The following director’s note originally appeared in the program for PenNaatak Global Contemporary Theater’s spring 2017 production of Could You Please Look Into the Camera?, which I had the privilege of helming.
As the detainees assemble onstage, a projector turning on commences the play while a live video is projected above them — two vertices of the semiotic triad in Peirce’s theory of signs. According to this theory, the same event viewed simultaneously by different observers will yield different interpretations and actually change over time for the same observer. The other characters stand silently in the shadows as they wait for their turn in front of the camera.
Could You Please Look Into the Camera? not only explores the suffering of detained Syrian activists, but also presents a metahistoriographic quandary. Which interpretation is the “correct” one? Who is their audience? What are their motives? How do we as viewers stand in relation to the stories being told to us?
Following PenNaatak’s mission of promoting global contemporary theater, one of the challenges of directing Could You Please Look Into the Camera? was reimagining the play for a global audience while remaining faithful its local context and the playwright’s intentions. A grotesque sculpture of a bull’s head that looms over the sofa in reference to another cultural depiction of civil war, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, also suggests a political minotaur chasing our protagonist through a metaphorical labyrinth. Furniture is removed between scenes as the set becomes more austere and Nura’s studio gradually transforms into a cell, foreshadowing her ultimate capture.
As the director, I also tried to draw from my experience in photography and filmmaking to answer the play’s audiovisual demands. With the exception of the final scene, the entire play takes place in an office that has been converted into a studio where Nura interviews formerly detained activists for a documentary. As the play progresses, interviews with the detainees are interleaved with their recorded testimonies and Nura’s arguments with her brother, Ghassan. The production’s highly stylized imagery undercuts the possibility of an “objective” observer and keeps audiences skeptical of what they are being presented. Even the camera is subject to lo-fi distortions, subtle changes in lighting, and the digital blue wash of the stage lights, highlighting the Brechtian aspects of Mohammed al-Attar’s writing.
His play reads especially timely now that many of those seeking asylum from political conflict are being turned away. I feel humbled by the dedication of the cast and crew as well as immensely privileged that they would entrust me with bringing this story to life.