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An interview with Nazareth & see you Thursday!
We hope you’ll join us for the launch party for Untitled. (1-5) by Nazareth Hassan at Printed Matter this Thursday at 6 pm! Note that this will be at the Chelsea location.
In advance of the book’s release, we wanted to let you in a little more behind the scenes. Please enjoy the following conversation between Nazareth and us at 3 Hole.
How can opacity or a scrambling of the self allow the whole self to exist more fully? A conversation with Nazareth Hassan, Marci Green & Egbert Vongmalaithong
Marci: What brought you to playwriting and performance?
Nazareth: I started out making music. My dad was a musician, and my grandma was a musician as well. I was playing piano, sax, and singing in chorus, which led me to musical theater and dance. Then around high school, I discovered directing. And then I went to this fucking arts camp in high school that made me not want to pursue performing, and that’s why I decided to be a director.
I went to undergrad and studied directing and was interacting with these texts and plays that were all the same. They offered a sliver of what I think a person could be in performance: what a person can be represented as and what a body can stand in for. And so I started writing my own plays, and that was a revelatory moment—that I could take my songwriting and my poetry and my choral arrangements, a capella music—and make it into something that could be lived in.
Egbert: Do you have any thoughts about publishing and what publishing might do for performances?
Nazareth: It’s always been a dream of mine to have something published. In grad school, my professor, she used to say, “A play is a call to action.” I was very taken by that, and I think that’s where I centered a lot of my practice—making text that inspires action as opposed to prescribing it.
I feel like I’m a playwright but I don’t feel like I make plays—does that make sense? I feel like I use playwriting to make something else. I have made plays that are reflective and somewhat psychological, but I think a lot of my work tends to be like Untitled—like movements, catalysts. Untitled isn’t something to sink into, it’s something to respond to viscerally.
I saw a book recently where there was a piece of transparent paper on top of a flat piece of paper—and I feel like that’s what a performance text should be. It’s a transparent piece of paper upon which every person that interacts with it looks different underneath it.
Egbert: That reminds me of how in Untitled.(1-5), there is a way that abstractions—like invisibility, nothingness, things that are immaterial—become foregrounded.
Nazareth: A lot of plays try to splinter the human experience into all these psychological things, and in the actual material of a play, you’re splintering experience into character and into plot and into setting. But the actual real thing that’s happening in front of you is these people standing in front of you. And I was hoping to bring it more down to earth. And I was really engaging with opacity, as a means to find that. How can invisibility or opacity or a scrambling of the self allow the whole self to exist more fully? Clarity is actually a fracturing experience. And opacity, as opposed to clarity, allows for the whole self to be present—it’s not about understanding, it’s about acceptance.
Egbert: I feel like there’s this impulse to interpret all the time. But we can just be. We can make observations, too, while allowing for other modes of experiencing, observing, or framing—and to not immediately go into the impulse of “What does it mean?”
Nazareth: Exactly, and a lot of that impulse to impose meaning is actually projection. And I would be an idiot not to believe that I’m not making theater for white people because every Black artist is making work for white people because that’s who is consuming everything. Blackness is always being consumed by whiteness. And so I wanted to resist that by resisting explanation. Resisting projection and enforcing people to listen to the texture of a laugh. Abstraction is more freeing and more real than representational work.
Marci: I love that. I couldn’t help but think—as you were talking about learning about theater and various archetypes—about how your work is a call to be present and listen to the actual performer. I feel like that is a very exciting and powerful act.
Nazareth: I often think about how Western theater was started by the same philosophers who were thinking about the self. Story was a function, a part of understanding the self. I think about how that could quickly become propaganda for an idealized self.
I’m a very big theater nerd…
Marci: I love it! I love listening to you talk about it, and I’m learning!
Nazareth: I’m screaming! It’s peak Gemini season.
Egbert: YES! Are you a Gemini?
Egbert: Me too! Marci, what are you?
Marci: I’m a cusp Aquarius/Capricorn!
Nazareth: I live! I live for an Aquarius. I live for a Capricorn.
Marci: Um, should we go in a different direction?
Egbert: I’m interested in learning about your process before a show. Do you have any warm-up or rehearsal rituals that you like to do with people, whether that’s weeks of rehearsal before or right before a staging?
