September 04, 1997


Middle East by Midwest

Lookingglass "Arabian Nights" Rides Carpet to L.A.


by Rob Kendt


"I have this crazy instinctual fear of dramaturgy," confessed writer/ director Mary Zimmerman in a recent interview. "What I write is so based on the staging that I have a kind of terror of submitting scripts."


Indeed, what Zimmerman writes--with the Chicago-based Lookingglass Theatre Company of which she's a member--is not only based on the staging but on the very company members for whom she's writing. That's not to say her work can't have a life outside its original Lookingglass productions; her adaptation of Journey to the West, a 16th-century Chinese tale, played last year at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company and at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and her adaptation of The Arabian Nights travelled from Chicago to the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1994 with a few original cast members intact.


Still, Zimmerman is happy to report that the upcoming Los Angeles run of The Arabian Nights, to begin this weekend at the Actors' Gang Theatre, features 12 of the original 16 cast members from its original 1992 Chicago production, including Lookingglass co-founder David Schwimmer. Indeed, the L.A. production of Nights came about, Zimmerman said, partly "because David wanted to show off his company." Schwimmer, who founded Lookingglass with five other actors at Northwestern University in the late 1980s, is producing the L.A. run with Jessica Hughes.


An associate at the Goodman Theatre and a theatre professor at Northwestern University, Zimmerman develops her shows through improvisation. Within a six- or seven-week rehearsal period, she works out the material on its feet with an ensemble of actors who aren't even assigned to roles at the start.


"About halfway through, it starts to look like a new play rehearsal," she said, but at the start it's usually just "some physical images, scraps of choreography--like, let's figure out how to do a camel, how to do flying, how to show a long journey without moving. Usually, by Day Two I come in with lines."


This comp-lit-meets-Mike-Leigh approach--which Zimmerman used with Journey to the West, an adaptation of The Odyssey, and an unconventional staging of The Notebooks of Leonard DaVinci, among other texts--seems especially suited to the Indian, Persian, and Arabic tales spun in 1,001 Arabian Nights, which she described as being "all about human speech multiplying itself, about creating a world by telling it."


There are few better descriptions of the theatrical instinct, fear of dramaturgy or no.