A New York Times reporter blacklisted from working in Pakistan uses technology to connect to remote colleagues and sources in Sarah Bierstock’s new play Honor Killing, getting public presentations March 11-12 in Pioneer Theatre Company’s 2016 Play-By-Play New Play Series in Salt Lake City. Reporter Allisyn Davis uncovers the truth of the crime — the killing of woman by family members outraged about her independence — which touches on events in the journalist’s own life in the United States. The playwright answered a slew of my questions about the topical play.
“Everything started for me when I read about a woman named Farzana Parveen,” first-time playwright Bierstock told me. “Farzana was the victim of an honor killing that occurred on May 26, 2014, in Lahore, Pakistan. I learned everything I could about her, her story, and the circumstances of her death. I began writing Honor Killing a day or two later, and within a week or so I had written the skeleton of the play.”
The barebones script-in-hand readings directed by Pamela Berlin at the Babcock Theatre in the lower level of Pioneer’s home on the campus of the University of Utah will not reflect a major conceit in the writing: When it is eventually produced, a staging will use video and other technology to show Allisyn’s pursuit of the truth when she is forced to work from Dubai.
Bierstock explained, “Journalism today is obviously deeply affected by the access that our current technology avails us. We, the public, are seeing details of war, poverty and crime — globally and in the U.S. — in way we never have before because of this access (cell phones, video, Facebook, Skype, you name it). And with that information comes the question: Who monitors how that information is shared/relayed? Is it the media? And if so, are the media our truth tellers? I think how information gets relayed and in what context is really important to think about.”
Bryan Sommer is the stage manager.
(Honor Killing is the last of three scripts developed in the winter 2016 Play-By-Play series, which also included my play Two Henrys and Tim Slover’s March Tale.)
The readings will be 8 PM March 11-12 and 2 PM March 12. Get ticket information here.
New York City-based actress-playwright Bierstock is making her playwriting debut with Honor Killing. At Guild Hall in East Hampton, NY, she acted in The Painting Plays, Tongues Will Wag and Kate Mueth’s Eve. Her Off-Broadway credits include Committed, The Musical; Jacques Brel Returns; and Chess at Lincoln Center. Some favorite regional theatre credits include the world premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Peter Pan, Nunsense and Into the Woods. She toured in Lewis & Clark and Laura Ingalls Wilder. She most recently played Mary Hatch in It’s A Wonderful Life (Variations Theatre Group) and Joan Rivers in the development of Carson, The Musical.
Here’s my conversation with Sarah Bierstock:
The play is about a reporter from the New York Times investigating a Middle East honor killing. What sort of research did you have to do about international journalism, and about honor killings? Did you talk to any reporters?
Sarah Bierstock: I had many lengthy conversations, email exchanges, and Skype sessions with several journalists who all helped to educate me about the life of a reporter. The privilege of getting to meet some of the people I have met while trying to authenticate this script has been extraordinary. That ranges from to journalists, friends of friends from Pakistan, honor violence/forced marriage survivors and activists, to my Southeast Asian actors, some of whom have become dear friends. One of the most profound experiences I have had so far with this play was when two of the women who spoke on the Washington, DC panel this past June for CEDAW (the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) came to one of the Honor Killing readings. One of the women was an American whose family sent her back to Pakistan for a forced marriage. She sat in the front row of the March presentation of Honor Killing and audibly cried through several of the scenes. That was the first time that the power of this play really hit me.
Share a little about the inciting incident: the murder of a woman in Pakistan. What are the circumstances and how does Allisyn hear about it?
Sarah Bierstock: Samira, the character who represents Farzana in this play, is brutally murdered; she is beaten with sticks, bricks, stones and other sharp/heavy objects by a mob of people made up of her own family members. This occurred at approximately 8:30 AM, on the steps outside the High Court in Lahore, Pakistan. [Armed] policemen stood by, witnessing what was occurring, and did nothing to stop it. Her family subjects her to this honor killing because she chose to marry a man of her choice, rather than the cousin they insisted she marry.
