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Majnun Layla

Nabra Nelson: Salam Alaikum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, and SWANA or Southwest Asian, North African theatre from across the region.

Marina Johnson: I am Marina.

Nabra: And I'm Nabra.

Marina: And we're your hosts.

Nabra: Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea or, in Arabic, shay.

Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you'll find kunafa made differently. In that way we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA and SWANA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra: In our fourth season, we focus on classical and historical theatre, including discussions of traditional theatre forms and in-depth analysis of some of the oldest and most significant classical plays from 1,300 BC to the twentieth century.

Marina: Yalla, grab your tea, the shay is just right.

Nabra: Audiences typically pack houses to see love stories, especially those about forbidden love. Romeo and Juliet is a famous Western example of this phenomenon, but the trope goes back much further, to a poem that likely inspired, even inadvertently, Shakespeare's famous play.

In this episode, we look at the timeless tale of Layla and Majnun made famous by Nizami Ganjavi as a poem and later adopted for the stage and the screen countless times.

So I found the play titled Majnun Layla, which translates to “crazy about Layla” or “obsessed with Layla.” And then I found the poem on which it's based. Like so many others, I immediately became obsessed by it.

Marina: I first encountered Layla and Majnun in the first year of my PhD. My world theatre history class had an assignment that each of us was responsible for bringing in one or two plays related to our area of study or something that was just a particular interest to us from anything considered theatre history. By the way, teachers, especially those in higher ed, I loved this as an assignment because it really allowed us to think about what it meant to expand the canon in our own ways.

So I found the play titled Majnun Layla, which translates to “crazy about Layla” or “obsessed with Layla.” And then I found the poem on which it's based. Like so many others, I immediately became obsessed by it.

Nabra: For those who don't know, the story of Layla and Majnun is one of the most famous classic love stories to have come out of the Arabian Peninsula. It has roots in Arabian folklore and poetry and has been retold and reinterpreted in various forms over the centuries. The tragic tale of Majnun and Layla has been immortalized in Arabic literature through various poetic works, most notably by the twelfth century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi in his epic poem, Layla and Majnun. But it was known in the Arab world as early as the fifth century and Persia as early as the ninth century.

Two well-known Persian poets, Rudaki and Baba Taher both mentioned the lovers in their works. Wali Ahmadi from UC Berkeley has written that the story of Majnun and Layla, "clearly draws from brief, disjointed oral anecdotes reported in earlier Arabic sources. It was Nizami who superbly worked through the scant materials in his possession, developed a more complex plot, intensified the characterization, and composed a much more multilayered story in the Musnavi rhyming couplet form to be incorporated along with four other long narratives into his monumental quintet."

Marina: A Majnun Layla fun fact: Eric Clapton read a book of Persian poetry, which included the story of Layla and Majnun. He based his song “Layla” on this story and imagined it as representing his passion for George Harrison's wife Pattie. Nearly nine years after the release of the album Layla and other Assorted Love Songs, Eric and Pattie were married. So if you're ever jamming to the song Layla, just know that it is based on Layla and Majnun.

Nabra: Okay, so let's start with a very basic plot rundown. Our two main characters are seventh century Bedouin poet Qays and his lover Layla. Notice that Qays is actually called Qays, his real name, at the beginning, and we'll talk about what happens later, and where Majnun comes in.

But Layla and Qays are in love from childhood, but are never allowed to be together. Qays is perceived to be out of his mind in his obsession with Layla. Layla is forced to get married to another man, and Qays lives essentially in exile where he spends his time writing verses about his never-ending love for Layla. Although they make efforts to see each other again, they both die without any real relationship taking place.

Marina: The slightly longer version is that Qays of the Banu Amir tribe falls in love with his classmate Layla. As the two grow older, the intensity of their love increases. Although Layla too is truly smitten by love, it's Qays who publicly and unreservedly pronounces his obsessive passion and elegiac lyrics, thus earning the epithet Majnun, literally meaning “possessed” or “mad.”

