A Conversation with Aya Aziz
Written by Esther Cohen
Art by Michelle Tse
Photography by Michelle Tse
July 19, 2016
Look up any positive adjective in the dictionary and Aya Aziz should be cited as an example: bright, magnetic, gregarious, compassionate, insightful – the list goes on. In short, we’re utterly obsessed with her. Read on to see why you will be too.
Esther Cohen: Let’s start by learning a little bit about you.
Aya Aziz: I grew up in New York City in many different social spaces. I had a grandmother who was an actress, and my mother was a dancer and a mad scientist type, so I had an interesting childhood where I jumped between all of these different social spaces, classes, cultures and perspectives. I was a very loud, dancing child, and I’ve used that in this piece about identity and growing up. How do you become one thing from so many different things? What is the process of differentiating between different identities or honing in on one particular vernacular or perspective or culture? The question of who we are is very prevalent and interesting to me and I’m still trying to figure it out.
ES: Can you tell us a bit about what the piece is, and also how you came to create it? How did you make the transition from doing more traditional theater to writing specifically your own story? What challenges did you discover as you made that transition to being a solo artist and a playwright?
AA: I would say that this is – I don’t know if this is a real term – but a friend once said, “I write autobiographical fiction.” That feels like what I’m doing. I’m taking autobiographical elements and things that have happened, but weaving them into an arc that isn’t as consecutive. I take liberty with how I portray different people in my life, and also to protect my family so I don’t embarrass anyone. So there are many, many fictional elements within how this story is organized and how it came together.
The piece is about a young woman who travels to Philadelphia to see her Muslim Egyptian family. She’s not estranged from them, but she’s certainly distanced. She lives her life separately as an artist New York City and, ultimately, leads a pretty privileged life. She has a relaxed life where she can think about the world and take liberties with how she spends her time. So she spends a few nights with her family in Philadelphia and she’s pushed to confront what it means to have distanced herself from their reality. It’s a reality that she’s never lived. She’s documented and has a white American mom, so she has that privilege that her cousins do not; she’s taking liberty with her time and taking time off college; she lives as a performance artist while her family is very conservative and traditional. There’s a culture clash: in one scene, she comes out as Princess Jasmine in this performance piece that she’s devised against orientalism, and her family doesn’t know what orientalism is. She comes to her art with certain privileges because she hasn’t actually lived the experiences that she writes about. That concept encouraged me and guided me towards this piece. How did I experience so many different spaces that I never had to experience the consequences of?
Michelle Tse: Can you elaborate on those different spaces?
AA: I spent a lot of time in public housing. I lived across the street from the Elliott Houses in Chelsea and I spent a lot of time there just by virtue of my mom being busy and my dad being away. And yet, ultimately, I had vastly different experiences than the kids that I grew up with and who were my friends. The projects have a unique atmosphere and I got to leave that. Even though I was across the street, I was a world away. Similarly, I could visit my Muslim family but never feel surveilled, never have ICE pressure me for documentation, never have green cards denied, never having to leave the country, which they ultimately had to do.
MT: It baffles me when someone like you can accept your privileges, but a lot of white people can’t.
AA: I have so much privilege because I can get close to these parts of my identity but never experience the consequences of them. I can pretend to be them. I get to pick and choose. The play takes that lens and explores that privilege in her meeting with her family, reflecting on her childhood and moments of closeness she felt, and how that sits behind the present day distance she has from the traumas that happened between childhood and now.
MT: When did the piece take shape?
AA: The play came out of my time living in Lebanon. I was given a chance to play my songs at a cabaret theater. I didn’t have enough songs to fill an hour and fifteen minutes, but I love performing and telling stories, so I thought, “Oh, I’ll do short vignettes between each.” People really responded to it and I realized that all my music had this kind of common thread of identity because it was something I’d been working out internally. The play came out of that. I’d never produced anything myself before.
EC: So I’m sure it’s been an adventure.
AA: NYMF is a whirlwind! And it’s so shiny! And I wonder the entire time, “Who let me in here?!”
EC: Let’s talk about the challenges of doing a solo show. Is it hard to be critical of yourself, or to be a collaborator but still stay true to your work?
AA: Oh my god, I’ve faced all of it. It’s been a kind of continuous meta crisis. The work kind of came out of me whether I wanted it to or not. And last year, I turned 21 and I wanted to commemorate my adulthood by having done something. So I just sent these vignettes to Fringe and Planet Connections and they said, “Yeah, great.” And I was like, “What? No! No!”
