(Photo by Gohar Barseghyan. Pictured: “Abaga” by Torange Yeghiazarian, with George Psarras, Dina Mousawi, Vida Ghahremani at 2009 ReOrient.)
So I thought I’d do that thing that writers do when they try to begin to write about whatever their subject is by repeating its definition and letting the definition do the majority of the work. In November, Golden Thread will present their eleventh festival of short plays and forums exploring the Middle East, which they have cleverly called ReOrient. The word “ReOrient” can mean many things, especially if you contemplate the letters. The ‘o’ is capitalized, so it must be hearkening to the east in some way. But ‘orient’ also means to bring into due relation to surroundings and circumstances, to get the bearings. The ‘re’ part of the word ReOrient is the special part, the part that gives this festival purpose and allows for a clear summary of what we have to gain from it, because the ‘re’ positions the word ‘Orient’ and the position it takes with its surroundings anew.
What follows is an interview with Torange Yeghiazarian, founder of Golden Thread, in a conversation we had about ReOrient Festival and Forum which will take place November 1-18, in San Francisco. If you are not able to make it to the Bay Area, forum discussions will be streamed live online, so you can be a part of this discussion.
Jessica: The way you’ve structured ReOrient, there are 10 short plays you’ll produce and two days of ReOrient Forum, which will feature panels that will discuss topics that relate to artists, Middle Eastern theatre and the conditions related to creation of the art. What can a panel do that a play can’t and what can a play do that a panel can’t and when are panels and plays in some ways similar/have a similar result?
Torange: I think they’re different from each other. I think the panels provide context and a support network for the artists. The plays touch the audience on a very visceral level; the plays are not didactic, they’re educational in the way that any play is educational, but that’s not the purpose – they are dramatic pieces about real human beings that will touch your heart; that’s what the plays do. The panels bring together people who can illuminate the path in a specific way and provide a network of support. Scholars who have worked in the area of Middle Eastern art for many years come together with artists, practitioners and activists to have conversations that offer both theoretical analysis and practical knowledge on issues that we deal with everyday in the field. For example, we have a panel that brings together Iranian and Arab contemporary artists who work in today’s Middle East and we learn about the conditions they work under and their goals, hopes and aspirations for their theatre companies. On a very basic level, what that panel does, is…it shows people in the U.S. who may not hear from theatre artists in the Middle East anywhere else that there is a vibrant theatre community in the Middle East and there are artists that are exceptionally talented and creative, who are very engaged in the transformation of their society. I think that can be both informational and inspiring. The panel can also, for those who are interested in exploring it further, provide you with contacts and names of companies that you can then go on and explore on your own.
Similarly, we bring together a panel of Bay Area artistic directors who have, in the last five years, produced plays from or about the Middle East and we engage them in a conversation about what their rewards and challenges of that experience [have] been because we want to learn about what it would take to make [the Middle East] more present on the American stage so that it’s not such a marginal voice. It needs to move beyond the exotic and become everyday, accessible and not frightening.
Jessica: You are chairing a panel called “’War on Drugs’ to ‘War on Terror’: Parallels in Chicano and Middle East American Theatre”. Which is really interesting and has sparked a specific question in me: why found a theatre devoted to an international region? Is the goal to express identity and the social conditions preventing the expression of this identity? Is the goal to eventually not be considered a hyphenate and just be considered an “American”? Eventually, what will Middle Eastern-American theatre look like fifty years from now? What will Chicano theatre look like fifty years from now? What are the overall goals?
Torange: The quick answer is you have to come to that panel! Those are exactly the kind of questions that will be discussed on that panel…The U.S. in a way is a microcosm of the world. We have so many different immigrant communities in the U.S. that in a way we have the world …and yet we are such an insular nation. And although politically we in many ways dictate global politics, as a people, we remain very distanced from other nations. I think one of the tasks for us is to bring our peoples together in a way that is informative on a visceral level so that you learn about the Middle East and you learn about Iran and Egypt and it helps you understand Iranians and Egyptians in a way that taking a seminar on the history of the Middle East wouldn’t help you understand, right? And as an extension of that, the Middle Eastern American community that’s here, we find ourselves excluded from the conversation, excluded from the American conversation. We find ourselves excluded from the civic life and artistic life of this country. And yet we are contributors to the civic life and artistic life of this country…As a citizen I vote, as a citizen, I create art. And I want to communicate my art and maybe today it’s defined more as the voice of an Iranian American, but in twenty years, the American voice will have evolved. Because all of these voices are contributing to the American image and the American voice. I think the big question is what is the U.S. going to look like in twenty years?
