We had the good fortune of connecting with Lameece Issaq and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Lameece, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
I had been wandering about NYC after acting school, trying to figure out my place in the theater community, and got connected to this group of Arab American actors, comics, directors, writers and producers who were putting on the NY Arab American Comedy Festival, which started a few years after 9/11. I got involved around 2004, and the next several years became part of this growing community of very funny, very talented folx, who were also struggling with questions around identity. I’d largely been an actor up until then, but started writing short comedic plays and sketches for the festival, which began my career as a writer-performer. Eventually many people in this group went on to work in all kinds of mediums, including TV, film, off-Broadway and Broadway. I started working as a writer-actor off-Broadway in plays at The Public and New York Theater Workshop, alongside many of the folx I’d met in the festival. At one point, it occurred to us that we could use a home for our community, so in 2010, I, alongside two artist friends (Maha Chehlaoui and Nancy Vitale), founded Noor Theatre, a company dedicated to supporting the work of artists of MENA/SWANA descent (Middle Eastern-North African, or more appropriately, Southwest Asian/North African descent.) Our first show was a play I co-created with fellow Arab American filmmaker Jake Kader, called Food and Fadwa, which we co-produced in 2012 at New York Theater Workshop, where Noor has been a company-in-residence. We develop plays, put on festivals, readings and productions. We’ve been fortunate to work with actors that are now very visible like Arian Moayed, Laith Nakli and Dina Shihabi (three of the nicest people you’ll ever meet). I love our community so so much, and am really proud when I see folx making great work and getting love for it.
Throughout the years, though the company has been largely NYC based, we have commissioned writers all around the country, including LA and San Francisco. In 2016, we won an Obie Award, which is a very cool distinction, and one that helped put us on the map. I think so much of the impetus behind founding the company is about creating opportunity for artists of MENA descent, and advocating for their representation. It’s kind of like, well, if not us, then who? Recently, I’ve taken a step back from my position as Founding Artistic Director to focus on my work as a writer & performer, and also to give younger generations a go at leadership. I think that’s important. Our MENA artist community is huge now and there are people all over doing amazing things.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’ve lived in LA for about 5 years and before that I was in NYC for about 17. I’m a writer-performer and I couldn’t tell you which I enjoy more, but I do think something about creating your own work is deeply empowering and fun. That’s definitely not a new sentiment, that “claim your narrative” ethos has been floating around for a while, but I will say that once I understood just how invigorating it felt to sit down with myself and focus on digging out my own stories, I felt freed in a way I hadn’t when I would spend days running around auditioning for things (or not auditioning for things). For many years, I wrote and performed in identity-based work – being Arab or being Palestinian, writing about the immigrant experience. Food and Fadwa, a play I co-wrote, starred in and co-produced, is about a woman in Bethlehem pretending to have her own cooking show; Abe, a film I co-wrote starring Stranger Things’ Noah Schnapp, premiered at Sundance in 2019, centers on a half-Jewish, half-Palestinian-Muslim American kid trying to bring his family together through cooking.
These days, though, I joke that I’m more interested in writing about being middle-aged than being Middle Eastern. I’m never not going to be Middle Eastern. I’m only going to be middle aged now, and it is a disconcerting, bizarre time of life – and necessarily transformative. I have two projects I’m working on at the moment that play with those themes: one is fictional solo play I wrote called A Good Day to Me, Not to You, inspired by the time I lived in a woman’s rooming house run by nuns in NYC and is about a single and childless woman in her 40s contending with her unresolved questions around motherhood. I literally wrote it in my car during the pandemic when I needed to get out of the house. I’d park my car on a street in Playa overlooking the water, and sit there, working – and I wasn’t the only one – there were loads of people in their cars taking meetings and reading and what not. It was like a coffee shop but in the street, and without the coffee. I’ve been developing the play for a few years since (New York Theater Workshop, Theater Aspen and Cape Cod Theater Festival) so hopefully we’ll have some opportunities to perform it in LA! The second project is a TV series about an Arab immigrant family in Las Vegas whose middle-aged daughter comes home to live with them after her career goes bust.
I’d say that yes, this is a challenging career path, and mine hasn’t been straight forward or easy, BUT, sometimes, after plugging away, doors open, wonderful collaborators and opportunities walk into your life, seemingly out of nowhere. I think that has to do with the continuation and commitment to something. Both Abe and Food and Fadwa took years to develop, years before they came into fruition. You are playing the long game when you commit to being an artist for a living. So those special moments of things coming together do nourish you and give you strength for the long haul. It can be very lonely and sometimes quiet for long periods of time, lots of doubt and why-didn’t-I-do-science-for-a-living instead kind of thing. But a quiet period can be lush and fertile; it feels like a necessary part of this whole life thing. Having a practice of reflection, meditation or spirituality helps a lot.
