Paying Attention to the Girl

Paying Attention to the Girl

Photo of performance of Paying Attention to the Girl
(Left to Right) Lori Vega, Samy El-Noury, Anthony Vaughn Merchant, Deepali Gupta, and Caitlin Cassidy in a workshop of Pay No Attention to the Girl. Photo by Audrey Wang.

Storytelling, for theatremaker Caitlin Cassidy, is ultimately about justice. And justice arrives out of truth. Today, she understands the task of storytelling to be more difficult and important than ever.

For the past year, I’ve been working on a production called Pay No Attention to The Girl with New York’s Target Margin Theater. The piece is an adaptation of a selection of stories from The One Thousand and One Nights, or Alf Leila Wa Leila. At the heart of the piece is a question of truth. Pay No Attention to The Girl asks: Who should we pay attention to? Moreover, it demands: Who should we believe?

We are now preparing to enter the final phase of devising, during which we will dive deeper into our exploration of the world of the play, the characters that inhabit that world, and the animating questions of the piece. The devising work will emerge from physical improvisation, found text, and writing prompts. A team of 20 company members will read, tell, write, embody, examine, re-write, re-tell, re-embody, and re-examine. In the past, the process of re-writing and re-telling, in particular, has allowed us to understand, in deep ways, the mutability of language, memory, and truth. This process of iterative storytelling has allowed us to practice our own forms of transmission and translation and to appreciate how The Nights text that exists today has come to be over the last few centuries.

While I have been working on this play, which centers on a disputed sexual encounter, I have been preoccupied by the #MeToo movement, Aziz Ansari’s disputed date, and 11-year-old Naomi Wadler’s March For Our Lives speech.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how media stories are constructed to punctuate particular perspectives, and in many cases, to divide us. I have struggled to understand what exactly truth means. And how truth is different from fact. I have found myself drawn to themes of translation and transmission — what is lost, gained, appropriated, altered; to the danger of women; sexual politics; the way we remember things; the way we forget; xenophobia; exoticism. I have been interested, especially, in questions of authenticity as they connect to the question of truth. Who does a story belong to? Who has the right to tell it?

Here are a few things that I am learning and remembering alongside the folks at Target Margin: To love the big, difficult questions. To pass on neat, simple answers. To dive deep, examine, research, seek primary source.To listen. To invest in process and in the long-term. To commit to equity, inclusivity, and diversity at all stages of the work.

Pay No Attention to the Girl has convened a group of artists extraordinary in their diversity of creative discipline, experience, race, religion, and sexual orientation. Musicians, scholars, puppeteers, teachers, actors, visual artists, designers, directors, and administrative staff have come together to create in response to The Nights. The diversity in the room is central to the creation of work that is meaningful, complex, and challenging.

Working with these new collaborators has challenged me to approach my work as a theatremaker — and The Nights text in specific — through widely varied lenses. It has urged me to examine what I know — or, in most cases, don’t know. I have spent much of my life in the MENA region, devoted to providing platforms for Arab stories; never have I thought more deeply about the history and cultural legacy of these countries or my own personal history as a storyteller of Syrian and Lebanese descent than in the rehearsal room these last number of months.

The stories we choose to tell and how we choose to tell them not only speak volumes about our reality, they also form our future. Pay No Attention to the Girl has reminded me (as I hope it will others) that we are all complicit in this process. It, like The Nights, like the #MeToo movement, like Aziz Ansari’s disputed date, and 11 year old Naomi Wadler’s March For Our Lives speech, is a testament to the stakes of storytelling. And a call to do better.

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About the author: Caitlin Nasema Cassidy was born in a suburb of Boston and raised between there and the Arab world. She is the daughter of seven-sea-sailing hippies Tom Cassidy Jr., the eldest of a large Irish Catholic family, and Joan Kelley, the youngest of a Lebanese and Syrian family. Caitlin fell in love with the performing arts early in life, and grew up studying acting, piano, voice, and dance after school. She received her BA from Georgetown in government and Arabic, and was a recipient of the Theatre and Performance Studies Department award for Excellence Across the Performing Arts. Upon graduating from GU, she journeyed to London, where she earned a master’s degree in acting from East 15 and completed a residency at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Caitlin has designed and implemented theatre-based curricula in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Puerto Rico, served as Language and Culture Fellow with AMIDEAST, and devised performance for UNESCO’s World Theatre Conference as well as India’s International Theatre Festival. Caitlin has performed at Williamstown, Chautauqua, Berkshire Playwright’s Lab, Disney World, Lincoln Center, The Lark, and Playwrights Horizons, as well as with Epic Theatre Ensemble, Pig Iron, The Civilians, Synetic, and Noor. She is Co-Artistic Director of LubDub.Theatre Company. Caitlin is a Lab Fellow.

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