Disgraced at the Fulton Theatre is a theatrical work that is important and timely. This show is the best play I have seen this season. Disgraced is a reminder of why live theatre matters, and why live theatre is essential to fostering a discourse in society. What this play does is explore how we identify as people, and shows that an individual’s identity in today’s world is not clear cut. The play asks difficult questions in regards to religion, individualism and assimilation. Disgraced at Fulton Theatre, under the direction of Marc Robin, is a powerful production with strong and effective performances, and it is a show that will stimulate conversations. This is one of the best dramas I have seen on stage at the Fulton, and it is an exceptional production with a passionate cast who provide powerful performances.
I had the privilege of speaking with the entire cast of Disgraced: Abhi Katyal (Amir), Liz Shivener (Emily), Andrew Kindig (Isaac), Erinn Holmes (Jory) and Zal Owen (Abe). They all shared their enthusiasm about the play, Disgraced, with me and why people need to come and see this show. In addition, we talked about the research they did in preparation for the show, and why live theatre is important.
Kelli Curtin: Could you tell me a little about Disgraced? What can audiences expect when coming to see this play?
Liz Shivener: The play is about identity, especially one’s perceived identity and one’s inherent blood identity; for example race and religion based identity. Also it discusses, how in the United States you portray a private identity versus a public identity, and how everyone struggles to find exactly what those identities are and the consequences therein.
Abhi Katyal: The play is about so many different things. It asks us to consider what it means to fit in, and what people have to give up in their own personal lives in order to fit in to American society. But it also considers what the characters are running away from. I feel like all the characters in this show are running away from something in regards to the identity they are creating.
Erinn Holmes: This show follows a lawyer, Amir, who is on the rise with his career and examines the man he has presented himself to be. He is coming to a crossroads where he is having to face the person he has put forth versus the person he actually is and what that means for his future. This conflict causes things to come to a point where they explode in many ways.
Zal Owen: The only thing I would add to this is that we have discussed the title of the show, Disgraced, and what it means. It really means two things. First, it is how you can be disgraced by other people, which is very evident in the play. Secondly, it is how the choices you make, the secrets you have and the identities you hide can be a disgrace to yourself and your heritage as well.
Kelli: Why should people come to the Fulton Theatre and see this show?
Erinn: In all honestly, I actually just got into a twenty-five minute discussion in the locker room of the YMCA today about this show. A lovely woman approached me yesterday, and then she saw me again this morning and wanted to talk about the show some more. We had this whole conversation because she was conflicted about how she was feeling, and the more she thought about the show the more she wanted to talk about it with someone. Disgraced is so much more in every way. Audiences follow the story of the lead character, Amir, and the story is so multifaceted about his religion, his upbringing, the sect of his religion and asks the audience to consider questions such as where does his upbringing and religious beliefs start and end, and whom imposes these beliefs on him – himself or his upbringing. This play cannot be cut down into a neat little box, you cannot make it this neat little picture and answer what led him to where he gets to in the play, and even where he ends up after the highly intense moments in the play. This play is not a pretty picture and neither is life, it reflects the complexities within any person.
Liz: That is exactly why people need to come and see it. It is a show that strangers feel compelled to talk about with each other.
Andrew Kindig: This show starts a conversation about how we perceive people, about things that influence us as human beings, how we interact, the preconceived notions we have about other religions, other races and how if you do not truly allow yourself to be open to the idea that everyone is a human being and we are all flawed then this will lead to stereotypes that will put up walls. So often in this play we talk about choices, this play could end up a happy show, but the characters in this play make choices and the characters in this play usually make the incorrect choice. This play depicts how the people in this show are flawed, every one of us in this show are confronted with a path and the reason it is so compelling is because you get to those moments in the show and the audience questions what they are going to do, and they react with exasperation because they make the wrong choice. Those choices really stir conversations about preconceived notions and how these notions can really affect us as humans.
People need to come and see this show because it gives people a community to talk with face to face instead of sitting behind a screen. It is so easy to say something on social media, it is so easy to have a screen name that is not who you really are. It is another thing to sit down with one hundred other people and watch a show and at the end of the show stand up and look at everybody else and see how they reacted to it. That is so much more visceral than responding to something online.
Kelli: Disgraced is a show that I feel people really want to talk about after seeing it. Have you had any interactions with members of the audience? What have the reactions of the audience been like?
Zal: Honestly, there has been a few people that I have talked to after the show that live in Lancaster and said this is a show that has affected them the most out of anything they have seen at the Fulton. Many people shared with me that they felt this is the most powerful show they have seen in Lancaster. A lot of people think that such great works are being done upstairs at the Fulton in the Tell Studio Theatre, and that Disgraced was like a punch in the face, in a positive way, because it created a dialogue among audience members. This show seems to be affecting people in a way that they have not witnessed before. People from the audience have spoken to me about how much this show has impacted them and really made them think.
