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The ancient art of storytelling is alive and well at Wild Swan Theater. Their most recent original production, Marketplace Stories: Folktales from the Arab World, debuted at their home venue of Towsley Auditorium in Ann Arbor, and will be performed this Saturday, May 13th, at the Arab American National Museum (AANM) in Dearborn. 

This collaboration between the two organizations teaches the values inherent in in these ancient stories—including kindness, hospitality, respect and fairness—to elementary-school-age children, while keeping Wild Swan’s original playwriting and Michigan roots at the fore.

Partnerships are nothing new for Wild Swan, which has collaborated with the Detroit Institute of Arts and The Henry Ford to conceive plays pertaining to their exhibits over the years, such as their original Tales from Egypt: The Myth of Osiris during the DIA’s King Tut exhibition.

What was different this time around was that there was no direct link to an exhibit or program occurring at the AANM. Rather, in wanting to tell stories that pertain to different segments of Michigan culture, the two organizations collaborated around these folk tales, instructive and fun ways of conveying messages, while highlighting different heritages. 

“We read literally hundreds of stories in order to choose the ones that appeared in the play,” Hilary Cohen, Artistic Director and playwright at Wild Swan, recalls. The Wishing Stick, Goha Counts His Donkeys, The Price of Steam, Waleed & Fatima Borrow a Pot, and The Robbers and the Rabbits made the final cut. They are not related, with the exception that they all take place in a market. They worked in conjunction with AANM curators and researchers in order to accurately convey Middle Eastern village life in the 1800s.

folktales posterAfter one particular planning meeting at the museum, Cohen recalls a painting in the conference room that she couldn’t get out of her mind. That painting—Sanduk or Story Box, by Helen Zughaib—based on Zughaib's father’s life growing up outside Damascus, Syria, inspired the set design, while a detail from one of her paintings was used on the play’s poster. It was these types of influences and relationships that underscore the collaborative nature and evolution of the project.  

Why was fostering this partnership important for Wild Swan?

Cohen notes that “we often explore aspects of Michigan in our plays,” and that Middle Eastern folklore is especially important to represent in Southeast Michigan. “Not just recently, but many generations of Michiganders have roots in the Middle East.”

Whether or not the school groups and families who come and see this play have their roots in this region, Cohen says that all audiences have a connection to this rich culture. There is an “opportunity for people to recognize themselves on the stage, because a play has been written about me and my stories. But for people who don’t know it, they can learn about these great folk tales, as well as their friends and neighbors.”

wildwanThis thread of inclusivity is paramount for all Wild Swan performances. An American Sign Language interpreter is present at all performances, including at the Arab American National Museum, and when notified in advance, there are opportunities for those who are blind or visually impaired to have touch tours of the Towsley Auditorium stage in advance of a performance, meet the actors and hear their voices, and then have audio receivers during the actual performance that describes the non-verbal actions that are occurring on stage and drive plot forward. 

"We want to make a theater that is really, really available for everyone," says Cohen.