Dramatic Influences: Kareem Fahmy
What is an artistic obsession? In Dramatic Influences: Theatre Makers and What Inspires Them, we catch up with Columbia Theatre artists and ask them about the things that keep them up at night—the Wikipedia pages they Google at 3:00 am, the restaurants where they people-watch when they’re in search of artistic inspiration, the books or plays they read again and again. What drives these individuals, even as it drives them crazy? This week we spoke with Directing alumnus Kareem Fahmy ’07 about Edward Albee, Wikipedia plays, and Princess Diana.
Fahmy is a Canadian-born director, playwright, and screenwriter of Egyptian descent. He has directed and developed plays at theaters nationwide, and his plays include Dodi & Diana (O'Neill NPC finalist, world premiere at Colt Coeur), American Fast (Woodward/Newman Award Winner, NNPN Rolling World Premiere: Artists Repertory Theatre, City Theatre, InterAct), A Distinct Society (Co-World Premiere: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley/Pioneer Theatre, Writers Theatre), The Triumphant (Target Margin), Pareidolia, The In-Between (Noor Theatre), and an adaptation of the bestselling novel The Yacoubian Building. His work has been developed at Atlantic Theater Company, Denver Center, Northlight Theatre, New York Stage & Film, Citadel Theatre, and more.
I met Fahmy at a coffee shop on the Lower East Side in the late afternoon. Delightfully engaging and warm while clearly introspective in his answers to my questions, Fahmy embodies both his artistic identities of playwright and director. We spoke briefly about Columbia and after confirming that the same professors he remembered from his time in the program were still teaching, we settled in to talk about his work.
What’s the best place to write in New York?
Kareem Fahmy: I do a lot of writing at home. I’m not a big writing in public person. I don't write in coffee shops. I find it too distracting; but I really like the Performing Arts Library in Lincoln Center. You kind of feel surrounded by the performing arts. I find that to be really pleasant.
Speaking of libraries, is there one book that’s been the most influential for you as a writer and an artist?
KF: Wow. Books are hard because it's like, the world is full of books, right? I think I'm going to have to pick a play. The play I keep coming back to for 20-plus-years is Uncle Vanya by Chekhov. I can read it and reread it. I've seen production after production. It always opens me up. It always moves me. It always fascinates me. It feels like this sort of vast, infinite wonderland of emotion. I just think it's a masterpiece.
Along those lines, do you have a craft book or an academic text that you feel would hold a similar place for you?
KF: It's funny that you ask because I've been trying to find more of those. I never really relied on craft books because there are very few books on the craft of directing that really are helpful. As a writer, I've started to find more. I recently read this very helpful book. I don't know if it's, like, the book; but I recommend it for playwrights. It’s called Playwriting by Stephen Jeffries. It talks about creating character in ways that I thought were really, really helpful. I was working on a play that had a lot of characters in it, and I was struggling to differentiate them. And reading that book really unlocked something in me that led to some great discoveries for creating characters.
Do you find that your characters come from people that you know?
KF: With each play there's got to be at least one character that will capture the essence of a person I know. Sometimes that's enough. If I have that linchpin I can build the other characters around that. I think any writer is like that. You [take] so much from your lived experience. Whether or not you say you are, you are.
In my new play I was trying to capture a very specific type of caustic wit that I knew this character needed to have. And one day I thought, oh yeah, that's my friend David. David is exactly like that. Not that the character is in any way David, it's a completely different person. But I'm capturing David's essence.
You've worked as both a playwright and a director. Do you find that your aesthetic voice is the same for playwriting as it is for directing? Can they ever cross over?
KF: That's a really good question. I think for better or for worse, and I think for better primarily, my writing has been influenced by the fact that I think like a director.
To me, the only reason to be a playwright is to see that work realized on stage. I'm not a playwright that is writing for the words. Some writers are really interested in language and what words do, and they think of the product of playwriting as the script. I'm only ever thinking about the production. That's all I can do. So because I think like a director, because I am a director, I am envisioning how the play lives on stage when I'm writing. I like to think of it as an invitation to imagine how the world lives on stage, how the text lives on stage, who the characters are on stage, what the theatrical dynamic is on stage. I am embedding those things into the writing so that they really inform one another in a very deep way.
Conversely, when I direct other people's plays, particularly when I'm directing new plays and developing new plays, I'm so much more aware of the small things. Meaning, I could work on a scene and think, “This one line, do we really need that?” I would say it to a playwright often. And I still do sometimes. But now I know, because I've lived the experience, there are lines in some of my plays that I have spent weeks on. So, for somebody to say, “Oh, that line's not important,” devalues the emotional and psychological energy that you put into crafting that line. I don't do that anymore as a director. I'm much more aware. I mean, writing a play is awful. To me, anyway. It's terrible! Why does anybody do it? A line, a piece of punctuation, a stage direction. That stuff is really important to me now. So when I am directing, I am so in support of those things because [they] lead to specificity.
When you’re writing a play do you find yourself thinking about what the director will have to unpack in it?
KF: Many years ago I went to this talk that Edward Albee was doing. He was talking to a group of directors. John Guare was interviewing him. Albee said, “Everything that I want, I tell the director exactly. This is the way it needs to be. If I say the couch is red, the couch is red. And if I say there's a door on stage left, that's the way it has to be.”
I found that so harsh—the idea that the writer was controlling the production. I think when I did start to write my plays I wanted to do the opposite, but not so opposite that it's a free-for-all. I like to use the word invitation. I'm inviting the potential collaborators, the director, the designers, the actors, into this framework of what I think [the play] wants to be, without dictating. Because if it's so regimented, it's not fun to interpret. You lose playfulness in that. I'm very, very, very aware of that when I write my plays. Partially it's a taste thing and a style thing. To each their own, of course. But there's something [important] about trusting your collaborators and giving space. [Provide] guideposts, but space.
