Mosque Alert: How to Crowdsource a Play

Zachary Stewart, Theatermania, 12/17/2012

Jamil Khoury wants to talk with you about mosque politics. He wants to talk with you about the marginalization of Muslim-Americans in the wake of September 11th. In fact, the Silk Road Rising Artistic Director wants to talk about a lot of issues with a lot of people, more than can fit inside a theater. So, he's decided to do something unprecedented. In a medium in which the writer is often seen as God, an unquestionable font of dramatic genius, Jamil Khoury is crowdsourcing his play on the Internet.

"We thought, what if we were to…take the new play development process and make it something virtual that attracts a virtual audience, and that also has a civic engagement component to it," says Khoury.

Here's what he did: Khoury came up with a dramatic situation and six characters for his play. He then wrote a series of video blogs for each of the characters in which they talk to the camera, confessional style, about their feelings on certain topics. He then put those videos on YouTube and invited his audience to comment on them, offering suggestions and posing questions. Eventually, after considering the feedback from his viewers, he placed those six characters in dialogue with one another in scenes that will probably not make it into the final script, but will help inform the writing, especially after another round of feedback. It's basically a 24/7 version of a traditional workshop and talkback – with the internet.

He came up with the eight step process for his play, Mosque Alert, in 2010 when he and Silk Road Rising co-founder Malik Gillani (who is also Khoury's husband) were looking for a way to respond to the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy, surrounding the construction of an Islamic Community Center a few blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center. Khoury believes that, in the decade following 9/11, the fear and suspicion of Muslim-Americans has been most potently expressed in the resistance to the building of mosques: "Why is it that in so many communities where there is no resistance to the building of churches or synagogues or Hindu and Buddhist temples, there is to mosques?"

According to a recent report from the Pew Research Forum on Religion & Public Life, controversy has surrounded the construction of no fewer than 53 mosques and Islamic centers in recent years, with several in the Chicagoland area.

"Because there are cases in our backyard, in greater Chicago, I thought, why don't we make this very local and look at a local community, Naperville, where there are two cases pending, where the DuPage county board has put all sorts of obstacles in the way of mosque building, usually under the guise of zoning," explained Khoury. "Now, there are all sorts of legitimate zoning concerns, but there are also abuses of zoning regulations. I thought, let's create a story that really ties in with this issue and the bigger issues it connects with."

Mosque Alert tells the story of two suburban Chicago families, the Khans and the Bakers. Imam Mustafa Khan and his wife Ayesha want to build a new mosque in Naperville to accommodate their growing congregation, but local politician Charles Baker sees this as yet another encroachment on the America of his youth and wants to put a stop to it. The situation is made more complicated by the presence of Charles' son Carl, a supporter of the mosque who recently came out as both gay and liberal, much to his father's horror.

As a gay man married into a Pakistani-American Muslim family, Khoury comes at this project with a very specific perspective. "Carl is in many respects a younger me. I feel a very strong personal attachment to him. He becomes my voice in the piece." With such a strong connection to one character, it was important for him to be constantly exposed to views that would be held by his other characters, particularly Charles.

"I always worry when I'm writing him that he's too much of a caricature," admits Khoury. This is where the crowdsourcing is really useful. "Charles Baker seems to really resonate with a lot of people. There are people on the political right who identify with him. I've actually received some thank-you's from conservatives about him."

So even before Mosque Alert has ever touched a stage, Khoury has been able to get his audience to emotionally invest in his characters, and in doing so, help shape them. And, as he has discovered over the last year, that audience is not just confined to Chicago.

Khoury has received feedback from viewers in places like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where his content that regularly mixes Islamic and gay themes has the potential to be very controversial. "It's important for us to be able to reach people where they're at, to have conversations that might be prohibitively dangerous or taboo or conversations that people aren't necessarily having because the forums don't exist," he explains.

Khoury's latest (and final) conflict scene, "The Imam and the Homosexual" certainly has the potential to ruffle a lot of feathers. It features Imam Mustafa in conversation with Carl Baker, who has just penned an editorial in support of the Mosque, much to the chagrin of his mosque-opposing father. But when the conversation shifts to the subject of Carl's homosexuality, the friendly meeting becomes distinctly more uncomfortable.

By putting his work online, Khoury has devised a way to bring challenging and provocative theater to a global audience. Conversely, he's also informing his work with feedback from people who wouldn't normally attend a staged reading and talkback or who might not be able to afford a theater ticket at all.

He insists that he's not abandoning the traditional live theater however: "There were people under the very mistaken impression that when we started doing video work that we were leaving live theatre. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are very much a live theater and a video-producing company."

Still, unless Khoury decides to take them down, these initial video plays will exist on the Internet, in perpetuity, long after the final staged version. "It becomes its own standalone work of art, I hope," predicts Khoury. This raises the potential that the process of writing this play will have a much longer reach and greater staying power than the actual play itself.

Mosque Alert, the stage play, will have a complete script this coming March with a workshop planned for May. Khoury plans for an eventual fully-staged production and has recently added a ninth step to his process, in which the viewers are called on to write their own critical reviews.