(To learn more about Marcy Arlin’s Artist, Immigrant blog series, click here.)
1. How have you combined, in your work, your country’s culture?
I have several countries/cities/states I identify/connect with: Iran, Albuquerque, London, Germany, Colorado, New York… Many places seep into us in various ways. And since my work as an actor and writer are fundamentally me, all of them and their cultures find their way into my work. They all, in some way, pop up in my spoken word pieces and in the characters I delve into.
2. How do you see yourself/identify yourself as an artist in terms of being an immigrant? Does it matter to you? Does it influence the work you are drawn to?
I’ve always known I was an “other”. That’s what I check marked whenever I was asked to fill out my ethnicity. Middle Eastern is rarely listed with its own box to check. Even though I came to America as a baby and had no recollection of any other home than Albuquerque, New Mexico, I always knew I was…different, for lack of a better word. I spoke a different language with my parents, parts of my extended family still lived in Iran or immigrated to different countries or states and I was raised with a very different set of rules than my friends. What they were allowed to do, I generally was not. Like many kids, I wanted to blend in and be like everyone else, but as I grew older, that all changed. I stopped wishing I was the same and started celebrating that I wasn’t. I think we all do that at some point in our lives. We decide to celebrate what makes us “other” instead of trying to hide it. As an artist, I am drawn to the “other”; to the experiences I or most of us don’t know anything about. I love being a part of work that brings the audience to say, “I didn’t know that. I’m glad I came.” That idea has drawn me to projects that say something that most of us have not heard. I’ve been honored to be a part of productions that accomplish this idea such as Jason Grote’s 1001, Heather Raffo’s Nine Parts of Desire, Caridad Svich’s The House of the Spirits, Betty Shamieh’s The Strangest and so many others that leave audiences with something far more than before. It has also brought me to create my own work. After 9/11, I attended a Town Hall discussion with Eve Ensler and Gloria Steinem where my feelings of helplessness and fear were transformed into action. Those two women are quite the power duo and they inspired and unstuck me in one short afternoon. I left that discussion in late September of 2001 with a percolating idea that after a few years became a documentary play of women’s war stories. Using 13 verbatim interviews from the book, Valiant Women in War and Exile by Sally Hayton-Keeva and the expert guidance of director Tamilla Woodard and many amazing actresses, I created Valiant. I’m happy to say Valiant has raised thousands of dollars for women’s charities like Eve Ensler’s V-Day committed to ending global violence against women and girls and has continued to share these mostly unknown stories to this day.
3. How does it affect your getting work? (accent, ethnicity, etc.)
Though my family immigrated from Iran, I have a mixed heritage that puts me in the “ethnically ambiguous” category as the casting world calls it. Since I speak a few languages, which has helped me pick up accents and since my background runs the gamut of countries, so does who I play. It really depends on the eye of the beholder. Personally, I’d rather ethnicity not play a role at all in the casting process. I know it does and always will, but I’ve always wondered what our theatre, film and television would look like if we didn’t pay so much attention to it. I imagine it would be a far more compelling and realistic picture of the world.
Also, being able to speak fluent Farsi and conversational Spanish has opened some wonderful doors in my career. One door was working with Israel Horovitz on his play and film, Security where I helped with the phonetic writing of the Farsi for the characters that spoke Farsi including the woman I played. I like to call it Farlish, since I’m writing Farsi with English letters. I’ve also translated a small section of the dagger speech in Macbeth for The Public’s production of Sad and Merry Madness created and directed by Barry Edelstein. Barry asked our company of actors who spoke another language to translate sections of the speech and create a cacophony of Shakespeare’s words in 5 languages. It was truly exhilarating to hear it and be a part of it. My Spanish opened a door when I was involved in the Epic Theatre’s production of Hamlet Re-Mix where professional actors are cast along with students who have spent months creating a re-imagined production of a Shakespeare play mixing the original script with their own writing. These fabulous genius students decided Elsinore was El Señor Television and Claudius had poisoned his brother to become CEO of this Spanish Television Empire. The play within the play was a telenovela and the players were famous telenovela actors. When I worked with this group, they lit up with excitement when I spoke Spanish. Something shifted in our connection as fellow artists, a door opened. I could help to some extent develop the script, direct the telenovela style and read in if one of their actors were missing without making them cringe when I spoke Spanish. I learned far more from them than they learned from me. I am beyond grateful that my parents decided to only speak Farsi at home and have me learn English and Spanish at school. Not only has it influenced my work, but it has given me the gift of communicating with my whole family, here and abroad.
4. What are you doing now? Here and/or abroad?
Currently, I’m working with the 52nd Street Project on their Playback production coming up in late October. They are a wonderful organization that brings the arts to children who live in the Hells Kitchen neighborhood. I will be working with director Will Pomerantz and Epic Theatre on a reading of the documentary play 8 by Lance Black, which is based on the transcripts of the Proposition 8 trial. I’m also a part of the New York’s Factory Hamlet Project led by Miriam Silverman, Louis Scheeder and Tim Carroll of the original London’s Factory Hamlet Project. I’ve been exploring the play with an amazing company of NYC based actors through a rolling rehearsal process for over a year. It has truly been a luxury and a treat to dive so meticulously into one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. I will be doing an extended workshop with director, Kareem Fahmy of a new play by Sevan Kaloustian Greene called This Time, based on the autobiography of Kareem’s grandmother. I’m incredibly honored and excited to be a part of a new production of A View from the Bridge at Northern Stage. Artistic director Brooke Ciardelli has been given permission by the Miller Estate to re-tell the story with a Middle Eastern Moslem family. It’s amazing to see how this classic fits this present day story. And finally, I’m always writing; especially my spoken word pieces that someday may find its way into a full length show. I’m beginning to interview my family and create the giant family tree I’ve always wanted to map out. I’m sure a play will be born out that endeavor too.
