Have you, or anyone close to you, been sexually assaulted in your lifetime?
“Voir Dire”, a Kennedy Center award nominated short play, follows a diverse set of women as they are interviewed for jury duty on a sexual assault case in New York City.
Carissa Atallah is a writer and scholar from sunny Southern California. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing for the Performing Arts with an emphasis in Playwriting from the University of California Riverside. Her plays have been performed in venues including The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, the Historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, and the Complex Theater in Hollywood. Learn more at carissaatallah.com .
A BIT ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
1. When did you start writing plays? If you had a moment where you realized you wanted to write, what was it?
I wrote my first play during seventh grade drama class. I was a typical, respectful student, but the class as a whole was a nightmare. I guess we were so misbehaved that the drama teacher completely gave up on us. He dropped the script we were supposed to be performing into the trashcan one day and said, “Fine! If you want to do a play, do it yourselves. I’m done.” Poor guy. Did teach me a lesson though. That’s how I ended up writing my first script.
I absorbed a lot of theater growing up. I also read as many books as I could get my hands on and wrote stories in the privacy of my own bedroom. Outside of that one drama class experience, it wasn’t until I started doing spoken word poetry in undergrad that I realized my own writing could become a communal activity, and I began writing for the stage.
2. How did you come to write your OOB play? Was there a particular inspiration behind its creation? How has it developed?
I wrote “Voir Dire” in response to the Me Too Movement. I wanted to explore how sexual assault affects the lives of so many different women, particularly in “subtle” ways. How do “grey areas”, where age and power dynamics and substance abuse complicate matters, get discussed in our current culture of consent, or lack thereof? How are they treated in court? How do we find impartial juries when assault has, in one way or another, affected most women? These are stories women might not tell, except for maybe on a car ride with their sisters 10 months or 10 years down the line. These are stories that might get brushed under the rug when they are eventually told because they are commonplace. So in that way, this play contributes to the work that many other intersectional feminists and artists are doing to expand the conversation. It’s a good conversation, but it can be hard.
3. What are 5 words that describe who you are as a playwright?
“Emerging”, since I am 25 and fresh out of my MFA. “Humorous” because humor is really important to me in balancing out heavy topic matters and giving the audience a chance to breathe. “Bicultural” because my racial and cultural identities are very present in my work right now. Hopefully “nuanced” and “kind” as well.
4. What/who are some of the major influences on your writing?
I was raised to consume a lot of musical theater. That was my introduction, and it still influences how I approached the stage today. I love the enthusiasm people have for it. How a community theater’s production of Shrek The Musical can genuinely touch many lives. The older I get, the more I am inspired by the evolving landscapes of theater, seeing mainstream shows written by people of color that tell our stories. There’s still work to be done, of course, but if I can shuffle through my “Broadway” playlist on Spotify and hear songs in Spanish and in Arabic, I’m happy. I’ve also recently come to really appreciate the Asian American theater scene in LA, for example, and last year I went to the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Washing DC and was very inspired by the stories being told by my peers there.
5. What’s one fact someone would never guess about you?
As someone with a career in academia and in writing particularly, some might be surprised to discover just how much I struggled learning to read and write. I had learning disabilities growing up and was placed in special resource classes throughout most of my childhood and adolescence. I struggled to fit into formal education and never saw myself as intellectual, but these difficulties, I think, pushed me into relying way more on creativity in order to successfully communicate, which is good, right? Because that has really influenced how I navigate the world today.
6. What are some of your favorite plays?
Right now, I am really moved by plays that offer nuanced takes on identity. “Chavez Ravine” by Culture Clash and “Yellowface” by David Henry Hwang come to mind.
7. Any new projects you’re working on or shameless plugs?
I recently finished a full length play I’m really excited to share. It’s called “Brown Face”, and it’s about a Chicana writer and DREAMer who, in order to draw attention to her work but not her undocumented status, convinces her white, US-born BFF to perform poetry on her behalf at local open mics, and of course, the consequences that follow. The characters are young and, maybe for the first time, really tested by issues of privilege, cultural appropriation, and identity-making. It’s exciting for me as an emerging writer to look for opportunities to see it on its feet.