And the impetus for this panel is that, I think, the Middle Eastern community is relatively new and there is a lot that we can learn in terms of building our artistic voice, there is a lot that we can learn from the Latino Community and the Asian American community that for a longer time [have] been at it. And I think there is a lot of similarity with the Latino…and Asian community in terms of being excluded politically during a certain period and then, in response to that, these artistic voices have emerged.
Jessica: Tell us about your audience and the community that usually comes to ReOrient and why they go to Golden Thread.
Torange: We reach out to a very broad base of audience, so our audience is made of theatre-goers that are looking for alternative programming and thought provoking content. As well as the various segments of the Middle Eastern American community in the Bay Area; Iranian Americans, Arab Americans, which is made up of Palestinians, Egyptians, Lebanese, etc. Also, the Armenian community is a large part of our audience. Depending on which play we produce, we reach out to that specific community in a more focused way. In recent years we’ve developed a relationship with the Turkish American playwright SinanÜnel and that’s been an exciting avenue to the Turkish American community in the Bay area. In the past when we produced Motti Lerner, for example, who is Israeli, we reached out to the Israeli consulate and the Israeli community and the broader Jewish American community. Also, because of the political situation with the Middle East, a large segment of our audience are also political activists and people who believe in the power of the arts to really connect people and people who are interested in seeing stories and images that are beyond what they hear in the news media.
Jessica: How do you think the plays differ from what they would hear in the news media?
Torange: I think there are two things that distinguish our work. One, is we actually look for content that is thought provoking. It is challenging for larger and more mainstream theatres, which I hope will continue to produce more and more Middle Eastern or Middle Eastern American plays, to produce plays that question the mainstream perspective. Our audience actually seeks alternative content, you know, almost demands it. And so we look for content that tells the story in a way that hasn’t been told before. We try to surprise the audience in the way we cast shows, we try to surprise ourselves and the audience in the content that we choose. We continue to ask questions and we choose plays that address specific questions. This is all above and beyond a well-written play that’s dramatic, that has three dimensional characters – I mean, that goes without saying. But in terms of what comes up at the top for us is content that is surprising, content that is provocative and that is different from stereotypes that most people in the U.S. hold about the Middle East.
And then, in the way we go about producing the work- there is a lot of conversation that goes into it. From the selection process to casting to rehearsal process, production. Beyond program notes and lobby information, there is a lot of internal communication and education that goes into developing the work and I think the nature of the conversation is a little different from other companies because so many of us in the room are from the Middle East. And within our group, we all have our own opinions and we see things differently and we are all very opinionated – we don’t hold back. That makes for very interesting conversations.
Jessica: It sounds like, by having these discussions amongst yourselves throughout the development process that the audience would get a very complex portrait of the issue.
Torange: Exactly, yes. And I think complexity is the key; to not try to whitewash the differences or the conflicts…the tendency can be to really want to focus on the commonalities and lose sight of the differences. I think the key is to be respectful of the differences, explore the differences but, also, explore the commonalities and show that complexity and let your audience sit with that- not try to come up with answers for them.
Jessica: Not just to plug American Theatre magazine, but you’ve done an interview with Yussef El Guindi in the September issue and he’s also being featured in ReOrient. Can you tell us about how you develop and maintain your relationship with playwrights in the U.S. and internationally?
Torange: Yussef, I would say, is probably one of the first Arab American playwrights that started working with Golden Thread. I think it was Karim Alrawi who lives in Canada and Yussef El Guindi. And Yussef has worked consistently and brilliantly so it made it very easy to continuously produce his work. I think the key to the success of that relationship has been the commitment on both sides to support one another.