Liz: I think there are two types of reactions to Disgraced. First there are the people who want to talk about the show and want to engage with the cast and other audience members. Also, there are the people who are silent who do not have anything to say yet because they need some time to process and recount what just happened onstage. Both those reactions are strong and positive. If people are leaving the theatre thinking about what they just encountered in this play then we have done our job. In addition, this is a show in which we all have been thanked numerous times by members of the audience because it really is different from what they have seen in the past. They thank us for being onstage and telling this story.
Abhi: It is really satisfying to face the audience at the end of the show. At the end of the show when we come out onstage we can literally feel the impact the show has had on the audience.
Andrew: Something Marc [Robin] said to us is that when we come out at the end and take our bows we need to thank the audience for coming on the journey of this story with us. We really want to thank the audience for coming and watching this piece of work and allowing us to tell this story.
Abhi: I cannot think of a more appropriate time for people to come see this play. No one could have known this play, written five years ago, would be so relevant in 2017. When this season was set no one could have predicted how important this play would be right now.
Kelli: There is no way anyone could have known how impactful this play would be in our current socio-political climate. What was the rehearsal process like and how do you prepare for a show like this that is so topical?
Abhi: Marc thankfully helped us keep the focus on the play. This play is so ambiguous in that if we did not have the clarity on what we are saying and why we are saying it or what our character’s point of view is on issues or what the motive is behind what we are saying, then it would be easy to get lost in the story. However, finding the motive behind out characters allows us to tell the story in as clear a way as we can. The script is very ambiguous and there is only one part of the play that feels very clear to me, and the rest of play and every topic it touches, social, political, or personal, there is no distinct line in the choices we are making. As actors we really need to be aware of who our characters are and why we make the choices we make, and from there we just let the story unfold. As we do this play over and over again the story gets richer and continues to deepen.
Zal: Something we talked about a lot during the rehearsal process was the relationships that we all have and the parallels and differences between everyone. One thing that resonates with me is the conflict between the characters: justice versus order, artist versus lawyer, Muslin versus non-Muslim, Jewish versus African-American versus white. In rehearsal we talked about these points and how there are similarities and differences between these characters and the differences are like oil and water and do not touch.
Erinn: We talked about how we identify with each other and how it is all based off different things. For example, my character, Jory, and Emily relate because we are women, but she is the artist and I am the lawyer.
Zal: Marc was really great about getting the play on its feet quick and early, so we, as actors, had time to explore, develop and find what we wanted to bring to these characters. He really worked with us and listened to us as we developed not only the story we are telling, but also the characters we are playing.
Kelli: What is the benefit of doing a show like Disgraced in a space like the Tell Studio Theatre?
Erinn: The audience gets to be like a fly on the wall, and they are right in the story with us.
Andrew: If we would do this play on a bigger stage with a bigger audience it would give the play a completely different feel. Doing Disgraced upstairs gives a more intimate feel. The story and how we portray the characters would be the same because we are telling the same story no matter what type of space we do it in. However, the audience would have a completely different visceral experience.
Zal: I think doing this play in a more intimate space makes our work more real. When you work on a bigger stage in a much bigger space you have to make a conscious effort to “sell it to the last row.” You have to make it big enough for the person in the last row to feel like they are part of it as well. In this space, a more intimate space, we get to be as real as we can, and everyone feels they are part of the story no matter if they are in the first or last row. Everyone feels like they are in the apartment where this story takes place, and they are part of the moment and the drama as it unfolds.
Abhi: This play is all about the conversation between two people or four people. What is easily noticeable in this space is that the audience is more observant of little things that happen onstage like a look between two people or a gesture or a movement. The little movements that are all part of our characters and the story we are telling are more evident in a smaller space like this.
Liz: Disgraced is like a tragic slice of life that the audience gets to be privy to. The intimate space creates an environment in which it is like the audience is overhearing things they just happen to be privy to.
Andrew: That’s what is so interesting. This perspective on being part of private conversations or moments is what everyone is wanting right now. If you look at what shows are popular on Netflix or Hulu or HBO it is these real life dramas that are popular. That is exactly what Disgraced is, a real life drama. The difference with a play in a theatre is that you cannot pause it like you can with television or movies.
Kelli: As an actor, what type of research do you do to prepare for the roles that you are playing?
Erinn: We started out with a dramaturg who was really wonderful. He is from Millersville University. As an actor, preparing always begins with the text. I read and reread the text, and for me, the research does not end just because the show has opened. I am finding out new things about Jory every single night. In addition, I discover new things about our relationships with each other. The things we reference in the play we need to know what that means.
Abhi: I went to New York City, a place I do not have the opportunity to go to very often, and went to the MET. I went there to see the Diego Velazquez’s painting Portrait of Juan de Pareja, which is such a huge part of this show. This painting is so present in the show. It was really helpful for me just to see the actual painting in person. It was remarkable to see in person. There is a whole wall of his paintings at the MET, and what I found interesting is at first glance Velazquez’s painting looks so muted, but when you go up to the portrait you notice the details more and more the longer you look at it. It really feels as if the man in the paining is just going to start talking to you.
