It's called One Thousand and One Nights and it's being billed as the "most ambitious commission" in the history of Luminato, since 2007 Toronto's springtime answer to Massachusetts's fabled Tanglewood festival of the arts.
In recent days, though, it's been the stuff of 1,001 nightmares or at the very least 1,001 headaches. As Luminato's artistic director Chris Lorway puts it: "We've dealt with civic bylaws before. We've dealt with angsty directors. But a revolution? That's a new one for us."
The revolution in question is the upheaval in Egypt that saw the collapse of Hosni Mubarak's 30-year regime Feb. 11. In other circumstances, the revolts there and throughout North Africa and the Middle East would have little or no bearing on Luminato's festive plans.
This year, however, they're proving very much a spanner in the works - in this case a two-part, six-hour stage adaptation of some 20 tales (and tales-within-tales) from what Westerners know as The Arabian Nights but is more accurately called One Thousand and One Nights, which was set for development in Egypt this week .
Now the Toronto arts festival is rolling the dice and betting that Morocco, home of King Mohammed VI, is the best place to bring One Thousand and One Nights to fruition. Yes, there were pro-democracy demonstrations in the capital city of Rabat last weekend. But the protesters reportedly numbered about 4,000, not the hundreds of thousands that appeared in Egypt. At least for the time being it "seems relatively stable and safe," notes Lorway, "and it keeps us pretty much on budget."
While Luminato has commissioned about 40 original works in its five-year history, there's never been anything quite like One Thousand and One Nights. As originally planned, director and co-creator Tim Supple was to gather a 38-person creative team - 25 of them actors, singers, dancers and musicians - in Alexandria, Egypt this week for almost 12 weeks of workshops and rehearsals, in preparation for the production's world premiere at Luminato June 10-19.
Supple, who's based in London, has been obsessed with realizing a stage version of One Thousand and One Nights for at least the last five years. The key elements in his vision have been three-fold. That the adaptation, shaped in association with Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh, would draw on the original, pre-18th century Syrian text - dark, sexy, violent, brooding, supernatural yarns far removed from the Sinbad-Aladdin-Ali Baba "Disney stuff" of North American childhoods. That the cast and crew be almost all Arabic. And, finally, that all rehearsals would be done "on location," near the souks and cafes, minarets and bazaars, squares and palaces that informed the original stories.
Until recently this meant cast and crew would fly to Cairo from their homes in Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon and elsewhere, then travel to a Jesuit monastery near Alexandria to spend six weeks shaping the stories into dramatic form, followed by another five or six weeks of rehearsal in downtown Alexandria. Suddenly, the "revolution" broke out and just as suddenly all bets, including insurance guarantees, were off.
Still keen to "keep the production in the region," Luminato looked at, variously, staying in Egypt, or moving to Morocco or maybe even Syria. India - where Supple had prepared a pan-Indian version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2006 - was another possibility, as were Marseilles in southern France, the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts on Cape Breton Island and the Banff Centre. Finally, around Valentine's Day, Morocco got the nod, in particular the ancient city of Fez - "so remarkable, so appropriate," in Supple's words - where an old palace was available with a "lovely courtyard" and substantial accommodation on the grounds and nearby.
Speaking by telephone from London Tuesday, a harried Supple said he'd be "a fool if I said to you now, 'Oh, it's not going to be as disruptive for organization as it was in Egypt.' Who knows what's going to happen? But the collective agreement of colleagues in Morocco, our actors, the Luminato administration and us in London for now is that we should carry on with our priority, which is make this work in the Arab world, and we should not run away from that this time." Plane tickets and visas at the ready, he's set to be in Fez no later than Sunday.
"Let me say now, loud and clear, I welcome the movement for change," Supple added. "I welcome working in a place of change. I'm not afraid of some, mmmm ... inconvenience."