the living art of storytelling in Massachusetts

Mixing Storytelling and Acting to Create Magic

Reblogged from the massmouth blog.

By Owen Grey

“Once upon a time there lived a woman with a gift for stories named Shahrazad...”

We all know the frame of the story of Arabian Nights. We all know many tales from that great work, even if only the name of the character.

The floor of the Central Square Theater Main Stage was a swirling magic carpet of colors and patterns. Tapestries just as colorful hung from the ceiling. The audience was chatting, a hum of anticipation for the lights to go out. We knew what we were here to see but not what we had in store.

How many actors does it take to bring to life enough stories to fill 1,001 nights, though? The Nora Theatre Company and the Underground Railway Theater were able to create multitudes with just 9 actors.

King Shahrayar
(Vincent E. Siders) filled his palace with laughter for he so loved his Queen (Debra Wise). One day he discovered that she was unfaithful. Her faithlessness shattered King Shahrayar's faith. He ordered his Vizier (Alexander Cook) to have the queen executed.

For 1,001 nights King Shahrayar would marry a different woman and at dawn would send her to the executioner.

The Vizier's daughter, Shahrazad (Evelyn Howe), knew that her gift would save the King and the land. She begged her father to let her be married to the King. When he protested, she said that her destiny was to save the King and she would petition the King directly if he refused.

"Let me heal the king, father," she begged. "Some things are more important than one life." The Vizier relented.

Shahrazad told her sister, Dinarzad (Paige Clark), that she had a role to play. "On my wedding night, I will summon you to the palace. One hour before dawn, wake me and tell me that you wish to hear one of my stories." Trusting her sister, Dinarzad agreed.

One hour before dawn, Dinarzad did as her sister asked. With King Shahrayar's permission, Shahrazad began telling the story of "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves." As she told the story, Ali Baba (Ibrahim Miari) took the stage, his voice ringing out in unison at first and then replacing Shahrazad's.

In the morning, the King told the executioner to stay his blade. And so it continued night after night.

* * *

As each of the characters took the stage, Shahrazad, Dinarzad, and King Shahrayar exited the stage. The character narrated and acted out his or her story. The interweaving of storytelling and acting was largely successful. The actors brought the story to life.

The use of pillows was a delight. Pillows alternatively props or scenery. They were variously trees, logs, chests, and mountains.

The show had some flaws. The narration broke the magic of the storytelling in places. Most of the narration that I remember happened during the interactions between Shahrazad, Dinarzad, the Vizier, and King Shahrayar. In the last scene, King Shahrayar narrates that he realized he loved Shahrazad and then speaks to her; Vincent Siders stopped being King Shahrayar and was Vincent Siders telling King Shahrayar's story.

The use of puppetry in certain stories was a highlight of the show for me. The puppets were a delight. I had wondered how they would create some of the effects. I won't spoil the surprise.

Overall the mix of storytelling, dance, acting, puppetry, and singing will enchant you just as Shahrazad enchanted King Shahrayar. See Arabian Nights while you can.

* * *

Arabian Nights was adapted by Dominic Cooke and directed by Daniel Gidron. Arabian Nights is the first co-production of The Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theatre, both of which are resident companies at Central Square Theater. Running time is approximately 150 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.

Shows run through December 31, 2011 at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139. Tickets at

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Grand Prize for South Shore Grand Slam Story Slam generously donated by Nicolette Heavey and Stories In The Streets (A Maine Get Away)

Stories in the Streets in an outreach literacy program that focuses on families in at-risk areas and fosters community engagement in storytelling by: 1) Creating opportunities for public storytelling wherever families gather — a farmer’s market, laundromat, or food line; and, 2) Offering storytelling workshops that raise family engagement in literacy, cultural awareness and community understanding.  The program is currently active in Lawrence, Brockton and Randolph.


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