Published on September 5th, 2012 | by Alicia Coombes0
Interview with Actor Denmo Ibrahim
Denmo Ibrahim is an award-winning Egyptian-American actor, playwright, poet, CEO, healer, creative director and theatre-maker based in San Francisco. Her training from Naropa University in Lecoq-based Actor-Created Physical Theatre and her previous work as co-founder of ensemble theatre company Mugwumpin inform her process. Ibrahim has “spent years in the studio collaborating, devising, rehearsing, demolishing and breathing life into new playthings.”
In 2011, during an artist residency at The EXIT Theater in San Francisco, Ibrahim began working on a show exploring identity and tradition in America.
“[Producers] Christina [Augello] and Richard [Livingston] were very generous and gave me the keys to the space and free reign to create from scratch,” Ibrahim said. “All that freedom made me sick so I gave myself three rules: I could use anything that could fit in two suitcases, I was the only actor in the piece and it had to be funny. To make sure I’d stick to those three rules I decided to title it — mind you, this was before I had a show — FUNNY / A TRUNK SHOW.”
Ibrahim’s show (which has gone by many names and is currently called BABA) has been developed at fringe festivals and new play workshops from the Bay Area to the Midwest to New York. Ibrahim received the Highlight Award in 2011 for BABA and is in discussion with several Bay Area theatres for consideration in the 2014 season.
Art Animal had the chance to ask Ibrahim a few questions about her artistic process and inspiration.
Art Animal: What was your impetus for creating BABA?
Denmo Ibrahim: I’d never done a solo piece to date and felt inspired by the challenge. At this point, I still didn’t have a story. I played for two weeks creating character, situations, using wigs and costumes, trying to embody the space of clown and failing miserably at trying to be funny. It wasn’t until I’d shared my frustration with a friend of mine who’s created many solo shows who gave me a very good piece of advice. He suggested starting closer to my own life and choosing something real to draw from. I said I’m not really sure what I’d have to say. He said, “We all have a story we wouldn’t want anyone else to know – a secret. That’s the one you tell.”
So I decided to start personal. My parents immigrated to this country in the 70’s. My mother acclimated to this country quite well. My father held to more of a traditional view of family, roles and rules. In general, he had a harder time adjusting to the New York city life. After four years of a difficult marriage they separated. My father, still believing to be the head of the family, quietly took us out of the city, onto a plane, and intended to raise us in the country of Cairo, as he had been raised. We were told [my mother] passed away and as a child that was what I grew to believe. Until she emerged again a year later. Like a vision or your greatest dream that the person you’ve loved and lost would return, my mother came and took us back. This very jarring experience actually created a lot of hope for me, of what could be possible in this life. I imagine that in his eyes, this abduction was totally justified, even full of love. So I decided to create a show for him, of him, with him. I wanted to be in his shoes, literally, and understand him from the inside. I have a lot of inspiration to share with people that trauma becomes a gateway for transformation. I’ve accomplished a great deal in my life. And I owe it to that very early experience of separation.
AA: How autobiographical is BABA?
DI: The events in BABA are a bit absurd. Although I used an interview style to generate raw material and craft particular scenes or characters, the play is almost completely fictitious.
I should mention that the main character in BABA, Mohammed, is actually not based on my father. The physicality came from studying men raised in the Middle East of different sizes and ages. I worked that gesture in to my body until something clicked. The body of BABA is somewhat a compilation of many Middle Eastern men I watched. I listened to their tone, cadence, language and used this to create Mohammed. The language isn’t based on dialogue my father ever said to me. The writing came from a series of interviews I conducted of women who immigrated to the U.S. and the difficulties they faced.
I think most people think this is torn right out of my diary. It’s a far leap from the original. My dad is quiet, small in build, and to the point. Moe is larger than life, cunning, roundabout, and proud. I found this kind of character more intriguing. I discovered these qualities easily in the Middle Eastern women I met. The events surrounding the play, however, were real. And the reason why I wrote this is because I was part of the story and it was a story I’d never told and honestly never understood. BABA is a comedy about a very sad time for a hard working man who failed at the American Dream. And in creating it, I learned that. I discovered how much compassion I and the audiences have for him.
And so a fresh story arrived about men and women struggling between identity and tradition in America — a weaving of the personal and communal — and in a way I couldn’t conceive.
AA: Can you describe for me your process in creating this show?
DI: The show took a year to create. My process is a bit unusual. When it was still a draft, I’d submitted it to a festival in New York and performed in the East Village for a few weeks. There I could see with a live audience what worked and what didn’t. I took the next draft to Indiana and then to AlterTheater in San Raphael then to Minneapolis and back to New York. Each performance opportunity was a way to be under the gun. I knew it wasn’t finished but I couldn’t work on it behind a desk. I needed to be on my feet. I had to get my edits and notes live from the audience. So although it was exhausting and embarrassing at times, eventually I came out with a script I feel is ready to enter into production.
One of the major shifts in BABA as well was it started out with a full fat suit, mustache, props, and costumes. I was trying so hard to make it into something more. In the end, I found the essential gesture of him and was able to strip everything away.
AA: Can you tell me more about training (you mentioned clowning) and bringing that training to the development of BABA?
DI: My training is in the Jacques Leqoqs’ pedagogy in physical theatre. Because of my training I learned writing as a physical practice — in space and through movement. Clown wasn’t the right genre for this piece in the end but understanding style and form as a way of crafting a new work versus content alone is one of the unique things about my creative process.
AA: How many incarnations has it gone through?
DI: It’s gone through five incarnations to date all of which I consider to be drafts in performance. In December, I was honored to receive the Highlight 2011 Award from Noor Theatre where I presented its most recent version as a staged reading at New York Theatre Workshop.
AA: Tell me a bit about your experience with taking BABA to both the NY Fringe and Minnesota Fringe festivals in the same year? Were there differences in each audience’s response?
DI: The show was in a very different place in New York then it was in Minnesota. Minnesota’s audiences were incredible. The feedback was tremendous. I felt very inspired by sharing this story there and was very surprised by the booming arts community and support given.
AA: What’s next for the show? Do you consider it “finished”?
DI: I think after a long year of development, the show is ready to begin. But it’s not finished. It’s ready to be pushed, pulled and brought into a fuller expression. I’d intended to develop it on the road with the hope of producing it in the Bay Area. Now we’re talking to a few companies about the possibilities of a full production in 2014.
AA: What are some of the other artistic projects you’re working on?
DI: Well, in the theatre world, I often feel like I’m in the closet about my other life. I’m the founder of Earthbody, an organic day spa in Hayes Valley, and lead a team of therapists. I also formulate an organic bodycare line called Earthbody Organics and work one on one with people as a Holistic Coach. Currently, I’m in the midst of writing a book for creative healers in private practice who are interested in using the practice of business as a path for spiritual development. My life is my work. My work is my art. And these projects seem to fuel each other whether it’s for the stage, the book, the product or the business.