I recently sat down with Kareem Fahmy and Victor Lesniewski, the director and writer and co-creators of the upcoming Civil War spy thriller, Couriers and Contrabands. I’ve known Kareem for a little while now – we were paired up in the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab – and I’m a big fan of his work. Kareem brings a rare synthesis of hot-blooded, fierce emotion (DRAMA like your mommy knows it) and form-breaking, genre-bending inquiry. Victor I do not know as well, but even five minutes into conversation with him betrays a fierce intelligence and quiet-boiling verve.
Talking with the two of them over skype, I couldn’t help but note that these two men in some ways seem like different versions of the same person. They both sport well-trimmed beards and big kind eyes, and talking to the two of them together one gets the impression that they are two halves of a larger whole – Kareem outspoken and excitable, Victor collected and cool. Combined they are a formidable force of theatrical intelligence. The following is an edited transcript of our lively conversation, which ranged from traditional narratives of the Civil War to the difficulties of representing racism and slavery on stage.
J:Where did this project come from?
Kareem: So when I was a fellow at New York Theater Workshop, they started us off by saying “you can do whatever you want.” Which is probably the first time as a director I was told that. I had always been interested in how a director can be as generative a force in the creation of a play as a writer, because oftentimes the director just comes in in a functional role once the play has already been developed. And they can have a lot of input, but what happens when you’re actually starting the collaboration from moment one?
So the idea I had had for many years was to explore, very broadly, the history of espionage in America. When I was working on my thesis at Columbia, about Billy the Kid, which is post-Civil War era, I had done quite a bit of research as to the history of Western expansion, Manifest Destiny, and what the American experience was around that time. And I came at this very much from the realm of the outsider, me as a non-American. [Kareem is from Canada.] And it was interesting that I kept coming across the narrative of the spies, in this case the Pinkerton Organization, which was the first organized spy institution.
J: So the Pinkerton Organization – is that what the play is about, or is it about something else?
K: We started with the Pinkertons as a jumping-off point. And it might have been “The Pinkerton Play,” the traditional biopic history play, but we knew that wasn’t very interesting. We did workshops with a slew of different actors, and pretty quickly the same questions kept popping up – What was life like for women during that time period? What was life like for slaves during that time period? What do these divisions of the Civil War have to say about the American experience today?
V: I never thought I’d write a play about the Civil War. I always felt there’s too much out there, there’s too much said, it’s overdone, etc. etc. But as we started discovering these stories about women and slaves, they were just things I had never heard before, and they really fascinated me. I was pretty taken aback at how despite all the research, despite all the history lessons and movies I had encountered about the Civil War, how had these stories not been told?
J: I’m interested in this act of disrupting the traditional historical narrative – how is that coming across theatrically? There are a lot of things that we expect when we come into a period drama in terms of what it’s going to look like, what it’s going to sound like – is the language going to be arch and everyone will be in hoop skirts? How are you using that vocabulary and how you’re breaking it? How do you engage with it?
V: I designed the play with three central white male characters who appear to be in control of the action. And they’re all Confederate. The fun of the play is in the characters around them – the women and the slaves. We get to watch them do spy work and see how they upend the expectations we might have of them and of the white men at the center. We see them upend the traditional narrative as we’ve received it. But it’s still written in a traditional naturalistic sense – there will be hoop skirts.
J: It sounds like what you’re saying is that within the action of the play the women and slaves are disrupting the traditional narrative just as you Victor are disrupting it.
K: Structurally and theatrically what we started with was the knowledge that the audience is going to come in with a certain set of preconceived notions – period drama, Civil War, blah blah blah. The great challenge – and this is what has made the process so exciting – has been to figure out what we are beholden to and what we can disregard or subvert. I think what Victor has done so interestingly is not just subverting the narrative of male vs. female, master vs. slave, black vs. white – the whole construction of the period drama has been subverted. Victor has used traditional forms, and we’ve looked at plays of the time period and tried to figure out how they functioned dramaturgically. How can we use those structures but always take them from a new angle?
V: The spying especially allows for some fun stuff. There are some meta-moments where we get to have some fun with some of the melodrama of the time period. So we walk the line of melodrama at certain times without having to go there ourselves as a whole.
K: The very theme of the play – espionage, spying – is so tied in with the idea of a shifting identity and the idea of taking on another person’s identity, both in an internal and external way. I am changing my own identity to be a spy, and I am also trying to come closer to somebody else’s identity which is very different than me. It creates this very interesting meta-theatrical experience where the nature of performance is actually being explored within the confines of this period drama.
V: The play is probably closest to a modern thriller, but as you walk in you expect that it’s a dry period drama.
K: That’s something I’m always interested in. Period and contemporary, a constant blending.
J: I’m interested in the idea of representation, and what it is to represent especially slaves and oppressed women in a time when it was not a good time to be a woman. I’m interested in what the act is of writing that, but also your actors performing that – how do you walk the line between honoring the experience of these people without overly valorizing it or aestheticizing it to a point where it no longer honors it?
