The Interview Project: Mona Mansour

Interview by Will Arbery
April 19, 2020

"One part of my mind was doing the writing, and God knows what the other part was doing." —Paul Bowles

What fills your days? 

Reading the news, listening to the Daily, long conversations with people I love. And of course dread and bewilderment at this current state of affairs.

What is your relationship to work during crisis?

I think there's this sense now of open time, time suspended, and I've heard this from other writers too — this is a time unmediated by having to be anywhere. That does something to your psyche, and your work. As a New Yorker who loves the drama of rushing around, the daily fight, I'm seeing now that busy-ness of all that sometimes just serves to just distract. So, with the quiet, and the lack of movement, there's some kind of confrontation that takes place: Who the hell are you, really? What do you really want to write? I'm going through a breakup right now, too, very rough, so the absence of work out in the world, not being able to be in a rehearsal room, was initially very jarring, and compounded the sense of self-confrontation.

What or who is inspiring you right now? What or who is beautiful?

It's all about poetry and song right now. THE VAGRANT TRILOGY cast (our play is suspended /postponed, we were in our third tech rehearsal at the Public) gathers on zoom on Fridays, and we read each other poetry and sometimes play a song from our Spotify list. There's something, what? essential? about poetry and music that seems to serve this moment. I'm staying right now at the home of the playwright Ken Prestininzi, who introduced me to Carolyn Forché, whose work I'd never known. Her ability to tell a story in a way both political and personal in what she called "witness poetry" is astounding.  

Music-wise I am a fanatic about certain people. The great Lebanese singer, Fairuz, shows up in almost all my plays about the Middle East. I can't describe her. Just give this a listen.

I found a Kate Bush documentary and it let me immerse myself again in her world. I've always been a fervent fan but sort of shelved it for a bit, the way you do with your favorites. And watching this — it's got everyone from Elton John to St Vincent to Neil Gaiman weighing in on her work — I feel like I'm in good company. I think Neil Gaiman says something like, she puts things in songs no one puts in a song, no one thinks to put in a song — and I think the best plays do that too. I don't think it's about an intellectual approach, or 'trying to be clever. She's a visionary who puts her soul into the work, no hiding. 

What are you dreaming of making, once we can gather in rooms again?

Soulful work. Work that feels more unfettered, that feels more ambitious in scope. That goes to dream spaces, maybe letting myself be a bit more irrational than I tend to be. I look forward to putting up the play I created with my theater company, SOCIETY

The play, BEGINNING DAYS OF TRUE JUBILATION, comes after an exploration into the world of startups. It's an amazing group of actors, and my dear friend Scott Illingworth directs it. He's a master of movement, and unafraid of asking big questions, and I love working with him. As of now, we're figuring out how to stream it all, in quarantine, but my hope is that we can do it again later, analog, in a theater or some other space.

What would you say to your younger self — the one without many connections in theater, the one without a Playwrights Horizons commission — if your younger self were confronting or considering a future as an artist during this time of tremendous uncertainty?

Be honest. Be scared. Write into that. Don't be afraid of emotion, yours or the characters'. Keep honoring the impulse small or large that got you started, and try to keep going with it. Keep it all unmediated for as long as possible. Let yourself fall in love with the whole damn thing, and don't worry about protecting your heart. It will get broken. But if it gets broken while trying to create art, I mean, that's time well spent.


Mona Mansour is the recipient of an Amal Commission.