His name is Greene – well, it is now – his skin is brown, he writes at white heat these days, and he was a bit blue about “Narrow Daylight,” until Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte committed to a world premiere.
The Iraq War drama, one of four finalists in Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s 2012 nuVoices festival, won this production after voting by judges and theatergoers.
Sevan Kaloustian Greene had been struggling to get “Daylight” done in his adopted city of New York and had gotten no further than an industry reading, though Tony-winners Victoria Clark and Randy Graff took part and showed interest in a full production.
So his work takes wing Wednesday at Actor’s Theatre instead.
“Audiences here are actually smarter than the ones I’ve encountered in New York,” he said, during a recent weeklong visit at the start of rehearsals. “Someone (at last year’s reading) brought up an idea that never would have occurred to me, and I made a change. After three readings in New York, no one had caught it.”
The crowd last summer stuck around after the readings to discuss reactions with the playwrights. (That will happen again Aug. 8-11. This year’s winner will get a full ATC production in 2014.)
They approved of this drama about the mother of an American killed in Iraq. She becomes a recluse in her Florida home, until her son’s young Iraqi war widow – whom she knew nothing about – knocks on her door. Allison Lamb Tansor, who gave an incendiary performance as the mother in that reading, now anchors a cast of actors new to the play.
Old topic, new eyes
“I try to refract a familiar subject through a different lens,” Greene says. “My play is not about the war itself, but the shadow the war casts. How does it affect normal people at home? I’m foreign-born but very Americanized, so I have a foot in both camps.”
The Kuwaiti-raised Greene knows whereof he speaks: As a boy, he escaped the Gulf War in 1990 with his family and came to America.
But until four years ago, he never thought of putting this story or any other story down on paper.
“I thought I was going to New York in 2007 to become a musical theater person,” he said. “But they don’t put people of my color in leads in Broadway musicals.” (This self-described “Brownie” relates his audition experience in a wickedly funny blog at his website, sevangreene.com.)
His co-star in an off-Broadway show suggested that he write for the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival in 2009. The resulting spoof, “Fellahin Idol,” convinced Greene he could indeed write – in fact, that “if I can be a writer, by accident, without dreaming about it, anyone can.”
Four years later, he has written 10 full-length plays and three shorts. “My agent will say, ‘Stop writing new plays! Work on the ones you have!’ But I don’t have the patience to work endlessly on a draft. Without a deadline, I don’t work steadily.
“I’m not precious as a writer. Tell me the parts you don’t believe, the parts that don’t make sense, and I’ll get busy. I have no problem murdering my babies.”
So who is this guy?
“Narrow Daylight” already seemed stage-worthy last year, though Greene has touched it up. Actor’s Theatre isn’t the only place to boost him: New York’s Public Theater put him in its Emerging Writers Group, and he was twice a finalist for the William Saroyan Prize for Playwriting.
That prize goes to plays with Armenian themes; Greene, who describes himself as a Lebanese-Armenian/Pakistani/American, thinks he’s written the first play about the Turks’ genocidal behavior toward Armenia in World War I (“Forgotten Bread”).
By now, you’ve figured out he wasn’t born Greene: “Sevan is what I was supposed to be called at birth but wasn’t. Kaloustian is my grandmother’s maiden name. And ‘Greene’ is because the original Arabic word was close to the word for ‘green.’ I added an ‘e’ to sound Jewish.” He laughs. “It confuses people.”
Though he lists “actor” ahead of “writer” on his resume, the balance may shift.
“Show business is a beast: You can hang onto its hide and go, but you can’t control it,” he said. “So as an actor, you’re always anxious, always seeking approval.
“I have actor paranoia, but I don’t have writer paranoia. I don’t worry much whether someone will love or hate my plays. If they love them, great. If not, I like a good controversy!”
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