Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Makram Ayache, a multiple award winning writer, actor, director, and producer. His playwriting explores representations of queer Arab voices and aims to bridge political struggles to the intimate experiences of the people impacted by them.
Ayache is the 2020 PCG’s Tom Hendry Award RBC Emerging Playwright Award recipient for his play Harun. He has multiple Elizabeth Sterling Haynes and Betty Mitchell nominations and awards for Harun and The Green Line. His play, The Hooves Belonged to the Deer was the runner up in the national Wildfire Playwrighting Contest in 2021.
Most recently he was Associate Director to Mitchell Cushman and helped bring Gillian Clark’s bombastic Trojan Girls to life!
Coming up, his play The Hooves Belonged to the Deer will have its world premiere at Tarragon Theatre, with support from Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, in the spring of 2023, directed by Peter Hinton-Davis.
When he’s not doing theatre, he’s reading X-men comics and writing his own graphic novel!
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
I was in theatre school and found very few roles that I could bring myself to. I wrote my first play, Harun, in 2016 after Trump got elected — like literally that night, I pulled together a series of my spoken word poems into one post-apocalyptic play about restoring the “Feminine Energy” to a deeply patriarchal and out of balance world. It was an awful play to be honest. But, the kind folks at Alberta Playwright’s Network accepted me into their playwriting mentorship program and Kim McCaw was instrumental in teaching me some powerful pillars of playwriting. And then, a friend encouraged me toward something risky and vulnerable. Harun became a play about a young queer Arab boy who’s mother finds out he’s gay. The play transformed in its structure and substance, but the emotional truth became sharper and sharper. We did the play at the Ignite Festival in Calgary in 2017 and again at the Edmonton Fringe in 2018, both to some successful audience engagement. To feel my words and stories land with community in such a meaningful way has allowed me to never look back. I have always loved creating stories, characters, and worlds and theatre has gifted me the opportunity to do it non-stop.
Your play The Hooves Belonged to the Deer will be running at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto from March 28 — April 23, 2023. Can you tell us about the creation of this piece, and what it has been like to bring it to the stage?
The Hooves Belonged to the Deer started as part of the Alberta Queer Calendar Project’s December play. The AQCP set out to create 12–13 new audio podcast plays in the year 2020. This was before the pandemic, so they were really clairvoyant in the kind of work they provided. In March 2020, as the pandemic shut the world down, I began writing this play. I didn’t know the scope and scale this story would need. Actually, when I set out to write it, I intended it to be a two-hander with a queer Arab man and his old Christian Youth Pastor. The play now houses 8 characters played by a cast of 6 and takes place across time and space, partly in rural Alberta and Calgary, and partly in a fictional, allegorical Middle Eastern town in the cradle of civilization called (you may be familiar with this) the Garden of Eden.
Over three years, I worked closely with Peter Hinton-Davis and Evan Medd (the director and dramaturg of the project respectively) to bring it to a live audience. First, we created the audio play through the Alberta Queer Calendar Project. The following year, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre had their own audio play series and invited us to join. The second rendering of the play is one of my favorite things I’ve made. The audio play world can be so immersive and exciting! From that, we got picked up for production by Tarragon Theatre (with support from Buddies Theatre) for Mike Payette’s first season — a huge thrill and honor. All workshops and development opportunities took place over zoom, but in May of 2022, we had our first and only in-person workshop and I learned that this play MUST be on stage. To say I am eager and anxious to begin rehearsals is an understatement. This is a deeply vulnerable play. I explore my relationships to the first person I ever came out to, a Christian youth pastor in a small town which I grew up. It feels like a rich opportunity and responsibility to share this story.
You have said elsewhere that you often try “to bring the political to the very interpersonal” with your work. What are some ways that you have found to accomplish that goal?
Writing character driven narratives is what I love to do. I can get caught up in creating characters and very early on in my writing practice, someone told me “write characters and the plot will reveal itself to you.” This feels like the most necessary thing to do, especially as an IBPOC and queer creator. I kind of walk around with an anxiety that I’m only invited to these theatre rooms because I’m queer and Arab — the nagging implication is that I might not be artistically meritorious for the space. I feel that less now, but it’s still there. I feel that less now because one of the things I try to emphasize and center in my playwriting is the carnal and deeply beautiful human impulse of being an artist. Creating characters and exploring moral and ethical complexities in the container of stories is something that is a part of the legacy of all human societies, least of all my Arab heritage.
