September Artist Spotlight: Theatre Traveler, Taous Khazem

Hey Taous, thanks for taking the time to be interviewed today. Can you tell us what your art form is and what your background in it is?

My art form is theater. I started out in dance classes when I was a kid. I discovered how much I liked acting in junior high (Capitol Hill) and high school (St. Paul Central). In college (Macalester) I ran the student theater group for two years. I majored in Theater and French. After college I studied at the Jacques Lecoq International Theater School in Paris, France. I worked my way through the two years, teaching English and babysitting. When I got back to Minnesota I worked for SteppingStone Theater during the day as the Education Coordinator. At night I did shows with Frank Theater and Off Leash Area. During that time I also created my first one-woman show called Tizi Ouzou. Then I got an idea to do a theater project in Algeria (where my Dad is from) based on Kabyle folktales. I left SteppingStone and off I went to Algeria during the summer of 2008. I met my husband Mohammed and lived in Algeria for three years. We ran our own theater company together, producing our own work and teaching physical theater workshops. We toured and worked in Cameroon, Morocco, France, Jordan and every major Algerian city. In 2011 I came back to Minnesota and Mohammed joined me in 2012. Since then I have both been working as a teaching artist, actress and sometimes writer and director in the Twin Cities. I also work on an Algerian TV show called Sultan Achour 10. I play the Sultan’s English ex-wife. In February I’ll go to Tunisia to film season 2.  

Can you tell us more about doing theatre in Algeria? What was that experience like?

In Algeria I taught a lot of physical theater workshops—a style of working not well known there. My husband and I started a theater company called Daraja Theatre (Daraja means bicycle). We produced solo performances. We would direct each other. We worked in French and Arabic. I speak French fluently but I struggle with Arabic. I learn my lines by writing them out in way only I understand. Algeria has an expansive regional theater system. There is the National Theater in Algiers, the capitol city. Every other major city has a cultural center and a regional theater. We toured a lot. Many of these theaters are beautiful – they were built during French colonization at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th.

What is your favorite thing about theatre?

My favorite thing about theater is telling a story that connects me with the audience.

Do you remember when you first became interested in the arts? How did it happen? Did you have any big influences?

I can’t remember not being interested in the arts. My Mom is a poet, her brother is a jazz musician and taught me how to play the recorder and flute when I was 6. My aunt is a flutist and plays mainly classical music. My Dad loves to write, paint and play the banjo and mandolin. I started dance classes very young. I took dance very seriously until I was cast in my first school play in high school, Agatha Christie’s An Appointment with Death. My Mom likes to tell the story of how after seeing Madeline’s Rescue at the Children’s Theatre when I was 4 or 5, I insisted on wearing a yellow hat everywhere I went and wanted to be called Madeline.  

When I was in high school I worked as an usher at The Ordway. I saw a lot of musical theater and opera. I got to see the shows over and over again so I was able to take note of the little differences from show to show. I used to sit alone in the theater before the audience would come and have a little moment with the space. There was a very silly show that came through on tour, I can’t remember the name of it, but one of the actor’s was very nice and would talk with me at the stage door sometimes. I thought he was amazing. I wanted to be just like him. I also remember being inspired by Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s production of Tartuffe when I was in college. Since I’ve been working professionally some of my biggest influences have been: Zaraawar Mistry (also a COMPAS artist!) he’s helped me create two one-woman shows; Wendy Knox the Artistic Director of Frank Theater, she gave me my first professional acting job; Paul and Jennifer from Off Leash Area, they are always trying new things, never satisfied with normal; Sha Cage, who is a great artist-entrepreneur, fearless lady; Emily Zimmer who is maybe the best teaching artist I know.  

What do you hope participants of your programs learn or come away with?

I hope participants of the programs I lead come away with a better sense of self, of what they are capable of that they didn’t know before. I hope they feel that they have truly collaborated with their peers and learned how they can support one another in a new way.

What projects have you been working on recently?

With COMPAS I am getting ready to do a three-week residency at La Crescent-Hokah Middle School on the subject of climate change. Outside of COMPAS I am currently performing in the Jungle Theater’s production of Bars and Measures through October 9.

What is it like to be a COMPAS artist?

It’s a privilege to be a COMPAS artist. I feel like I am among some of the best teaching artists around! I love getting to design residencies alongside the classroom teachers.

Why do you think arts education is needed in our community?

Arts education is needed in our community to expand children’s worlds. Art teaches us more about ourselves. Art connects to every other aspect of life. Art gives children a chance to express themselves in new ways that perhaps hadn’t been available to them before. Kids who have trouble sitting still have the opportunity to get up and move. A teacher comes in who says you want to make a funny noise? Yes please! Just do it on cue!

Does living in Minnesota have any influence on your work?

Minnesota is very supportive of art in general. I’ve sat on panels with the State Arts Board and MRAC (the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council) and have been so impressed by the creativity and ingenuity of my colleagues. I can make a living here as an artist. I’m grateful.

How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?

I practice creativity in my everyday life by journaling, reading and listening to music (I like to make a playlist for every show I work on). I love the art on our walls in our apartment. We try and buy something directly from artists when we travel. Also, since January I have been taking singing lessons.