In 2021, I began to develop The Frontliners for the stage with Playwrights Theatre Centre’s New Play in Development Prize. The Frontliners is a comedic drama about three employees stationed at an East Van hotel tasked with managing the arrival and housing of Syrian refugees against an impossible housing market and timeframe.
Kara’s background as an illustrator allowed for characters and prominent objects in the play to be imagined in closer detail and for themes to emerge visually. Speaking to Farouk Al-Sajee allowed Dramaturg Davey Samuel Calderon and me a deeper understanding of Farouk’s musical process. With co-composer Ruby Singh, Farouk Al-Sajee co-composed and played Oud for the upcoming workshop production of The Frontliners (November 2022). Farouk first became involved with The Frontliners as a Cultural Consultant and then began to tackle creating an original music score for the play. One of the questions Farouk asks that have always stuck with me is: “If the characters were musicians themselves, what instrument would they be?”
As a writer, I tend to think verbally, and speaking to both Kara and Farouk challenged me to think multi-dimensionally — asking questions like, if this character was a sound, how would we hear it? How do we listen to this image? If this scene was an illustration, what colours would it be?
Keep scrolling down to learn more about the behind-the-scenes making of The Frontliners through the work of Kara and Farouk, and like me, be reminded of the multidimensional possibilities of theatre.
Illustrations by Kara Sievewright
Behind the Music of The Frontliners
Illustrations by Kara Sievewright
Pile of donations illustrated by Kara Sievewright for The Frontliners.
An illustrated pile of random donations in boxes – including lamps, books, teddy bears and a Mountie stuffed moose are stacked in a triangle-shaped pile in front of a desk with a sign atop that reads “No More Donations” against a teal background.
Quote from Kara:
“There’s a running joke in Zahida’s play where the frontline workers continue to bring in donations for the refugees staying at the hotel despite a sign that says “No more donations!” Some of the donations could be wanted, like a new stroller or kids clothing – but many of them are just the unwanted things that litter our homes such as a snowglobe or a Mountie toy moose. I thought of the mountain of donations as a symbol for our well-intentioned but ineffectual and sometimes harmful attempts to address the trauma and disaster brought on by colonialism, capitalism, and war.” – Kara Sievewright
The three main characters in The Frontliners are at their makeshift office at Hotel Splendid, the play’s setting.
Illustration by Kara Sievewright.
Image Description: Three figures of Middle Eastern (Omar), South Asian (Nadia), and African descent (Yusuf) gather in an office in front of a sign that reads “Families at Hotel Splendid.” One carries folders and one carries a coffee mug that is labelled “UNA 10 years + 7” on it. Set against a teal background.
More about Kara Sievewright:
Kara is an artist and writer who creates comics, illustrations, and animations. She is also a graphic designer and graphic recorder. She lives in Daajing Giids, Haida Gwaii as a settler on unceded Haida homelands. You can see more of her work at makerofnets.ca.
Photo of male with curly black hair in black leather jacket, black pants and black leather shoes posing standing over caramel-covered oud musical instrument against white background. The quote beside the photo reads: “If the characters were musicians themselves, what instrument would they be?” – Farouk Alsajee.
Behind the Music of The Frontliners: Interview conducted with Farouk Alsajee with Zahida Rahemtulla and Davey Samuel Calderon. Photo Credit: Yukiko Onley
Farouk Alsajee is co-composer with Ruby Singh for the upcoming workshop production of Zahida Rahemtulla’s new play, The Frontliners, which won Playwrights Theatre Centre’s 2022 New Play in Development Prize. Farouk came to Canada via Damascus and Iraq in 2015 and met Zahida while they were working together in the newcomer nonprofit sector. Farouk first became involved with The Frontliners as a Cultural Consultant and then as a Co-composer and Oud player. In this interview, Farouk shares how he has drawn upon his extensive musical background to create an original music score for the play with Ruby Singh and The Frontliners team.
How did you get involved with refugee re-settlement and frontline work?
I moved to Canada in 2015, after living in Damascus, Syria for nine years. Originally, I’m Iraqi, but I left Iraq during the aftermath of the political conflict for Syria, where I studied music. When I arrived in British Columbia from Syria in 2015, I was fresh out of music school. I didn’t know what to do, or what I even wanted to do! But with the influx of Syrian refugees coming at the time, I was asked to volunteer as an ESL Teaching Assistant, because of my background in English literature. So I started as a volunteer, and I loved the experience. After that, I decided to work in the field of settlement as a Youth Settlement Worker.
How did you get involved with The Frontliners?
I remember Zahida had wanted to write a play for a while, and she had shared that with me. And then years later, she actually started writing it, and the project got serious. I think, at that time, Zahida approached me to be a Cultural Consultant, which I happily came onboard for. Then later, Zahida and Davey asked if I would be interested in being involved musically with the play. And that was really exciting for me. Because I was like, I already love the story, so bringing music to it would be really special. Let’s see how this goes!
When I was a Cultural Consultant with The Frontliners, I already got to be exposed to the story and the characters. I started seeing exactly how I could contribute musically. I love the musical aspect of the play, because the play touches on a lot of different poets and music forms: Ray Charles, the blues, Mahmoud Darwish. There’s a mix of blues and an Arabic flavour that’s already in the plot. I was like, I’m definitely interested in exploring!
What part of the play resonates with you most?
I think I was mostly connected to the musical and literary aspects of the play: poems or songs quoted from Ray Charles and Mahmoud Darwish. A couple of scenes are my favourite. For example, there is a scene where one of the main characters, Omar, is thinking about his life experience as a forced migrant, with the challenges of his family being back home. He starts talking to a friend over WhatsApp. The scene ends in a way that exposes his inner thoughts. This was a place where I felt I would love to add music because it reflects the depths of my own emotions and my own stream-of-consciousness when it comes to those same thoughts and experiences of being a refugee. So that was one of my favourite moments.
What are things you’d like to share with audiences regarding the music that you’ve created for this show?
I really didn’t know how it’s going to work out as a Co-Composer for the play, but co-composer Ruby Singh and I immediately clicked! The music came after we started understanding the personality of characters and what music they themselves were influenced by.
One theme for us was focusing on Ray Charles and the story of his songs. One of the main characters in the play, Yusuf, really likes Ray Charles! So we took the music of Ray Charles and mashed it up with Arabic sounds using the oud instrument. With Ruby’s imagination and visionary thinking, we started building rhythms. We tried to see how we could amplify character emotions and the internal core conflicts in the play through music.
For example, in one scene Zahida has a quote from the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. The scene ends with the character, Omar, using the poet to give his friend the idea of how he feels. It made me think of the Darwish quote, “if you don’t find home on Earth, I can only offer you my heart as your home.” And that was really beautiful. We built music around that idea to amplify it, and I sang the Mahmoud Darwish quote in the play with my own voice in the play soundtrack.
We also asked ourselves, if the characters were musicians themselves, how would they express themselves? How would they sound using chords and music? What instrument would they be? Because each of the three characters has such a different personality.