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Iranian Theatre Companies

With Parmida Ziaei (Seda, Seattle) & Shadi Ghaheri (Peydah, NYC)

Nabra Nelson: Salaam alaikum! Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, theatre from across the region.

Marina J. Bergenstock: I’m Marina.

Nabra: And I’m Nabra.

Marina: And we’re your hosts.

Nabra: Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea or in Arabic, shay.

Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab of world, you’ll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra: In our second season, we highlight US MENA theatremakers with an impact nationally and internationally. This season outlines the state of MENA theatre today through the lens of multigenerational and multidisciplinary artists.

Marina: Yalla, grab your tea. The shay is just right.

Nabra: In the greater conversation about MENA or SWANA identity, many national and ethnic groups do not neatly fit into that category or are in between geographic areas. One of the largest groups that are both within and without what is considered the “Middle East” is Iran. So, many Iranian leaders are making intentional space for the diversity and specificity of their culture by creating companies for Iranian artists. In this episode, we highlight two Iranian theatre companies, Seda Iranian Theatre Ensemble in Seattle, Washington, and Peydah Theatre Company in New York City. We are thrilled to be joined by the founding artistic directors of both companies. Before we begin, let’s introduce our guests.

Marina: Shadi Ghaheri is a theatre [and] film director, choreographer, and writer from Tehran, Iran, based in New York City. She’s directed BANNED at Broadway Bound, Gift of the Last Tree at Saddleback College, Glimpse at Rattlestick, Mother Courage at Hunter College, FEN at Columbia, Untitled at Rattlestick, Lucretia at HERE, Last Days of Judas Iscariot at Williams College, Death of Yazdgerd [and] Titus Andronicus at Yale School of Drama.

Other credits include The Slow Sound of Snow at Yale Cabaret. She co-curated a four-play season directing Trojan Women and LEAR at Yale Summer Cabaret. Also, she has co-founded and co-curated Emruz Festival and co-founded Peydah Theatre Company. Shadi was a 2016 Paul and Daisy Soros fellow, the 2018 directing fellow at Rattlestick [Playwrights] Theater, and the winner of Robert L.B. Tobin Director-Designer Showcase in 2019.

Nabra: Parmida Ziaei is an Iranian designer, performer, and choreographer based in Seattle. She has been designing various interior, architectural, immersive, and entertainment spaces and has also been a scenic and production designer with many local Seattle theatres, including Seattle Shakespeare Theatre, Sound Theatre, and Seattle Public Theater. Parmida is the co-founder and producing managing director of Seda Iranian Theatre Ensemble and is the resident set designer with Macha Theatre Works. When not designing, Parmida performs, teaches, and choreographs contemporary and Persian dances.

Marina: Excellent. It’s so great to have you both with us today, thank you for sharing this space together.

Shadi Ghaheri: Thank you for inviting us. Very exciting.

Parmida Ziaei: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

Marina: So we’ll start with just talking about your companies and what made you start your company, what inspired you to do that work, and then if you want to talk about any current projects that you’re working on too, that will give us a taste of what your work is like.

Parmida: Yeah. So, our company in Seattle is called Seda Iranian Theatre Ensemble. We started right before the pandemic, December 2019. It’s a company founded by Naghmeh Samini and myself. Naghmeh Samini is a very well-known Iranian theatre writer and educator and scholar in Iran. Her work has been performed [and] published all over the world, and she happened to be in Seattle. And we were connected through a mutual friend, and that mutual friend knew that we both were in theatre and excited about finding community and just needed each other in a way. So, she connected us, and we just sat in her living room one day and planned Seda. And that was it. It was just a very one-day decision that we were going to start this thing, and we figured out a name. And I made a logo and that was it.

She really wanted to connect with the theatre community here, but she didn’t have any connections and didn’t really know where to start. I have been a scenic designer in town for a while, so I had a very close connections with a lot of theatre community in town. But I also didn’t know any Iranians who were doing theatre in town. So, I was curious about who’s out there and how can we connect and not just in Seattle, but in the US. So, it was a spark for us to start finding that community here. We started with some classes that she taught because that was what she wanted to do, and that was the best way for us to get the community excited about theatre. So that’s how we started, and then a lot happened after that. But I’m going to let Shadi go ahead and explain.