5. Can you tell me a theatre short story/anecdote about when you first came here? A more recent story?
My first theatrical experience was in 8th grade when we did a production of The Conference of the Birds, a play based on a book of Persian poetry delving into the Sufi path of enlightenment. My teacher/director kept looking to me for additional insight and guidance about the play and I didn’t have much to offer her. My parents were non-practicing Shiite Moslems and we definitely didn’t sit in the living room reciting Persian poetry, so Conference was just a cool play with awesome costumes. My upbringing focused more on other aspects of the culture rather than religion. My religious knowledge comprised of seeing a few relatives pray five times a day or fast during holy days. This opportunity provided me with the chance to know more, to learn about the original poetry the play was based on and discover more about the country I came from. I sat in my living room with my parents and learned many things about my first home that I never would have asked about if it hadn’t been for the 8th grade play. It opened doors I didn’t even know I wanted to open; a historical awakening of sorts.
Strangely, the word immigrant wasn’t a part of my vocabulary as a child. I remember being very surprised when in 9th grade sitting at my friend’s kitchen table, her mother said in a nasty tone, “Well, you, being an immigrant blah blah blah…” I was so surprised by it that I don’t remember what she said after. I knew I wasn’t born in America and had felt separate from others at times because of it, but I had never felt so pushed away until that day in 9th grade. Most words are just words until there’s intention behind those words. Intention is what gives them its real meaning. There was an intense division of you versus us. I drafted many a speech in response wishing I had said something more than nothing, but shock is usually speechless. I wished I had said, “Well, Mrs. X, we’re all immigrants really. You just came over here a little sooner than my family. The only Americans I know are Luke and Connie; their tribes have always been here. Waaaaaay before any of us immigrated here. Right?” Since then, the word immigrant has had varied intentions in my experience. They have run the spectrum of interest, celebration, hatred, love, exclusion and inclusion. Some light up when I tell them I’m from Iran, while others pause and politely smile while others outright scoff with disgust. The arts, from a very early age have for the most part been a community of celebration and inclusion for me. Almost all light up with excitement to hear I’m not from around here. They want to know more and know what they don’t know. The arts generally welcome the “other” with open arms. It’s become a sort of home country for me.
Three stories written and performed by Lana:
Lanna Joffrey is a NYC based actor/writer. Theatre: OverRuled (Performa, dir. Shirin Neshat & Shoja Azari), Measure for Measure (The Public, dir. Michelle Hensley), 1001 (Denver Center, dir. Ethan McSweeny), Nine Parts of Desire (Lyric Stage & Kitchen Theatre, dir. Carmel O’Reilly), Valiant (dir. Tamilla Woodard), Sad and Merry Madness (The Public, dir. Barry Edelstein), Hamlet Re-Mix (Epic Theatre, dir. Melissa Friedman), The Strangest (HERE CultureMart, dir. May Adrales), The House of the Spirits (Denver Center, dir. Jose Zayas), Inspector General & Comedy of Errors (Colorado Shakespeare Festival), Metamorphoses (Capital Repertory, dir. Maggie Mancinelli-Carter), Damascus (Northern Stage, dir. Brooke Ciardelli), Marko The Prince (Immigrants Theatre Project, dir. Marcy Arlin), The Snow Queen (Urban Stages, dir. Daniella Topol), Mac Wellman’s Cellophane (The Flea, dir. Jim Simpson), Like I Say (The Flea, dir. Len Jenkin), Saviana Stanescu’s Waxing West (Goldberg Festival, dir. Jonathan Silverstein), Security & A Mother’s Love (Barefoot Theatre Company, dir. Eric Nightengale & Pam Seiderman), Five Kinds of Silence (Boundless Theatre, dir. Tlaloc Rivas). Awards: IRNE Award (Nine Parts of Desire), Ovation Award (1001), NY Fringe Festival Performance Award & NY Innovative Theatre nomination (Valiant), Ovation Award Nomination (Inspector General). Film/TV: Druid Peak, Security, Fishing Naked, New Americans, Delocated, Breathtaking, Someday Soon. Writing: Lanna’s documentary play, Valiant has enjoyed numerous performances at the NY International Fringe festival(New York Magazine’s Top 20 out 200 shows), The Culture Project’s IMPACT Festival, InterAct’s OutsideThe Frame Festival, The United Nations Celebration for the Committee on the Status of Women, The Williamstown Theatre Festival, The Unofficial NY Yale Cabaret, Urban Stages… She has collaborated with Karen Finley on Lanna’s solo piece, Rain (The Flea) and with Creative Destruction Theatre for their series: Mashups and B-Sides (dir. Nelson Eusebio, The Tank). Lanna has also performed her spoken word for numerous NYC venues and events. She is also a member of the Barefoot Theatre Company.
Marcy Arlin is Artistic Director of the OBIE-winning Immigrants’ Theatre Project. Member: Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, Theatre without Borders, League of Professional Theatre Women, No Passport, and Fulbright Scholar to Romania and the Czech Republic. She curates Eastern European Playwrights: Women Write the New. Her project East/West/East: Vietnam Immigrants Out of War, is a binational, Vietnamese/Czech/English theatre project based on interviews with American and Czech Vietnamese. She created Journey Theatre with survivors of war and torture. Directing venues: 59E59, QTIP, LaMama, MESTC, Vineyard, Oddfellows Playhouse, Artheater/Köln, Nat’l Theatre of Romania. Co-Editor Czech Plays: 7 New Works. Teaches theatre at CUNY, community-based theatre at Yale, Immigrant Theatre at University of Chicago (her alma mater) and Prague Quadrennial, Brown, and NYU.