(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.
KAYAN IRANI: I am a playwright, performer, and Theater of the Oppressed trainer/facilitator. I use participatory arts techniques with communities around the world who wish to address issues of injustice and oppression through creative means. The last two years I’ve been working specifically with artists and culture workers in Afghanistan to train them in community based arts methods for social change.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
KI: I identify as South and West Asian, Indian and Iranian and, to those who are more familiar with South and West Asian cultures, as Parsi.
My heritage has influenced my work in a number of ways. First, aspects of traditional Iranian and Indian performance are part of my aesthetic. I am lucky to know about and be raised within a tradition that has thousands of years of performance knowledge and development. I can draw from devotional aspects of performance, cultural transmission within storytelling, or debate and ethical argumentation embodied in poetry recital. Oftentimes it is just wisps of these elements which manifest in my work but I carry this rich bag of goods within my thinking.
Secondly, aspects of my identity such as being an immigrant and being from a refugee/displaced people are thematically present in my work much of the time. Notions of moving, of cultural continuity, of oppression, and of resilience are subjects I visit frequently; whether I am writing a play about South and West Asian people or about Puerto Rican New Yorkers in the Bronx. While this is what is specific to me, I believe that power, displacement, and cultural transformation are all fundamental American themes and more people should explore them (people of European heritage included).
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?
KI: I noticed that post 9/11 there was more interest in hearing from Middle Eastern artists, along with academics, thinkers, personalities, etc. However, the invitation was based on the terms set by US foreign policy and media stereotypes which set up the people and cultures of the Middle East as extremist (male) or terribly oppressed (female). Within the frame of “why do they hate us” we were invited to tell our stories but there wasn’t much attention for anything more complex even if there was space for airing the history of colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East. This was supported by a wave of funding for Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern stories and programming but once that box was checked, people moved on. There were no long term strategies or projects set up to truly offer both audiences and artists time and space to interact with stories and voices of the Middle East. Though limiting, I think it made space for many Middle Eastern artists and culture workers to self produce, organize, and gain more visibility and opportunity for their work. I find that American theater still has a far way to go in order to open up the closed loop of resources and talent that exists. Many people in the theater simply do not have much information about South and West Asian cultures, peoples, histories and civilizations to appreciate the stories, perspectives, and smarts that we bring with us. Many cultural organizations are smacked around by donor priorities, so much so that they can’t truly explore innovative ideas such as collaborations with ethnic artists and companies, or audience development through diverse talent and community engagement.
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?
KI: There is so much need for and value in historically marginalized communities telling their stories to their own people. Artists who want to forward culturally specific texts and traditions need a place where in-depth explorations can be had and where the majority of their energy isn’t tied up in figuring out how to get audiences or administrators up to speed. Knowing that audiences are able to follow the story, with its attendant nuances and references, from the first line makes a huge difference to the kind of story that gets told and how it is told. For example, I’m currently in India doing research for a new play I am writing and the more time I spend here, the more I want to produce the play here rather than in the United States. I am telling the story of a Parsi family and the ways tradition and identity are maintained, transmitted, and transformed despite displacement, migration, and socio-political changes. The story needs an audience with a certain amount of prior knowledge and understanding about who the Parsis are, their migration to India from Iran, and their unique place within British colonial Asia. How do you tell a complex story if you need to constantly explain and build in references for an audience who has no information? How do you innovate and push traditional stories into cutting edge interpretations if people have no familiarity with the basic story and tropes?
It’s not to say that I think audiences can never learn or catch up. It’s just that we have to realize that there are worlds and worlds out there that American theater companies and audiences don’t know about or appreciate yet and rich sources of inspiration that get left by the wayside because of this lack of information. Culturally specific theater groups can be places where all this rich material can be explored, extended, and reinterpreted for the contemporary conditions of the community.
I think some innovative partnerships can be made if folks can think out of the box and find real avenues of collaboration and support. Can bigger, more mainstream theater companies truly follow the lead of ethnic artists? Can artists of color make room to explain and inform people about our heritage and history without getting frustrated and giving up so easily? It takes trust, balance, and time to work through these issues but I think it can be done. I’d love to have more post show discussions where people can hear from the writer and other artists about the subject matter and cultural contexts and the experience of putting up this play now. I’d love to see partnerships where larger companies cross promote the shows of ethnic companies while the ethnic companies do audience development in return. There are so many ways to build towards true creative collaboration but they have to start somewhere and have a long-term vision.
JL: What is the current state of Middle Eastern Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
KI: The current state is patchy and hobbling along. I think there are lots of challenges that the Middle Eastern theater community has to overcome, not the least being levels of internalized oppression about our own people and our own stories. We have to stop dismissing our ethnic audiences as not sophisticated enough, not interested, etc. and get them interested. We have to embrace our traditional stories, folk stories, music, etc. and bring out the beauty and relevance within them. I know lots of us withdraw from staging things from 1001 Nights or the Shahnameh because we tend to have traumatic experiences of awful, exoticized versions that use every stereotype in the book (ankhs, pyramids, black eyeliner, camels, harem pants, etc.). But these stories are well known tales that can offer an opening for new audiences who might be intimidated by contemporary theater as well as fodder for our creative experimentation. Just because others have butchered our stories and tried to drain the significance from them doesn’t mean they are dead. We can revive them. We can make them modern and relevant and bring out their timelessness. It’s about recognizing the wonderful heritage we have and using that to rev our engines and get people on board.
One group that is doing great work is Golden Thread Productions. I think they offer a wonderful mixture of traditional stories and contemporary plays. They are building a strong Middle Eastern as well as American audience base and I am sure they will be unstoppable. They take on issues such as women in theater and beautifully explore the intersections of Middle Eastern identity with gender with imperialism with art!
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
KI: Build genuine relationships. Follow the lead of artists of color. It’s not only about what will benefit your institution but how you can use your power and standing to benefit others, to make the entire field of theater richer and more vibrant. Find ways to exchange resources with new and growing ethnic theater groups and artists; have as many partnerships as you can stand. Educate your audiences, be uncomfortable. Before we can get a map, someone has to go into the unknown with a compass and a pen. Future audiences will require that we know much more than we do now. Let’s get started.
Kayhan Irani is an Emmy award winning writer, a performer and a Theater of the Oppressed trainer. She directs participatory arts projects with government agencies, community based organizations, international NGOs and with the general public. She has led theater for change projects in conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq. She is a co-editor of “Telling Stories to Change the World: Global Voices on the Power of Narrative to Build Community and Make Social Justice Claims” (Routledge, 2008). In 2010 Kayhan was awarded an Emmy award for writing “We Are New York” a 9-episode broadcast TV drama used as an English language and civic engagement tool for immigrant New Yorkers. Kayhan’s work has been supported by the BBC World Service Trust, The Environmental Protection Agency, Bronx Council for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the American Society for Muslim Advancement. Her work has been featured in such publications as The New York Times, Colorlines Magazine and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
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