When I say I bring the political to the interpersonal, I try to emphasize the political and moral complexities of today not by directly naming them (although sometimes that’s cool too), but by demonstrating how they impact and interact with our lived experience on an emotional, interpersonal, and psychological level. This is the power of stories. Theatre is story, not lecture. Am I always successful? No. Do I sometimes have to resist my own self-righteous impulse of teaching an audience a moral lesson? Absolutely. Centering this mantra “to bring the political to the interpersonal” allows me to do that. What I give myself permission for is capturing an emotional archive of the living, breathing moment we are in — nothing more and nothing less.
As well as being a playwright, you have a background as an arts educator and currently offer anti-oppression and equity consultations. How do you find your work as creator and educator influence each other?
I find my education work an extension of my theatre work. Because in some spaces I am an educator, there is a beautiful opportunity to share intellectual knowledge. I try and offer learnings which I’ve built over the years but I find myself always learning from my students too. Also, there is no harder trial of your own learning than when you are asked to teach. It is the same moral and ethical questions I am mining in my theatre work that I am exploring in my educational practice. When I give myself permission to write stories, I get to be in the undiscovered territory that is artistic creation; and when I give myself structure, assembly, and grounding in my teaching, I get to be in the meaning-making work that is educational environments. (But the same can also be said in reverse, the boundaries blur for sure) We need both: permission for creative expansiveness and the safety of structured parameters, being an artist and an educator gives me the space to pull in all directions and still come back to myself intact.
You spent much of your early career producing your own work at festivals. What advice would you give to someone at that stage in their career?
I LOVED producing works at festivals. Although I’m so grateful for the progression of my career where theatre companies are doing all the industrious work of production, contracting, scheduling, marketing and so on — there is a part of me that misses those scrappy days of festival productions. The Edmonton Fringe Festival is one of the best theatre experiences in the world, the largest in North America, led by some of the biggest hearts in our industry, the energy is so fulfillingly exhausting.
My advice? I would say embrace the chaotic nature of the festivals. Prioritize loving relationships above anything else, those relationships will have lasting impressions on your artistic heart. You want to do a show? Be brave (or stupid) enough to write, act, direct, and produce it all from the ground up. Ask for help, there are so many early, mid, and late career artists who want to help! Always try to pay artists/craftspeople, even as a profit share model — it’s good for morale and honors everyone’s artistic contribution. Grants are there for YOU to literally pay yourself and others — again, if you need help ask someone. Have so much fun. Sleep in a camper trailer in someone’s backyard when you’re visiting from out of town for a festival. Meet at the beer tent even if it’s late in the day and you’ve got five more shows to do in the week, you won’t regret those moments of community and laughter and love.
What are you working on next?
Oh so much! I’m really expanding my practise and loving it. Right now, I’m developing the first play which I haven’t written a role for myself — it’s called Small Gods (at the Start of the World) and it follows the lives of five queer highschoolers who work at a mall. It’s my first comedy and it’s been a huge expression of queer joy. The play’s been picked up for production but I can’t speak too much more about that yet 😋.
Another thing I’ve really dived deeply into is working on my first graphic novel. I’ve been drawing since I was a kid but I really directed time and energy to strengthen my illustrating skills and over the past several months, I’ve started substantial work on a script and drawings on a graphic novel titled The Ballad of Rumi and Shams, which takes place in a fantasy middle eastern land. It’s been another source of huge joy and wonder (and fear and anxiety).
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays and/or which artists are currently inspiring you?
I am continually blown away by Hannah Moscovitch’s capacity to generate incredible, effective, and charged plays. Her plays Post Democracy at Tarragon and Fall on your Knees at Canadian Stage were some of the most epic and exciting pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year. I also find Vivek Shraya gives me so much permission to be expansive in my practice — her ability to move through theatre, music, photography, novel, graphic novel, and non-fiction writing all within scope of the same practice is so inspiring. I want to be as audacious as both of these creators. Also, does Celine Dion count? I just love her.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.