Writer’s Block

WEB-Burnaby Theater-Vaikunthe Banerjee

Introduction

It’s mid-July. I’m sitting in my apartment, sipping my mediocre cup of coffee, scrolling through the “Current Auditions List” on the Vancouver Public Library website. I’m looking for something, though I’m not quite sure what it is until I find it, an open casting call for an original Vancouver Fringe Festival show called Writer’s Block:

Tragedy strikes close to home in a provocative war drama that fearlessly tackles the issues behind Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan back in 2005. CAST: one female Canadian soldier, age 20-30, one male Afghan insurgent, age 20-30 and one female Afghan civilian, age 20-30.

Let’s back up a little bit. As this is a personal story, an introduction is in order. My name’s Natasha Wahid. I’m 24, a woman, and an American. My dad hails from Lahore, Pakistan (hence my last name). I am regaling you with these fairly basic identifiers because my race, gender and age are a part of why I was cast as Nazo Tarzi, the story’s Afghan civilian. As they say in the business, I look the part.

My American-ness and my heritage play a huge role in why I auditioned for the part in the first place. The United States has been a presence in Afghanistan for half of my lifetime and the war hits close to home for me, both figuratively and literally. I was immediately infatuated with the idea of getting inside the head of a woman who lives the war every single day, of touching something so close to my own heart.

Alright, back to my living room. I re-read the casting call, set down my coffee cup and draft a quick email to the show’s producer, Claire Jane McGillivray. I attach my headshot and resumé and express interest in auditioning. She responds with a date and time, and a little thrill goes up my spine.

Even then, I had the feeling that I was about to get involved in a project unlike anything I’d done before. I was ready to dive in, headfirst.

Bringing the Story to Life

Writer’s Block is the brainchild of 24-year-old UBC grad Nathaniel Roy. With a furrowed brow, Roy describes the play’s evolution, saying, “this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, on all fronts. I started this two years ago . . . but finding the story, what’s the story, what am I trying to say, answering those questions, I really didn’t have a clue. Not until a few weeks ago.”

The story is told from three very different perspectives: a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan, an Afghan insurgent and an Afghan civilian caught in the middle of it all. All three are pretty far removed from point of view of a middle-class, white Canadian male living in Vancouver, BC.

“The courage to write from very different points of view came from watching a TED talk of a Turkish author,” Nathaniel explains. “Writers tend to get stuck and her thesis, I think, was to let yourself let go. Try writing from the points of view of different people; try doing it from different cultures. Make sure you put your name on it and say this is my view, this is not an Afghani view, this is a Canadian’s view of what’s going on. But don’t limit yourself. Once I watched that, I was like, okay, let’s try it. Let’s see what it’s like to challenge myself and write from three points of view that are so far removed from my own.”

Okay. So, we have Nathaniel, a history major and playwright with an ambitious idea and the mental commitment to see it through. But he can’t do it alone. Next move: hire a producer and assistant director. Enter Claire Jane McGillivray and Julian Legere, two ridiculously motivated Capilano University acting students.

“I had about 12 people contact me for the position [of producer]. I interviewed about six or seven of them. It was interesting, let’s just leave it at that. CJ came in and was super organized, super on the ball, ideas were flowing, she had thoughts immediately for what we could do and I was blown away by the detail. Julian has an incredible eye for things like feeling and how to stage it and how the actors are working. I’ve learned a lot from them, but most importantly, I’ve learned that I want those kinds of people to work with.”

Writer, director, producer, assistant director, stage manager — Nathaniel had filled each role, he had the backbone of his production. Now, it was time to embark on perhaps the most frightening step in the process: casting.

As an actor, I’ll tell you all right now that auditioning blows. There’s just no way around it. You prepare as best you can, but dredging up emotions on cue beneath cold fluorescent lights will always make your palms sweat. Everything tightens up, you forget to breathe, and you hear your own half-hearted performance. There are plenty of tips and tricks of the trade but, undoubtedly, you will disappoint yourself.