Nazareth: My work is emotionally charged, and it can be dangerous to go into without gauging where we are and establishing that we’re different than this piece.
I always like to start with a check-in—”Where are you?” And, "How close are you to the work at this moment?” So I know how to speak with you. Directing is communicating.
Marci: I think of authenticity and sincerity and those things aren’t imposed, you know? Nor should they be. Those things are recognized.
Nazareth: Exactly! I know every process I have is life-changing. I think performance is like rehearsal for life. There’s always an aspect that’s like we’re all going to come out of this experience knowing something about ourselves that we didn’t know before. And that sort of discovery, like you were saying, is about recognition. And it’s about helping the performer and the actor to reach that recognition as well. ‘Cause that is more the thing I’m trying to see. How can we catch the moment of recognition?
Egbert: We’ve talked a lot about process, abstraction, decisions, collective building. It would be good to know about some of your inspiration sources, whether those are experiential or cultural—especially since you reference some of them in the book.
Nazareth: On an experiential level, when I am writing a performance piece or play, it’s usually writing to understand something in my life. I will be in the fever of a really deep feeling and living it, so writing is a form of processing for me. Generally I am experiencing something fraught, overwhelming, or deeply euphoric, you know, something that is almost spiritual in experience, and I’m seeking to capture an experience in my body that’s beyond me.
I think as far as artists that inspire me, I always return back to Young Jean Lee. In my opinion she is the epitome of American theater, in all the very fraught and brilliant ways that she works. I worked with her for some time and I appreciated the way that she makes a performance. She creates a dynamic and the performance acts as a recording site for that dynamic.
OutKast. Outkast is very inspiring to me. I think they are just amazing. Musically they are very inspiring, and they have these skits inside their albums that are like, crazy, and so complex and really shape the story of the album. I can see their albums performed live in a more theatrical way because of that.
Amiri Baraka, he’s also a fraught, dangerous man.
I like Toshiki Okada. He’s a Japanese writer and director working now. He works a lot in Germany. He similarly writes these texts that are fuckin bonkers. He’s very invested in the mundane. His texts are very rote, almost remind me of corporate monotony where it’s the same thing over and over again, and he choreographs bodies very robotically. I also think his work is very sensitive to translation, which I’m very interested in as its own texture. I can tell based on the translations into English that his work is more muted, but that for an English speaking audience to engage with the work, there has to be an imprintation of the emotion that may not actually be there in Japanese.
There’s a poet, Moon Bo Young, who’s Korean, love her.
Nina Simone, also! Nina Simone, amazing. She’s deeply inspiring to me.
I really like, you know, dangerous artists.
Marci: Thank you for taking us to so many awesome places in this conversation!
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Nazareth Hassan is an interdisciplinary artist working in performance, writing, sound, music, and imagemaking. His play VANTABLACK has been shown at the Theatretreffen Stuckemarkt in Berlin and the Royal Court Theatre in London, and is the recipient of the Dramatist Guild Young Playwright Award. His performance Untitled. (1-5) has been shown at the Shed in NYC and MINT Gallery in Atlanta, and is being published this summer by 3 Hole Press. Recent sound and composition credits include A Song of Songs at the Bushwick Starr, A Map to Nowhere at Soho Rep, Tomorrow As It Will Be at JACK, and Face Eaters at Chez Bushwick, in which he was also a dancer. He has released 3 singles available on all platforms under his name. Beginning this summer, he will be the Dramaturg at the Royal Court Theatre.
Marci Green is a socially engaged artist living in Philly. She works primarily in photography, writing, and socially engaged art installations. She is the founder of an independent art library and community space called fathom library.
Egbert Vongmalaithong is a writer, curator, and performer. His recent projects in the past year include co-curating Doing Language : Word Work, a curatorial project at the ICA at VCU; choreographing Lucy Dacus’s performance of Brando on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and co-organizing poetry reading groups around the New Moon. He lives and works in Richmond, VA.
3 Hole Press is a home for performance in book form and everyday life. We view publishing as a step towards making contemporary performance more accessible, and celebrate performance created for a reader. In order to keep our titles accessible and events free, we operate through a non-profit model. Our publications are printed through the support of the Literary Arts Emergency Fund, the New York State Council for the Arts, the Brooklyn Arts Council and contributions from readers. Learn more and support 3 Hole here.