Bagryana Popov is an award winning theatre maker, director and choreographer. She speaks to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew about her latest work as Director on an adaptation of Arnold Zable's Café Sheherazade, soon to open at Melbourne's fortyfivedownstairs.

Bagryana PopovArnold Zable – amazing author – he speaks with passion about memory and history, displacement and community, the experience of the Jewish diaspora, aboriginal issues and indigenous education, and the multiplicity of cultures within Australia. Tell me what you know about the inspiration behind his best selling 2001 book. Indeed what makes this story urgent and evergreen?
Arnold grew up in the Jewish community of Melbourne and Café Scheherezade and the characters in the novel were based on people who were part of his life. They were integral to the fabric of Melbourne life in general. Arnold is an extraordinary storyteller, passionate about social justice, fascinated by human experiences. I believe that the book came out of those relationships and his passion for stories, as well as a deep respect for the people. I think that it also came out of a great zest for life and for communicating.

What makes it urgent? Melbourne is an extraordinarily diverse city, there are so many different ethnicities, histories, faiths, in our society. Yet there are still sometimes – bewildering to me – questions raised about the value of multiculturalism and diversity. The urgency is to celebrate the people and to listen – to the stories from different lands – and how they are integral to our experience of Melbourne.

The characters of Arnold Zable's novel have undergone extraordinary events; war, loss, displacement, suffering. They are all refugees. And in Australia we still raise questions about the value of welcoming refugees. We debate our responsibility. The stories in this book are the human experience. To my mind that is what we need to turn our attention to – the human story.

How did this theatrical adaptation come about – what prompted it as a stage play?
Therese Radic began work on the play based on Arnold's novel years ago. About two years ago I was approached by Mary Lou Jelbart at fortyfvedownstairs to direct it, and I couldn't say no to such a great project.

Since then it has been a gradual process of discussion, collaboration and development – with writer Therese Radic, with the producers Mary Lou Jelbart and executive producer Helen Rickards, with the actors who took part in the first and second readings, the actors and musicians who took part in the one week creative development, with musical director Elissa Goodrich and the musicians Ernie Gruner, Justin with designer Adrienne Chisholm and lighting designer Richard Vabre. In other words, many, many people have contributed thoughts, time and creative energy as we have worked towards a script for performance, and then towards finding how to bring this work to life. It is not an easy thing to bring a storytelling novel to the stage, and Therese Radic has worked long and hard in shaping the script towards production.

The project has certainly taken longer than 1001 nights to come to fruition.

Café Scheherazade – it wasn't just a cafe, it was ‘a movement’?
The Café was a little world. You walked in, and you were somewhere in Melbourne and in Europe at the same time. Everything felt simple, but welcoming, It was a place to have intense conversations, meetings, talk about art, life, love, and then to EAT. Food, art, ideas, politics, languages. It was alive.

It is a timely tale in the current political milieu and after the Christmas Island Asylum seekers tragedy just before Christmas 2010?
I think that the novel and play say that we need to listen, and to welcome people. Our capacity to welcome refugees is part of our wealth. It's the best of Australia – generosity, fairness, and pragmatism. The characters in Arnold's novel are people who build and enrich society. They were refugees. Why would we possibly want to turn such people back? Isn't that counterintuitive to improving our country economically and culturally? Café Scheherezade – the place, the novel, and the play – celebrates refugees as people in our society.

Food, cooking, storytelling in good spirits – its what Epicurus meant when he said Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance?
The sharing of experience around good food is part of every culture. Eating together is both simple and profound. In the Café Scheherezade food is the centre, yet it is only one layer of what brings people together. I loved the barley soup, the apple strudel and the borscht, but it was the conversations with my friends and family there which made the place an indelible part of my life, and shaped my experience of Melbourne.

Tell me about chicken soup – it’s not just the body it nourishes?
Chicken soup is the best thing for nourishing body and soul. When I was a child my mother made me chicken soup whenever I was sick. It was a manifestation of love. And it tasted good. It somehow made life feel possible. Whenever I visited my grandmother in a village by the Danube she would kill a chicken for us and make soup. It was the ultimate welcome.

Many years later, in Melbourne, my children had chicken soup every time we went to Café Scheherezade. Sometimes they even made me drive across town to have chicken soup there. Same reason, I think. It warms you and gives strength. It contributes to ordinary happiness.  

Tell me about Black Forest Cake – it’s not just about cake it’s about ..?
Ah, Black Forest Cake. Well, it is something I have very rarely braved. What can I say? It is the ultimate indulgence! All that cream...

What does Café Scheherazade reveal to us about memory, about a shared past?
I think it reveals that people near us, around us, may have extraordinary stories. That we participate in the fabric of society and we are therefore in some way connected to those stories. It reveals that making the space to tell stories and to listen to them, is a good thing.

The Café Scheherezade, was a gathering place for many people and many lives intersected there. The pleasure was the sense of shared space.

Café Scheherazade by Therese Radic, Directed by Bagryana Popov, plays at fortyfivedownstairs from Mon 7 March to Sun 3 April, 2011. Further details»

Image Credit:-
Top right – Bagryana Popov. Photo – Jeff Busby

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