Shadi: Well, it’s so lovely to hear that, how much urgent and just naturally has been the case for you, Parmida, and it was exactly the same for us too. I was collaborating on a reading festival at Atlantic Theater with some other collaborators. For that reading festival, I wrote a play named Tosca Tehran, and it just needed Iranian actors. So, I started looking for them. I always had women-identifying actors around me. So, it was always harder for me to find men, but I started looking for a cast for that show. That cast is the members of Peydah Company. We did that reading, and we continuously spend time together. There was this just feeling of affinity space or just a very home space for an artist.

They kept saying it to me [that] I have to do it, just because I’m a director, and I’m like, “No, that doesn’t work that way. You do it yourself.” But they looked at me, and I was honored. And I suggested we become a company of theatre artists that create together, curate together, and practice together. So that’s just what Peydah is. We spend time to think about who we are, what is our mission, and what is our name even? And the foundation of the name was just so emergent strategy kind of way, that was out of one of our brainstorming sessions at the beginning, that Hassan, one of our members said, “Well, we keep all of us in our mission here and daresay we found each other. What is “found,” “being found” in Farsi?” And we all look at each other and we’re like, “Peydah.” It felt like such an easy word to say in [the] West too. So, for a week we would just arrive to people and write Peydah on a page and say, “How do you say this?” Everyone would say “Peydah.”

Parmida: We did that too.

Shadi: And so I was like, “Okay, good, good. The West can read us. Let’s go.”

Parmida: Exactly.

Nabra: Parmida, how did you come up with your name, and what does it mean?

Parmida: Yeah. We also did the whole Western name check just to make sure everybody can pronounce Seda. But we started also, me and Naghmeh in that same session, we were sitting in her living room. We started just being like, “Okay, what do we call ourselves?” And we had a lot of different... We were like, “Okay, it needs to be short and to the point.” But also, we were like, “Okay, well, what are we trying to do? We really are trying to give voice and be able to bring out a different kind of voice and give voice to people who haven’t had a voice before,” and really it came down to… And “Seda” in Farsi means “voice.” It also means “sound.” And so it kind of had a lot of meaning to it in various different ways, but yeah. Then we were like, “Yeah, this is it.”

We actually had some other names that we took to some of our American friends, and we were like, “Can you pronounce this?” And it was not a good way to move forward. So, we’re like, “Let’s scratch those.” So that is more easier to pronounce but also the truest it’s been to our mission. And I think it was the perfect name for us, now looking back, because of everything we’ve been able to do through this company, so.

Nabra: Can you go into some of the work that you all do and how you define your theatre company? Is there a feeling or a vibe to the work that’s very specific? I know that, of course, you’re trying to reflect and give voice to Iranian theatremakers. Is there a way that you would describe Iranian theatre? Are there things that are a part of Iranian theatre that you want to make sure is present in all of your work?

Shadi: Well, we do a variety of projects. Sometimes we create together and make something new, and the process is, again, different. I sometimes have a play or someone else has a play that they offer to work on. Or we just write something from scratch together. I will say that is the biggest thing we practice, or we believe in, which is collaboration. I don’t mean it necessarily needs to be just absolutely all the time equal work, equal opinion, or whatever. It’s just more fluid. It’s just [a] combination of observations and work together. Sometimes someone leads more.

But we have made a dance piece called Untitled, which was completely from scratch. We just had one subject that we all shared to collaborate and explore on, and that was an aftermath of war. It’s just because war is a subject that if the people that their families’ homes, countries, lands, all of it is affected by it won’t talk about it, no one else will. Of course, we are a combination of immigrants. So I can’t say what is Iranian theatre, to be honest Nabra. I can just say the Iranian theatre that is labeled on our work is related to our identity, but in the combination of total number of people who are in Peydah, we have such a different identity of Iranian Americans. Some of us got here five years ago. Some of us was born here, and there’s so many more between. So when we create it becomes more universal, but sometimes it’s very specific. It’s about the Iranian political prisoners and Iranian female political prisoners. It’s just… that’s the subject. So yes, it becomes very, very specific.