Majnun's constant poetic praise of Layla's beauty and his shocking unconventional behavior in public raised concerns for Layla's parents. Worried about their daughter's reputation and the honor of their tribe, they ensure that the lovers are separated. When Qays's father proposes marriage between Qays and Layla, Layla's family rejects the offer due to Majnun's scandalous behavior, which though seemingly harsh is not entirely unreasonable.

As Majnun wanders aimlessly in the desert, living an ascetic life and composing verses about his love for Layla, his father tries to cure him of this obsessive love by taking him to the Kaaba, the holiest of Muslim sites. There Majnun prays to Allah to intensify his love for Layla even more. Meanwhile, Layla's father arranges her marriage to a wealthy but shallow man named Ibn Salam against her will. The marriage remains unconsummated as Layla remains faithful to Majnun until her husband dies of rejection and grief.

Nabra: At times, Majnun is given the opportunity to meet Layla in person, but even when she appears before him through a devoted intermediary, he refuses physical or sexual contact. Majnun sees a perfect selfless love for Layla transcending physical desires.

This aspect of the story has led many to interpret it as a Sufi allegory where Majnun represents the lover seeking union with the divine. When Layla falls ill and dies, Majnun loses his purpose in life. He rushes to her grave site where he embraces her gravestone and breathes his last, finally united with her in death.

Nizami's tale of Layla and Majnun can be interpreted in various ways, as a mystical allegory or as a conventional love story. Despite its mystical elements the poem also holds profane dimensions that contribute to its rich and captivating narrative.

Marina: And there are different alternate endings. So if you're familiar with this story but aren't familiar with the narrative that we just laid out, never fear, what you heard is just one of many different ways that this has been interpreted throughout time.

So sometimes Layla does consummate her marriage with this other man, even though she still loves Majnun or Qays. There are just many different ways that this ends. So you can check them all out. We'll go into a few of them today, but not that many, because it's been around for so long. There are just so many different endings.

But I think I became obsessed with this story because I couldn't believe that there was a really famous love story that was so beautifully written that I hadn't heard of, and it truly seemed to influence everything around me. The day after I discovered it, I typed “Majnun Layla” into Netflix and found an adaptation there. I saw a dance piece advertised that was taking up the story of Majnun Layla. It was everywhere, and I just didn't realize it.

In addition to being beautifully written, I'm always interested in stories that take up past existing origin stories, so to speak. This all led me to wonder though, why is Romeo and Juliet the common Western referent when it's clear that this story predates Romeo and Juliet and probably influenced Shakespeare?

Literary historian Agah Sırrı Levend in his research on Layla and Majnun states that these Eastern love stories may have entered Western literature through the Crusades. He also argues that it's the source for works like Tristan and Isolde among others. And I have to say as I was doing research for this episode, I kept pulling up articles that were like the “Eastern Romeo and Juliet,” and I was like, that feels so unfair considering how far before Romeo and Juliet it came. But that's...

Nabra: That's Orientalism for you.

Marina: Colonization… imperialism…. Hard to pick just one. So Nizami wrote the poem in the twelfth century, and the elements and stories he combined were definitely around before that. So he probably wasn't the first writer to deal with the subject, but the most famous that we know of for those listening who are like, I forget when Romeo and Juliet was written... It wasn't written until somewhere between 1594-96.

So it's exciting and amazing to me that Layla and Majnun have influenced more about our current cultural climate than one might originally think. Apparently, it does have enduring popularity and universal appeal.

Nabra: We wanted to share a few of our favorite excerpts from Nizami's immortal poem, Layla and Majnun. This prose version has been adapted by Colin Turner and published by Blake in London in 1970. "The future is veiled from our eyes. The threads of each man's fate extend well beyond the boundaries of the visible world. Where they lead we cannot see. Who can say that today's key will not be tomorrow's lock or today's lock, not tomorrow's key."

Marina: "Dearest heart, if I had not given my soul to you, it would've been better to give it up for good, to lose it forever. I am burning in love's fire. I'm drowning in the tears of my sorrow. I am the moth that flies through the night to flutter around the candle flame. Oh, invisible candle of my soul, do not torture me as I encircle you. You've bewitched me. You've robbed me of my sleep, my reason, my very being."