With international artists, there are those who are not living, the classics, which we want to introduce to our audience. For example, in this year’s ReOrient, we are producing a play by Tawfiq Al-Hakim, one of the leaders of Egyptian modern theatre. With the living playwrights, my own style, and also my limitation, is I’m more of a one-on-one type of person, so I, for example, go to Cairo to the festival and I meet artists there and I connect with some of them and that relationship organically grows and develops. It’s difficult for me to judge someone’s work from a press release or from a video. I need to know them personally which slows down the process but I think it makes for a much deeper, more fulfilling relationship. The community of artists that have worked with Golden Thread is small but I think we all think of ourselves as a family. We have a number of artists from Golden Thread who are now working in other countries and some of them are duplicating some of the work we have done in Golden Thread in those countries. And it’s very satisfying to see that happening because it feels like the mission and vision of the company is really expanding internationally.
Jessica: Many of the plays offered at ReOrient are world premieres – do any of these plays represent new relationships?
Torange: Yes.…Farzam Farrokhi, for example, is a local playwright and this is a first production for him. He has a play called 2012, so that’s a new playwright. And Silva Semerciyan is… relatively new to Golden Thread and she is a voice I am really looking forward to hearing more from. Jen Silverman, this is the first time we are producing work by her; her work is amazing, poetic, beautiful. Mona Mansour came to ReOrient in 2009 as a visiting artist and it’s interesting to produce a play by her in ReOrient 2012, it’s coming full circle. Mona’s full length play, Urge For Going is actually slated for production next year….
[I]n Series B, the four monologues, two of those playwrights, one is Iraqi, Amir al-Azraki … he is someone I only met last year. He was on a panel at TCG [the National Conference in Los Angeles] we invited him with Theatre Without Borders to present on a panel on “US-Iraq Reconciliation”. There I discovered that he is an amazing playwright and he presented a segment of his work Stuck and I really fell in love with it and read it completely, and immediately knew we had to include it in ReOrient. And similarly, the play The Voice Room by Reza Soroor – Reza Soroor is a playwright based in Iran and I met him in Iran when I was on sabbatical in 2010. He is quite accomplished, has had very few productions, maybe, partly, because of the political content of his work, although it’s hard to tell in Iran…That’s a play that I have translated and I am very excited about introducing this playwright to American audiences.
Jessica: How can those not in the Bay Area, like many of our member theatres, individual members and affiliates, how can they engage with the work you are doing and keep the conversations going?
Torange: This year, for the first time, the panels will all be live-streamed on New Play TV which is a program of Theater Commons HowlRound…the forum includes also a special performance of Rumi x 7 by Hafiz Karmali. This is part of a new initiative called Islam 101, where we create original, dynamic plays inspired by Islamic art and philosophy. The first in that series, Rumi x 7, will be featured in ReOrient Forum, so that also will be live streamed….
We are going to, in September, launch ReOrient specific Twitter and Facebook so people can post comments and questions during ReOrient, which we would then communicate to the panels or address during the conversations…Obviously people can also come and attend in person- the Forum is free to the public. And then it’s just a matter of staying in touch and communicating to continue the conversation.
Torange Yeghiazarian is the Founding Artistic Director of Golden Thread Productions, the San Francisco theatre company devoted to exploring Middle Eastern cultures and identities. In this capacity, Torange has produced numerous world and American premieres by playwrights of Middle Eastern heritage and launched the REORIENT THEATRE FESTIVAL AND FORUM. Torange is a writer, director, and teacher. Her articles on contemporary theatre in Iran have been published in The Drama Review (2012), American Theatre Magazine (2010), and Theatre Bay Area Magazine (2010). Her latest play 444 DAYS is slated to receive its world premiere at Golden Thread in 2013. Her short play CALL ME MEHDI is included in the anthology “Salaam. Peace: An Anthology of Middle Eastern-American Drama” published by TCG in 2009. Born in Iran and of Armenian heritage, Torange holds a Master’s degree in Theatre Arts from San Francisco State University.