During the pandemic, my colleague, Professor Dina Amin ’84, and I worked with students and alumni to create a series of original short plays around the topic of sexual harassment. We created Mish Zanbik, as it became known, almost entirely online while spread out in different countries. I originally thought devising this series of new plays virtually might pose problems, but in actuality, it allowed for creative problem solving and offered some surprising benefits to the writing process.
Design thinking is often associated with design concepts for business, architecture and even engineering, but it originally emerged from studies on creativity that took place in the 1940s and 1950s. Creative artists and writers have long been using similar techniques to develop new and original work, though they were often not aware of the term “design thinking” and the philosophy behind it. The creative writing process for Mish Zanbik was fairly analogous to design thinking practices and hinged specifically on key aspects of this methodology, including empathy, collaboration, iteration, immersion and nonlinear approaches.
Empathy: The goal of Mish Zanbik was to educate the community about the prevalence of sexual harassment and to take a stance on a common misconception that victims of harassment are somehow at fault. To do this, we had to understand perspectives from multiple vantage points. Viewing the issue from different lenses and considering the perspectives of the audience from the start helped us gain cognitive, emotional and compassionate empathy.
Collaboration: We explored mixed modes of working, including group Zoom conferences in which we all pitched different ideas and got the chance to freewrite scenarios before discussing the merits of each. We fixed times on Google documents so that we were all writing simultaneously, at times even finishing each other’s lines of text. Reflections on our work after each draft and rehearsal also produced multiple ideas.
Iteration: The Mish Zanbik revisions occurred in multiple phases by different individuals and made use of feedback from numerous constituents. For example, I created simple scenarios that student playwrights then revised according to their own primary and secondary research. The playwrights then took the revised scenarios to the actors who were able to add in their own ideas and concerns through improvisation. These specific revisions took place before a single bit of dialog was penned. Rather than committing to a draft-by-draft process, we composed our dialog bit by bit, testing outlines and short portions before creating others.
Immersion: In Mish Zanbik, we became immersed in the topic of sexual harassment. We experienced it through detailed observation, close discussions and research. This immersion helped participants become the experts. They were able to hear from and talk to scholars in the field through Zoom as well as engage in many more discussions and interviews around the topic because of the ability to conduct such communication quickly and without travel. The student creators were led into the subject matter in a deep way, and this allowed for multiple ideas and opinions to be seen and heard. The plays were created by and for the participants, their families and the community. Like design thinking, this process made use of the knowledge, interests and experiences of both the creators and audience members.
Nonlinear Approach: Creation and innovation rarely follow a linear process. Our project began in the summer of 2019 with a focus group of interested students who wanted to discuss ways in which theatre might address the issue of sexual harassment. As ideas about how to do this emerged and the pandemic roared on, we considered many options. After reading other plays on sexual harassment, we decided to write and stage our own original play around the issue. We did not start with a firm and fixed idea about what the final product might be, but rather, we let it emerge naturally based on the needs and interests of the community.
Jillian Campana is professor of theatre and associate dean for undergraduate studies at AUC’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Mish Zanbik or It’s Not Your Fault: Five New Plays on Sexual Harassment in Egypt will be available early next year with AUC Press. There will be an English and Arabic version of the book.