Cover Image

Illustration by Oscar Bray

Too Long; Didn’t Research: You Are Present

A column that finds interesting research coming from NYUAD and explains it to a wider audience. This week: the Exit 11 Performing Arts Company reflects on their first production during a tumultuous first year.

Nov 1, 2020

It would be difficult to find an industry more blighted by the coronavirus pandemic than theater. Directors and performers of all stripes have seen their months of hard work cut short, postponed or cancelled, with future career prospects vanishing and governments encouraging them to abandon their life’s work. Some theater companies have tried to work around this by performing over Zoom or releasing pre-recorded shows online to varying degrees of success. The three NYU Abu Dhabi alumni behind Exit 11 decided to take a different approach.
Ethan David Lee, Class of 2019 and Managing and Co-Creative Director of Exit 11, prioritized immersion above everything else.
“I had not really seen any good [Zoom] theater that really stuck with me,” Lee explained. “How do you create that sense of liveness and that sense of intimacy in a new way of performance? So we turned to audio performances […] looking at that immersive sound design that can really bring something to life.”
The trio decided to look into Greek tragedy because it does not require extensive visual elements. In Greek theater, a lot of the pivotal action occurs offstage and is narrated by other characters, which was perfect for a purely audial production. The ancient Greek play The Bacchae was chosen for many reasons, but for Co-Creative Director Tzy Jiun Tan, Class of 2020, the themes felt particularly relevant in these tumultuous times.
“Much of the show is about two characters having tunnel visions of one another, and on the way causing harm in their wake,” Tan summarized. The two characters in question are Pentheus, the authoritarian macho leader of Thebes, and Dionysus, a genderfluid demigod seeking revenge for being disrespected by citizens of the city.
“I think in light of politics right now, there’s something to be said about when people decide to see things in too simplistic ways and be content with that,” Tan elaborated.
Prior to the pandemic, the third Co-Creative Director, Kevin Ke, Class of 2020, recognized that the first year of the company’s activities were already going to be difficult to manage.
“[Lee] was up in Hull and [Tan] and I were down in Abu Dhabi and […] both had capstones to worry about,” Ke recalled. “Because of social distancing regulations, things that we had been trying to get started on for the company fell apart.” These ideas included Ke’s Capstone performance and a physical theater piece Lee and Ke were devising.
Luckily, the three had already built a strong relationship during their four years at NYUAD.
“[Tan] was definitely the first person who I was comfortable to call a friend in my college career […] and I would say [Lee] is the first fellow student who deeply inspired me,” Ke reminisced.
They had also worked together in numerous student productions, and came to realize the full extent of their bond after an attempt at creating an arts collective with three other students fell through.
“That was forced together and it didn’t work. And that really taught us that trying to make it happen is when disaster strikes,” Lee recalled.
Along with their friendship, the three were also able to work well together because of their variety of skill sets. For The Bacchae, Tan wrote the script, Lee directed and Ke, for the first time in his performing career, stage-managed. The fact that Ke was able to take on that role even though his background is primarily in dance and physical theater shows the versatility of the team.
“If someone has an idea and someone has a project, they spearhead and lead that project, and we’re quite happy to support them in that, whether it’s a company work or not,” Lee affirmed. At times during our discussion, it was hard to separate which projects were company works and which were individual projects because of this organic support structure the company created for itself.
The ability for all three artists to make connections became useful when trying to get funding. Their principal income came from Lee’s own pocket, and from crowdfunding via Patreon and Ko-Fi. The Bacchae was financially supported by the NYUAD Arts Center and the Jameel Arts Foundation, which was lucky because, as Lee explained, it is usually very difficult to gain funding if your theater company is internationally based.
“The Arts Center programs are honestly super incredibly supportive and there’s so much that you can do if you’re the one who takes priority to ask if you can do certain things,” Ke advised. “I think the resources per student ratio at NYUAD is absolutely bonkers high and that’s something that not enough people try to take advantage of.”
Since graduation, the team have become highly aware of the realities of trying to create art for a living. Even though The Bacchae has premiered and will soon be available in its entirety, there is still plenty of work to do on the business side.
“We’ve been doing a lot of press stuff recently and no one tells you how much administrative work it takes. Holy cow,” Lee sighed.
The creators also emphasized that having another job to support yourself and your passion is crucial.
“If you don’t have a stable job and if you’re able to sustain yourself for living, great… [but] I think NYUAD does a good job of teaching us not to romanticize the artist’s life because the artists that we know and who nurtured us all, our professor [...] they have day jobs,” recalled Tan, as all three of them continue to keep in touch with their mentors on campus regularly.
In terms of what is next for the company, the focus is currently on A Story Next Door, the show that was going to be Ke’s Capstone project, and an extended version of Lee’s Capstone: On Our Borders. This production uses verbatim theater, dialogue consisting entirely of direct quotes from interviews with relevant people, to examine the question of what it means to belong to a place. When Lee discussed this project and the power of verbatim theater, any nervous energy seemed to disappear; he lit up.
“The power of theater is about being in the same room and about having that moment of intimacy with an audience. They have to sit here and watch it and you are with them. You are present,” Lee explained.
Being present with an audience is exactly what The Bacchae achieves with its sound design, script and performances. The connectedness the artists of Exit 11 show in their work and how they discuss their art illustrates that it is possible to create good work regardless of your geographical location or amount of experience.
If stories like these about students’ success are intimidating, take comfort in Lee’s final piece of advice: “Slow down… this isn’t a sprint: this is a marathon. I think NYUAD really teaches you that you’ve got to be working and working and working all the time and making something and making something; that’s not how the real world works. Continue learning. Learning is enough.”
Oscar Bray is a columnist. Email him at
gazelle logo