Directing Thumbprint

A scene from the 2014 premiere production of Thumbprint; Photo: Noah Stern Weber / Beth Morrison Productions

A scene from the 2014 premiere production of Thumbprint; Photo: Noah Stern Weber / Beth Morrison Productions

NEWS: We’re thrilled and honored that Mukhtar Mai – whose historic bravery inspired “Thumbprint” – is traveling from Pakistan to witness her story told and join us for the talkbacks after each performance. If you don’t have a ticket yet, this is your chance to be part of this powerful moment.

Thumbprint tracks the extraordinary transformation of Mukhtar Mai. As a young woman in Pakistan, Mai is the victim of a brutal crime meant to destroy her. With incredible courage, Mai reports the crime, brings her perpetrators to justice, and becomes an international champion for women’s rights in Pakistan.

Rather than track Mai’s transformation in a literal fashion – with events happening on stage chronologically – director Rachel Dickstein brings Mai’s story to life in a different way that serves the opera’s impressionistic structure.

“When I first came on to Thumbprint, I was drawn to the impressionistic structure that Kamala and Susan had created,” recalls Dickstein. “Mai’s story does not unfold in a traditional or literal way. Everything that happens is from Mai’s perspective so therefore told through the lens of memory.”

The goal was to create a theatrical landscape that makes audiences step inside moments in time, seen through Mai’s eyes.

How does she accomplish this?

Through stylized character behavior and a distilled scenic design.

Character behavior and choreography go hand in hand in Thumbprint. “While we visit islands of reality within the story, the characters’ behavior overall is not every day in real time. It lives more in the land of myth and parable, than in naturalistic storytelling,” explains Dickstein. She wants the audience to be immersed in Mai’s world and go on a journey of remembrance with her.

In the beginning of the opera, for example, Mai appears on stage remembering the story she is about tell. As this happens, an image of one of the men who assaulted her appears, and she pushes him away. While the man is not literally there, he lingers in her memory. Mai physically pushes him away – with simple, dreamlike choreography – as she would a negative thought. From this moment, the audience has a window into Mai’s perspective of the world.

Dickstein collaborated with scenic designer Susan Zeeman Rogers to design a set that fit the opera’s impressionistic structure. She and Rogers worked on a distilled scenic design, while making sure the audience still has all the road blocks needed to understand Mai’s story.

The few objects on stage take on deeper meaning in the story. For example, there are four charpoy beds on the stage, traditional beds that are native to Pakistan. In Thumbprint, they are assembled and reassembled to make up different locations. In the trial scene, they make up the testimony box; in another scene, they are the road that Mukhtar takes to the police station to report the crime.

“My hope is that the audience can step into Mukhtar’s mind, imagine what she was faced with at every step of the journey, and celebrate that she was able to triumph over this terrible thing that happened to her,” says Dickstein.

She continues, “Kamala, Susan and I want to trace the birth of this woman’s profound will and courage. Mukhtar ultimately realizes that she can advocate for all women and not just for herself. To structure that epic personal revelation, we try to jump away from literal representations of events into a mythic, and dream-like stage vocabulary.”

To learn more about and purchase tickets to Thumbprint, click here.

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