Nabra: "Time passes, but true love remains. The life of this world is for the most part nothing but a succession of illusions and deceptions. But true love is real and the flames which fuel it burn forever without beginning or end."

As famous as Nizami is, Fuzuli, who came a few centuries later, his Leyli and Majnun is a masterpiece of classic Azerbaijani and Turkish literature. Fuzuli, whose full name is Muhammad bin Suleyman, was a prominent Azerbaijani poet and thinker of the sixteenth century. He's considered one of the greatest contributors to the Dîvân or classic poetry tradition.

This interpretation of the story generated more interest than previous Arabic and Persian versions, which the Turkish literature scholar Iskender Pala attributes to the sincerity and lyricism of the poet's expression. The poem explores themes of love, devotion, madness, and the longing for union with the beloved. Fuzuli's rendition of the story is celebrated for its profound emotional depth, lyrical beauty and philosophical musings on the nature of love and the human condition.

In fact, it has been described by the Encyclopaedia Iranica as "the culmination of the Turkic Masnavi tradition in that it raised the personal and human love tragedy to the plane of mystical longing and ethereal aspiration."

If you're ever jamming to the song Layla, just know that it is based on Layla and Majnun.

Marina: Like any inspiring story, it has been adapted many, many times. Layla and Majnun is an opera also based on the tragic love story that we've talked about composed by a Azerbaijan composer, Uzeyir Hajibeyov. It is considered one of the earliest examples of an opera in the Muslim world.

The libretto was written by Azerbaijani poet and playwright Muhammad Hadi. The opera was first performed in 1908 in Baku, Azerbaijan and is marked as a significant milestone in Azerbaijani and Islamic music history. It combines elements of traditional Azerbaijani music with Western operatic styles, creating a unique and innovative composition.

The opera incorporates traditional Azerbaijani musical instruments such as the tar, kamancheh, and balaban, along with Western orchestration. The music features melodic lines inspired by Azerbaijani Mugham, which is a classical improvisational modal musical tradition.

Nabra: There have been other notable adaptations of the Layla and Majnun story in opera form, including works by composers such as another Azerbaijani composer, Gara Garayev; Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who offers a Russian take on the classic tale; and Vagif Mustafazadeh, who blends jazz with Azerbaijani music.

The last one isn't a traditional opera, but it is a significant musical work inspired by the story. These adaptations highlight the timeless nature of the story and its ability to resonate with audiences across cultures and generations. It was also adapted by Isaac Brandon in the late eighteenth century and staged as an opera Kais: Or Love In The Deserts: An Opera, in Four Acts at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.

Marina: There are so many movie adaptations. The first three I found are Iranian films from 1937, 1947 and 1959, followed by an Egyptian adaptation in 1975 starring Soad Hosny and Ahmed Mazhar. There are two famous Indian versions of the tale, A 1976 Layla Majnu starring Rishi Kapoor and Ranjeeta Kaur. And then 2018 a remake as well. And sure we're definitely missing many, many films on this list.

When I asked my friends at a recent Bollywood movie night if they had seen these Indian adaptations, they instead showed me a clip from Aaja Nachle, which features the story of Layla and Majnun. So we'll get back to that more soon.

Nabra: There was also Laila The Musical. The play begins in modern day Bradford. A young woman called Laila is running away from her family because she's in love with a man, but her father wants her to marry someone else. There's a storm raging, and so she takes refuge in a bookshop where she comes across the story of Layla and Majnun and enters a fantasy world. The location of course, then moves from Bradford to ancient Arabia, and her family takes on the characters in the old story. The question facing today's Laila is stark: will her fate be the same as that of her namesake?

Marina: Y'all, I could not find the answer to this online, so I need to know if you've seen this, tell us what the ending is. We could not find the ending online.

Nabra: It seems amazingly melodramatic, as all of these are. Honestly, I think that's part of the appeal up until today and since ancient times.

The Mark Morris Dance Group also created a version of the classic tale, which was a seventy-minute show featuring two singers and musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble on traditional Asian instruments, combined with Western strings like the violin, etc., and a percussionist on stage with sixteen dancers. From the images and videos available it was a large scale and, at the very least, an incredibly designed production.