Parmida: I think for us, we knew that it was mostly, it wasn’t about necessarily that we were trying to just showcase Iranian theatre, but the fact that we wanted to bring Iranian people to the forefront of the theatre work that we’re doing more, if that makes sense. A large portion of what we do because of Naghmeh’s background is education in our company and has been for the past two years. We started with classes; we continue with classes. We’ve done a bunch of different workshops and to be able to bring people who have never even done theatre before, who are Iranian in town. Most of these classes have been in Farsi so far, even though we are trying to bridge that gap and actually introduce also our people on our theatre to the non-Iranian community here. That’s another thing that we are striving to, but so far it has been mostly that we are finding that community and giving them an opportunity to come and explore theatre, really. That’s been so far what it’s been like.

I would say in terms of, like you said, “What is Iranian theatre?” I think Shadi is right. It’s hard to define that, but at the same time, I think for me, I have recognized so much more now how much amazing experimental work is coming out of Iran and being done in Iran. I think the work that we are doing, mainly because of the solo work that me and Naghmeh both are interested in, is that bold experimental and a lot of new stuff and just exploring more contemporary theatre than going back and necessarily working on more historical place, let’s say. So that’s the style that we have developed, I think over the time. We are recognizing that is what we are more interested in, is more contemporary work. It could be work that’s, I would say, probably the subject matter is the most important thing for us is that we are giving voice to immigrants. That doesn’t mean that it’s just Iranian immigrants. We’re still working on what that means in the future. But so far, the focus has definitely been on our Iranian identity and Iranian immigrants more than a more global perspective. So, I think there’s a lot of things we’re still exploring, figuring out, testing out in terms of what works.

Currently, again, we are continuing with some classes. We’re looking at a solo performance shop coming up, and we did a lot of online classes during the pandemic. Most of those were taught by Naghmeh. We also did a design series workshop that was introducing people to scenic design and lighting design and sound design, and that was in English. We invited other designers in town to give their perspectives who are not Iranian, necessarily, because there are no Iranian designers in Seattle that do some of those specific design fields. So, it was harder to find those people. So, we wanted to start bringing in more Iranians into the field of theatre at this town, too, which there’s a lot of amazing people all over the US but wasn’t that much in Seattle.

Marina: It’s really beautiful to hear the beginnings of a company and really how you’re taking the time to explore and figure out what this company is, what you want to do. I have so many questions. But can you talk a little bit more about the classes that you said there’s a solo performance workshop coming up and the classes that have been online? I’m just so excited also that there are design classes. I feel like where I was growing up, there were no design classes. You could act, or you could do nothing in theatre. So, it felt that was the only option. So, it’s so nice that there are options that you’re providing, but please tell us a little bit more about what those classes look like.

Parmida: Yeah, absolutely. We started the first class that basically started Seda was a general theatre workshop, and it was taught in Farsi. It was taught by Naghmeh, mainly. I taught a couple of sessions of it to introduce people to the design world, but it really was to introduce people to the possibilities of theatre and the world of theatre, just an introductory level. That’s where we started. Then we had this community who are now really passionate and excited to learn more. So, we had a couple other classes. We had a One Thousand and One Nights workshop that Naghmeh taught because she’s been writing and researching One Thousand and One Nights for thirty years. So, she had that wealth of knowledge. So, we did that and that actually expanded us because it was online. We had students from Iran; we had students from Europe. We had all over the world really. That was another one.

We had another class that was focused on looking at world events through the lens of theatre. So, people created videos, and that was also online. So, people did a lot of work in their homes and creating videos and writing things based on world events that was exciting to them or important to them. It wasn’t just about Iran. It was a lot of different news that would come out at the time or before that people were just wanted to explore. Then, we did that design workshop. So, most of these were online throughout this whole time because there was the pandemic, obviously. We were trying to find ways of doing theatre classes that made sense to do online too because, I mean, let’s be honest, doing acting classes online is not easy. So, we were trying to find also subject matters that were exciting enough and possible to do online that didn’t put a limitation on how far you could go. So that’s why some of these subjects came up.