Still, I never really considered what the experience was like on the other side of the table. “I was very afraid,” Nathaniel says, chuckling a bit, as he recalls auditions. “The Canadian role, we kinda figured, okay, we’re gonna fit that but the other two roles, that was very, very scary because they’re very specific.

“Talent was actually pretty low on my list; I wanted hard-workers. I needed people to throw things into the pot, not get offended if their ideas don’t get chosen, realize that it is a process, understand the hierarchy but not get thrown off by it.” He grins. “We blew it out of the park. There’s no way this would’ve worked if we had people who were just as talented but didn’t want to work as hard.”

No kidding. Claire Jane and Nathaniel put me through the ringer even before I was officially cast. They had me audition three times before finally announcing that the part of Nazo Tarzi, the Afghan civilian, was mine. As Nathaniel puts it, Nazo’s story is the central tragedy of the show, so it was imperative that he cast the right actor.

Upon meeting my fellow cast mates, Capilano acting grad Devon Thor and UBC acting student John Dickinson, I thought to myself, these lucky sons of bitches snagged themselves one hell of a cast. Alright, alright, I’m not actually that arrogant, but I was pretty pumped when I heard Devon and John read — they are truly stellar.

We relied heavily on the characters themselves. We got to know them. Intimately. And they showed us the story.

Nathaniel had a cast and crew, but the journey from page to stage was not an easy one. Rehearsal by rehearsal, the cast and crew worked on the script testing out dialogue, delving into each character’s background, and making different suggestions. But at the end of the day, the ball was in Nathaniel’s court. “It was tough. We did one workshop and it did not go the way I wanted,” says Nathaniel, describing a low-point.

“It doesn’t make sense, it’s rambling, it’s just, I don’t know the story of my own story and it was really depressing and we’ve got a month to go. It’s like, oh my god. The thing that kept me up was, I have a great crew, a great cast and I cannot fuck this up for them. I’m not gonna be the weak link in the chain. That fear kept me up every single night . . . and then when the changes started to work, then it was more joy, but between that workshop and finally getting things to work, it was mostly fear and anger and ‘I cannot fuck this up, for them.’”

Getting to Know the Characters

The final script is a far cry from the script Nathaniel handed me at our first rehearsal. In fact, during the first three of four weeks of rehearsal, Nathaniel was re-writing, re-working, re-phrasing, and re-writing again. Which meant that Devon, John and myself, as actors, had to tackle the story using every tool available to us not including the actual script.

We relied heavily on the characters themselves. We got to know them. Intimately. And they showed us the story. That may sound kitschy, but it’s true. Nathaniel imagined up three very real, very human characters and put them in a brutally real setting. They have led us every step of the way. In the end, it’ll be their pain, their struggle, their perspectives that endure — it’s our duty as actors to give them the voices they deserve.

Assistant director Julian Legere has been invaluable during the rehearsal process; he’s proven his worth over and over again, chipping away at each character, demanding that we go deeper and deeper, that we do these three people justice. Nathaniel joked that listening to Julian work with us was like overhearing someone cheating with his girlfriend. Up until that point, the characters had lived and breathed in Nathaniel’s head, and slowly but surely, they were being discovered again by each of us. Like a virgin . . .

Anna Green is the story’s dutiful Canadian soldier. She is an anchor for the predominantly Canadian audience. She’s a tough girl stationed overseas in a tough environment dealing with a personal tragedy. She could very easily be an archetype, a stiff representation of the Western viewpoint. But the story doesn’t allow for that kind of simplicity; the audience sees Anna alone with nothing but a pen and some paper. Nathaniel gives us a window into her truly private moments and, all of a sudden, she’s human. She is your friend, your sister, your neighbour.

Devon Thor steps into the role with absolute grace and brings someone truly relatable to life. “My favourite element about my character is her vulnerability. She is a female soldier, she has to put on such a hard facade when out in the field, but alone in her quarters, she is free to feel. I like that I am able to play with that side of her.” And play she does. Devon uses her improvisation skills to shed new light on an already complex character.

But she’s got a bit of an advantage: Writer’s Block hits closer to home for her than most of us. “My older brother has actually served in Afghanistan with the Canadian military as infantry, so I have been able to pull on the stories he has shared with me and my own personal feelings on the subject in order to get a richer understanding of Anna’s circumstances,” she says.

