Illustration by Ahmed Bilal

Behind the Scenes of Temporary People: Stories of Collaboration and Community

NYUAD’s fall production, Temporary People, took the form of a multidisciplinary docu-fictive performance, directed by Laila Soliman in collaboration with Faustin Linyekula.

Dec 12, 2022

On a stage filled with sand, shrubs and bricks cast members in almost-anonymizing overalls took to stage as this year’s fall mainstage production, Temporary People, ran from Nov. 19 to Nov. 22 at the Black Box in the Arts Center. Taking inspiration from the 2019 novel of the same name by Assistant Arts Professor of Literature and Creative Writing Deepak Unnikirshnan, the production took the form of a multidisciplinary docu-fictive performance, directed by Laila Soliman, Visiting Associate Arts Professor of Theater and Artist in Residence. This was in collaboration with Faustin Linyekula, a storyteller who lives and works in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo.
With the dimming of the lights in the Black Box, one was immediately transported to a world quite different from NYUAbu Dhabi’s pristine walls, as cast members emerged from the shadows and from the seats right next to those of us in the audience. Because that is what the play was all about – temporary people here, traversing in search of a better job or better education, just passing by to soak up a culture and leave a trace of their own even if for a mere second … and then what? Then where? And what about the time before?
Temporary People concerns itself with exactly these unanswered questions of life as a migrant worker in the UAE. The play is a deeply personal account of the experiences of migrants from various backgrounds. The performance explores, complicates and grounds its stories in the vulnerabilities, hopes and fears of temporary people in the Gulf, of migrant workers on visas, of locals without citizenship. The diverse cast and crew of the production also contributed to the writing of the play with personal stories and songs from their childhoods. The result was an eerie and nostalgic experience that fostered stronger bonds between all members of the community by putting on display the common communal goals but vastly different perspectives of each person on living as migrants. The Gazelle reached out to the cast and crew of the production to understand how it came to be.
In conversations with the cast and crew of the play, a lot of details about the experimental style of productions were revealed. Director Laila Soliman identifies her style exactly as “socially and politically relevant theater.” She elaborates on this notion further: “I'm interested in a lot of questions about representation. So that was my suggestion, then, to have it as a community production rather than a student production.” While the play is based on Unnikrishnan’s collection of short stories, the final script was devised together with the participants in the cast after the production had started.
Elly Gaskell, first year student and assistant director of Temporary People, revealed that this was one of the main reasons she was interested in joining the production. “I knew this play was going to be unusual because there wasn’t a script placed, it was going to be a devised play,” she reflected on her initial reaction when first hearing of the fall production. However, as the most important aspect of production she found the community building process: “I was searching for a theater community I could be a part of because theater has really been my life for the past few years now.”
Ilayda Ozdemir, Class of 2023, majoring in Psychology and Theater, who has been part of previous on-campus productions, shared she also enjoyed the script building and community bonding in the first stages of production. “The script kind of happened right before Fall break. Before that we were all working more on our own skills and on our skills [collectively] as a company [...] because in a play like this if you don’t work well together, it just won’t feel the same. If the chemistry is not there, the audience will feel it,” she elaborated and exemplified the core of Laila Soliman’s socially-rooted directing.
As one of the participants with more experience with the theater program at NYUAD, Ozdemir also commented on the unprecedented inclusion of contracted colleagues in the production. They shared that they wish to continue the friendships they made with the cast of the production as much as possible and appropriate, alluding to the fact that a true theater community had really been formed in the production process in agreement with Elly Gaskell and Keertana Cherukuri’s goal and Laila Soliman’s vision.
The inclusion of people from various backgrounds and various experiences with performing on stage really added to the authenticity of the play, which was crucial for the successful delivery of the message of both Unnikrishnan’s book and the production. It also determined the reception of the play by the audience, which is why it was key to the auditioning and casting during pre-production. Especially crucial was the onboarding of contracted colleagues.
As Noora Jabir, Community and Outreach Coordinator and Class of 2024, shared with The Gazelle, she was conducting outreach with contracted colleagues, ensuring that they had full information about and access to auditions and helping to clarify any confusions they had.
“I want to see more, like more, I mean … we have staff appreciation day, we have events for contractor colleagues, but is it possible to have a collaboration that's beyond just that, [can we have] sustained connections I guess between contracted colleagues and students on campus?” questioned Jabir.
The inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds but closely connected to the characters in the book allowed for blurring the lines between Unnikrishnan’s work and the real world. As Soliman reasoned, “In documentary theater, or sometimes in theater, that’s kind of on that spectrum between reality and fiction, it was interesting for me to [consider] what if real people act out these fictional stories?”
Soliman also shared that the production wasn’t grounded in Professor Unnikrishnan’s novel but that the book was treated as a starting point to reach other conversations, events and moments that were made in collaboration with the cast. The aim was to create something new, and hopefully daring, that centers migrant experiences not often thought about, let alone acknowledged. As mentioned earlier, this period of imagining and constructing what the final performance would look like was a collaborative process, with members of the cast being asked to weigh in and share their personal stories and experiences of their time in Abu Dhabi.
For many of the cast who were themselves from South Asia or the African continent, seeing brown and Black bodies on stage, being able to enact scenes that felt close to one’s own sense of belonging in the Gulf is what drew them to the play.