Yeah, that design workshop. I mean, I’m very passionate about the fact that design, getting people into the field of theatre design, as it was super hard for me to get into it. I think it’s just giving people and even just a taste of, “Okay, what is sound design? What is lighting design?” Some people don’t even know in our community what those exactly mean or what you do as a sound designer, what you do as a lighting designer. So, these workshops were very introductory. I invited some of my friends who I’ve worked with in town to teach this very introductory… It was like two weekends. You just get a taste of what it is, go home, explore it a little bit more, come back. So, it was super low-key and introductory, just to get an idea and put a seed in people’s minds if they’re interested in going further with those. So this whole time we’ve been trying to make people understand or explore really what they’re interested in theatre. We try to continue to do that and make it as accessible as we can to our community and beyond if we can.

Shadi: Yeah, absolutely. I think because we continuously have to adjust and change whatever we’re doing as theatre artists, that’s why a pandemic happens. As Parmida is saying, you need to adjust. You need to all of a sudden become educational or you have to adjust to become something else. We went through that a little bit as well, but we are multidisciplinary because I consider myself a performer and director. People are, like the dramaturg Diana Fathi in our team is an actor, is a professional actor on the best stages in Tehran. And now she’s in America, and she’s studying dramaturgy. And she’s in the space with us. So, this person can offer so many different things that I don’t even know where is the line between. Is it this or is it that?

Because I love devising, and I am not a good writer, to be honest, because writing in English is very difficult for me. There’s so many layers of translation, like the emotion, [the] dreaming of the piece is in some other language, and until it comes towards in English, it’s a lot of stuff. It’s not a joyful or pleasurable experience in writing as it is in writing in Farsi for me. So, devising becomes my magical tool somehow because I love to complete something in a group of people. Sometimes there’s designers, and sometimes there’s actors or dramaturgs. The combination of that is, I think, how theatre must be done. If it’s not, it’s because of economy reasons, and it’s because of the system of money that has been specific to America [designed] around us that doesn’t allow me and the dramaturg and the designer and the actors spend time in one place together in creation. But here and there, you find [a] group of people who, although there’s no resources and money, want to do that. Sometimes we feel that way, and sometimes we don’t. And sometimes we don’t have time to feel that way.

We have to catch up with life out of pandemic, every single one of us. All of us were in New York, and many of us are not now. So, it is a big shift, and we figure out a way to move forward. I think all of us are hungry for much more work. If there’s any conversation around these identity politics and labels that we use in our contemporary theatre world in America, my thought is the resources and network in order for any of us to develop is almost zero, if not something negative toward our activities and existence, because all of the things around us are made for a different privileged person than me.

So I think that’s the only place that things like MENA or SWANA, for me, has importance or importance in narration because it can be connected to a very clear request that we all have agreed and understood that there [are] important, urgent stories to be told by people who have not had the privilege to tell as in a repetition and cycle as [others] have. That’s where any collaboration exists, sharing resources and sharing privilege and existence and praxis and storytelling. That’s, I think, what we are challenging with. We have four projects, and they are ready to be installed. Or they are in a place to be workshopped for three years from now. We have of work to do, but the reality of life doesn’t allow us to move forward artistically and as a collective, the way we desire. There’s so much work producing-wise for every single artist to do in a freelance world and in like a root base, like collectives like us, that it’s the most important multidisciplinary aspect of our life, but not necessarily the one that anyone has [chosen] to do.

Nabra: I think that’s incredibly important. A lot of what we talk about here on this podcast is coalition-building, how we are the importance of different, smaller theatre companies and identity-based theatre companies supporting each other and sharing resources and lifting all of our stories onto the national and the forefront of the national stage. I would love to hear both of your thoughts on this subject of the identity politics within theatre and where you see the status, I guess, of Iranian American theatre today. I know of both of your companies, but I don’t know of any other Iranian-specific theatre companies in the US. So, I’d love to know if there are others that you would like to lift up and how or if coalition-building, resource-sharing has been useful to you, where you’ve found strength in creating these new companies and building them, and what you see as the future of identity-specific or Iranian-specific theatre in the US. Those are a lot of big, multifaceted questions, but some of the musings I’ve been thinking about as Shadi was sharing.

