‘All I did metaphorically was to turn and look over my shoulder at what I was running away from. And at that moment there was an explosion of creativity.’
The playwright Ayad Akhtar, whose first major play, Disgraced, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, didn’t have the kind of playwriting apprenticeship you’d expect for a writer of naturalistic dramas. His early interests were much more avant-garde, beginning in high school where a teacher turned him on to modernist mid-century playwrights. Even by the mid-eighties, when Akhtar first encountered them, the heat had long dissipated from the explosions that Samuel Beckett, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Jean Anouilh, Jean-Paul Sartre and their cohorts had caused in Western drama. But they still had the power to turn the head of a Milwaukee teenager.
Later, at Brown University, Akhtar began acting in student productions and found he had a knack for it, which led to his applying for and getting a job as an assistant to one of his heroes, the esteemed Polish director and theorist Jerzy Grotowski, author of the seminal work Towards a Poor Theatre. After a year working with Grotowski in Italy, Akhtar returned to America and, doubling his luck, worked with another famed experimentalist from the sixties and seventies, Andre Gregory. He subsequently taught acting with him for a decade. Although he describes his theatrical apprenticeship as ‘blessed’, he still can see the irony in the style of writing he eventually adopted. ‘I had this weird, avant-garde training that was about process. And now I write these overtly audience-oriented, well-made, traditional plays. It’s weird how life is.’
The change in his writing came late. His first stories, novels and play fragments, written in his twenties and early thirties, sagged under the heavy weight of European modernism. He told the Guardian, ‘I thought writing meant writing existential parables about the meaning of life. I worked on a novel for seven years, which I thought was amazing, but which was godawful. It was about a poet working in the databases at Goldman Sachs, a kind of knock off of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.’
The attacks of 11 September and the rise of Islamophobia in America were crucial factors in the change that eventually came to his writing. He tended to think of himself as a regular American guy, but that was not what other Americans thought in post-9/11 America. His ethnicity was suddenly a matter for other’s curiosity, fear, and misunderstanding. ‘In my early thirties, I started to realise I was avoiding something on a personal level, but also as a writer. I was in denial about who I was and was trying to be someone who I was not … All I did metaphorically was to turn and look over my shoulder at what I was running away from. And at that moment there was an explosion of creativity.’
Within a year from the end of 2008, Akhtar wrote the first draft of American Dervish, his novel about growing up Muslim in suburban America in the eighties, and the first drafts of three plays, all of which have since received important productions, Disgraced, The Invisible Hand and The Who and the What. In them, he cast a wide gaze across Muslim-American experience. ‘All together these stories are a picture,’ he told the Arena Stage blog, ‘but no one of them is the picture. I would finish one and go onto the other. One work is a contradiction of the next, and is a response to the next, or takes themes of the previous and develops them in a different way. Abe in Disgraced walks off stage in scene four and shows up as Bashir in The Invisible Hand – a different character but with the same genealogy.’
With these works, Akhtar abandoned any attempt to create allegories or puzzles for the audience to work out, to indicate vaguely something about the human condition or human consciousness. He wanted to communicate a specific experience, a direct dialogue with what was happening in America and the Muslim World, relying on the immediacy of narrative realism to make his point. Part of coming through his artistic crisis was a realisation that he shouldn’t be embarrassed about telling stories to an audience. He told Elizabeth Montgomery of ACT Theatre in Seattle: ‘When an audience begins to sense that they are being told a story there is a kind of waking up that happens, a very simple kind of “Oh, what’s going to happen next?” feeling … So there is a sacred trust built on a narrative bond between the audience and the writer and the artist. It’s something I can track in myself by seeing if I am paying attention. And so, in a way, I’m writing with an almost childlike openness in myself to the question to the question of: “Do I care about what happens next?”.’
This is an excerpt from the Disgraced programme. For more features, interviews and cast information, you can purchase a programme from our friendly theatre staff at your next performance.