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Juilliard Alumni Newsletter - October 2020

In the third year of training, Juilliard actors take part in Student-Initiated Projects, which allow students to propose and bring to life pieces for which they have a particular passion. Students engage in all aspects of creation—from acting, directing, and writing to design and production. This year, as we work remotely, the projects have moved to Zoom and film, offering students a host of new opportunities and challenges as they produce their pieces.

Fifty-one members of the Christchurch, New Zealand Muslim community were lost in the devastating attacks on two local mosques that occurred on March 15, 2019. By the end of that month, Arianna Gayle Stucki, a member of Juilliard Drama’s Group 51, was making plans to travel to Christchurch with the desire to tell the story of the Christchurch Muslim community, during and following the attacks, through their own words. The result of this trip is a verbatim play entitled Memorial, written by Arianna and Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, that examines the impact of the shootings on five citizens of Christchurch. Now, as a third-year Student-Initiated Project, the play will be presented as a film, which Arianna is directing. She shared her thoughts on the development of the piece in the following interview, which has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Can you speak about Memorial ’s development? Why did you set out to create this play?

I was in my first year at Juilliard on March 15, 2019. Before coming to Juilliard, I had spent four years living in Abu Dhabi as an undergraduate at New York University Abu Dhabi, and I felt a real responsibility to use my work to give back to the Muslim community after all that they had given me. I realized that my passport would give me the ability to travel to Christchurch, which is a huge privilege. I felt that I had the necessary listening skills from my acting training at Juilliard and writing skills from the mentorship of Juilliard faculty member Jessica Blank. I also remember hearing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s address at the Christchurch remembrance service. She said that when we hear the stories of those impacted by the terrorist attack, they “become part of our collective memories. They remain with us forever. They are us.” I believe in that. I wanted to expand the reach of those stories. The day after that address on March 29, 2019, I decided to go. I applied for a grant from Juilliard’s Marks Center for Career Services and Entrepreneurship, booked my flights, and found my way there.

How did you prepare for the interviews you conducted? 

Some of the research I had already lived through in my own way, from my time in Abu Dhabi. I knew the Five Pillars of the Islamic Faith, I knew what Sunni vs. Shiite meant, I had a basic knowledge of the Quran. And I also had knowledge of gun laws in the United States versus those in New Zealand from my own upbringing. The biggest thing I had to learn before I went was definitely how to speak to those currently undergoing trauma. I had to prepare myself to be a repository for these really intense stories. It was early to be there, in Christchurch—I was talking to members of the Muslim community within three months of the attacks, whereas in a lot of documentary theater, there can be 10 years between the moment of trauma and the interview. I prepared by meeting with Jessica Blank, and I also met with a trauma specialist through Juilliard Counseling.

How did you go about finding people to interview?

I went in with zero expectations. I booked my time there for 40 days, and I thought it could be possible that there would be nobody who was willing to talk yet. I thought that would be more than all right, and I would learn about the city and do my own research and maybe come back in a year or two. That’s how a lot of these plays go. I arrived on May 30. June 4 was Eid, and it was, for the first time, a very big community celebration, open to anyone in Christchurch, not just the Muslim community. So, I went, and people immediately saw that I was alone. Not knowing I was a playwright or anything about the interview process I was interested in, so many people came up to me just to make sure I had food and to make sure I had someone to talk to. 

That night, I met a man named Jamal Green, the media head of the Muslim Association of Canterbury, another name for the Christchurch region. He was the first one I told I was writing a play, and it was through him that I met different community members. He had a very real belief in what theater could do for people. I think theater was the biggest reason why Jamal trusted, and still trusts, me. There’s a line in the play about how a media person would interview someone for six or seven hours and come up with a one- or two-minute video. I think [Jamal was] looking for a different way to tell their stories that would give them more time and an actual, full narrative. 

You mentioned in your Student-Initiated Project proposal that Memorial is not meant to be a documentary but rather an “embodied ritual of remembrance and truth-seeking.” Can you talk about how you approached this distinction?

There’s a version of this play that is all about March 15. March 15 is its own entire story. And I think most documentaries would focus on what happened that day. I’m actually far more interested in what happens afterward—the daily life of the families that faced this tragedy and how they’re surviving each day. I think that, specifically in the United States, we are actually very good at dealing with violence. I would say we’re desensitized, but it’s even more than that. It’s such a big part of our culture. But I think we’re terrible at dealing with death and sitting with loss. I think that if we dealt with loss the way we deal with violence—if we witnessed someone who is missing a loved one they’ve lost as often as we witness violent videos—we’d be a very different world. I hope that’s what this play will bring to its audience. For the people I spoke to who had lost somebody, I think the most important thing was to document that person’s life and show that they existed and that they mattered. In the United States right now, we can see how important it is to say that someone’s life matters. I hope the play can function in that way. At the very least, we are giving space for those who are no longer here.

What has the experience of turning this play into a film been like? 

Memorial is definitely meant to be a play, but in many ways, it’s actually lending itself to film in a really great way. The original locations of these interviews were people’s homes. There is a specific kind of life that’s coming out of these Zoom rehearsals because the actors can relax into their spaces and their daily routines in a way that would be harder to do in the theater. Also, we’ve had film shoots in Puerto Rico, in Pakistan, in Texas, in New York, and it’s amazing to think that the original attack had to do with immigration and the shooter targeting people who had crossed domestic borders he believes should not be crossed. So, it’s a meaningful process to be creating without borders—to be creating with people in so many different places.

In addition to its film adaptation screened at Juilliard, Memorial took part in a virtual reading on November 18, 2020, at 5pm ET, organized by Noor Theatre, a New York City-based company that supports, develops, and produces the work of Middle Eastern Americans and artists of the diaspora. Please visit Noor Theatre’s website for more details.

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