Parmida: This might be an answer to one of your questions or a little bit of everything, but I think it’s hard to obviously say... I feel like there’s also still a lot that I don’t know of in a lot of other cities in [the] US in terms of what Iranians have been doing. I know some obviously in New York, and I know some stuff happening in DC. I know some stuff in Bay Area because I was there. So, there are actually a lot of… I think, small, they might not be at the forefront, and they might not be well known that much beyond their town. But I think there are definitely a lot happening.

I think definitely for me, what I personally find a challenge—and also, I think it might not be necessarily a challenge, but—the reason why some of these don’t come to the forefront is that I think in a positive way, people, especially in our community, love when something is in our own language, obviously. People try to produce work and are gravitated more towards things that are in our own language naturally. We’d love to go see plays that are in Farsi, but obviously that limits the audience. So, you only get a certain… from our own communities. So, it doesn’t go beyond that. It doesn’t introduce it to other communities around them, or it doesn’t go beyond non-Farsi speakers, which is not a bad thing. It’s just, I think, it might be a reason why some of these communities or theatres stay within a certain audience and within a certain community.

Naghmeh and me both would love to do more work in English and produce more work in English and have more classes in English. But we definitely have found that that puts the limit also on people who are Iranian who don’t want to necessarily go to a class that’s taught in English or are not interested in visiting a show that’s... even if it’s around their identity, but it’s not in their language. I think that’s definitely a thing that I’ve found in our community of being… It’s a balance of we want to bridge the gap and go beyond our Iranian community, but at the same time we want to invite our Iranian community to be a part of this. And just the language thing is a thing that I’m finding is a very important factor in how we can reach different audience and different people.

Then beyond that, it’s like for me, “Okay, if our work and what we’re trying to do doesn’t reach beyond our own community, then there’s a whole other level of introduction that doesn’t happen to Iranian theatre in our other communities, or there’s a whole other level of reach that we don’t have to other immigrant communities also because of just that language factor.” This is just something that’s been on my mind a lot recently. And I think this is a challenge that we’ve been noticing when we introduce things that are in English through our theatre company and what kind of audience that attracts or what kind of audience that doesn’t attract and what that subsequent result is or what that leads to, in the terms of the work that we do.

Nabra: Parmida’s question brought up one facet of my question, which was this question of audience and how you think about audience because I do think that we need to be doing work in our own languages. I’ve been wanting to do work in Arabic but am worried about like, “Who is the audience? How are we going to get resources to do that?” There should be so much more support for that specific community-based work that is for a specific community in a specific language, but it’s so difficult to get those resources. So, I guess one of the subquestions is really: how do you think about audience, and does that affect the work you’re producing, the resources that you’re getting? What do you see as the future of Iranian theatre in the US, or the present even, and some of the barriers that you’re facing as well as what you’re kind of looking forward to seeing in the greater Iranian theatre community and landscape?

Shadi: I think the community work with Peydah [has] very different approaches. One important part of it is to collaborate and work with a community of theatre artists. Iranian theatre artists, Iranian American theatre artists. So that leaves the audience or the person who receives that work completely [in] a different community group for me. We very much like to do the job of theatre artists, as we wish, with people that share different identities. We have collaborators, immigrant collaborators from all around, and we have a variety and completely diverse group of collaborators.

But for me, it’s very hard to hear from all of my Iranian, Iranian American actors what is the 99 percent of the casting calls they get. It’s not definitely Hamlet, but there are [millions] of Hamlets between us. It’s just embarrassing at this point that in a country, like that is the case. So we create some spaces for our own to really do the character we believe in, and we want to do. I think there’s so much value to taking care and boosting our community of Iranian and Iranian American and Middle Eastern and SWANA and people of color of this country. We have so much [work to do]. We have to boost ourselves and bring ourselves up of course. That’s one [type of] community work we do.

With community of Iranian, just audience of location we work, which is New York, I think we have been in a really good relationship. I’m close with Iranian speaking, Farsi-speaking community of New York, thank God. We have this Emruz Festival collective that much more embraces our language and our culture. But in theatre, in Peydah, as you said it, Parmida, as well, language is a thing. Most of us don’t speak Farsi at all. So, we have to in space talk English and sometimes make fun of the ones who don’t know and laugh about it. So, we write in English. Our audience is very, very American theatregoers because of my background from Yale, because of my relationship to Off Broadway, because of many actors that are coming from great schools of acting. And they are working in Off Broadway and Broadway stages. So, we have a network of every theatregoer that we can have in our scale.

