“Arabian Nights” takes the BYU community to the Middle East

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Performers from the Department of Theater and Media Arts will present a Middle Eastern experience in their rendition of  “Arabian Nights.”

“Arabian Nights” is the tale of the beautiful bride Scheherazade, who must tell compelling stories of genies, jesters, thieves and kings to save her life and win her husband’s heart. The performance is based on the play by Mary Zimmerman and adapted from “The Book of a Thousand Nights and One Night.”

While it is modeled on Zimmerman’s script, the Theater and Media Arts Department wanted to perform “Arabian Nights” for all audiences, and not just for adults. To further this goal, theater students developed their own stories to include in the production.

“Arabian Nights” is set in a culture many BYU students are unfamiliar with. In order to understand their characters, the performers and director learned about Islamic culture and art.

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Scheherazade tells stories of wazirs, genies, harem slaves, princes, hard-headed boys, and turtles.
“To do a production set in a culture very foreign to the students and to myself, we could either make it up or make it a very educational experience,” said Megan Sanborn Jones, the director of the BYU production of “Arabian Nights.”

The cast and crew welcomed a series of guest artists who helped in understanding the performance more clearly, according to a news release. These artists included award-winning choreographer Banafsheh Sayyad, who instructed them in the Sufi ritual of whirling. Brian Herrera, Rohina Malik and Simon Shaheen were also there to assist in learning about performing a character of another culture as well as the rhythms and tonal patterns of Arabic music.

Though the course of the production, Krystle Perkins, who plays multiple chorus roles in the performance, has learned that Islamic culture is not so different from BYU culture.

“People need to recognize that just because they seem different, (or) dress different, doesn’t mean that they are different,” Perkins said. “They still have the core beliefs that we do.”

“Arabian Nights” accompanies the large “Beauty and Belief” exhibit in the BYU Museum of Art that also focuses on the art and culture of the Middle East.

In order to make the “Arabian Nights” experience more interactive, the production crew has created an opportunity for the BYU community to submit stories that answer the question, “What story would you tell to save your life?” The crew hopes to collect 101 stories from the community. The best stories will be performed in the HFAC lobby as a “preshow.” Many are still invited to share their stories on byuarabiannights.com. The submissions can be contemporary or stories of the past.

Those interested in learning more about “Arabian Nights” and the culture of the Middle East can register for the free “Lunch ‘n’ Learn” workshop. BYU student “teaching artists” will lead the workshops which will last around 60-minutes with time for participants to eat lunch. The “Lunch ‘n’ Learn” workshops are offered at 12:30 p.m. in the north lobby of the Pardoe Theatre before the May 31 and June 2, 8 and 9 matinees of “Arabian Nights.”

According to Sanborn Jones, “Arabian Nights” can be a deeply edifying experience.

“I think that theater has a possibility to change the world,” she said. “The performance is a means of understanding things in new ways.”

This performance is a way for the community to understand Middle Eastern culture, but it will also teach in an entertaining way.

“This production is fun, funny and smart, and it opens up new knowledge about a culture that we don’t know much about. You can learn about family, humor, love and forgiveness,” Sanborn Jones said.

“Arabian Nights” shows May 24-June 9. Tickets can be purchased at the Fine Arts Ticket Office or byuarts.com/tickets.

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