This page is authored by Portland Stage Directing and Dramaturgy intern JJ Peeler. Originally written for our educational publication, PlayNotes, JJ has graciously provided it for us here.
Playwright Tom Coash has made a dramatic career dealing with topics concerning the Middle East and the collision of cultures. Striving to explore how we communicate in an ever-expanding world, Coash’s plays search for the connection between characters from differing cultural backgrounds.
Growing up in southern California, Coash found his interest in writing plays late in his undergraduate studies at California State College in Bakersfield. After taking one playwriting class his senior year, he ventured away from writing to work on an oil rig. While working in the
Arctic Ocean, he applied and was hired for an internship at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in literary development, honing his craft by reading new plays. Actors Theatre, known for its focus on new work, encouraged Coash to write and the playwright competed in several internal playwriting compositions while working for the company. Coash then attended the University of California, Davis, earning a master’s degree in playwriting in 1985. Coash worked with friends, developing their own exercises to develop their skills.
As a playwright and director, Coash’s career has always been targeted towards new work. Coash’s interest in new plays led him to co-found the site-specific theater company Offstage Theatre in the late 80s in Charlottesville Virginia, the focus of which is new work. The company didn’t have a permanent space for performance, and thus sought out unusual locations to perform their work. From this company, the playwright developed his interest in plays born out of specific locations and the qualities that arise from unique settings.
Traveling from one coast to another, Tom Coash’s work began to be produced by other theaters. Theatre 40 in Los Angeles produced Coash’s one-act, Inside/Out in 1993. Inside/Out discusses the stigma of interracial relationships in the confines of the criminal justice system. Interested in other cultures, Coash began to forge an international career, stopping first in Bermuda in the mid-1990s to develop a one-act festival that is still running today. Next the playwright travelled to Egypt, the country that what would become his artistic focus for much of his career. Coash taught at the American University in Cairo from 1996 to 2000, and began to center his writing on the interactions between cultures, prejudice, and the Arab world. It was in Egypt that he completed his play Khamaseen (1996), the Egyptian Arabic word for the cyclonic winds that create sandstorms in the Saharan region of Africa. The production premiered at the American University in Cairo and centers on a young American woman living in Egypt as she wrestles with her preconceptions about the country. Khamaseen has since had numerous international productions, including a run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. The Fringe production was praised for its seamless use of Arabic and English, a trait that would become a hallmark of Coash’s work.
Coash left Egypt in 2000 and returned to the United States. Coash’s interests, however, remained in his former home of the Middle East. The international climate changed drastically with the tragedy of the September 11th terrorist attacks, and Coash’s work became more focused on exploring themes of racism, fear, and prejudice in the Arab region. Coash’s play Cry Havoc (2002) came out of this tempestuous climate. Cry Havoc was first performed by InterAct in Philadelphia and was a critical success, nominating Coash for the prestigious Barrymore Award. Other productions received honors as well; the play won the West Coast Ensemble National New Play Competition in Los Angeles, and the National New Play Award from Humboldt State University. Written just after 9/11, the play continues to resonate with audiences internationally. Cry Havoc addresses a relationship between an English writer and his male Egyptian lover. Though praised as a script, the play had an off-Broadway run at the Abington Theatre in New York received tepid reviews. Journalist Gayle Edmunds summarized a recent South African production, “[Cry Havoc] is an attempt to understand fundamentalism and humanise it, which is far more interesting and difficult than simply demonising it.” As Coash’s most widely produced play, it is also one of his most controversial. The character of Mohammed’s increasing radicalization, explored so closely after the September 11th attacks, framed a debate on militancy, terrorism, and colonialism. As a provocative political discussion in a personal story, critics often have missed the tenderness in the relationship between the two men.
Coash has also had an active career in education, teaching playwriting and dramatic literature at several universities. In addition to his stint at the American University of Cairo, Coash has taught at Bradford College in Massachusetts, and Western Kentucky University. With his artistic interest still focusing on the Middle East, the playwright was commissioned by Western Kentucky University to create a collection of three one-act plays. The collection included two previously written works, Ukimwi, Khalass and rounded out with the world-premiere of a third short piece. This new title was a section of what would later become the full-length play, Veils. The WKU student production was a success and led to Coash entering the work under the title Cairo Stories to the Middle East Playwriting Competition in the United Arab Emirates in 2012. Cairo Stories was selected and Coash once again found himself watching his work on international stages. From the UAE, Coash was recipient of a grant from InterAct in Philadelphia do develop Veils into a full-length work. InterAct is a company with which the playwright has worked closely and the company staged a reading of an early version of Veils in 2012. Veils continues Coash’s exploration of Egypt and cultural connection.
Tom Coash has been recognized for his work with numerous awards, including the Ensemble Studio Theatre Next Step Playwriting Fellowship for Cry Havoc, the Hammerstein Emerging Playwright and Pittsburgh New Works Festival Awards for Ukwimi, and the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award for the Kennedy Center’s national program for cultural diversity. Now based in New Haven, Connecticut, Coash continues to explore the intersection of international communities. Veils was recently a finalist for the Eugene O’Neill National Conference Finalist and is the winner of the 2012 Clauder Competition for New England Playwrights at Portland Stage. With the world premiere production of Veils this spring, Coash’s aim to reveal and understand a country and its people continues.