But when we share Iranian stories in our theatre, we bring our community and our friends. Most of the time [we’re] trying to get [the] right tickets for them because the tickets are very expensive and must not be that way. So, it’s making community nights or making tickets that are available for the people because diversifying the audience is as important as diversifying our board and collectives.

I think it’s very hard to say about future of theatre in general, leave it alone, Iranian theatre or anything. I don’t know. I am every day trying as [an] older artist and to not care about [the] audience. I’m very tired of doing [the] audience’s job for them. I have heard from other people, artists that are older than me, or more mature and experienced in their own field, that sooner or later, we should not care about that. So, I have decided that my audience is whoever comes to see the show and I will be honored that I have that person. I am not going to write in order for a specific institution or audience to understand me, to curate me, to season me. I think it’s enough. It is insulting at this point because at certain point in 2017, that was not understood, but now we all get it. So if you’re playing it, it is now insulting. I know I have to write about my women and my people, the people who are going through the most horrifying [unjust things] that we can hear, and I’m going to write about it. And maybe [it] never will get produced or maybe next year or twenty years, like that should not be the point for us making anything anymore because just like abuse.

Parmida: I just want to respond to that because I think I love what you said about not caring. You are constantly, as a theatre company, as a producer, you’re constantly walking this balance line of what I want to do versus, “Oh, we need to also eat; we need to make money to be able to pay our artists and produce work. What is that balance?” And we get offered from actually Iranian culture [organizations]. We did get offered a grant from a cultural Iranian organization in town here to produce something because they got a grant from [the] Department of Health and we’re like, “Okay, let’s talk about is this aligning with our... Yes, there’s money. Yes. This is going to be great. We could produce a work. Is this aligning with our vision?” We had decided to do that. We did it.

But we get offered that kind of stuff all the time and it’s like, “Okay, do I want to just do it because we need to do something, and we need to keep afloat. And we need to produce work and keep our name out there,” which is another thing. You feel like you constantly have to do things that people don’t forget about you. Or should we step back and just reevaluate and actually know, “Okay, is this actually something we want to do, and is this aligning with what we’re trying to do?” As my brain is constantly in that battle with our theatre company of what are we picking and choosing and what is something that we actually enjoy doing, too? Because eventually we’re doing this because we also enjoy doing theatre and we don’t want it to become, like Shadi said, nobody wants to do the whole admin side of theatre. Nobody’s interested in that, but it’s something that we have to do and something that we do. We do the raising the money and all of that because we want to eventually do what we love and produce work that we love.

At the same time, going back to the language thing, Shadi, I feel we need to collab. It seems like we can complete each other in terms of the audience that we don’t necessarily care about. They might help us because I feel like we actually have the other problem of every time we introduce something in English or we want to do a class in English or something in English, we have a lot less interest and a lot less attraction to our stuff. Immediately, when we choose something in Farsi—and I think a lot of it comes from the fact that obviously Naghmeh Samini has a huge Iranian [following], and she’s incredible at her classes that she teaches in Farsi. So, every time that we introduce something like that, we have a huge audience, and everybody’s attending and loves to collaborate. But I think finding that balance of, again, going beyond the reach, not just in the audience, but in the artists that we attract and the students that we attract, it seems like we might complete each other in that way, so.

Shadi: Yeah, that’s wonderful. Also, sometimes it’s just okay to observe what is needed, and we don’t need to do all. I feel like, and Naghmeh and Seattle’s Iranian artists, they have a different relationship to language and Farsi than inside New York. Actually, it’s unfortunate that in New York, that’s not the case because it doesn’t allow it to, who’s going to produce you if you have a full Farsi-language show. It’s not that we don’t want to do [it]. We’re dying to act in Farsi, in my opinion. But I think there’s so much potential for us to collaborate with each other and share networks and spaces. I think we do that, and we must continue to do that. I hope that it grows the network, and the network that has anything grows. So we are not resharing what we already have with each other, but we are sharing more than the world together.