Allisyn first learns of this honor killing at the top of the play, when her friend Abbas, a stringer on the ground in Lahore, reaches out to her with the information.
She is barred from access in Pakistan, correct? Remind me why. I love that, as a woman, she is shut out of the conversation, as women often are in our own culture.
Sarah Bierstock: Allisyn wrote articles for The Washington Post that exposed a sex trade in Pakistan while she was stationed there. These articles got her blacklisted, and the more recent Sharia Law Op-Ed she wrote in for the New York Times didn’t exactly warm her welcome, either.
Share a little bit about the character of Allisyn. What drives her?
Sarah Bierstock: Allisyn is a highly intelligent, successful and driven journalist for the New York Times. She is simultaneously deeply flawed, self-protective, selfish and yet hugely giving. She is both incredibly vulnerable and tremendously strong. She is fast thinking, fast-talking, and also riddled with fear. She is a feminist who’s totally driven to fight for equality, and protective of women both physically and socially. She will go to almost any length to protect and defend what she believes is unjust — while trying to maintain a journalist’s objectivity. Her covering this particular honor killing is deeply important to her for many reasons. She is very invested in the people of Pakistan (she was previously stationed there for three years), and considers it her personal mission to defend any woman who she deems — not always correctly — defenseless.
Did you know from the beginning of writing this that you wanted to make parallels between our country and other countries, in terms of violence against women, silence, access and “voice”?
Sarah Bierstock: Yes. Farzana’s story was the catalyst to begin writing this play, but it was always paramount to me that I tie it back to the United States. Even as horrified as I am by Farzana’s story, I also feel deeply aware that our own country has serious issues with violence against women and misogyny. It was always very important to me that the play demanded that we look back at our own culture.
About a year before I wrote this play, I started to ask the question of many of my international and national friends: does one have a responsibility to give voice to someone who either can’t or won’t protect themselves? It’s actually a hugely complicated question, and the conversation fascinated me on many levels.
I think that there is an American ideology that we are taught as children: a false conception that Americans are supposed to be, or think they’re viewed as, “saviors.” Our media tells us that everyone wants to be us, that countries want and solicit our help, when in reality this is absolutely not the case in many places and cultures in the world. What we are taught is not accurate.
Some people are of the opinion that it is a moral obligation to give voice or even to intervene. But one of the things I have learned through this process is that it is assumptive — and usually wrong — to think that you understand another culture fully, unless you are raised in it. And yet we have strong convictions when we know that someone is being physically or emotionally injured, and it is very hard to know what the right action is.
There are barbaric acts of violence — such as honor killings — regularly occurring. And rapes, domestic abuse and violence toward women are happening all the time in the United States. As well as honor killings. So, where is the responsibility? There is no easy answer. I have been humbled and challenged by this question for the last two years.
Since Allisyn has to report remotely from Dubai, electronic communication technology — phones and Skype and the internet — is a major element in the play. Was that always the case, from the first draft or has that developed? If I recall correctly from a Manhattan reading that I saw, she’s not often in the same room with people — she’s communicating with them remotely. I loved that tension.
Sarah Bierstock: To me, the technology is imperative in the telling of this story; it was always there, from the first page of the first draft. I saw (and see) this play in my head with a very specific technological perspective. I can’t wait to sit down with designers [when it is eventually fully produced] and discuss how to make that manifest!
This play takes place in the present. Whenever that is. I am part of that pre-Millennial generation that both grew up at a time without cell phones and internet — and yet now dexterously navigates and embraces our technological norm. As life is reflected in art, it fascinates me to create work that reflects the overall climate of today’s communication. This play deals with people functioning within four different countries (the U.S., London, Dubai and Pakistan). Our realities today are global. We can have conversations with people across the world and if we don’t speak their language, Google will translate for us.
Something else that fascinates me is how that proximity allows for both an incredible intimacy and how there can yet be a total disconnect and lack of understanding. This can happen even when two people are texting each other across a table (in the same room). So I wanted to explore the idea that this disconnect can also happen when two people are in the same room. One can be physically right next to someone, and have there be a total lack of understanding. I had originally thought of the technology like a Greek chorus but it really evolved into a character in and of itself.