V: This is maybe a cop-out, but I did my best to honor that by not worrying about it. I did my best to write truthfully, and Kareem has really pushed the actors to do deeply emotional and deeply researched work to inhabit these people as they would have been. So in terms of actual practice, we’re not really worrying about the sheen or the themes or all the design stuff that will be put on top of it. Instead we’re really immersing ourselves as though this were the real world.
K: I think the thing that helped us to deal with that particular issue is the idea of hidden narratives. This is a time period that we think we know so well, so you come into it with a certain set of expectations – all of the women were oppressed, etc. But what the research showed us was that there were these tremendously interesting, complex, nuanced people who very much do not fit into that mold. What the play does is actually put those people up front, which forces you to reconsider that these were the things that were actually going on. So again it was a way of taking that narrative that we know and approaching it from a different angle.
For my work in the room with the actors it’s been about saying “yes, you’re portraying these real events and these real scenarios, but how can we, moment to moment, tap into the emotional experience of what was really going on?” And that’s the difference between the sheen of a period drama and seeing real people with real stakes and real consequences.
And that’s kind of a cop-out answer too, because that should be all theater. But the constant joy of the project has been realizing that this feels far more present and real than we ever thought it could. And so much of that is thanks to the actors, who have done a great job of making this so personal to them.
V: I use the example of Cold Mountain all the time. We have the expectation that during the Civil War the woman was just at home pining for her husband, that that was kind of her job. But you dig into the research and you hear some new stories, and you see that there were so many women who were so active in espionage and in other ways during the war that go so far beyond just hanging around the house.
K: We started from this incredible macro thing, these huge thematic ideas, but with each year, with every bit of work, it keeps on getting more and more micro, more and more human. And what I think makes it so potent and feels so relevant is the animating forces of these characters – it comes back to these ideas of opposition, what I’ve been calling in the room the personal/political ideation. Those divisions and those things that the characters are grappling with are the same things that we’re grappling with now. So getting it to feel so personal makes it clear why we have to be telling the story now. Sure it’s political, sure it’s about race and about gender and about North vs. South and these ideas of economics and social justice. But actually it’s personal. And that’s the thing that I think makes it feel worthwhile.
V: A lot of my work is political, and for me it’s always about finding where the person lives within huge political ideas.
J: I was talking with somebody recently who had been reading pro-slavery essays from the time of the Civil War, and he said that the experience was so jarring and difficult in part because you realize that these are people too. These slave owners, they had the same quotidian concerns and fears about change that everybody does. How do you go about representing white Confederates honorably as people? And Kareem, how is it directing actors to be racists? That seems really difficult as a performer.
V: The one thing we’ve really taken to heart is that this was a way of life. These people grew up with slavery and they didn’t know anything else. There isn’t much bold-faced racism on the page, which makes the question more about how to play the relationship of slavery. What was the specific master-slave relationship of the time? How is that being displayed on stage accurately? And how are we upending that within the spy realm at the same time?
K: Even in the emotional realm, there is a very strong current through the play of a slave character being dressed down by the master. In this case it’s two female actors playing this relationship. And early on we asked ourselves, how can we make this feel dimensionalized so the master character doesn’t just come across in the blanket level of “you’re a racist, you don’t respect this person.” And what we realized was that that slave character is a member of the household, is a part of the day to day functioning of this woman’s life. So it isn’t just the level of “you are less than human.” There is still a sense of responsibility, still a sense of the day to day. Going very deeply into the quotidian has helped us go from the macro to the micro, from the idea of the relationship to the actual human stakes.
V: Many of those relationships were extremely complicated. Slaves and masters had emotional things between them, the same way any two people do. So in terms of the Confederate characters as a whole, there is some political espousing, there are spikes of things about slavery and humanity and progress versus heritage and business practice. But besides letting those big themes spike here and there, we mostly try more to rely on the more personal emotional bonds. Again, it’s one of the preconceived notions – you go into a play about the Civil War with some information about slavery and what those relationships would be. So I never felt like I needed to make any big pronouncements about slavery, per se, for instance that slavery is bad.
J: Hopefully people already know that.
K: It comes back to the idea of the outsider perspective. Even though I’ve lived in America for twelve years now, coming from a place where that racial divide is not as sharp or marked and being a person of color myself, I feel like in a way I was able to de-emotionalize and de-stigmatize the idea of it, so I could approach it from an honest perspective. And I think that’s the thing that has made the process interesting for me. We’re talking about the crux of American division. And it becomes so immediately activated to us. Anybody who is in the least bit politically minded is going to become activated by the idea of racism and slavery. And it’s not to say that that isn’t activating to me on an emotional level, but coming from a place where those divisions aren’t so marked, I’m able to go into it from a different perspective and say let’s de-personalize it for a second and really talk about the way life was like. So I feel like it could have been an issue in the room, but it just wasn’t. Everybody trusted that we were honoring the reality while, as artists, finding a way to comment on it.
V: For the actors it’s been a lot about behaviors, too. How, as a slave, when you walk into a room, do you behave in front of your household? The emotional life flows from there. What does it feel like to be subservient?
Couriers and Contrabands runs September 5th– 26th at TGB Theater (312 W. 36th Street, 3rd Floor, between 8th & 9th Avenues). More info and tickets at www.Couriersplay.com