EC: “I was kidding!”
AA: So I had to make an actual piece! There was a lot of cognitive dissonance in the process, because the people I’m writing about are inspired by real people in my life, right? So even if I change names, I’m still in a position where I can really embarrass people. I didn’t appreciate that until the opening of my first show at Planet Connections. Almost nobody was there, but my mother was. And in my former show, I talked much more about New York City than I did about my Muslim family. The show was about growing up in Chelsea and this triangle of different classes and that ever-gentrifying, changing space.
MT: How did Mom react?
AA: My mom told me she was really hurt by it. I was talking about growing up in this crazy tenement that was so unattractive and so shabby that it was featured as a heroin den in a Nicholas Cage movie. I mean, we didn’t have a bathroom in the apartment, it was in the hallway. And the whole time growing up there – I spent 16 years there – I wanted to leave. I was embarrassed about it, but upon reflection, I realized it was this great show material, because of all the crazy stuff that would happen in that tenement. Oh, the characters I wish I had space to fit into my show!
Back then, I didn’t realize that the work carries its own narrative. Even if the place I was writing it from was loving, just by sharing it I could embarrass people. I don’t want to reflect negatively on, or hurt, anyone in my life. I’m in a position where I can do a lot of damage to people. So that’s been difficult, because that is truly my nightmare and I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I hurt someone.
EC: But of course you also still want to be honest.
AA: Yes. So I’m wrestling with how to be honest while also being careful. And of course I have to confront again that is such a position of privilege! How many people get to be in a space where they can reflect to mass audiences on other people’s lives that they have not lived, whose traumas they have not experienced? So I was writing about that and I was acting out that privilege – and it was a little overwhelming, honestly. But it’s also pushed me to grow up. Because ultimately, I can’t walk away from the piece. And that’s what Fringe and Planet Connections represented. I have to keep moving forward. I’ve since had many talks with my parents about it.
MT: Did you edit down or take things out because of those conversations?
AA: Well, another reality for me is that Egypt is not the nicest of places right now. My family is there and my father is not liked by that government. So it’s very real. I had a theme I loved in one of my earlier pieces where I rapped the Quran, because that was how I’d learned it as a kid! I loved learning the Quran and I wanted to be a part of that world, but I was also bringing my New York with me. And no, of course, I couldn’t keep that in.
I’ve lived so sheltered from that aggression and violence that I haven’t had to think about how parts of me that I love will be used as weapons against other people and myself. That reality has been difficult to wrestle with as I shape and go forward with this work.
EC: There are still huge gaps in diversity in theater. One of the big ones is that people of color, and especially non-black people of color, are still extremely underrepresented both on and off stage. What do you see as non-black people of color’s role in the American theater right now, and how would you like to see that change?
AA: Wow. I think you’re right, and that is such a good and such a frustrating point, the lack of availability of theater to non-white communities. And I think so many people are making their own theater because of it. There are so many people making incredible art in this city who are just not seen. They get to La Mama and then it’s the end, because, until recently, those stories weren’t wanted. Culturally, we’re now seeing a change by virtue of the immensity of globalization and multiculturalism. We’re seeing a change in the forced or protected singularity of the American narrative, and what it means to be American.
EC: American theater used to be only about the white, upper middle class Jewish experience in a living room. But now, people are realizing that white Jews in a living room is not all of America. It’s not even most of it.
AA: And it’s wonderful that Hamilton has done what it has done. But I want to see more shows like Hamilton that are accessible to people who can’t afford that ticket price. There’s certainly been a change in the pressure that the public is putting on big outlets to diversify their ensembles. We need to see more lives and more faces and bodies that are traditionally not marketed, intentionally not marketed. Those populations have been making work forever, so we should just keep making what we’re making and putting pressure on those outlets to attend to our art. The quality of the work I’ve seen out there is unbelievable and yet it never sees an audience more than 30. And that’s a real issue, especially in this city.
EC: And there’s definitely a balance to strike between only talking about niche identities and just using theater as a means of pure storytelling, which is something I think your show really does. Theater should be about the ability of any person to tell any story.
MT: And yet, some people can suspend their disbelief enough to believe a talking crab, but not to believe that a black woman could be, say, a 19th century explorer, like in Men On Boats.
AA: Arpita [Mukherjee, producer] would sometimes joke, when we’d go to festival meetings, that “when it comes to you and your presentation, folks are just not going to get it or believe it.” It never happened, but we always made that joke because in theater, people are reticent to suspend their disbelief when confronted with body types and faces and people they don’t want to see. And let me tell you, my whole show is premised on suspending disbelief. I have to completely get rid of disbelief.
