Celebrating their 20th Birthday this year, Monkey Baa Theatre Company is Australia’s leading professional theatre company for young audiences, based in Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre. Monkey Baa’s Creative Directors Eva Di Cesare, Sandra Eldridge and Tim McGarry aim to adapt Australian literature and create new work for stage.
We are excited about Monkey Baa bringing Australian author, Randa Abdel-Fattah’s award-winning young adult novel, Where the Streets Had a Name, to life on stage at Riverside in August.
Ahead of this production, we caught up with the author of the book, Randa Abdel-Fattah and the writer/director of the play, Eva Di Cesare to find out more about this powerful story and the page to stage process.
INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR
What inspired you to start writing? Have you always had a passion for words?
Creativity invigorates me. It really gives me a buzz, creating worlds and characters and destinies. I love words too. I love the games you can play with words when you write. I love the thrill of touching a reader’s heart with the power of a story. I love provoking people to question their beliefs and judgments through the connection they make with a character. The whole process makes me feel alive. I also recognise what an incredible privilege it is to be able to write and be published too.
Your stories have a beautiful human element which resonates with audiences in different ways depending on their backgrounds and experiences. Why do you think such a vast audience connect with your books?
I hope that when I write about issues such as racism or occupation that I am focused on the lives of people, the human condition, the everyday spaces of people’s lives, rather than the macro-politics of a place. The personal is political and that is how I approach my writing and that, I hope, is what readers connect with.
Your books tend to touch on political and cultural topics in a way that is engaging and entertaining for young adults. How do you make important and heavy issues accessible, without them becoming dry and boring?
I learned very early on with my writing that one of the most effective ways to write about weighty issues is through humour. Humour disarms, it can distract people from the weight of an issue and then gently ease them back in.
The characters in Where the Streets Had a Name were heavily influenced by your family. How did your family react when they read the novel?
My family have been an amazing support to me. My father in particular was very moved by the book especially as the grandmother was inspired by his mother. I’m also really touched that friends from Palestine who have read the book were extremely moved by it and found it authentic and real. They couldn’t believe I wrote it from Australia. That was the best compliment I could have hoped for!
Why do you think it is important for audiences to read Where the Streets Had a Name?
I really hope that audiences will read the book to take a different journey with the story. Reading the book is an intimate, one-on-one experience that is unmediated by anybody else. It’s the reader’s imagination with my words and that is exciting and empowering.
What has been your involvement in adapting Where the Streets Had a Name for stage? What do you feel are the most important elements to keep when turning a story from page to stage?
I’ve worked closely with Eva in terms of speaking to her about my story and my father’s story and also reading the script drafts and offering my advice. Eva has done such an amazing job of adapting the book to the stage. She has zoomed in on the most critical moments and managed to deliver the essence of the book to the stage.
What do you consider your greatest achievement in life so far?
Being able to juggle motherhood while continuing to write and work is my greatest achievement. I have been too stubborn to give anything up so I’ve kept it all going while being a Mum to four.
What is your favourite book and why?
Pride and Prejudice is one of my favourite novels. I’ve always loved it for its humour, wit, what it reveals about a certain period in history and its timeless commentary on gender and societal expectations. It’s always been a page-turner for me.
What is the next book you are writing? Can you give us a brief overview of what it is about?
I’m on a break at the moment! I’ve just published a young adult novel, When Michael Met Mina. Just over three and a half years’ ago I quit law and started a PhD to explore racism and Islamophobia in Australia. While I was conducting my fieldwork, interviewing people, attending anti-Islam and anti-refugee rallies, a character popped into my head. Well, two to be precise. One was a young Afghan refugee. A ‘boat person’ we see maligned and stigmatized by both sides of politics. Bright, fierce, courageous, scarred, she wouldn’t budge from my head. I thought about what it would mean for this young girl to have fled Afghanistan, grow up in Western Sydney, only for me to then throw her into a private school in the lower north shore of Sydney. I called her Mina. The other person who popped into my head at one of the rallies I attended was a boy called Michael. As I interviewed people about their ‘fears of being swamped by boats’, about the ‘Islamisation of Australia’, about the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’, I wondered what it would mean to be a teenager growing up in a family peddling such racism and paranoia. How do you ‘unlearn’ racism? How do you find the courage to question your parents’ beliefs? How do you accept responsibility for learning about the world on your own terms? That’s when I decided to write a story that took these two characters, Michael and Mina, and threw them at each other.
INTERVIEW WITH THE WRITER/DIRECTOR OF THE PLAY
EVA DI CESARE
How many books have you adapted into plays? What do you love about adapting popular novels?
