Rewriting Arabian Nights

Alum Mark Miller ’70 reinvents the 25-year-old Kissimmee dinner show with the help of a Rollins professor and student.

The lights lower, a fog ascends from the arena at Kissimmee’s Arabian Nights dinner show, and a hush comes over the crowd. In between bites of prime rib and sips of strawberry daiquiri, the audience likely isn’t picking up on the historical significance of character names or the cultural accuracy of the Middle Eastern music piped through the sound system. They’re tourists, after all, and they’ve paid to be entertained and fed. But Zack Uliasz ’15 recognizes the importance of getting it right.

It’s been eight months since he and Assistant Professor of English Jana Mathews embarked on a Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship project to help reinvent the 25-year-old show. “We decided very early on that what we wanted for the show was for it to feel more culturally grounded, especially in the light that it presents Middle Eastern concepts,” Uliasz says. “It needed to be mindful and respectful but also have high entertainment value.”

Having met Mathews a few months prior when she visited the show, Mark Miller ’70, the show’s creator and original scriptwriter, invited the duo to help him take the show in a new direction.

“I wanted to tackle the script from a different angle,” says Miller, whose family owns the Al-Marah Arabian horses used in the show. “Live shows depend immensely on having a rhythm, and we don’t have any more dialogue than we absolutely have to. But I knew something was missing in what I wanted to accomplish with the script.”

Miller joined forces with Mathews and Uliasz, who, collectively, began a five-month process of researching and rewriting. In the end, more than 20 versions of the script passed back and forth before it made its debut in front of a live audience in June 2013.

“The process of making it historically accurate meant that we read the literature of the era, listened to the music that was used, [and] considered dress, costume, and set design,” says Mathews, a specialist in 14th-century medieval literature and culture. “We made recommendations on ways to bring back the medieval flavor of 800–1500 A.D.”

Based on a series of myths and legends that circulated in the 13th and 14th centuries, Arabian Nights and its themes have been appropriated into contemporary culture but not always in ways that are accurate or culturally sensitive. “My suggestion was to heavily ground the backstory of the show in Bedouin myth and also to emphasize the value of horses to Bedouin culture,” she says.

Uliasz had some ideas too and as the months passed, any nervousness about sharing them went away. “It felt strange because everyone was so many years my senior and so much more qualified. And here’s me, an undergrad feeling a little out of place,” Uliasz says. “The first couple of meetings, I felt like no one would appreciate my contributions, but as we got closer to the end and realized how much was expected of us, I had to take more of a role. It was baptism by fire, and from there I began to feel more confident. As a result, I can watch the show now and can point to things that came right from my brain.”

That includes ideas he suggested for the show’s score. “My thought was to make changes to the soundtrack so it could reflect more cultural accuracy, to find music that held the show together but was more keeping with the themes of the show,” Uliasz says. “I did a lot of research and also got some suggestions from speaking to [Associate Professor of Anthropology Rachel] Newcomb, whose specialty is Morocco.”

“To be 20 years old and have your ideas incorporated into a multimillion-dollar production [is] an opportunity that very few students or, for that matter, industry professionals get to experience,” Mathews says.

Miller also feels lucky to have serendipitously come upon this collaboration. “It was no effort at all to let go, because this was the script and the show I always wanted,” he says. “This is the best show we’ve ever done by a big margin.”

As a result of the experience and his newfound connection with his alma mater, Miller recently funded a scholarship fund that will enable Mathews to take a group of students (most of whom have never been outside the U.S.) to visit medieval sites in Ireland and Scotland in the spring of 2015. “This gift is a once-in-a-lifetime pedagogical opportunity for me and for my students, but more importantly, our work with Mark represents an ideal model of faculty-student-alumni relations,” Mathews say. “Mark has changed my life—and Zack’s—in a profound way, leaving me to wonder about the possibilities potentially available to other students.”

With the revisions behind them, Mathews and Uliasz have now turned their attention on writing and presenting a paper about their experience at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. “I think a lot of students have the opportunity to say they have been in a show at their school or taken a course in theater or art history or literature. But this opportunity is not something that comes along very often. This experience has the potential to put me in a different pile of résumés because it’s not a hypothetical experience. I have actually done this work,” Uliasz says. “And at the end of the day, Mark is happy, and the people coming to see the show are happy, and we’re writing a paper on what we learned. People are enjoying this living, breathing thing we created. And that’s pretty incredible.”