Marina: The Bag and Baggage theatre company in Oregon, who I did not know about before doing research for this, did a retelling in 2017. And I love this so much because apparently Scott Palmer wanted to put on a play with these star-cast lovers, and fell in love with the epic poem, but decided that staging the original four-thousand-verse Layla and Majnun would be impractical. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

So he was quoted in a local paper talking about the story's magical animals ("We didn't have a gazelle budget”) and other supernatural effects. He decided to fuse the two stories of Romeo and Juliet and Majnun and Layla. Apparently he discovered big differences. "Layla is much more modern and feminist, much more headstrong and independent than Juliet," he said. He invited commentary from every Muslim theatre company in America, he says, and sought advice from scholars at Columbia University and University of Oregon, where Nabra and I have a friend, Michael Malek Najjar, who teaches there. And he apparently served as, I don't know, at least doing consultations for this show.

He cautioned, no Aladdin, no flying carpets, belly dancers, genie lamps, and none of that appeared in this production. But appropriate to the twelfth century Persian style setting, the high-status Roman women, not the Muslims, are the ones who wore headscarves. I truly wish I could have seen this version. It seems like so much care was put into this adaptation, and it feels like it's appealing to all audiences in different ways and really doing what I think theatre does well, which is ask questions and find answers out through our practice.

Okay, so this has been a huge overview, some adaptations that are definitely each worthy of their own inquiry. And I wanted to share them because I really feel like it's fun, for me at least, to go down this rabbit hole of what kinds of stories are we interested in as a group, as humans, and what threads sort of continue throughout different spheres, and then when they're adapted, which parts or different audiences and different theatres highlight them. Is it the love because we say love is universal? Are there cultural aspects that are really being held onto? And what does that mean? So I think those are the questions that I'm particularly interested in here.

So today we're going to focus a little bit more on the clip that I told you about from Aaja Nachle and my favorite movie, which is the 2021 Indonesian Majnun Layla.

The poem itself is very performative, and perhaps we could look at it as a performance text.

Nabra: So to return to Aaja Nachle, it's a Bollywood film released in 2007, directed by Anil Mehta and starring Madhuri Dixit in the lead role. The film's title translates to “Come, Let's Dance” in English. The plot revolves around a woman named Dia who returns to her hometown in India from the United States after her dance teacher and mentor Makarand falls ill.

Upon returning Dia learns that her old dance theatre, which was once the heart of the towns, is scheduled to be demolished to make way for a shopping mall. Determined to save the theatre and revive its glory, Dia sets out to reunite her old dance troupe and stage a spectacular performance to raise funds and garner support for their cause.

As Dia reconnects with her past and rallies the community, she faces various challenges including opposition from those who are skeptical about her plans and obstacles in her personal life. Along the way, she finds love and support from individuals who share her passion for dance and her desire to preserve their cultural heritage.

Marina: As you can tell, the movie isn't about the Majnu and Layla story necessarily, but the Layla Majnu section of the movie is a pivotal part where Dia and her quest to save the theatre decides to stage this production of this classical love story.

In the traditional story of Layla and Majnun generally, there is a strong emotional connection between the two lovers that often leads to the belief that they can feel each other's pain. While this concept varies depending on the version of the story and cultural interpretations, it's a recurring theme in many retellings.

Nabra: The idea of Layla and Majnun, of course, feeling each other's pain typically symbolizes the depth of their love and emotional bond. Despite being physically separated, their souls are said to be intertwined in such a profound way that they can sense each other's emotional and spiritual states. This notion adds to the tragic and romantic elements of their tale.

In the movie we see this act out in several different ways. So in Aaja Nachle, as a child Majnu writes Layla's name in his school notebook and gets whacked across the hand with a stick. The same welts that show up on his hands also show up on Layla's, and this continues throughout the course of their story until finally, when Majnu is killed, Layla dies as well.

If you haven't seen this twenty-minute segment of the movie, you seriously have to check it out. Also watch the full movie, that's on my list as well. It's fast-paced; beautifully produced, dance, and sung; and it'll really blow you away; and it's very readily available.

