Linda Lombardi in the Arena Stage Blog:
The most-produced play of the 2015/2016 theater season, Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Disgraced, is inspiring a national dialogue about everything from cultural appropriation to identity politics to what it means to be an American. I met with Ayad recently to discuss his body of work, the themes in Disgraced, and his love of theater. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
How did you come to theater? How did you start playwriting?
My parents came over from Pakistan in 1968 and 1969. They were the first to leave Pakistan and come to America. My dad was the only son on his side of the family and my mom was the eldest. I was the first-born son. They were both doctors so, of course, I was going to be a doctor, right? My mom trained me — when the teacher asks what you want to do when you grow up, to say I want to be a neurologist. My kindergarten teachers were very impressed. I didn’t quite know what a neurologist was.
When I was fifteen I had a literature teacher who changed my life. She made me want to become a writer. It was certainly a great — perhaps the great —encounter in my life. Everything I do is an homage to her. I had her for class two hours a day, both semesters, junior and senior year. She introduced me to the theater via text. I was reading everything under the sun. She was really obsessed with European continental modernism, so I was reading a lot of very obscure modernist writers. I went to college to become a writer and my second year there a friend was directing David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago and he thought I’d be good in it. I don’t know why he thought I’d be good in that play. But I loved acting, and I started to do more and more theater. When I graduated from Brown, I worked with Jerzy Grotowski for a year in Italy, and ended up as his assistant. I spent a lot of time with him towards the end of his life. Then I came to New York and worked with Andre Gregory and taught acting with him for many years. I had this weird, avant-garde training that was all about process. And now I write these overtly audience oriented, well-made, traditional plays. It’s really weird how life is.