Pam Berlin is directing in Utah. Bill Castellino directed your previous readings.
Sarah Bierstock: Yes, I am very excited to be working with Pam Berlin in Utah. I’m really looking forward to having her fresh eyes on the piece, as well as a new cast. Bill Castellino has directed all of the readings of Honor Killing to date, and what he brings to the table is invaluable. He read one of the very earliest drafts of this play — when you had to literally sift through the over-written mush of an initial script — and somehow saw its potential, and believed in the value of what I was trying to create. Since that time he has not only directed the lab and readings, but has acted as a dramaturg and sounding board, offering guidance and suggestions. And most importantly, he has been a constant and steadfast believer in me and in this piece. I value his feedback tremendously.
I think part of what is most exceptional about Bill and his work style is that he has an incredible ability to probe, or ask questions of me (as both a writer and actor), that stimulate me just enough to trigger an idea or inspire without spoon-feeding or imposing his own ideas into the work. That takes tremendous skill, and shows so much faith and respect to the writer and performers. Bill and I plan to work together in the future, on this play and other projects.
You performed in earlier readings of the play, but are stepping away from the role of Allisyn for the Utah reading. Did you write Honor Killing as a vehicle for you? What do you have in common with Allisyn? What do you admire/respect in her, and what are her shortcomings?
Sarah Bierstock: Initially, I didn’t really think about whether or not I would play this role. I was really most interested in telling the story. Throughout its development, though, I realized that I had very much written her in my own voice. I am simultaneously very much like Allisyn, and completely different. We are alike in that we are both proactive “doers,” very organized, passionate, bright, driven, a little edgy, risk takers, both vulnerable and strong, intense, love travel and adventure. As for how we are different — I like to think I am less controlling and controlled than she is, and that I have more of a sense of humor than she does. Allisyn pushes love away, I am pretty sure I don’t do that. She is more ruthless than I am, she’s more accomplished than me, braver in some ways and much more afraid than me in others. We both often think we are right, but are willing to learn when we realize we might have been wrong. I admire so much in her: Allisyn has an opinion; she is fierce, someone who will go the distance and is willing to compromise herself — even her own safety — for what she believes in. She has tremendous compassion, but not unilaterally.
Beyond plot, when people ask you, “What is your play about?,” what do you say?
Sarah Bierstock: I usually sigh first. Then I smile, and try to determine if they are ready for what I’m about to say or not. And if so, then beyond the plot, I typically say it’s about the overt and insidious sexism, violence and misogyny toward women in the U.S. and beyond, and why and how we accept that as a nation. It’s also about forgiveness, justice and examining the idea of the “other” when it comes to another culture. As my dear friend Lois told me: A great playwright once said when asked what his/her play was about: “It’s about every single word I wrote in the play.” It’s a pretty pretentious response and a bit of a cop-out, but it’s also true.
What did you learn from the 2015 readings of the play, and what do you hope to accomplish with this 2016 Utah reading?
Sarah Bierstock: There have been three public readings so far: one in East Hampton at Guild Hall (as part of the John Drew Lab series), and two industry presentations in New York City. Each one of these readings has been completely invaluable. As the writer, you start to hear what’s working and what’s not, what needs to be cut, what’s missing, what the audience is or isn’t getting, and if they are fixating on a section of the play you never anticipated. Their stirred reactions and conversations excite me. What’s cooler than writing a piece of theatre that makes people want to debate ideas?
In terms of what I hope to accomplish in Utah: There are quite a few edits that I have made since last fall that I have not yet heard actors read. I can’t wait to hear if they work! How do they sound? How do they change the actors’ journeys, how does it change the audience’s experience? Are the characters better fleshed out and developed as a result of those changes?
There are some additional scenes (with alternate endings or dialogue I’ve omitted) that I’m looking forward to trying out. I’m also excited to having Pam’s fresh eyes and perspective at the helm and see what an almost exclusively new cast brings to this play.
You’ve done some traveling around the world. Has travel influenced the play?
