Saturday, September 5, 2009

Coash unveils 'Veils' at Actors Studio

Don’t let him know how you found out, but Tom Coash, the playwright, will be the guy sitting in the back row of the Actors Studio, hopefully in the shadows, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, hoping that you don’t notice him freaking out, or worse, as “Veils,” the third play to come out of his years as an academic in Egypt, gets a once-over at the North Shore Readers Theater Collaborative.

Launched last year by Marc Clopton, Ron Pullins and Leslie Powell, the collaborative is a play-development series that stages no-frills productions in which works-in-progress get their first realistic spin around the stage, after which a hungry audience dispenses instant criticism. It’s a valuable tool for a playwright, getting to hear the spin actors put on words typed onto a page and seeing how an audience reacts to them, but it’s a strange place for him to be, says Coash. “Basically you cut out your heart, hold it in your hands and ask 'so, what do you think?'” the playwright says. “It's one of the most exciting, exhilarating experiences you can have as a writer. At the same time you want to throw up. It’s wonderful, horrific and bizarre.” 

“Veils” mixes traditional and modern worlds within a Muslim context as an African-American and an Egyptian — both women, both students, both Muslim — create a YouTube video project after a campus-wide ban on the wearing of burkas, or veils, creates a tense political situation. The play is almost as well traveled as its author, who settled down in New Haven, about five years ago, after completing extended stays at American University in Cairo, where both he and wife Julie taught, and Bermuda, where he directed the film “Baby ... Wait” and produced the Famous For 15 Minutes New Play Festival. These two outpostings were separated by an ill-fated move (“that was supposed to bring stability to our lives,” he says) to Haverhill, where his wife had accepted a position at Bradford College just three months before the school suddenly, inexplicably closed forever.

The story grew out of Coash’s real-life experiences at American University, where he met an American Muslim student who arrived on campus “thinking they were coming home in a way, but ended up hating it — a fascinating situation," the playwright says. Coash wrote “Veils” in 2007. Actually, strike that. He started writing it in 2007, he’s still writing it now (“just finished a couple of things,” he says during a telephone interview) and will likely rewrite it after the Newburyport production on September 12. “You know what they say,” he says. “No play is finished, only abandoned.” It started out as a one-act at Western Kentucky University. He recast it as a full-length play, after scoring a play development grant from the InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia and then in June brought it to McCall, Idaho, where it underwent rewrite after rewrite at the Seven Devils Playwriting Conference.

The North Shore Readers Theatre Collaborative audience will be the first to hear the newly revised play. The local production will be directed by Judith Muss'ells, and feature performances by sisters Jasmyn Gudaitis and Jordan Gudaitis.

"Veils" is the third play to come out of Coash's Cairo years. "Khanaseen," the first, which he was commissioned to write shortly after taking the playwriting position at American University, deals with a young woman’s fears in a strange country and her complex relationships with her husband and her new friends. "Cry Havoc," written in the wake of the Luxor massacre attacks, deals with terrorism and the fine line between conviction and obsession. “Thin air,” a play about a tightrope walker suffering a crisis of confidence after her husband “went down” (Funambulists, as slackrope walkers are known, never say the word "fall.") also came out of Cairo, but for no immediately apparent reason. "An image of a tightrope walker came to me," he says. "I don't know why. And I started writing. I think that maybe I just liked the word 'funambulist.'"

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The North Shore Readers Theatre Collaborative, a monthly play development series, will stage Tom Coash's "Veils" at 10 a.m. Sept. 12 at the Actors Studio, located in the Tannery, 51 Water St., Newburyport. Tickets are $. For more information, call 978.465.1229. 

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