“Scorched” Interview with Kelundra Smith

By Kelundra Smith

In Wajdi Mouawad’s thriller Scorched twins Janine and Simon discover the truth of their origins after their deceased mother leaves them each a letter. One letter contains clues about the father they thought was deceased and the other information about the older brother that they never knew existed. The play is the second installment in the Lebanese-Canadian playwright’s tetralogy about origins. The play takes place in different locations in different countries, this play presented a unique challenge to director Marcela Lorca. Syracuse Stage audiences last saw Lorca during the 2012 production of Caroline, Or Change. With a creative team of award-winning designers, music from the renowned Kronos Quartet and an extremely diverse ensemble, she says that this fast-paced mystery is one of her most exciting undertakings to date. Here Lorca talks about trying to find simple ways to stage a complex script, the importance of finding one’s origins and navigating between the eastern and western worlds.

Kelundra Smith: Had you had a chance to read Scorched before you were approached about directing it?

Marcela Lorca: Kyle Bass (Syracuse Stage’s dramaturg) had approached me with the script while I was directing Caroline, Or Change. I was riveted by it, and when Tim Bond ask me to direct it I said absolutely I would like to do this. So it’s been a while since we knew we were doing this. It’s the kind of challenging work that I’m drawn toward, and the kind of work that often needs some time to develop. It’s very epic in its nature. I’ve done a lot of Greek tragedies and I love them, I have an affinity towards them. Scorched has a similar structure, and the playwright admires Sophocles and his work draws from that.

KS: You said that when you read the script it captivated you. What about this story captivated you so much?

ML: The writing is incredibly compelling and it is written in a very daring structure. As an audience member or reader you are exposed to these clues along the way, but never to the truth and the answer to the question until the very end. It’s a thriller, a bit like watching a Hitchcock movie in a way. It also has a tremendous amount of heart in really hard circumstances. You’re exposed to the reality of war in the Middle East, and within that reality are these two women who are fierce about getting an education and rising above the darkness of poverty and war. As a woman that really spoke to me—these courageous women who are going to fight with whatever they have against a fierce war culture. It echoes a reality we see in the Middle East today and in many war zones. Highlighting that is really important to me.

KS: How are you handling the various locations in the script? What is the design concept?

ML: I’m glad you asked that question. This is such a difficult play in that way, and the questions that kept coming to my mind were: What’s the simplest solution to each problem? How can I really honor each scene in its most pure form? There are about 40 scenes in the play, in different locations, in different countries. We found a very simple solution. Just by changing some panels we can say we’re in the Western world or in the Middle Eastern world, in a room, or in a cell. The ensemble will act as a chorus which will move simple elements to change the space, or create stage movement to amplify the emotional impact of certain moments. I wanted to put the focus on the characters, in an uncluttered space in order to support the unfolding of such a great story. I’m also looking for a cinematic flow where we shift scenes very fast and very fluidly with the sweeping music from Kronos Quartet. It is very important for me to keep the play moving at the pace a thriller needs to move at.

KS: In reading Scorched, for me, it reminded me of a lot of texts about the American immigrant story where we see the parents come from a different country, have their children here, and the children are completely detached from their parents’ struggles. It takes something traumatic for the children to find out where they come from. In preparing for Scorched, did you look at any of those texts that explore that theme, or are you more focused on the women’s friendship?

ML: Certainly in the twins’ story, being the children of an immigrant is very present, and their quest to find their roots is what propels the story forward. There are layers of the past and present conversing with each other. I’m an immigrant, I left my country and I’m a mother of two children. I didn’t live the kind of trauma that Nawal lived through, but I left a very dark dictatorship in my native country. In raising my children, I’ve been very vocal about where I come from, what my roots are and how I want them to be rooted in two cultures and not just one. Sometimes people have difficult stories to reconcile with, so it’s different for every immigrant. But we live on and our children live on. For some, finding out about painful truths can be very hard, but also very empowering. The play takes us in a search into the past, where the story began. It teaches us about the power of this exercise and the possible liberation that can come from it.

KS: In casting did you intend for all of the actors to play more than one role?

ML: Yes. I think that’s an exciting part of this play, which breaks away from realistic drama. It’s a very theatrical ritual. It presents a chorus of actors who will have to step into multiple roles to tell the story. Everyone, even Janine and Simon, gets to play more than one role. Our actors are from very diverse cultural backgrounds and they are very interesting people, very compelling artists. I was looking for a sense of adventure in their acting and an ability to deliver the poetic language of the play. It was important for me that they felt like people who could be a part of an ensemble, and not just be focused in their own roles. That takes a special generosity.

KS: What do you want audiences to take away from the experience of seeing Scorched?

ML: I think, not only with this play, but as a theatre artist I always look for the audience to have a profound, moving experience in everything that I do. I want them to be moved by what they see so that they will be inspired to grow and continue to learn. The power of theatre is that it can wake you up. It can teach you about your own humanity and the humanity around you in profound ways. That’s my wish for the audience: that they are profoundly moved and transformed by our production.

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