Eight-hundred years ago Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī wrote down his retelling of a widely told story: a group of men bring an elephant into a dark room. They touch different parts of the animal and relay what they believe they are sensing.
“They each describe the elephant from their own perspective, which is the way that human beings describe the divine, from their own perspective,” says Suzanne Sturn, who has adapted poems and stories from Rumi’s Masnavi for her production Rumi on Stage. “Rumi writes that all perspectives about the divine are all part of the essence of the divine, which cannot be really articulated.”
“We’re limited, but we do have the capacity to intuit,” she says, pointing out that his stories touch on the human journey, and trying to understand the nature of the divine as well as the source from where we come.
Sturn says it has always made sense to her to put Rumi’s works on stage.
“For most of the history of theater in the world, the stage has been a place which is a kind of fresh spot between this place and the other world,” says Sturn. “It has been and is, in many parts of the world—a sacred space, not just for entertainment, but as a place to inquire and go through our relationship with, whatever you want to call it—the world of the spirit, the unconscious place to explore, people’s question of the universe.”
Sturn’s Rumi On Stage begins March 4 and runs through March 20 at Center Stage in Santa Cruz. It will feature musicians, costumes, actors, dancers, masks, and puppets channeling Rumi’s Persian origins. Incorporating dance is an especially appropriate way to breathe life into Rumi’s poetry, says Sturn.
“Dance is a natural way to express that which cannot be put into words. So is the mask and so are puppets,” she says. “All of these things together are useful in gleaning the invisible world onto the visible stage.”
Rumi was one of the first to infuse his Sufi teachings with the idea that movement can provide a unique harmony for meditation and prayer. His principles on revolving in remembrance of God led to the creation of the Mevlevi Order, or, more commonly known as the whirling dervishes. Sufi was a man of all trades, gaining popularity both during his lifetime and posthumously as a poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic.
The dance aspect of Rumi on Stage was put together by the classically trained Persian dancer Nasrin Hosainy and local modern dancer Sharon Took-Zozaya to music by Amir Etemadzadeh
with singers Jihan Amer and Lori Rivera—it’s a fusion of traditional classics with local talent, says Sturn.
Before coming to Santa Cruz, Sturn was the executive director of a theater company in Minneapolis where she spent years exploring Japanese noh dance. To Sturn, masks can play a poignant role in theater, as they have in classical theater all over the world from ancient times to the present.
“The mask helped express that which is deeper than the everyday ordinary personality—that’s what the mask can do and that spirit is absolutely at the foundation of Western theater and Greek theater, lots of experimental theater now,” says Sturn. “It’s been used a lot to evoke character, great symbolic significance. Rumi and Shams are really that—they are like awakened spiritual masters.”
Shams-e Tabrizi and Rumi met on Nov. 15 in 1244. Meeting Shams inspired Rumi’s shift from the life of a teacher and jurist to one of asceticism. Their incredibly close friendship was the topic of much of Rumi’s poetry, which, after Shams mysteriously disappeared, became the focus of an immense outpouring of lyric poems including Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi.
Sturn says she discovered Rumi and his teachings of Sufism nearly four decades ago when she worked with poet Robert Bly in Minneapolis. As a follower of Sufism, Sturn spent 10 years studying the six-volume Masnavi with local Sufi shaikh, Kabir Helminski, so creating and directing this show is a completion of a circle.
In 2015 Rumi was still the best-selling poet in the U.S. which begs the question of why a man who wrote centuries before the time of electricity, cars, the Internet, and all modern reference points has any relevance to readers today?
“He just transcends the boundaries of narrow religiosity and he just really speaks to the deepest part of our humanity,” says Sturn. “All I hope is that this might evoke a bit—if it evokes something—a breath, a fragrance of Rumi’s vision of love and union and beauty. That would be a good thing.”
Info: 2 and 8 p.m. March 2-6, 11-13, 18-20. Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. $20 at Bookshop Santa Cruz or brownpapertickets.com.