San Jose Mercury News
June 29, 2012
in Three Languages
What's in a name? Shakespeare Iraq is out to prove that the
Bard's English will sound just as sweet mixed with a little
Arabic and Kurdish.
by Bay Area-educated professor Peter Friedrich, this ambitious
band of Iraqi theater students raised more than $30,000 on Kickstarter
to fly to the U.S. and fulfill their dream of performing at
the fabled Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The troupe of 10 students
recently landed in the Bay Area to rehearse at Santa Clara University
before making the trek to Ashland for their big debut, with
the first performance on Tuesday.
is a tremendous challenge but I wanted to show something that
this group can do that no one else can," says Friedrich,
an SCU alum. "This is what makes them special. It's our
Jamal admits she had to screw her courage to the sticking place
before tackling the Bard in three languages. She serves as the
narrator for this eclectic romp through the canon which mixes
soliloquies and silliness in a mashup of Shakespeare and Iraqi
first time I went on stage I was dying," admits the 21-year-old
during rehearsals at SCU's Fess Parker Theatre. "Shakespeare
is totally complicated. Sometimes it's so tough that you hate
it but the more you do it, the more you love it."
unlikely troupe began as a club on campus at the American University
of Iraq in Sulaimaniyah but the students were so enthusiastic
that they soon staged their first public performance. Friedrich
suspects it may have been the first time Shakespeare has ever
been staged in English in Iraq.
rapturous crowd of almost 600 people turned out for the show
last July. That historic event caught the attention of the OSF
team, who invited the troupe to perform in the festival's Green
Show, which features free performances in an outdoor courtyard.
am over the moon with excitement about the arrival of the students,"
says OSF artistic director Bill Rauch. "I suspect we will
look upon this visit as one of the most important events in
our company's life for many years to come."
certainly a midsummer night's dream for these students. Sitting
cross-legged on the stage at SCU, they describe themselves as
ambassadors from their native land.
wanted to show that students from all over Iraq can come together,"
says Jamal, who also serves as the assistant director. "We
are very serious about the work we do."
the record, the company is extremely diverse, including Arabs,
Kurds, Sunnis, Shias and Yazidis, but all of them are united
in their love for the world's greatest playwright.
Ashur, who spent two years in the Iraqi military working alongside
American forces as a translator, instantly felt a connection
with the butchery and betrayals of "Julius Caesar."
Caesar" is so close to the history of Iraq," says
the veteran, who was once shot during an ambush. "Every
day in Iraq has been a battlefield for years. Power plays, assassinations,
soft-spoken 24-year-old hopes to build a cultural bridge between
the U.S. and Iraq and banish stereotypes on both sides.
are a lot of negative perceptions about Americans in Iraq,"
he says. "We wanted to meet normal American people, not
just soldiers waving guns at checkpoints, and we also wanted
them to see that we are not all terrorists."
solace of comedy is what drew Saman Karim to the group. A natural
ham, the 24-year-old excels at the physical hi-jinks that makes
his scene from "Two Gentleman of Verona" pop.
have had a lot of sorrow in Iraq, now it is time for comedy,"
says the engineering major. "I don't see the benefit of
crying. I want to make people laugh."
have expressed surprise that these newbie English speakers would
take on the rigors of Shakespearean verse, the Olympics of linguistics,
in three languages.
you tell an Iraqi student anything is the most difficult kind
of anything, believe me they will try to do it," says Friedrich,
who cut his teeth in drama at SCU and San Francisco's American
Conservatory Theater. "They like flying without a net."
play's the thing, but Friedrich also couldn't wait to show his
students the real America. They are touring everything from
Google to ACT.
of these students learn about America from movies and music
videos," he says. "Because I have close ties here,
I thought I could deliver an American experience that was more
fact, sometimes the troupers long for more shopping and less
pentameter during their American tour.
am such a single dad right now," jokes Friedrich as the
high-spirited class breaks into a spontaneous song-and-dance
the moxie of this traveling band of players has drawn many admirers.
witness what Peter Friedrich has accomplished with his Iraqi
students is incredibly inspiring," says Carey Perloff,
head of ACT. "It shows that the issues raised by great
drama are universal and can speak to people across such a wide
range of backgrounds and experiences."
previews at SCU, the company has chartered a bus to make the
350-mile trek to Ashland, where it performs July 3 through July
to face some of the most discerning Shakespeare audiences ever,
these aspiring thespians are undaunted.
us, it's not just about being good, it's about being courageous,"
says Jamal, "and we are fearless.