‘Marketplace Stories’ Blends Arab Culture and Poetry of ASL

The Arab American National Museum and Wild Swan Theater are bringing Arab Folktales to the stage.

Wild Swan Theater is particular about the stories it chooses to tell. No princess stories about ‘physical appearance or being swept off [their] feet by a one-time meeting and a pretty party dress.’ That’s how artistic director Hilary Cohen describes some fairytales.

Sascha Raiyn

Instead, Wild Swan is putting on Marketplace Stories — 5 classic folktales from various parts of the Arab World.

“You can have a really good story but it doesn’t necessarily translate well to the stage,” Cohen said. “It has to have some kind of pivot point where there are bad guys who get their comeuppance, or there’s somebody who is arrogant and who has a fall — some wrong is righted. Those kinds of things need to happen and in a dramatic way.”

Cohen is the writer and director of Marketplace Stories. She said the moral is also important, as in a tale called the Price of Steam. It’s the story of a merchant who wants to charge a beggar for smelling his soup.

Cohen said her challenge was to make sure little kids could understand “the comeuppance” when a judge rules the merchant gets to hear the sound of money as payment for the beggar smelling the soup.

“How do you explain that to a five year old? A ten year old can get it – that’s the upper end of the audience for this story – but a five year old – the lower end of the age range – that’s tricky. So we worked a long time to try to find a way to dramatize that in a way the young child could get, too.”

Wild Swan has carved out a unique space in theater – not just youth theater. It was created with the goal of being fully “accessible” for young audiences. Accessible creatively. Accessible culturally. Accessible to people with disabilities.

“We try to have a very diverse group of actors so that people will see themselves represented in the performances,” Cohen said. “We also try to keep the ticket prices affordable. So, we have a lot of goals in making the kind of theater that we do.”

As Cohen was writing the play – and as the actors were rehearsing it – they relied on resources and guidance from the Arab American National Museum to understand and reflect Arab culture. At the beginning of each story within the play, an actor will say in Arabic:  ‘Once Upon a time in the very old days.’

“Lots and lots of practice to get that right.”

Touch tours and audio description are provided at each performance for audience members with visual impairments. The troupe’s home theater on the campus of Washtenaw Community College offers accessible, unobstructed seating for wheelchair users to sit with family and friends.

Sascha Raiyn

The most striking visual element in a Wild Swan performance may be the sign language interpreters. It’s not your typical interpreting situation where actors occupy the performance space and interpreters stand on the outskirts signing the dialogue. Cohen compares that kind of theater interpreting to a tennis match that forces audiences to look ‘one place for the sign language information and another place for the staging information.’

Wild Swan’s interpreters are costumed performers that participate in every “stage picture” – as Cohen calls it.

“As a director I’m always thinking about how to make an interesting arrangement that’s not confusing but have the signing actors fully integrated into every moment of the play. So, if you’re deaf you’re always seeing the signing but you never miss any of the action of the play.”

The interpreters add another level of preparation, writing and choreography. But, Cohen said, they also add a level of energy and an almost lyrical quality to the performances.

“It’s not the kind of style that everybody could do but it’s something that we’ve hit on. We rehearse very hard to do this. It’s complicated. It’s almost like a danced element or a visual poetry that’s added to the play.”

Marketplace Stories closed Wild Swan’s 2016-17 season. It offers theater camp to 4-to-10 year olds over the summer, and a new season of productions and tours start in the fall.


  • Sascha Raiyn
    Sascha Raiyn is Education Reporter at 101.9 WDET. She is a native Detroiter who grew up listening to news and music programming on Detroit Public Radio.