I’ve always loved to act. Dolls with my sisters, whom we had dance in ballrooms and save the earth from alien invaders. At the playground with my closest friend, turning the slide and monkey bars into the Titanic in high, tinny voices. The stories were endless: Harry Potter infused with Hindi films, play-acting spies, singing stars, college boys, reality dance show contestants.
In fact, these stories aren’t unique to me. Most of us have pretended to be someone we weren’t and gone on adventures in the confines of a small room. Most of us have performed, but shut that part of ourselves down as we grow older, telling ourselves imagination is for children. Playing is just escapism, we say, and go back to our daily lives, dealing with daily troubles. Some of us lose that rich, vibrant life we were brim full with as children.
Why is that? Why are people so afraid of their own imaginations? Why do parents fear sending their children, especially their daughters to continue to act, dance, and in general perform on stage? Why the stigma?
As we grow older, it is harder for us girls to leave the house. We take measured, careful steps. Our freedom, our innocence is in check. You’re getting older, you hear. Be just a little quieter, just a little gentler, just a little more invisible. Bodies are everything. Control, control, control. Your body is dangerous, you hear. Your voice is dangerous. Keep it down. You learn it can wreak havoc in the world. These commands, all in the name of modesty, until your public self becomes a watered down version of the inner capability and strength coursing through your veins. Until the difference you could make in the world is questioned and criticized, pushed aside. We spend our lives fighting this, consciously or subconsciously. We push forward, trying to find our authentic selves. But the voices don’t stop. Control, control, control.
The performing arts counters those deafening, condemning voices. Is that why the arts are not considered a respectable vocation? Because the arts are subversive?
We all have our individual turning points, ones that help us find some sukoon, some peace of mind, some freedom. Performing was mine.
Theater is the only place where I’m told, emote, emote, emote, express, express, express. You know that thought you had? Tell me. Do you feel like crying? Do it. Don’t hide.
Is that why performing is so forbidden? So demeaned, so invalidated?
I’m allowed to bare my heart on stage in a way that’s not necessarily true in my own life. Actors explore the gamut of human emotions. We bring the vulnerability of humanity out onto stage. We find truths about the human condition that are not easily accessible.
Besides the practical, financial implications of being a struggling artist, we face an entire array of moralistic arguments against the arts.
Ye teekh nahi hain (this is not right), this is against Islam, this is shameful, we hear. The entire world of performing arts is marginalized into a tiny, tiny box labeled haram. Impermissible.
So I try to justify my love for theater and art to those who consider it impractical and immoral. It is not as practical as law or engineering. It is not as immediate or as life-saving as a hospital. Or as noble as Islamic Studies.
How then shall I categorize it? How do you explain your theater any more that you can explain your connection to God? Especially if you feel they are inextricably intertwined? People scoff at this sentiment. In a world that insists organized religion means calculating and judging how a connection to God should look versus how it should feel, it is near impossible to explain how connected I feel to Allah when I am performing. How for me, theater is also immediate, also necessary.
My first major step into the world of theater was in Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. Taking dramatic dialogues out of my living room and onto stage was exhilarating. I spent four years acting with the college Shakespeare Performance Troupe (SPT). William Shakespeare’s plays were traditionally performed by all male casts. We flipped this around with our mostly women’s troupe and with members who identified as gender neutral or male. We were breaking the shackles of who gets to enact these classic characters.
Though I longed to speak dialogues in Urdu, I came to love the lilt of the English dialogue. The plays I had read and analyzed in school were brought to life. William Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labours Lost,” “The Comedy of Errors,” “Henry IV,” “Romeo and Juliet.” An original written by troupe member Danielle DiCiero: “Significantly Sexier Shakespeare.” Our adventures beyond Shakespeare: Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” Clare Boothe “Luce’s The Women.”
Some productions are organized, some chaotic, but they all came together eventually. We get ready in our greenroom: a storage closet, a classroom, a common room. The bonds we make here spill out onto the stage. Even if you are good friends with your co-actors, this room puts you on equal footing with everyone. Actors you don’t have many scenes with are now helping you with your beard or your blush. Then we wait.
Let the nerves begin.
All those hidden thoughts of unworthiness, all thoughts of inferiority or inability come out, a lashing tongue in those few moments before we’re called on stage. It’s the hand and shoulder squeeze, the quick but meaningful hug from your co-actors that makes all the difference at this point. I still have the strong urge to weep, the only thing stopping me is that tears would ruin my character makeup.
The techie comes in.
“Show’s on in two.”
“Thank you two.”
Oh the feeling of performing itself…
Stepping out into the stage lights, a breath taken in, eyes squeezed tightly shut before sweeping in, eyes wide open, ready to take in the audience. A bismillah, in the name of Allah and then countless entrances. Is my character Angry? Disappointed in Self? Happy? Hurt? Tired? Whichever it is, when you have the entire audience engaged with you, there’s a moment when you really hear, really feel them. Without touch, without a direct word, you are revealing a piece of your soul and reading a piece of theirs through the intermediary lens of the character you portray. You tune into a transmission you didn’t know existed.
This window into them, it is heard and breathed in, through their laughter, their shocked silence. Your character’s physicality, your hard-earned voice, your breathing, it influences the audience’s breath. It is a saying I’ve heard passed from a previous SPT senior: you know you’re doing your job as an actor when you control how the audience breathes. Your breath, their breath, becomes the same. You can feel it, out there, under those lights, when they breathe with you. And if it’s true that when you know yourself, you know your Lord, as the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) says, then I have experienced the divine in those moments, in myself and in those hidden unspoken parts of people’s souls.
It’s divine, that connection you feel. The audience removes their masks; their guard is down as the lights come down. They open up in a way that is hard to find. You experience the parts of their heart they do not readily reveal. And in those few hours, we experience that fire that can only be communicated through a sigh, an intake of breath, a look, eye contact. We converse in God’s terms.
“And we are closer to you than your jugular vein.” Quran 50:16
We rise above and beyond our masks and shields and excuses, we collectively experience the side of us that rests with God. We become more than our bodies, our insecurities, the voices of dissent in our lives that try to make us hide. And that experience shakes us. It shakes our judgments, our stereotypes, our intolerance. It shakes us to the core and leaves us changed. We connect with those characters, their stories, actors and audience alike. We are challenged to empathize with people who stand beyond our comfort zone, people of different walks of Islam, people of different religions, or no religion at all. People with love that differs from ours, with identities that differ from ours.
In a world full of confused masses, of dark and dank headlines, of religious sectarian violence, of active shooters, gunmen, terrorism, war, we really need the immediacy of theater. The immediacy of live performance, of stories that dissect our human character, stories that evoke hope, stories that stir up our empathy. The kind of empathy that ignites mercy. The kind of empathy that makes it harder to hurt people. The kind of empathy that changes mindsets, that heals hearts, however incrementally. The kind that builds the level of social change we need to create a more just world.
Theater is soul-saving. It may even be life-saving. And it is a cause I’m willing to stand for.
Feature Image by: Maryam Elarbi