Marina: Shout out to Namrata, my close friend who showed me the clip when I told her about this episode. It's been such a highlight.

So going back to my original story of the first time that I discovered Majnun and Layla, and I looked on Netflix, and I typed “Majnun Layla into the search bar, and I found this Indonesian film, and I love it so much. Because it keeps what it feels is the essence of the story without keeping all of the death, which is what Nabra does not like about it.

Nabra: I want the tragedy y'all.

Marina: But the plot of the film was excellent. So a quick rundown, as quick as I can make it. As a young girl, Layla, and her mother see her father—who is a shadow puppeteer—die. Her cruel uncle takes care of them but really make her and her mother live under his thumb. It's clear that her father's influence have made her into a storyteller and dreamer, which doesn't always fit what her uncle wants for her, and what is potentially culturally expected of her as well.

We flashed to when she's now an adult, and she's teaching in a classroom in Indonesia. She's encouraging her class of young women to follow their dreams and not just be content with getting married because it's prescribed for them. She gets a teaching fellowship in Azerbaijan and then returns to her home to find out that her mother and her uncle have decreed that she gets married.

She initially refuses, saying she doesn't want to have an arranged marriage. She wants to marry for love. But it soon becomes clear that she's meant to be this regent's wife, a guy who she used to go to school with. And maybe it won't be that bad. Her family wants it. The man has money and will take care of her family. And the man's father says specifically that he didn't want to marry anyone else. He just wanted to marry Layla because she's strong and religious and smart. And he also lets her go to Azerbaijan to teach to follow through on this fellowship essentially that she just got.

So she leaves for Azerbaijan engaged to this regent man, but when she arrives, she quickly falls in love with Samir. Her brother, I can't tell if it's her real brother or a close friend that she calls brother, but Ilham introduces them. Samir clearly isn't rich. He works at the embassy as a cook and is in Layla's class. His affection for her is clear, and they end up spending several days together as he shows her around the city.

When he seems closer to declaring his love for her, she asks him not to say anything that will ruin their friendship. Ilham encourages her to be with Samir, but Layla is torn. When she talks to the regent man on the phone, she's clearly unhappy and he is planning their very fancy wedding with two thousand guests, which is coming up soon.

However, she lights up when Samir recites poetry with her, and when they discuss literature and philosophical ideas, Regent man gets so jealous and angry that she isn't talking to him on the phone that he comes to retrieve her and bring her back to Indonesia. Samir tries to convince her not to marry a man she doesn't love, but she's torn. He waits for her in a location. She indicates where they should meet, but she doesn't show. She's on a plane back to Indonesia.

Back in Indonesia she is planning for the wedding with regent man, but she's clearly emotionally exhausted and upset. Samir is too, but he ends up in Indonesia. Long story short, Layla's uncle tries to lock her up and prevent her from seeing Samir, but her mother helps her escape, knowing she may get the wrath from the uncle for doing this. Layla meets Samir on a bridge and tells him they can be together. Then suddenly regent man, his dad, and six thugs show up. I don't know what their plan is. Are they going to retrieve Layla? Are they going to kill Samir? Are they going to do a combination of these things? Not clear, but they all show up looking quite threatening.

The cronies push Layla and Samir around for a little bit after Layla won't go with him willingly. And then when Layla appeals to him and says, "do you really want to marry someone who doesn't love you?" Regent man says, "Marriage isn't about love." And then his dad says, "Okay, this is going very poorly. You're embarrassing the family by not being able to get your girl back." And he hands him a gun.

Nabra: Now, the uncle who has clearly brought them here, gets scared and jumps in front of Layla getting shot in the process. He probably dies, but the cameraman quickly moves to another thing, like Layla and Samir starting their getaway, only for the Regent man to order his thugs to tie rocks to their feet and throw them in the water.

We see some really terrifying and beautiful shots of Layla and Samir at the bottom of this body of water looking into each other's eyes as Samir breathes his last breath. But then we see Layla's mom jump in, swim to the bottom and cut their ropes. On the shore, Layla, who almost died but didn't quite die, tries to resuscitate Samir, who we assume is dead, and she thinks is dead. But he comes to, and Ilham and Samir's cousin show up and bring them all to safety. Our next shots are in Azerbaijan where Samir and Layla are in love and have a child.