A lot of your plays have quite specific settings and characters. I'm just thinking about Dodi and Diana, for example, where the jumping-off point is about very specific people—Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed. Are plays like these based on topics, historical or theoretical, that you like to research? What Wikipedia pages do you find yourself scrolling in your free time?
KF: Each project reveals itself to me in such different and mysterious ways. Dodi and Diana, believe it or not, started because of that title. I literally said, "I want to write a play called Dodi and Diana." That's all I knew, with the scantest knowledge of the relationship between them. In that case, my research was super extensive, because I was like, "Ok, if I'm going to in any way capture the reality, I need to understand everything about them," starting with Wikipedia, and then going into the weeds of everything I could absorb.
But here's my thing about research. I research so that I can throw it away, because my greatest fear, and one of my greatest dislikes, is Wikipedia style theater—when you feel the Wikipedia-ness of the research in the play.
I'm doing a very research-heavy play right now—it's probably the most research I've done on any play ever. It's foundational, but it's also meant to eventually wash away, because research can't hold up a play. The research can inspire, the research can unlock, but the research isn't the play. So there's never one specific text. I kind of feel like a little honeybee when I'm researching, because everything cross pollinates. I kind of flit over here, and I sort of pick up some pollen over here, and I pick up some pollen over here.
I use Evernote, which is a great software. Every time I come across an interesting tidbit of research that's relevant to the project that I'm researching, [I] put it into a folder. By the time I'm actually sitting down to start writing something, I've got reams and reams of different things that I've come across. Sometimes not really fully absorbed. And then this collage of things starts to emerge.
Are there historical eras or eras of art that you find yourself particularly drawn to?
KF: I'm too much of a generalist for that. I mean that with every project that I do, I'm trying to come at it from a beginner's mind and do something that feels completely unique to me. For example, my play A Distinct Society is squarely November of 2018. It's very steeped in that. And then I have other pieces that are more timeless. So I meet every project where it needs to be met and I think it's just my aversion to repeating myself. There's this idea that I think is sort of true that a lot of playwrights just write the same play over again; and some writers are like that, some writers are great at that. I'm just not that person. I don't know where that came from, I think it's maybe because of the journeyman career I had as a director—applying my craft to so many different styles of theater so that when I started writing, I was very consciously thinking about how either stylistically, form-wise, or dramaturgically, each play is going to be very different from the one I wrote before.
I'm writing this nonlinear play which is called Fountains of Youth. Writing this play is an entirely different process than writing a linear play. I'm teaching myself how to write this play in this new form and that's exhilarating while really fucking hard. It's also two acts. I just felt fundamentally that it was two acts, which is also not something that I often do. My last three plays were all 90 minute one act plays. The curiosity I had about form to a certain extent led to parts of the way the play is starting to exist. And again, it's that desire I have to keep challenging myself in new ways, until maybe one day I'll run out [of ideas]. It’s because it's hard to write a play and because I hate writing first drafts. I have to be really excited about my idea to even start a first draft. I would rather have nails stuck under my fingers—writing the first draft for me is like torture.
You mentioned A Distinct Society earlier, which is set in a specific, real-life library on the boundaries of Vermont and Quebec. I wanted to ask a little bit about what role geography, architecture, and physical place play for you in creating characters and creating a play.
KF: I love that question. I mean, it can be everything. [A Distinct Society] in particular, and Dodi and Diana too, which is set in a very real, very specific time—those plays and the characters and the way they live in the world are so rooted in the physical and emotional roles of those places. It’s almost like a form of dramaturgy in and of itself. I know it's cliche to say that the space is a character, but A Distinct Society is about that [library]. Everything about it informs every moment of that play.
When I think about it, I've written three plays that are all set in real buildings and real places. My play The Yacoubian Building is based on a real building. I guess I'm obsessed with buildings and architecture, and I'm obsessed with the stories that go on inside. Just realized that. Thank you. They're real spaces that exist, that you can visit, that have an energy and a feeling. Plays need containers. You can't really know what a play is until you know what the container of the play is. It's one of the first things that [Directing Concentration Head and Professor] Anne Bogart says [in her classes]. Think about the container.
I also take a lot of liberties with the architecture. One of the hardest things about A Distinct Society was figuring out what liberties to take and why. I've done three productions of that play and I always have to have a pretty lengthy conversation with the director and the actors and explain the liberties I've taken and why. Because yes—it's inspired by real events, a real place, a real set of circumstances—but many of these things are fictionalized in service of the story I'm trying to tell.
We’ve spoken a lot about place and it’s interesting to hear how it impacts your plays; as we wrap up the interview, I’m curious—is there a particular spot in New York City you’ve found inspiring for your work?
KF: I mean, I love New York. I'm obsessed with Riverside Park. I've always been a West Side of Manhattan guy [because of] Columbia. I used to just wander up and down Riverside Park. It's where I proposed to my husband. Gathering with friends, looking out over the water—I think the best thing about Riverside Park is the Upper West Side stretch, from the 70s up to the 100s. It's very old world, and it's not touristed like Central Park. It feels like it's for New Yorkers primarily.
The play that started me on the trajectory of playwriting is this play I wrote called The In-Between. I don't even know if this speech remained, but the play included a speech that one of the characters gives about a beautiful experience he had in Riverside Park.
It's been a long time since I've written a New York-centric play. My first plays were very New York-centric and I haven't written a New York play since. I have this ongoing joke with my husband that I'm writing a play about the neighborhood we live in—Hamilton Heights. I sort of joke about it, it’s not actually a real idea for a play. But maybe there's a New York play in there.