(Photo by David Allen Studio. 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.
TORANGE YEGHIAZARIAN: I’m the founding artistic director of Golden Thread Productions (1996), a San Francisco-based theatre company focused on the Middle East. In this capacity I’ve launched ReOrient Festival and Forum (1999), currently presented triennially. At Golden Thread we commission, develop and produce full length plays. We facilitate collaborations and ensemble-generated work. We also offer a multi-faceted Education Program that includes Fairytale Players, an ensemble of actors, dancers and clowns that create and perform plays based on arts and literature of the Middle East.
I’m a playwright, director and sometimes an actor. My latest full length, 444 DAYS is slated to premiere at Golden Thread in October 2013.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
TY: I identify as an Iranian, Armenian, American woman. For better or worse, my identity has come to fully define my theatre work as an artist and producer.
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?
TY: I founded Golden Thread Productions in 1996 when I earned my Master’s in Theatre mainly because I did not see any theatre companies producing the kinds of plays I wanted produced, including my own writing. They neither had the interest nor the resources (dramaturgy, cast) to tell the stories that are important to me. I’m encouraged by Bay Area’s support of our work and how committed the artists and audiences are to exploring alternative perspectives of the Middle East. I’m discouraged by the limits of identity politics in the US. Where individuals are quickly categorized, labeled and either celebrated or dismissed based on a very narrow definition of who they are.
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?
TY: Golden Thread Productions is a culturally-specific theatre that offers artists of Middle eastern heritage a home, a place to be themselves, tell their stories in their own words, and to take risk without being stigmatized. I think this is hugely important. We are often the company emerging Middle Eastern artists and theatre enthusiasts come to explore professional theatre.
It is important to give validity to a community’s experience and narrative. It is also important to create opportunities for dialogue and exchange. One community telling its stories to members of the same community has some value but is ultimately limited and will lead to insularity and suffocation. At Golden Thread we pride ourselves in bringing together artists of diverse backgrounds and perspectives to make the process richer and the play more accessible and profound.
JL: What is the current state of Middle Eastern Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
TY: Much has been accomplished but more needs to be done.
Middle East America: A National New Plays Initiative launched and managed by Golden Thread, Silk Road Rising and Lark Play Development has certainly helped make Middle Eastern American playwrights and their work more visible.
TCG’s Salam. Peace anthology has provided an important resource to professionals and academics to introduce Middle Eastern American plays to their constituency.
Playwrights like Yussef El Guindi and Mona Mansour should be produced much more widely; their plays are really about the American immigrant experience, through a Middle Eastern lens. Their plays should be included in high school and university curricula. Only then will the richness of the Middle Eastern American experience become more widely understood and experienced.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
TY: Read and produce plays by playwrights outside of their comfort zone. Audiences are actually a lot more eager to take a chance on an exciting new work than producers and marketing executives. The population makeup of the US has dramatically changed in the last twenty years. Regional theatres need to respond to that. They need to reflect today’s America not the America of the 1950’s.
Torange Yeghiazarian is the Founding Artistic Director of Golden Thread Productions, where she has devoted her professional life to exploring Middle Eastern culture and identity through theatre arts. Her articles on contemporary theatre in Iran have been published in The Drama Review (2012), American Theatre Magazine (2010) and Theatre Bay Area (2010). Torange’s latest play, 444 DAYS will premiere at Golden Thread in 2013. Her play Call Me Mehdi is included in “Salaam.Peace: An Anthology of Middle Eastern- American Drama” TCG, 2009. Other plays include WAVES, DAWN AT MIDNIGHT, BEHIND GLASS WINDOWS, ABAGA, and PUBLICLY RESTING. With Golden Thread’s Fairytale Players, Torange has developed a repertory of new plays for children based on fables and characters from the Middle East. Torange collaborated with playwright Hal Gelb and puppeteer, Janaki Ranpura to create the musical comedy, LOVE MISSILE (2003). She was one in the collaborative team of Iranian, Israeli and American artists responsible for BENEDICTUS (2007). She adapted the poetry of Simin Behbehani to the stage in I SELL SOULS (2008) Other directing credits include A GIRL’S WAR by Joyce Van Dyke, NINE ARMENIANS by Leslie Ayvasian, TAMAM by Betty Shamieh, THREE STOPS and SCENIC ROUTES by Yussef el Guindi. As a teaching artist, Torange has taught playwriting to at-risk youth and led acting and play development workshops for youth and adults at Golden Thread. Born in Iran and of Armenian heritage, Torange holds a Master’s degree in Theatre Arts from San Francisco State University
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