For a few nights in late October 2022, Raya Tuffaha ʼ23 drew in full houses to her play “Bella Bateekh in: Out of Mind,” a solo, experimental, and interactive show. Raya wrote and starred in the piece, which reimagined how one character can express political and social views as well as internal questions of insecurity, ego, and frivolity. Always playing with the unexpected in her character, Raya’s script fittingly combined both her honors theater major and peace and conflict studies minor.
Describing the show, Raya said: “It follows this touring actor/diva, who is also a Swarthmore alum, who was mistakenly booked to perform here on campus and was very much not happy about it, and tries to sabotage the performance, but in doing so, has to confront how she was raised in theater … I’m glad that I got to share this very glittery, hostile, flamboyant side of my writing with the Swarthmore theater community.”
“Out of Mind” began as a project for Raya’s solo performance class taught by theater Professor Alex Torra; the script was a labor of love and took Raya over 18 months to complete. Raya felt compelled to explore the potential of the character she created.
“From the end of that semester, I couldn’t get it out of my head. And I ended up switching to the honors track, so I could keep working on it and eventually stage it,” she explained.
Experiencing the final product seemed to be both thrilling and nostalgic to Raya. The play’s dependence on unexpected audience interaction caused each performance to be unique and forced the audience members to consider their relationship to the stage.
“I was thinking about the first draft of this and how different it looked from how the show ended up looking on closing night … Every show was so different, because it [relied] so heav[il]y on audience interaction … Everyone brought their own energy to the show. They just made it better than I ever could have imagined.”
The distinct format of the play was crucial to Bella’s character and physical relationship with the audience. She seemed to ridicule and question the audience in order to advance her character’s personality as self-focused.
“I think a lot of Swarthmore students think about or really enjoy meta theater, and I’m absolutely no exception. A lot of the play was a kind of directed address, from Bella to the audience, through the first act through the dressing room mirror. So, she never really did face them, but she was absolutely attacking them and insulting them … We thought a lot about this attacking thing she does, and we decided it came from a place of insecurity or trying to claim power over people who she believes have wronged her. I have no improv experience; it was definitely a challenge for me. Mostly, it was fun to see who would respond and see what would happen every night.”
Ava Pressman ʼ25 was one of the audience members singled out during the interactive element of Raya’s performance.
“I didn’t really know what to expect. But I was really surprised and intrigued by the show, and I came away from it feeling like it was very interesting,” Ava said.
Their interactions involved a lot of back and forth, questioning, and even absurdity.
“She said that I was killing her vibe by looking off to the side instead of at her … And so she brought me up on stage, and had me face the audience and asked me a few questions … The questions took the form of, ‘what do you see in front of you?’ And I said, ‘a group of people,’ and she said, ‘wrong, you’re supposed to say an audience of people.’ So it was questions that didn’t seem to have a clear answer. But whatever I answered, it was going to be wrong.”
Ava reflected that these interactions were primarily to entertain the audience.
“I did not know what I was expecting going in. And I was pleasantly surprised. I think that [Raya] did a fantastic job; she has great acting prowess and was able to commit to this persona of Bella in a really convincing way. I think that it was a fabulous performance.”
“Out of Mind” also incorporated one of Raya’s key focuses as a theater student on campus: fight directing. I hadn’t heard of fight directing before, so Raya broke it down.
“Fight directing, simply put, is telling violent stories safely. It’s kind of a cross between a dance teacher and a stunt artist, where you are given not a lot of time and a couple of different scripts, and you are supposed to create a fight that your actors can perform safely, repeatedly, at a high level of intensity, while furthering the plot … highlighting their characters, emotions, [and] experiences throughout the scene.”
This idea of safe expressions of violence, specifically through fight directing, influenced Raya’s creation of Bella, as well as Bella’s actions and recollections on the stage. Raya also related her descriptions of the physical toll of acting and art to her interpretations of violence in theater.
“A lot of the experiences that Bella describes or implies to the audience deal with performing violence on stage … As a fight director, and as an actor, violence will impact those watching and performing it and your body doesn’t necessarily know that you’re performing. It kind of just responds to whatever situation you put it in. And so even though, if you exit the stage, and you say, ‘I’m done acting,’ your body doesn’t know that. So it will continue to reel from the adrenaline or whatever you’ve gone through … But I also want to acknowledge that and acknowledge that having the ability to create this platform, or work on a solo show, or pursue these artistic endeavors, is a great privilege.”
Raya contemplates her understanding of the conscious decision to be an artist and construct situations on the stage that may be uncomfortable.
“Part of what makes the discussion around performing and creating violence so difficult is the fact that we all choose to be artists, or no one is forced to be an artist. So that’s something that Bella grapples with in the show and something that I think about almost every day.”
Raya explained, “Bella describes previous plays that she’s been in, that have sequences of physical violence performed: something that a fight director might come in and choreograph. She also describes mistreatment, offstage or kind of larger, less immediately tangible forms of violence, like racism.”
Raya plans to let this version of Bella exist in the memory of the play’s attendees and is happy with how everything turned out. However, she has plans to continue to explore both the character of Bella Bateekh and her related motifs in the future.
Currently, Raya’s primary focuses are exploring her love for fight directing and writing poetry. Through the Swarthmore honors program, she is focusing on six plays with fights and staging them in February. She is working to explore a range of scenes with different styles and numbers of people, including the eleven-person rumble from “West Side Story.”
“I think I picked these scenes because I’m really interested in the search for the unexpected, in all different kinds of art. And I think each of these scenes in their own way, with their own styles of violence and their own character relationships, provides an opportunity to explore the unexpected.”
Theater is not Raya’s only artistic expression. She also writes poetry, a form that interacts quite meaningfully with her scriptwriting and acting processes. She currently has a full-length collection called “To all the Yellow Flowers,” which was published in March 2020, as well as a chapbook that came out in August 2022 called “Apocalypse Blues.”
Raya is no stranger to poetic worlds. “I come from a literary family. My mom is a poet. My grandma taught English for 23 years. Her dad was the poet laureate of Jordan. So I think I had no chance; I was doomed from the beginning,” Raya laughed. Her spheres of poetry on campus and at home are gradually coalescing.
“I have a picture of my dad sitting in our living room very sternly reading my chapbook from right before I came back to campus this fall, which is a very surreal picture to me … I grew up around people who really care about writing and care about creativity. And I’m definitely not at their level yet, but I enjoy it. It’s kind of a family tradition at this point to see what you can do with the words on the page.”
Raya’s playwriting has informed her poetry and vice versa.
“Most solo performance projects are a little bit more devised in the room or created during the rehearsal process. And I guess this is not how my brain works. I started writing and then started rehearsing. And we made changes along the way, but I think I treated it more as a poetry project. So definitely the line is always blurring together now.”
In her literary and theatrical pursuits, Raya explores expression and memory on different levels, whether she’s reflecting on her family history or boldly interacting with entire audiences. Through her art, Raya shares these components of her identity and psyche. Her art isn’t limited to large performances, either; she’s continuously finding new projects.
Raya will play Mobius in the senior company production “The Physicists,” which will open to the community on Dec. 2-4, 2022.