EC: Let’s talk about Girl Be Heard. Girls, especially young and minority girls, are told to be small and quiet. Girl Be Heard completely throws that out the door and says, “Be big! Be loud! Tell your story!” Tell us about how you, as one of their teachers, encourage girls to tell their stories.
AA: I’ve been with Girl Be Heard since 2011. It started as this little collective of radical women and teenagers in a synagogue somewhere in Dumbo and now it’s an NGO and is co-sponsored by the UN! The organization works with young women globally and essentially says, “Whatever you are feeling, talk about it.” Because from those narratives, we can reflect on how the experiences of girls intersect with larger political platforms and problems in the world. The work is inherently political. Asking a young woman to speak out about her story is both a political and personal act.
I work a lot with middle schoolers. They’re at this beautiful age that’s also somewhat tragic to me. The change that happens between eleven and fourteen with puberty and the pressures put on their bodies and the pressure to express femininity can be painful to watch. They’re at this age where they’re becoming something, and what they’re becoming is not necessarily what they want to be or how they really feel.
MT: So is it sort of like a seminar, or a writing class?
AA: When the girls enter the room I have them free write immediately. I say, “Write anything that you need to get off your chest! Give me something that you feel is really important that people should know! Either about you, or about the world – something that people aren’t thinking about that they should be!” It’s incredible what comes out of that writing. Kids have so much curiosity, but in women that curiosity is sculpted down into something that is acceptable and packaged. So I made sure that whatever we did in that classroom, whether it was talking about gun violence or talking about domestic violence or the question of “what is a woman?” came out of the questions that they wrote down. You give girls a pen and an incentive – they have so much of it – and they fly.
I’ve seen that a lot of storytelling comes out of having the space and freedom to let yourself inspire yourself. As women, there are so many voices in our head telling us what we cannot do. I had one student who would constantly say, “I’m too stupid, I’m not good enough, no I can’t” about everything. But after many, many group hugs and read-alouds and chanting her name, she got onstage and went crazy with this incredible dance! When she got offstage, she immediately said, “I messed up.” So I said, “Yeah, but you did it.” And she said, “Yeah! I did!” Learning to turn off those voices is an essential lesson for women.
EC: I think that’s part of the reason we see so many women, and especially young women, embrace theater. Because theater is an empowering, but not too personal, way to express ideas and face doubts.
AA: Pretend and play have been powerful tools in the classroom. Even when we’re playing other women, at least we’re in control of those women. By being outside of your body and your head, you actually are more in control.
EC: What are the best and worst pieces of advice you’ve received? And if you were to give advice to a young, female theater artist, what would that advice be?
AA: Something my mom has told me throughout this entire process is, “Just let the work take you.” Once you’re not thinking about whether you’ll make it and who will like you, you’ll realize that if you’re doing what you love, you will be good at it. If you do what you love, what you love will carry you to where you need to go. Being unafraid to keep going and keep doing what you love is such a simple piece of advice, but it’s been incredibly helpful.
EC: That is such a Mom piece of advice. Only moms have that kind of wisdom.
AA: Yes! Thank god for moms! And to anyone who wants to do what I’m doing, I’d tell them not to second guess themselves. When festivals accepted my work last year, it scared the bajeesus out of me! But if you have the opportunity, you have to take it. Take every opportunity.
On the other hand, festivals can be stressful and it can be difficult to know when to take time for yourself and say, “Actually, I can’t do that right now.” That knowledge is especially important for women because we’re conditioned to say yes to everything or give a highly apologetic no. Creative energy takes a toll on a person, and while being on a deadline can be a good way to be productive, it’s also a fast way to become exasperated with yourself. So to love yourself throughout that process and take time when you need it is really important.
Love yourself, that’s my piece of advice. Just love yourself!
Aya Aziz is a performance artist and songwriter based between New York and Beirut, Lebanon. She is a graduate of the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics and a longtime member of and current teaching artist for the feminist theater ensemble Girl Be Heard. Sitting Regal by the Window is her first full production and has been featured in the Fringe and Planet Connections Theater Festival in New York as well as at the Metro Al-Madina cabaret theater in Beirut, Lebanon where the show was first produced. When Aya isn’t preparing for a show, studying, or guiding middle-schoolers in the writing and performing of their stories she is probably playing her music at a local restaurant or coffee shop in the city. You can follow her work on SoundCloud and Facebook.