. Given the scope of what happened to their country, every regular Iraqi has lived through some pretty unimaginable things. We worked with actors from the very beginning, who read through the initial transcripts while we listened. And as you listen to the actor’s voices, it jumps out at you, what’s the most compelling part of their story. So we want back up to Dartmouth last summer and we narrowed it down; we cut the number of stories in half by the time actors got there and we realized when you’re dealing with a show that’s 90 minutes long, it can probably hold six stories maximum and that was our goal. The way we work is that you take the raw transcript and edit by ear in the room, as the actor recites the lines, making notes that you type up each night. Then you have a slightly condensed interview the next day, and you do that over and over again until you finally have a powerful, condensed monologue, with a structure that emerged naturally.
Hearing all these stories on the stage, as they overlap and interconnect with one another, it’s hard not to marvel at the sheer scope of this story, at how many different shades of pain and anxiety are present. What surprised you most as you first heard all these stories overseas? Was there one thing that stood out most, as running counter to your expectations?
One of the things that surprised us most was how profoundly welcoming everyone was. We were really prepared for anything–if people had been angry with us, or overly cautious because we were a couple of Americans coming into their homes to hear about the most painful things that ever happened to them, we would have understood. But what we found was the total opposite. Here are these people, who have had to flee with almost nothing, and yet they would offer you tea and coffee and the last box of cookies in their house. After 25 years of living under Saddam, there seemed to be this widespread understanding that there’s a disconnect between the government of a country and its policies, and its people.
The flip side to their willingness to deal with us was our realization that our fates are now intertwined. I think there’s this temptation, at least among us New York liberal types, to say "Okay, we’ll turn the page with a new administration, and that was 2003 and a long time ago and the troops are going home." But it’s not that long ago. It’s very seductive for Americans to say that this is over and let’s put it behind us, but we were in Jordan speaking to refugees just last summer and their country is not safe. They can’t go home. These are people who desperately love their country and want to go home, but they can’t. And that had an impact on us. The reverberations of what happened during the war will be felt for generations and generations, and that became one of the central themes of the play: If we don’t feel a responsibility to them on a humanitarian level, then we should feel a responsibility on the level of a serious threat to our national security. This is a situation that is not going to go away, and there are millions looking to us to see what we’re going to do next. It’s something we must deal with.
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)