“I've been living in this country for three years and I just don't see a lot of South Asian representation … Even if you just look up, like look at billboards or advertisements in this city, I don't see people who look like me … If you talk about like the art spaces, like I go to, you know, if you go to museums, art colleges, if someone talks about [belonging] to this country, it's always got to do something with like pure racial Arab ancestry or like, you know, for an Arabic speaking audience or, or just like narratives of nation building it,” shares Sudit Sahoo, cast member and Class of 2023.
Richard Musenje, cast member and Campus Safety Officer, shared a similar sentiment: “I heard of the production through the OSR (Office of Social Responsibility). Now, even though we all know that curiosity killed a cat, the name "temporary people" alone left me curious with thoughts like, how we're temporary here on earth, how we live as travelers (today in UAE, tomorrow in Uganda and the other day in Bhutan and on), maybe temporary people the novel was reflecting on friends that we make today only to look for them in the future and find none!"
For Cadence Cheah, cast member and Class of 2023, the politics of representation when it comes to migrant communities and the questions of narrative making by and within NYUAD, a US liberal arts institution in the UAE, is what initially drew her to the production. Beyond being interested in the themes of migrant life the production would be exploring and wanting to test out her acting skills, Cheah found the process of transforming a novel into a play to be a compelling reason as well. “I think, also, just thinking about like how a book could be adapted to a play [was interesting to me] ... I've dabbled in creative writing a little bit, dabbled in theater making a little bit, and I just wanted to see how that form changed. So it's like a very exploratory experience, I suppose,” added Cheah.
Keertana Cherukuri, Assistant Director and Research Assistant, also shared that part of the reason she was motivated to join the play was because the fall production is one of the main ways Theater majors are able to engage with and hone their craft.
"Given the fact that I was performing back home (in Uganda) and that I hadn't been on stage for close to a decade, I hopped to see what had changed down the road only to find that technology advancement and acting skills were to my understanding the major changes, otherwise actors/ performers, directors, producers and managers have remained the same,” shared Musanje who brought his acting skills from his home in Uganda to NYUAD’s Black Box. Sahoo shared his stories of being prejudiced and discriminated against as a young, brown boy in the Gulf.
“I remember when I auditioned for this play, I talked about how people would race to me in this country … Like how, you know, when I wear Indian clothes, I'm asked if I can afford a haircut at a particular pace. I get yelled at in Hindi at the airport, because, you know, I'm very South Asian looking, [in my] early twenties … like the demographic that they sort of have in mind when they think of like construction workers,” elaborated Sahoo.
Cheah, in particular, shared her own experience when it came to the selection of which songs and lullabies should be featured in the play.
“The songs that were selected came from those questions, songs that remind us of home, that we listened to when we were home … and then, so I thought of a couple of pop songs and then they weren’t accepted because they are pop songs ... And I feel that there's this denial that pop culture has diffused into different parts of the world already, even though they're like dominant culture. But still, there's a part of my experiences growing up and yeah, why are we holding onto that discourse of authenticity,” elaborated Cheah.
Cast members also expressed that at times, the process of creating the production was not as inclusive as it could have been, especially given the context the play was based on and the questions it hoped to raise about the privilege and power of certain languages in certain contexts. They shared that sometimes senior members would speak to each other in Arabic in front of the cast even though no one in the stage cast was a native Arabic speaker.
In a play that is as contentious and multifaceted as Temporary People, there will almost always be concerns about narrative making. Professor Unnikrishnan shared with The Gazelle that when he first heard his novel, which was finished over a decade ago, would be the text used for the fall production he was curious and intrigued to see how it would be interpreted.
“Overall, I think to be very succinct about it is it was really cool to see it on stage just to see someone else interpreting the work. I don't think everyone is in the privileged position to sort of enjoy that,” added Professor Unnikrishnan.
We asked if he had any concerns about a work of his being reproduced on an NYUAD stage.
“I didn't want it to be a grief project … It was an adaptation, you know, through and through where students would be involved, community members would be involved, and so I didn't necessarily didn't have conditions, but I did share that. I didn't want it to be a project that you went to see, and all you did was weep. And I'm not necessarily sure why I felt that way. But I guess it's important to me that when people look at my work, they are not only thinking about sadness,” elaborated Professor Unnikrishnan.
The fall mainstage production was the first at NYUAD to involve contracted colleagues in all aspects of the production, thus actively seeking to engage its community and base its interpretation on the lived experiences of the cast. It was a moment of reckoning, and a public one, that centered how temporality manifests itself in the lives of migrant workers in the UAE. It was a daring play but much still remains to be done, at least on our little campus.
As Cherukuri shared, “We spent huge amounts of time interacting with them [contracted colleagues] and they were with us and now we're friends. When I see them, I give them a hug, but I can't eat with them in D2, I can't stand with them and speak with them for 15 minutes. I mean, obviously they're working and we don't disturb them when they're working, but when they get off work why can’t I sit with them at D2 and have a coffee? That is something that makes me really mad.”
Ozdemir is of the same opinion and added, “You cannot put people in the same space, treat them equally because you truly believe they are equal, and right after it all ends, it is a [problem] for me to have lunch with these friends that I made … It is very funny to me that I can say “hi” to them but I cannot hug them … It is really ironic to me and really messes with my head.”
Githmi Rabel is Editor-in-Chief. Yana Peeva is Deputy Columns Editor. Email them at
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