Irene Kapustina reached a breaking point with the Syrian refugee crisis last fall.
“I reached a point where I couldn’t watch the news anymore. I couldn’t believe we keep seeing all these horrible images in the media and nothing is being done. I felt like I needed to do something,” the applied theater artist, who immigrated to the U.S. from Belarus in 2003, says. So she decided to interview refugees and turn the stories of their experiences resettling in the United States into a dramatic work.
The project became Lost and Guided, a new play making its world premiere Off-Broadway at Under St. Marks. It follows four young Syrians over the course of six years, moving from their lives in Syria as the country becomes engulfed in civil war to their resettlement as refugees in the United States.
As an applied theater practitioner, Kapustina’s aims as an artist go beyond entertainment — she (and her theater company, The Angle Project) actively works with displaced populations and their new communities to use drama, play, and performance art to help with social, emotional, and cultural understanding and integration on both sides.
Initially, Kapustina wanted to help resettled individuals through an applied theater community-based project that would encourage refugees to come out and speak about their experiences in their own words. However, she quickly realized that their widely varying language skills combined with their own personal trauma over their experiences made this impractical. This is when she decided to collect their stories and turn them into a play.
From the get-go, she knew she was looking for a dramatic arc in their experiences, so she interviewed her subjects with an eye for what would pack the most punch on stage. “I wasn’t looking for something specific,” she says, “but if something popped up in an interview, I would elaborate on it because in my mind I was already seeing it as a scene.”
Various grassroots organizations, including the Syrian American Rescue Network and the Syrian American Medical Society, connected Kapustina with interview subjects. She also put the word out to friends and smaller organizations who helped connect her on a personal level.
Though the play centers on Syrian refugees, Kapustina spoke to individuals from Iraq, Somalia, Nepal, Myanmar, and Bhutan as well, finding striking similarities in their experiences no matter their country of origin. “We have four main characters, but they’re a huge collage of different people’s lives and different people’s journeys,” she says.
Kapustina began her interviews in November 2016, conducting her very first interview for the project on election night. “By the time we were done with the interview, we both looked at our phones and we were devastated,” she says. “That was a symbolic way of starting this project.”
Conducting over 30 interviews, Kapustina traveled to Illinois, Maine, New York, Tennessee, and Michigan to meet face-to-face with refugees. She ended up with hundreds of pages of transcripts, leaving her wondering how she would condense them all into one story. Inspiration came from an unlikely place: President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban.
“When the travel ban came about, the idea of concentrating all of this in Syria, that definitely influenced my decision,” she explains. “We need to focus it and we need to make it very specific and by making it specific, telling a general, metaphorical idea of what that is.”
From the first kernel of her idea in September 2016 to the script’s completion in March 2017 to its current world premiere in New York, Kapustina has only seen the play, its participants, and its themes grow increasingly relevant.
While talking to EW, the weekend’s events in Charlottesville were fresh in her mind, something she says deeply affected her. She explains it was “really depressing” for her as an immigrant working on a production that features the tales and talents of other individuals who share this common background. “All of us are coming from somewhere else,” she says.
This only affirms her resolve to tell stories like the refugee narratives woven together in Lost and Guided. “It is so important in the mass media market to make stories like this and also put them on a mass level where they become truly part of the narrative that we’re trying to shape in the larger sense in America,” she says. “Because if we neglect stories like these, this [Charlottesville] is what we’ll end up having.”
Lost and Guided is now playing at Under St. Marks through Aug. 27.