Monkey Baa has adapted 18 children’s picture books and young adult novels to date, plus we have written some shows from other sources such as The Unknown Soldier. Sandra, Tim and I are huge readers and love a great book we can sink our teeth into. All of the books we have adapted have fantastic characters in them who go on a journey and change while they are on it. The authors of the popular books we select to adapt are already respected, so for us we are just extending and theatricalising their stories.
Where do you start when adapting a novel for the stage?
Prior to writing, the three of us spend time reading the novel and looking at how the story is presented, the characters and whose story is being told. In some cases, the book includes the stories and journeys of multiple characters and in this case, we consult with the author to decide which characters story we want to present on stage. It can take 12 – 18 months for us to put pen to paper. When we are ready to do this, we sit and work in the writing room, continually analysing the character, their journey and the structure of how we want this presented on stage.
Where the Streets Had a Name is the first time I have ventured out to adapt a novel on my own. Due to this I have taken a different approach to the adaptation process which has involved creative engagement with the students from Sir Joseph Banks High School, Revesby and Chullora Public School. I worked with the students on different scenes around the book to determine which were imperative to include. This was a great process as the students are of the same age group as the main character, Hayaat.
I also spent time talking to a range of members in the Palestinian community and listening to their stories. I was fortunate to have 4 Palestinian advisors to assist me in terms of the culture and language and making sure the experiences adapted remained authentic. By the time it came to writing I had a much deeper connection with the community, story and Hayaat.
What do you think is the most important thing when adapting a novel for stage?
Monkey Baa have always worked to honour the story of the author, regardless of whether it is fact or fictional. To ensure this happens, the author always a veto over the script.
With Where the Streets Had a Name I feel very fortunate and humbled that Randa has entrusted me with a story that is personal to her. Although it is fictional, the characters and the journeys they have followed are based on real people and events.
Why did you choose Where the Streets Had a Name for a stage adaptation?
After hearing about Randa I read a couple of her books. I absolutely loved her first novel Does My Head Look Big in This? It is a fantastic story about Amal who makes the decision to wear the hijab, despite her parents not wanting her to. It is powerful in turning stereotypes on their head. When I enquired to the rights of this book, Randa’s agent informed me that they had already been given away and therefore, suggested Where the Streets Had a Name. After reading it I felt it was just as beautiful and relevant as her first book, so I spoke to Randa and we agreed it would make a great play.
What do you think teachers, students and the general public will gain from seeing the play that they might not gain from reading the novel?
I love reading. Reading allows you to run away with your imagination. However, the thing about books is that you can put them down at any point. This is different with theatre – You cannot put it down, you are there for the duration of the play. I feel that the energy that the audience feels from the actors allows them to further engage with the characters and develop a deeper connection with the story. What makes it so special is that the audience is able to witness and share that one moment in time where a story is being told.
In terms of Where the Streets Had a Name, when we hear about Palestine it is usually under a shroud of negative news bites. What drew me to this story was that it follows a family who live in extraordinary times, but still maintain their humour despite the atrocious conditions they are facing. I wanted to bring this story to the stage, to create empathy and greater understanding amongst more people. Ultimately, I want it to lead to world peace.
How much influence has the original author, Randa Abdel-Fattah had on the stage version?
Randa has played an integral role in the adaptation of Where the Streets Had a Name, from reading through every version of the drafts, to having conversations with me around which characters and scenes to focus on. She has been really supportive with the script consultancy and I loved working with her. She was very happy with the draft script that was read at the Creative Development in December.
What are your next projects?
We are currently working on Diary of a Wombat, which is based on the book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley. It will tour to 59 venues this year, including to Riverside in March. Our big project at the moment is our adaptation of Morris Gleitzman’s series Once Then Now & After, directed by Wayne Harrison AM (Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta Directorate). We have also started working on adapting Jackie French and Bruce Whatley’s book Josephine Wants To Dance, which will be directed by Jonathan Biggins and Phil Scott (Pete the Sheep) and is set to tour in 2018.
This is a powerful story of one girl’s response to the confinements of curfew in an occupied city and how to rise above with humour and love.
Hayaat is on a mission. With the help of her best friend Samy, she will even skip school to achieve it. She is determined to retrieve a handful of soil from her Grandmother’s farm to make her beloved Sitti (Arabic for Grandmother) well again, but standing between Hayaat and her goal is the impenetrable wall that encloses the West Bank.
With strong performances and a stunning musical score, director Eva Di Cesare has adapted local writer Randa Abdel-Fattah’s book into a loving, gripping and enlightening production with emotional reach far beyond its Palestinian borders.
Dates & Times:
Wednesday 30 August at 7:30pm