(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)
TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–Middle Eastern American Theatre series
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
LAYLA DOWLATSHAHI: I am a playwright. I’ve been a playwright for about 14 years. Most of my earlier work dealt with issues of gender identity/race/religion in the Muslim communities. My work now focuses on issues of American identity and disenfranchisement.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
LD: I am an Iranian Muslim woman. My identity and religion has greatly influenced my work: most of my earlier plays dealt with the themes I described previously.
JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
LD: I think my identity has impacted my ability to get my work produced: there are a limited number of theaters interested in work by Muslim women or Middle Eastern themed plays—I think the doors of all major theaters are closed to me (it is the nature of theater today—profit and marketability before art).
I have been awarded several grants because I am a writer of color—but these grants have never helped to get my work greater exposure or to get produced nationally.
JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?
LD: This is a tricky question—African American theater artists should be able to find a place for their work without having to rely on theaters who produce work solely by African Americans—I think Middle Eastern artists would argue the same—we want to see our work produced in theaters that produce work by White playwrights.
Of course, Middle Eastern artists have a greater understanding of racial/religious and ethnic issues pertinent to their community than the average white American.
JL: What is the current state of Middle Eastern Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
LD: Silk Road and Golden Thread Theater produce Middle Eastern plays—The Lark in New York supports the development of Middle Eastern playwrights as does The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis—other than that—the vast majority of American theaters do not.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
LD: This is another tricky question: I’m not sure I have an answer for this—theaters need to make money in order to continue operations—there are plenty of developmental opportunities for theater artists of color—readings, workshops, etc.—but productions are far and few between.
I think the mentality of theater producers would have to change first—their perception of Middle Eastern plays and theater artists.
Layla Dowlatshahi’s work has been produced in New York and throughout the United States. She was a Many Voices Fellowship winner at The Playwrights’ Center and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts/Minnesota State Arts Board Grant and a Theatre Communications Grant for research and travel to Bosnia and Croatia to gather material for her play, Foca. She is the author of four additional plays, ten minute plays and two screenplays, as well as a novel.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com