In addition to seeing this painting in person, I also spoke with two of my friends who were in New York City on 9/11. And, speaking with them reminded me of what a different experience it was for them as opposed to many people who were in other parts of the country. The feeling and emotion recounting what that day was like is different from someone who experienced it in California or Nebraska. Speaking to New Yorkers about 9/11 is much more personal. As a result, those conversations and hearing those personal an emotional stories were really helpful toward adding insight into this character. It helped me immensely in the play when we talk about 9/11, and it helps me recount and feel that moment in the play.
Erinn: The part of the play that Abhi is referring to when the topic of 9/11 is brought up, is the moment that has changed the most for me in the play. I have to really remember every night that the characters in this play are New Yorkers, we were all in New York and experienced 9/11 as New Yorkers. That is a really important thing to remember for me in this scene. New York for my character is work, New York is home, and that is where her life is.
Liz: I did a lot of research on religion and culture because my character makes a lot of references to the Quran, to different locations, artists and different translations of the Quran.
Andrew: Besides research on art and religion, I also looked into which people we talk about in the play are real and which ones are fictional. For example, I reference Jerry Saltz, and he is a real New York art critic. It’s interesting to look at things and see this whole pattern that playwright, Ayad Akhtar, has woven together in this show. For me, it makes this play alive and real because not everything in this play is fictional.
Abhi: I grew up in India and Muslims are the largest religious minority, and as a result I grew up learning about this religion. Coming into this show did not feel quite as alien for me because I knew a lot about the Muslim religion due to where I grew up. As far as my character, Amir, is concerned there is a much greater familiarity because Amir is Muslim in current day. The play deals with the theme about a person coming from a background that is extremely conservative and traditional. Part of his story in Disgraced is about resigning himself to the background and traditions he was brought up with and ultimately rejecting those traditions, and then questioning the paradox it created and realizing there is more to a person than rejecting the values they were brought up with. Amir thinks he is this assimilated person, but he still has the background of growing up Muslim.
Kelli: Why, in your opinion, is live theatre important?
Zal: I saw my first Broadway show when I was four years old. For me, live theatre does two things. First, it entertains and secondly, it makes you think. A theatre is a sacred place where you can go and get lost in a story being told and it affects your life. Compared to going to see a movie or reading a book seeing live theatre is seeing a story unfold live in front of you. It is an organic art form and that is what makes it so much more real than any other form of storytelling.
Abhi: I have been pursuing camera work in Los Angeles for three years, and it has been really nice to come here and do stage work. Live theatre and working on television and movies are two completely different mediums. However, there really is something incredible about doing a show live because nothing gets edited. There is nothing like working in the space here because the audience is right there with us every night, and it really is extraordinary. Movies and television do have the ability to be moving, but there is a different energy and powerfulness that comes from live theatre. It is a joyful thing to be able to do.
Erinn: There is something about the volatility and vulnerability of the stage, and it cannot be replaced. Whatever moments are happening are things that are only happening that night. Things change from each performance, and even though the script is the same, the audience’s reaction and how we react to each other can differ. People can be transported by film as well as theatre, but only live theatre can include you. We are sharing a moment with one hundred people that night that no one will experience again in the same way. A live show is vulnerable, and audiences do not have the opportunity to see the same show again because it changes with each audience.
Andrew: We as a community need to continue to support live theatre because it is storytelling. As humans we need to continue storytelling to better ourselves, and what better way to experience storytelling then directly through other people who sit and listen to other people tell stories. It is what has made us and our society what we are now. Storytelling was the original way of communication, there were not always books, and not everyone could read. There is this innate and ingrained desire to tell stories and hear stories from other human beings. The only way we can advance as a whole is to hear everybody’s story.
Liz: I feel provocation is important whether it is in a negative respect or a positive respect. I think it is always good to challenge ourselves. It is exciting, thrilling and gripping to be shown yourself or the opposite of yourself in live theatre. It is important to see live theatre in a place where we can identify or not identify with characters in a play. It is good as a human being to be provoked because personally I despise complacency. I love the theatre so much because you can be provoked and inspired by something you see.
Abhi Katyal, Liz Shivener, Andrew Kindig, Erinn Holmes and Zal Owen can be seen in Disgraced at the Tell Studio Theatre at the Fulton Theatre through March 12, 2017. For more information and tickets please visit their website at www.thefulton.org or call the box office at 717-397-7425.
Photos courtesy of Fulton Theatre; Photo Credit: Kinectiv
Kelli Curtin is founding editor and writer for theatresensation.com. In addition, she is a contributor for the online site broadwayworld.com. Kelli is excited to share her passion about theatre and the Arts with her readers. Kelli can be found on Twitter, Facebook and on Instagram.