I also do quite a bit of VO work, namely audiobooks. I think voice work is so fun and intimate. . I have a little studio set up in a very tiny closet where I’ve been recording since the pandemic started.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I love LA – I live on the Westside, but my partner is on the Eastside, so I’ll organize all my faves accordingly. I’m more a succulents/gardens/walks and coffee shops person than a night-on-the-town person. My best friend is a Lebanese Armenian who lives in NYC and grew up in San Fran who owns her own spray tanning company called Gotham Glow. She’s so damn busy she’ll only come for 4 days, so we’ll see what we can pack in:
Day 1 – We’d start at Alana’s in Mar Vista for coffee and a pastry and head over to the Mosaic Tile House in Venice, which is this wonderful, quirky home to an artist couple who have covered the exterior and interior spaces of the property in mosaic design and tile, that they themselves make (which you can see in the workshop part of their space.) We’d then take a lovely stroll through the walk streets of Venice with their artsy homes and yards. I love walking through Venice during the spring particularly when the jasmine, the bougainvillea, the jacaranda, the succulents are all blooming like mad. It’s all very sci-fi. Lunch at MV Grab and Go – the tacos and garden in the back are lovely – and a quick stop by Vintage on Venice to say hi to Marty, the owner, and dig through her wares. I love the way she curates her space – especially around the holidays with all the funky vintage Christmas ornaments and knick knacks. Dinner and cocktails at Little Fatty, for some excellent Taiwanese.
Day 2 – Two quick stops in the AM: Menotti’s for coffee, and Bellissimo Venice – which is this little hybrid market/foot stop – for breakfast burritos. Toss the burritos in our bags and head over to the Ballona Wetlands bike path. It takes you through the marina, part of the wetlands and over a bridge to Playa, where the bike path is just beautiful and clear and takes you all the way to Manhattan Beach. I much prefer biking south than north through SaMo – way less chaos. Find a chill spot on Dockweiler Beach for a few hours. Ramen at either Santouka in Mitsuwa Marketplace in MV or Killer Noodle in Sawtelle Japantown.
Day 3 – Breakfast at Gjusta (their bagels! their smoked fish!), followed by an afternoon at the Hammer Museum. I love their permanent collection and they have terrific exhibits, many by BIPOC artists. Dinner at Night + Market Sahm – very vibey, delicious Thai food and an excellent fish tank.
Day 4 – Brunch at Rockenwagner Bakery & Cafe – their pretzel croissant breakfast sandwich is painfully good. Cruise down to Helm’s Bakery District in Culver and stroll through the design shops. There’s a really cool bookstore there, Arcana Books on the Arts, where you can leaf through vintage design books and magazines.
Quick spots I love on the eastside:
Breakfast & coffee at Broomstreet General store for some incredibly good freshly made scones.
Carousel restaurant for very over top good Lebanese-Armenian food.
Proof in Atwater Village– I cannot stress how delicious the sandwiches and baked goods are. Everything is freshly made there. I dream about it.
Finally, if she were willing, I’d make her take an intensive at the Idiot Workshop. I took one taught by founder John Glickey and Amrita Dhaliwhal that was extraordinary. Wild, profound, equitable, outrageous, unpretentious. It’s sort of clown, sort of improv, sort of comedy. I don’t know what it is. It’s Idiot. It’s glorious and I think the people who run are good, good souls.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There are so many! Can we do shoutout(s)? I’d have to start with my parents, who emigrated from Palestine to Las Vegas in the 1970s. When I announced to these people, who moved away from their families to the middle of a 120 degree gambling oasis, to my father who worked two jobs (he still works as the graveyard shift as a blackjack dealer and is in his late 80s), to my mother who put herself through college while raising four kids, that I would be attending acting school, they were like, well. Huh. Ok. So no law, biology, medicine, business or anything else? You were very good at science when you were 12 (I won first place in the science fair for making clouds in a jar). You sure? But they supported me fully. When I co-founded Noor they were very proud, and continue to be the best supporters I’ve got.
Ok two other quick but really meaningful shoutouts: my mentor Jim Nicola, the former Artistic Director of New York Theater Workshop, who has been an incredible supporter of both Noor, and me as an artist. He is one of those rare and special people in the world who knows just what to say to unlock that internal creative force in a person.
And lastly, Dr. Joseph Michael Levry, who founded Naam Yoga (started in NYC, now here in LA), who has been a profound guide, spiritual teacher and healer in my life. A very generous and special soul who has given me a great deal of confidence, reassurance and wisdom. His work is truly life-changing.
Kai Soremekun Joan Marcus/NYTW/Noor Theatre The Old Globe