Sarah Bierstock: Yes, I love to travel, and especially internationally. I have been incredibly fortunate to travel pretty extensively — in Europe, Southeast Asia, Asia, the Middle East and North America, of course. I had a really traumatic horse back riding accident while abroad two years ago, and the year after I recovered I changed a lot of things. I quit my job, and I took several trips I’d been meaning to take for years.
My experience travelling to these places has unequivocally influenced this play. The way I was treated, as woman, ranged astronomically from country to country and culture to culture. Some of which I was absolutely not O.K. with and struggled to try and respect the tradition of where I was, and yet honor myself as a human being (and a feminist) in a way I felt was not being honored. Simultaneously, I had conversations with locals that deeply challenged me and forced me to reconsider judging so negatively that which I did not understand.
So what’s the answer? I don’t know. I guess it’s put your energy in educating yourself and attempting to understand. At least if you know more about a tradition, a culture, and the ramifications of removing an act that might appear egregious to you then it’s somehow more acceptable to be critical because you’re equipped with more information. It’s very tricky.
This is your first play. Your career to this point has been as an actress. Was being a playwright always in the back of your mind? When did you first say, “I have something to say as a writer”?
Sarah Bierstock: I never, ever expected to be a playwright. I had absolutely no desire to write a play nor hope that I could do so. The only playwriting experience I had before this was my college thesis; I wrote a one act play called The Lack which tried to explore certain philosophic concepts of Jean Paul Sartre. Good God, I’m sure it was terrible! After that, it literally never crossed my mind to write anything else. I thought that playwriting was brutally hard and was relieved it was someone else’s job! The first time I realized I had something to say was when I was in the middle of writing it. That was a good discovery.
Share some background: Where were your raised? What access did you have to theatre and the arts? Did your parents promote an awareness of theatre in your life?
Sarah Bierstock: I was born and raised in Rhinebeck, NY, about 90 miles north of New York City. My parents are both in the medical field: my father was an ophthalmologist and my mother was a nurse practioner specializing in HIV and AIDS-related care. They both were (and are) great lovers of the arts, and extended me all kinds of artistic opportunities. I started playing the violin at age five, and later played the piano, clarinet, sax, alto sax. My parents were hugely influential in exposing me to the arts. When we were really little they would drive us into the city and see Broadway shows, half of which I sat on my mother’s lap for and was too young to remember. But it obviously influenced me tremendously.
I became obsessed with the ‘80s TV show “Rags to Riches” — where the five orphan girls sang and dance to repurposed ‘50s songs — and decided I was going to be on that show. That was what precipitated my starting voice , theatre and dance classes. I attended a conservatory for the performing arts (on evenings and weekends) from ages 9-18, before I went off to study musical theatre at CAP21 (Tisch School of the Arts, NYU). I later transferred to Bard college (after doing a year abroad at The National University of Galway, Ireland), from which I got my degree. I later got my Equity card playing Laura in the national tour of Laura Ingalls Wilder through Artspower National Touring Company.
Name some playwrights or plays that you admire, please.
Sarah Bierstock: I’m a big fan of Amy Herzog’s work. She writes so concisely, and yet with incredible depth. I also enjoy that she writes generationally; very often as an actress you only find yourself acting with someone in your peer group/age range — but Amy’s plays tend to look at a broader range of characters and relationships. I also love Theresa Rebeck, Wendy Wasserstein, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams. I think my colleague J. Stephen Brantley is gifted.
What’s next for you as a writer or an actress?
Sarah Bierstock: Well, I’ve written a second play. I thought it was a comedy until I had some very talented actresses come and read it in my living room, and realized it’s just a play with some comedic moments. It needs a lot of work. Honor Killing is in the running for some festivals and further development this year, so we’ll see what happens.
As for my acting career, I have taken a pretty significant hiatus this past six months or so. Unfortunately, my agent passed away and I haven’t been singing much, which is always hard on my heart. I hope to book a meaty, demanding and interesting role that challenges me very soon. And if I get to sing my face off at the same time then all the better!