To direct an elaborate, ambitious new production of “One Thousand and One Nights” — translated by a Lebanese novelist and starring a pan-Arab cast — Toronto’s splashy Luminato arts festival turned to a British Jew. But director Tim Supple has built a career on connecting cultures: Acclaimed for bold reboots of stage classics, he brought “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to India, “Twelfth Night” to British TV and “Midnight’s Children” to New York City’s Apollo Theater. With Arab-world turmoil as the real-life backdrop for “intense” rehearsals of “Nights” in Fes, Morocco, Supple talked to the Forward’s Michael Kaminer by e-mail.
MICHAEL KAMINER: Over the months that you’ve been rehearsing “One Thousand and One Nights,” the Arab political landscape has shifted completely. How has this affected the production?
TIM SUPPLE: It has affected us deeply, as it should, in three ways. First, we had to change our plans at the last minute and shift rehearsals from Egypt to Morocco, as the situation in Egypt was uncertain at that moment. This was a huge organizational challenge, and meant that we lost some time and, sadly, some people who were not able to leave Egypt.
Second, many of our company — especially those from Syria, Egypt and Tunisia — have been through a time of emotional turbulence while working on our project. In some cases this has involved distressing news from home, in others a more general intensity of feeling.
Third, for most of the artists involved, events have heightened feelings around the project. It has become more important to them as an event that we hope will shift perceptions of Arabic culture, theater and people.
Perhaps this last effect — a heightened sense of moment around the project — will be felt by audiences, too. We shall see.
It seems significant that a Jewish director is behind a massively ambitious production of a story with Middle Eastern roots, translated by a Lebanese author, with actors from Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. What kind of perspective do you feel you’re bringing to the material?
My work on the project is as an artist working with other artists. My perspective comes from my past as a theater director. This past has been largely in the U.K., but has also involved much work and learning from elsewhere — Europe, India, North America, the Far East. So I bring many influences to this work. My family’s roots have never once struck me as relevant.
You’ve identified yourself in interviews as “Jewish, British and secular.” In which order do those influence your work?
In descending order. My secular humanism is the most powerful influence. My European background will have had enormous influence. The rest belongs to the unknown huge interior influence — from family to teaching to the world around us. Whatever I have said in the past, I feel that the most important thing is to get beyond definitions of ourselves in terms of nation and religion. I try to see myself and others with clear, open eyes.
Has anyone along the way — aside from journalists — raised your Jewish roots as an issue?
No — because it isn’t.
What kind of reception are you expecting for “One Thousand and One Nights” in Toronto, one of the world’s most multicultural cities? Do you think an American audience would respond differently?
I can never guess what the reception will be. I just try to do the best work I can and then put it in front of audiences. I learn from every audience. How different might the U.S. audiences be from Toronto audiences? Again, I can’t predict. From experience, I find that the biggest factor in determining audience response to different work tends to be the prevailing theater culture of each place. So it has more to do with the particular city, festival and theater.
Are there threads connecting your treatments of Shakespeare, for example, and your approach to “One Thousand and One Nights”?
The “Nights” are a great work of folk culture, dramatizing the immense range and complexity of the challenges of life lived by the mass of people. Shakespeare also concerned himself with that same vast territory. Shakespeare is a great teacher, and I could not approach a work as broad in its grasp as the “Nights” without my experience of Shakespeare. On the other hand, the “Nights” are something entirely themselves — they have a genius, an integrity of their own. I am trying to grasp that and not impose anything on them, not make them something else.
When news breaks from the Arab or Muslim world — crackdowns in Syria, bin Laden’s death — does it affect what’s going on in rehearsals?
Has there been a response from the Arabic-speaking world to the production?
A great deal of interest, some excitement, some suspicion. Naturally.
Your organization, Dash Arts, is currently presenting an Arabic series to “challenge preconceived notions of Arabic culture, offering new perspectives and unheard voices.” It sounds like that kind of work is needed in the United States. Any plans?
Yes. We hope to take “One Thousand and One Nights” around as widely as possible. We would like to also ensure that our hugely successful dance piece, “Babel,” plays in the U.S. Our next project, the “Tribute to Oum Kalsoum,” will also be something we want to share with U.S. audiences.
What’s the biggest misconception about the work that you think your production will address?
That the “Nights” are a collection of fantasy adventures for children, coming from a generally exotic source. They are not; they are brutal, erotic, witty and complex explorations of the major challenges of adult life — marriage, sex, money, power and fate. They come from specific roots in Arabic-Islamic history, and they come from a culture that we must stop seeing as hostile and inferior. It’s neither.
“One Thousand and One Nights” runs from June 10 to June 19 at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, as part of the Luminato arts festival.
Michael Kaminer is a frequent Forward contributor whose writing has also appeared in The Washington Post and The New York Times.