By Mary Zimmerman
Arabian Nights – the very name conjures images of exotic spice laden markets, star strewn skies, minarets and date palms. This stage adaptation is based on the collection of stories known as One Thousand and One Nights. These lavish and captivating tales from the Far East are an established part of our world heritage, mixing fables and folklore from India, Persia, Syria, Arabia and Egypt. Over centuries they have passed easily into our own cultural sphere, including as they do the stories of Ali Baba, Sinbad and Aladdin. These three alone have featured in children’s books, films, television and theatre since the nineteenth century.
In this hugely popular adaptation by Mary Zimmerman, the root story is the same as in the original collection. The selfish King Shahyrar, betrayed by his first wife, decides no woman can ever be trusted. For years he takes a new wife each night and kills her in the morning. This continues until he marries the infinitely wily and impossibly entertaining Scheherazade, who determines to preserve her own life by telling the king a selection of fantastical and magical stories, each of which remains unfinished as dawn arises. In this way she succeeds in staying alive for 1001 nights until….but that would spoil the end!
Using an ensemble of 15 actors to play all the parts and a selection of magic carpets to play all the sets, Arabian Nights blends music, dance, soundscapes, physical theatre, clowning and mime in the entertaining pursuit of good old story telling. This is pure theatre: visually enchanting and both funny and moving by turns. Zimmerman offers a wonderful blend of the lesser-known tales from Arabian Nights with the recurring theme of how the magic of storytelling holds the power to change people. The tales are cleverly woven so that some are part of other stories, some overlap each other and some start and end while others never end.
“If you want theatre at its most unpretentiously poetic, most fetchingly stylish, as humane as it is elegant, I commend to you the Arabian Nights.”
New York Magazine
Mary Zimmerman was born on 23rd August 1960, in Lincoln, Nebraska and was subsequently a student at Northwestern University. Zimmerman’s career as a director spans 15 years and in 2002 was awarded a Tony Award for best direction. She is the resident Director of Goodman Theatre, a member of the Lookingglass Theatre Company of Chicago, an artistic associate of Seattle Repertory Theatre and a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University. Works which she has adapted and directed include The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, The Odyssey, Arabian Nights and Metamorphoses. In 2002, she created a new opera with Philip Glass called Galileo Galilei which premiered in Chicago and went on to The Barbican in London.
When Mary Zimmerman first enrolled at Northwestern University as an undergraduate she began as a composition and literature major but quickly switched to the Department of Performance Studies. It wasn’t until her graduate work at Northwestern that she discovered, “the act of directing, creating and making theatre without being in it.”
Northwestern proved to be fertile ground for Zimmerman. Her studies focused on how to use the elements of staging—light, sound, disguise, gesture, movement—and she collaborated on adaptations of everything from Dickens novels to contemporary parodies. She has also developed a close working relationship with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and was instrumental in the development of Lookingglass Theatre Company.
In her work, she continues to be drawn to ancient literature and stories based in oral tradition. Her rehearsal process is open and organic, especially when she serves as both adapter and director. She allows time for a production’s imagery to develop, often working off the physical improvisations of her ensemble of actors. When directing Shakespeare, her engagement is primarily with the text.
“I’ve always loved fairy tales,” explains Zimmerman, “I think they perhaps led me to theatre rather than the other way around. As a child I wanted to invent a machine that could record my dreams, so I could watch them in the morning; or hire someone to draw the things I had in my head, because I knew I didn’t have the skill to do it myself. Theatre is that machine. I can make these images come to life and actually walk around inside them for a while.”
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