If you weren’t a playwright, what would you be?
Sylvia Khoury doesn’t have to answer that question.
Because Khoury is a fourth-year medical student and a produced playwright making her New York stage debut with her play Power Strip at Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3. Yet, this demanding double life was never the master plan.
As a kid, Khoury actively felt like she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. The arts weren’t a focus during her young life. “Theatre was not formative for me,” Khoury acknowledges, “but reading was. I would take out 10 books from the library and then read them each—one chapter from this book, one chapter from this book, to try to make a bigger story.”
And yet, when it was time for medical school, Khoury felt something gnawing at her. So she asked to defer med school for three years—and they said yes. She used those three years to earn a Masters in playwriting from The New School. When she graduated, she could have chosen to leave writing behind and pursue her M.D.; she could have chosen not to go to med school and pursue theatre. Khoury chose not to choose.
“It felt a little crazy to do [both],” she admits, “but then I was like, 'It’s my life and I have one of them, so I might as well see what happens.'”
What’s happened is she’s become a member of the 2018–2019 Rita Goldberg Playwrights’ Workshop at The Lark; she’s a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Youngblood group; she is a former member of the Women’s Project Lab and the Dramatists’ Guild Fellowship. Her play Selling Kabul premiered this past summer at the prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival and will bow Off-Broadway in 2020. But before that, another play marks her New York stage debut: LCT3 puts on her Power Strip, currently running at the Claire Tow Theatre with an official opening October 21 directed by Tyne Rafaeli. And, of course, she’s in her fourth year at Mount Sinai Medical School.
In hindsight, Khoury had always been living parallel lives. As a kid, she made movies with her friends using the camcorder her parents gave her in the sixth grade and geeked out on science and the human body. In high school she was captain of the math team and editor of the literary magazine.
“If I’m totally honest, the idea that the arts were a career choice was not a reality,” says Khoury. “I have a very early memory of my father asking me in the car driving back from school one day, ‘What was your favorite class?’ I was in kindergarten. And I was like, ‘I like drama.’ And he went, ‘Well, I like to sing.’” She adds, “It was actually very moving.”
Born and raised in Westchester to a Lebanese father who emigrated to Paris and Parisian-born North African mother, Khoury felt an unspoken expectation of getting a “secure” job, something “serious.” “I think a lot of that comes from the immigrant experience,” she says. And yet, her path to become a doctor was never about pressure.
“My father’s a radiologist, so at home he would have X-rays up. My mother’s an oncologist and she would talk about what she was seeing at work,” Khoury explains. “When that’s the language of your family, you internalize it. It was the fabric of our lives. It still is.”
But a playwriting class she took in her senior year at Columbia ignited something in Khoury she hadn’t known was there—something she felt compelled to explore. “I just really wanted to know if the part of myself that wanted to tell stories and connect to people was the part of myself that I could actually engage with the world in,” she says. She knew ignoring the gut feeling would lead to regret.
During her first two years at Mount Sinai—mainly classes and exams—her studies dominated. (Though, to be fair, she wrote Selling Kabul when she should have been prepping for her physiology exam.) She took a year off after her second-year boards and mounted her first production. Then Khoury went back to med school for her third year of clinical rotations, which just finished earlier this summer, in time for Williamstown. (Khoury actually showed up for Day One of rehearsals, jetted back down to New York for her final week of Year Three, and went back to Massachusetts for the production.) It’s been a carefully calibrated give-and-take, alternately prioritizing medicine and her art.
“The thing that I want to emphasize is that I am by no means Superwoman,” says Khoury. “Memorizing all of these things for medical school is not immediate for me. Writing a play is hard. All of it takes time.”
What Khoury found at The New School wasn’t necessarily an answer to her introspective questions, but it was a starting point in discovering the building blocks of her voice. The pursuit of that voice, in part, drives her to write the plays she does.
She invests deeply in characters, while prioritizing a global perspective. Astutely aware of the concentration of decision-makers in New York, Khoury feels a responsibility to tell stories about places outside of the U.S., but affected by the U.S.
Power Strip, in particular, centers on Syrian refugee Yasmin and earns its name from the electric lifeline to which she tethers herself in her Greek refugee camp. Though she was a middle class student in her city, the civil war has rendered her a woman of survival. An intimate play of four characters, Yasmin and the three men circling her, “it was very important to me to draw very nuanced portraits of these people because I’m not interested in saying that men are evil and women are good,” says Khoury. “It’s really an exploration of power dynamics at work in our everyday lives.”
The examination of America through international eyes is a common thread through Khoury’s work, as is what it means to be a woman in man’s world. “Central to a lot of my work is the idea that women at the end of the day are really keeping society together,” she says. “It’s very important to examine: What are we asking women to carry and how have we internalized that ourselves?”
Perhaps what stirs Khoury most is probing for answers—diagnostic and existential.“[Theatre]’s the place society comes to examine itself, right?” she says. “Religion used to have that function and continues to have that function for some people, but, in my life, the place to really examine what it means to be a human and what our world is and what it could be, that’s all in theatre.”
For a kid who grew up reading and making movies, Khoury feels a deep allegiance to theatre. “It’s such a different experience to be sitting alongside your peers and all examining the same things in yourself silently, side by side.”
Through three years of medical school she’s carried that awe with her. It fuels her desire not just to learn about medicine, but to practice it as a physician. “It’s a privilege to enter a room with someone and have them tell you everything about their life with trust and completely open-hearted,” she says.
The rigor of medicine cultivates discipline in her writing. “There’s the illusion with theatre that things just happen. [But] it’s as serious as studying for an exam. It’s harder, actually, because you’re trying to find the stuff that makes us human.
“I also think that medicine, you really meet people in very vulnerable moments of their lives. And you’re kind of confronted with humanity on a daily basis,” she continues. “There’s something about that—definitely not consciously—that seeps into what I write.”
“It’s hard not to feel like the two feed each other,” she says.
Going into her fourth year of medical study—which she will spread over the next two calendar years—she will complete a psychiatry rotation, a radiology rotation, an emergency medicine rotation and her intro to internship. She hasn’t committed to a specialty, but today, psychiatry calls to her.
“With psychiatry, it’s like the micro work that theatre is doing the macro work of, right?” she posits. “It’s one person and examining how they operate and how they move through the world whereas theatre is more on a societal level.”
Whether a patient in her exam room or a viewer at her play, we are all in great hands.