Spotlight On: Stephen Orlov’s BIRTHMARK

From September 11-17, 2016, Infinithéâtre is showcasing the work of their inaugural Playwrighting Unit. The Unit is comprised of eight playwrights who will be presenting staged readings of their new plays at theatres across Montreal and the surrounding area. The readings are free and open to the public.

QDF had the pleasure of sitting down with Stephen Orlov, the playwright, dramaturge and educator who will be showcasing his new play Birthmark at the Centaur Theatre on September 15 as part of Infinithéâtre’s inaugural playwrighting Unit. Birthmark is a dark-comedy set in 2015 that delves into the relationship of two Montreal diaspora families, one Jewish, the other Palestinian. Stephen is writing the play with the support of a Cole Foundation commissioning grant, sponsored by Teesri Duniya Theatre.

In Birthmark David Stein, a liberal secular Jewish writer, faces a living nightmare when his only child Nelson announces his plan to quit university and join an isolated ultra-Orthodox settlement outpost in the West Bank. David tries to sabotage the messianic plan by finally revealing to his son that a mix up at an in-vitro fertility clinic might have resulted in Nelson being conceived with the egg of a Palestinian woman. But Palestinian teacher, Jamila Hassan, refuses a DNA test to determine whether Nelson is Jewish or Palestinian, fearing its potential impact on her adopted daughter Hannah, who mysteriously disappears, provoking a CSIS investigation.

QDF: Could you tell us a little bit about where Birthmark came from?

Stephen: Well, its initial conception was sparked a long time ago. Birthmark is the sequel to a play that I had premiered in London, England called Sperm Count: a Jewish diaspora play set in Montreal. And that play is being published this month by Playwrights Canada Press in a groundbreaking anthology that I’ve co-edited with Palestinian playwright Samah Sabawi called Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas. When that play premiered in London a few months after 9/11, I was invited to participate in a theatre conference in Tel Aviv, shortly after the Second Intifada broke out. I went to a site in Haifa a couple of hours after a suicide bombing and Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister at the time, responded by bombing Arafat’s compound in Ramallah. Those experiences never left me, but the brutal Israeli siege of Gaza two years ago provoked me to write Birthmark, now in its sixth draft.

QDF: Why is it that you choose to engage so deeply with the complex issue of Jewish and Palestinian diaspora?

Stephen: I think part of the answer is I’m Jewish. My own upbringing and my political orientation have drawn me to question and look at these issues in quite a bit of detail for many years.  And as a writer I’ve chosen to tackle them onstage rather than in demonstrations. This is particularly important because the conflict is one of the remaining thematic taboos for many Western theatres. My journey is to create authentic characters on both sides, to turn the political into the personal, hoping that it will shed some light on the complexity of the conflict and the need for peace and justice in the region.

QDF: Writing from the location of diaspora is particularly relevant today not just in speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also in speaking about the refugee and migrant crises globally. I’m wondering what contributions you believe we as artists can bring to the resolution of these sorts of conflicts?

Stephen: Well, I’ve always believed that artists should be visionaries. And when we tackle social issues we should never tail behind history like politicians.  In terms of identity, yes, I am a Boston-born Jew living in Quebec, Canadian, but above all else I am a member of humanity.  And while this play delves into the specific complexity of Palestinians and Jews from the diaspora perspective, I think its universal themes are applicable to many conflicts around the world.  Ultimately what I’m trying to address is how these conflicts reinforce or compromise our humanity? And I think the only way we can answer that is not simply in generic global terms, but as an artist we have to look at the specifics. We have to create characters that are authentic, true to their culture, true to their values and true to the world they live in. And do it in a way that’s personal and theatrical, not didactic. That’s the real challenge, I think, of the writer.

QDF: Can you speak about the anthology you’ve been working on “Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas” which is being published this September? It’s the first English-language anthology in any genre worldwide by Jewish and Palestinian writers.

Stephen: This is the first anthology of its kind internationally. There are seven plays and nine writers involved in this, and all of the writers are of either Jewish or Palestinian descent and living in diaspora communities. They’re not directly in Palestine or Israel. What has guided myself and my co-editor Samah Sabawi is that we want to delve into plays that tackle either the Israeli-Palestinian conflict directly or Jewish-Palestinian relationships in the diasporas. We wanted to have plays that varied in genre between comedy and drama, in style between realism and surrealism, a variance in whether they’re set in Palestine or Israel directly or in the diaspora community, and in the characters’ political expressions. It was a difficult choice, artistically, coming up with these seven plays.

And probably the biggest problem we saw, artistically, of plays that we couldn’t accept was that the characters—the “Other” characters—were too uni-dimensional and stereotypical. For main characters we needed well-rounded, complex, human beings. Now that doesn’t mean we don’t have some secondary characters that are playing uni-dimensional roles in the play, we do, but in terms of our main characters we wanted to delve into the complexity of real human beings, Jewish and Palestinian. And I must say the experience with Playwrights Canada Press, who’s publishing it, has been just superb. They’ve been supportive all of the way in this.

QDF: Could you describe Infinithéâtre’s The Unit and what your process has been like working with them?

Stephen: In The Unit eight playwrights are developing seven plays.  We meet every few months, read and discuss our latest drafts, with one-on-one feedback from AD  Guy Sprung and Alex Haber, the dramaturgical coordinator. I’ve always believed that good company is a more powerful and inspiring motivation than individual willpower, so it’s been great feeding off the energy of other writers and getting feedback.

QDF: Are there others that you’re excited to see in September?

Stephen: Absolutely, all of them! I mean, it’s quite an interesting group. I won’t elaborate on all the plays, but during that week we have play readings at venues all the way from Huntington, to the Segal Centre, to the Centaur. And the plays are quite varied in topic and to a certain extent in genre and I would encourage people to go during the entire week of Infinitheatre’s staged readings, which start on Sunday the 11th and run until the following Saturday the 17th.

QDF: Your playwrighting resume is extensive and impressive. What advice would you give to new and emerging playwrights?

Stephen: One word: write. That is the absolute most important thing. You know, It’s tough to live a writer’s life. There’s going to be a rollercoaster road along the way. And I think there are three ingredients that it takes to make it as a writer: one is you have to have skills, secondly you have to have determination, and lastly you have to have good timing. And of those three things: skills, determination, and good timing, above all else determination is the most important. Because if you keep writing and you keep working at it, you will be motivated to develop the skills you need. And the more you hustle, the more you’re going to open opportunities for the right artistic director to read your play at the right time for the right theatre, that’s the good timing; but that requires hustle and determination.

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