Haas interviews Arabian Night's director Cross

Barbara Haas 02/28/08More articles
Q: SU Drama’s Arabian Nights?
A: ‘Ensemble-based Physical Theater,’ said Director Stephen Cross

By Barbara Haas

In the recent production of Arabian Nights by Syracuse University Drama, a pastry cook has an amorous tryst with a woman of easy virtue.
How are the actors to portray that moment on stage? In the SU Drama production, as the lady writhes with pleasure, the pastry cook passes his rolling pin across her prostrate body as if she were an oversized hunk of pie dough. This action, which occupied maybe 30 seconds, was one of many hundreds of choices that Director Stephen Cross and his actors had to make in their enactment of Mary Zimmerman’s retelling of Scheherazade’s thousand and one tales.
Throughout the play, the entire cast of 16 took part in telling the tales. As a young man describes how he’s been tricked into marrying a “nauseating compendium of disgust,” a whole chorus of actors portray each of his bride’s hideously ugly features. Two lovers, kept apart by their families, stand on the shoulders of their relatives as they try to converse with one another. The only one who doesn’t take part in acting out the tales is Scheherazade herself, who watches the transformative power of her tales on the Shahyar. All the others are active participants.
Director Cross, who teaches movement and acting in the Department of Drama, was trained at the Dell’Arte School of Ensemble-Based Physical Theatre. That’s a long name for a theater school, but every word has significance. The Italian Theatre Dell’Arte tradition is a popular theater that goes all the way back to Roman times. In those plays the quick-thinking actors improvised freely, often thinking out the plots on the spur of the moment. In a truly ensemble-based production today, each member of the cast is an actor/creator, working with all the others as part of a team to both create and tell the story. The productions, depending more on expressive body movement than words, often incorporate mime, dance and acrobatics.
In describing the rehearsal process for Arabian Nights, Cross said, “the challenge for the cast was to use 16 bodies to paint a picture on the stage so that the audience could understand the narrative. Through improvisation, the students were encouraged to be creative in staging of the piece, to build on what was accumulating through the group effort.”
As recently as last summer, Cross was directing a theater piece at Nova Scotia’s Irondale Ensemble Project, a company he founded in 1990. He and his acting company worked with a group aged 18 to 25 to examine a fundamental question: what do young people need from their community? Members of the group created the piece through teamwork, learning to trust one another, to express their individuality through a social effort.
Cross believes that team building is very much needed as a counter-balance in our society with the individualism encouraged by our technological, economically driven society.
“Young people build up such a success-failure mentality that it becomes inhibiting,” he said.
In his travels, he’s seen how tribal structures in places such as in the Fiji Islands, where these are supportive of individuals so that if someone makes a mistake, it’s considered funny, not shameful. In Cross’ view, failure is just as important as success, in learning how to live.
In portraying Scheherazade’s tales, the cast took chances - often physical chances, tumbling and somersaulting, swinging through the air, singing a song while perched on a kind of tightrope. But what they did was not for individual show. Instead, it was part of the group effort to tell the story.

Rating: 1.4/5 (9 votes cast)

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