John Dickinson plays the role of Afghan insurgent Emal Khan, a role that carries a hell of a lot of baggage in its basic two-word description. Plenty of stereotypes spring to mind when you hear “Afghan insurgent”: 9/11, turbans, suicide bombers, dusty caves, bearded faces, Taliban soldiers. But Emal is just a man who believes in responsibility, tradition, and duty. He has been fighting for his home and way of life for such a long time that the idea of turning aside doesn’t even enter his mind. The audience gets to see Emal in private, just like Anna. We get to see his turmoil, his fear, his weakness, and his humanness.

“The big connections I found were with family . . . I’ve put bits of my father [into his father] and quite a bit of my brother into Abdul [Emal’s brother], and that’s really what the core of it is for me: the relationship between him and his brother and him and his family,” John says, describing what he discovered in Emal. He continues, smiling, “he loves language. He speaks very well, even though he constantly says that he doesn’t speak well enough. It’s been really fun to work with these words.”

Nazo Tarzi is a character unlike any I’ve ever played, because she’s real. She isn’t literary, there’s no romance embedded in her portrayal, she isn’t Anna Karenina or a Bennett sister or Jane Eyre. She’s a depiction of someone who, no doubt, exists in Afghanistan as we speak. The war surrounding her is as real as the PTSD experienced by our soldiers, as real as the bodies that return home in caskets draped in flags, as real as the bright eyes of boys unblinking as they take lives.

NEWS-quotation marksI think that’s what people want from stories. They want to feel.”

– Nathaniel Roy, writer and director of Writer’s Block

It’s been exhilarating and terrifying getting to know her as her personal tragedies stretch far beyond my realm of experience. She could easily be misconstrued as the victim in the story, the martyr, the saint. But Nazo is no saint. She has her own flaws — she’s single-minded in the pursuit of her goals. She’s obsessed with her own ideas of how Afghanistan might succeed. And you could argue that the pain she’s experienced is a result of her bull-headed, unwise pursuit of a future that denies Afghanistan’s past. It’s her flaws that make her beautiful, sorrowful and human. It’s her flaws that make her a character within my reach.

I’ve grown to love her and there are times when she stays with me after a rehearsal. Her pain lingers and I begin to see the faces of her loved ones; I have come to learn their names, their histories. They exist for me now. Their stories blur with those of with my own relatives: a lost cousin named Hamza, a lost grandfather named Abdul. And I know that a little part of Nazo will stay with me.

Don’t Miss the Show. . .

Two weeks ago, we received the final script. From that point, it’s been memorization, timing and more character work. I’ve watched the show evolve constantly and I am confident, going into the run, that we’ve unearthed a true gem. Each of us has poured ourselves into this project over the past month. And what we’ve created, as a true team, is a beautiful thing. And that’s the beauty of the Fringe Festival — there’s so much talent in the city of Vancouver, and it needs a space, it needs a voice.

I’m submitting this piece to my Editor on Wednesday, September 4 and the show opens tomorrow. Yesterday, we had our technical rehearsal and final dress rehearsal and today is the calm before the storm, so to speak. For my part, I really believe in this show and while I’m obviously biased, I think I’d believe in it just as much as an outsider.

We live in a world that is truly gray. There are no absolutes and anyone who tries to convince you that there are is arguably blind and deaf. This piece doesn’t allow you to walk away untouched. It forces you to hear and think and process. It doesn’t let you off easy. And I really think that’s what art is all about: communicating, sharing and discussing our world, the real world.

I’ll leave you with Nathaniel’s final pitch; Writer’s Block is, after all, his baby. “It has a lot of heart. That’s the one thing that’s been consistent from day one. Even if the story didn’t quite work, it had heart. And that shows. It’s a well-told story that’s traditional because it is just storytelling but it’s told in an untraditional manner. People are gonna go on an emotional roller coaster; they’re gonna go up and down and then they’re going to go to the end and it’ll be interesting to see where they end up. I think that’s what people want from stories. They want to feel.”

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