Okay, so they don't die, but the uncle dies, which is fun. But it would've just been so beautiful them dying. That scene was very lovely, beautifully shot. But I don't know why they wouldn't show Layla dying. It was very weird. She didn't seem to be perturbed by drowning. She was just of course, upset about Samir. And then I was like, but you were both in the water at the same time. Anyway, Layla, I think, is part mermaid, because she is much less drowned than Samir.

Marina: To Nabra's point here, you see them both and they're just parallel under the water, and they're both struggling to breathe. But then Samir conks out a full, I don't know, thirty or so seconds before Layla's mom comes down, and Layla's just chilling. So maybe she just has the best breath control of anybody you've ever met. But I think it's because there's something about her love for Samir that will not allow her to give in.

Nabra: Aww, that's sweet.

Marina: Now, this is where Nabra and I disagree. I was like watch this, you're going to love it so much. And she said that she liked, but that she wanted all this stuff, like death.

Nabra: I just wanted the death. I think that they could have leaned... The melodrama was so fun, they could have leaned into it and earned it even more. I think they could have gone further, but Marina's heart, maybe it would've burst. I'm just jaded.

Marina: This is definitely true. My heart would've burst. But I also love this, because it didn't have to be as sad as the end of the poem or any other telling. And I think part of the reason, Nabra, is because the people in the movie aren't familiar with the poem. In the movie she says she's named Layla after the character Layla from the poem. So it makes sense that she doesn't meet the same fate as her namesake. There's some progress for women there perhaps, we're seeing how this story affects us over time, and that we can still have the same types of love, but that we don't have to die for them, or that our love can be pure in other ways.

I haven't done a deep analysis on this film itself. I just really like to watch it. But yeah, if other people have ideas, please leave them in the comments on HowlRound; we would love to chat. But I think this movie is great. It's predictable in all the right ways. It's beautifully shot. The intertextual references are great.

I think the puppet show that her and her father are doing at the beginning looks like the Ramayana, where the two lovers are Rama and Sita, which feels like a fitting place to start Majnun and Layla, it's really beautiful.

Nabra: It's also just really very lovely to see a lot of traditional cultural elements, like wayang kulit, and get a tour of Azerbaijan, which is really lovely. It's just very well shot when it comes to showing off a country that I don't think a lot of people in the US have seen if they're not Azeris themselves. So yeah, they're just really nice cultural elements from a lot of different cultures integrated into that.

Marina: Yes, for sure. Okay, so I want to end this episode by putting out something that's been perplexing me. I found an article a few years ago that talks about a play that in Egypt in the late 1800s called Martyrs of Love, and it literally doesn't mention much, and it doesn't mention any of the star-crossed lovers that would've occurred in the Arabian Peninsula, the Greater Middle East, whatever we want to call these areas at these earlier times.

And it goes into my thought of a lot of these articles calling this Indonesian movie that we just talked about too, a modern Romeo and Juliet, which is wild. Because the movie is literally called Layla and Majnun, and they're calling it a modern Romeo and Juliet. So it's interesting to me that it's still the reference, and that's part of why we wanted to make this episode.

Also, a lot of people did grow up hearing this story of Layla and Majnun. I'm not one of those people, so it's great for me to say like, oh, the next time that I teach theatre history perhaps this is a story that I bring in sooner. And even bring in the poem. The poem itself is very performative, and perhaps we could look at it as a performance text; but looking at these adaptations, I think, does something very important too. So just wanted to highlight some of the existing stories of lovers from the East and look at the ways that their stories have been adapted over time. Thanks, y'all.

Marina:  This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of Kunafa and Shay and other HowlRound podcasts by searching “HowlRound” wherever you find podcasts. If you loved this podcast, please post a rating and write a review on your platform of choice. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on the howlround.com website.

Nabra:  Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and contribute your ideas to the Commons. Yalla bye.

Nabra and Marina: Yalla, bye!

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