Nabra: Well, I want to uplift as well that you’re both doing so much pipeline work. I’m hearing so much about how you’re building your audiences. You’re communicating to your audiences and responding to your audiences, whatever that might be, especially the Iranian community. You’re also creating, building, and growing a pipeline for Iranian theatre artists in all aspects of theatre, which is so exciting and so, so crucial. It will contribute to the future of theatre in so, so many ways to just have these educational opportunities and building and community-building opportunities for so many new and established artists. So, thank you for doing that work. I already see a future for the American theatre, Iranian theatre, and Iranian American theatre through that work alone, that pipeline work alone. Not to mention all of the incredible art you’re doing and the multidisciplinary art you’re doing and the work in Farsi that you’re creating. So, it’s all just very, very exciting to hear about.

Marina: Something that I was wondering about, and it’s a question that Nabra actually has asked other people in front of me, and I think it’s really useful. If you could wave a wand and see a different American theatre landscape, what would that look to you? What would that mean for theatre practice and theory and the world that we see or we want to see for theatre?

Parmida: Oh, that’s a hard question.

Marina: It feels like your companies are re-envisioning the world in beautiful, strong ways. So, I’m just curious to know what your take on that is.

Shadi: I think the Octavia Butler version of saying what that ideal world looks like is that we [should] just really stop talking about gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and we do not get surprised that [an] artistic director is a woman. Or we do not get surprised that Off Broadway has one show that it’s not completely white. I think we will be in a world that there is not extra energy and work to do just in order to have [equality]. We can just make something, and we can disagree with each other and decide to just go for each other. And that’s how we will make better arts. We will still be saying different things, but we will share so much. But it would really truly be a theatre that raising money or having money is not like an absolute different experience for me than somebody else, that we will not right now put at my thing.

I think right now, if you look at New York’s theatre from down to up, how many women of color, immigrant women you see in the artistic director role, or how many female [people] of color you see at stages of Broadway. It’s another one of those things that we all know, but I hope that we have [an] American theatre in [the] near future that we actually are arguing about our ideas about life and opinion and our art at the surface, not our identity and who was our father or mother.

Parmida: Yeah. I could agree more with that. I think for me another thing is I am tired of asking for money, and I am tired of just constantly comparing theatre with other fields who have standards, have contracts, have minimum wages, have all of that. I just want a world where theatre has… Everybody’s making a living wage, and we’re not constantly compromising our artistic abilities and visions because of money. I’m just tired of that, personally.

I think it’s constantly... I mean, obviously you can do so much in theatre with nothing. Theatre is [where] you can just get on a stage and create and make beautiful things. But in a world that we are, and in the capitalism that exists, I think there’s a lot of limitations [on] just finding space, the first thing and so much of just that and just being able to... One of my biggest goals is I never would want to ask anybody to do anything for Seda for free or obviously we always ask for volunteer help and all of that. But I would never want to just assume that somebody’s going to design a show for us because we’re a small theatre company that we are not able to pay them. That is something that we would want to do, and so I feel it would be great if there’s a world where that is not a constant worry for theatre companies on the forefront.

Nabra: I completely agree with both of you as well. I mean, two incredibly crucial points. Thank you so much. We’re at the end of our time together. It’s been just so illuminating to hear from both of you. I’m so excited about the work that you’re doing and really hope that all of our audiences follow the work you’re doing and support, of course, the work that you both are doing. So, thank you so much for joining us.

Shadi: Thank you for having us.

Parmida: Thank you so much. This has been really lovely.

Marina: Yes. Thank you.

Marina: Thank you so much for having tea with us. This has been another episode of Kunafa and Shay. We’re your hosts, Marina and Nabra. This podcast is produced as a contribution to how HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find podcasts.

Nabra: Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com.

Marina: Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.

Nabra: We hope you tune in next time. Thank you for joining us on Kunafa and Shay.

Nabra and Marina: Yalla, bye!

Thoughts from the curators

Season 1 of Kunafa and Shay will focus on MENA theatre post-9/11 to today, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the United States. Theatre artist Nabra Nelson and MENA theatre scholar Marina J. Bergenstock bring their own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

The name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how: with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea (or, in Arabic, shay!). Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and, sometimes, to engage with our differences.

Kunafa and Shay

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