Interview: Torange Yeghiazarian

Torange Yeghiazarian is a director and playwright, and the artistic director of Golden Thread Productions, a theater company focused on creating work that reflects the diversity and complexity of the Middle East. She is currently producing and directing for GT’s signature event, the ReOrient Festival, which features two different programs of short plays about the Middle East penned by American and international writers, as well as a weekend-long forum of panels and roundtable discussions about art, politics, and social change.

Torange spoke with Works by Women San Francisco about her artistic path, how the ReOrient Festival has evolved, and the value of asking for, and knowing, what you want.

WORKS BY WOMEN SAN FRANCISCO: How did you come to work in the theater?

TORANGE YEGHIAZARIAN: A process of elimination. I was one of those kids that did everything, from science to arts to humanitarian activities. Eventually, as I got older, it was like ‘What can I not live without?’ I wanted to be a ballerina. That was eliminated. I wanted to be a heart surgeon. That was eliminated. And the things I couldn’t live without were writing and performing. So they stayed, and eventually, they were combined. I started writing plays. I wanted to be an actor. Then I started writing material for myself to act. Finally, I started writing plays with multiple characters. And so it was sort of an organic growth that way.

WWSF: Who are some of the artists who have influenced and inspired you?

TORANGE YEGHIAZARIAN: A lot of women. Julie Taymor is my all-time favorite director. I love the way she combines design and directing, the way she works with classics and makes them contemporary and brings them to life. I love physical theater, so I’m a huge fan of Anne Bogart. And then some of the Eastern European directors, you know, Tadeusz Kantor, that style of work. And American playwrights, I’m a huge fan of Eugene O’Neill. We were born on the same day, so I take that as a personal source of pride.

WWSF: You’ve been producing the ReOrient Festival for over a decade. How has this signature program of Golden Thread Productions grown and evolved?

TORANGE YEGHIAZARIAN: Well, it’s evolved to include the Forum, for one thing, so that’s a very specific new addition that we started in 2009, mainly because there seemed to be a lot to say. Our talkbacks have always been very engaged. People take the work very personally, maybe because there isn’t enough out there. So the little bit that is offered is very important to people.

It’s a source of pride that people feel safe enough in Golden Thread’s theater space to actually speak up. Some of the things that you may not see in other theaters, in other talkbacks that people hold back, they actually volunteer that information at our talkbacks. Also, over the years, I have met amazing artists who are also activists, who have tremendous experience and courage in doing what they do, and I wanted to showcase that. I’m always annoyed when people think artists are dumb, or that they become artists because they can’t do anything else. In my experience, artists are among the bravest people I know, because a) they do what they do with the absolute minimum money. It’s a huge choice they have to make initially in terms of their career. There are rich artists also, but most of us really have to make that decision very consciously, that okay, I will live with the minimum amount of money that I absolutely need, so that I can do this work. And b) There are artists who are activists, who really put their lives on the line, working for peace-building, working for conflict resolution, those kinds of things. So, in recent years, I’ve become involved with Theatre without Borders, with theater and peace-building, and the program at Brandeis University. I had many encounters with artists who do this kind of work, you know, nationally, and really use their art to explore deep social wounds and to address conflict in a different way, which is beyond analytical analysis. It’s more about human connection and how, in a very real way, when people come together to actually make something, when they actually work together, something changes in them. I think that’s a lesson for everyone. So I wanted to share those findings with our community in the Bay Area.

WWSF: Golden Thread Productions has been in operation for 16 years?

TORANGE YEGHIAZARIAN: Yeah. Hard to believe!

WWSF: You’re still a small theater company, but you’re also unique, you fill a niche.  What do you think Golden Thread’s impact is?  Are you just a local company or do you have greater influence beyond San Francisco?

TORANGE YEGHIAZARIAN: I’m going to say we have a bigger impact outside of San Francisco than we do inside of it. It’s kind of ironic in a way, because San Francisco is very welcoming of new ideas. We get excited about new things, but our audience is pretty small. So all the theater companies here share the same limited audience. Golden Thread does have an edge in that we do outreach to Middle-Eastern communities, but actually, the majority of our audience is still non-Middle-Eastern. And then, for whatever reason, it’s like you have to make it somewhere else in order to be appreciated at home. I feel like that’s what happened for Golden Thread. When we started getting attention from TCG in New York, that’s when people here said, “Oh, okay, well maybe it’s worth looking at these guys.” Also when we started working with international artists, we got more attention. In all fairness, we are a small theater company, we have a small audience, we work on a small budget. But I think we probably deserve to get more attention locally than we have. Since last year, I would say that’s changing, partly I think, because we’ve been getting more attention outside of the Bay Area.

WWSF: In the recent essay you wrote for the HowlRound blog, you mentioned a 1990 experience with a discouraging acting coach, who told you that because of your Iranian ethnicity and accent, you would only be cast as in minor support roles, never as the lead. Do you think casting opportunities have improved for Middle-Eastern women actors or do you think similar biases still exist?

TORANGE YEGHIAZARIAN: I think in mainstream theater, mainstream cinema, it’s pretty much the same. What has changed is that there’s an awareness of the Middle-Eastern community as part of the larger American tapestry. There is typical representation, like all the terrorist films and the TV series that are being produced, which offer opportunities to Middle-Eastern actors, but in stereotypical roles. But it’s still work that wasn’t there before. Companies like us, like Silk Road, like Lark Play Development Center in New York, are also trying to create more expansive opportunities in theater.  Supporting the playwrights is a big step. Because, first, good work has to be written, and then, meaty roles for actors become available. From the very beginning of Golden Thread Productions, people have contacted me saying “I’m looking for a monologue for an Egyptian woman or an Iranian woman. Can you recommend anything?” Now, there is much more material, like the anthology of Middle-Eastern American plays published by TCG in 2009, and the anthology of short Arabic plays in English. So the more work that is produced, the more opportunities there are for Middle-Eastern actors. Something to be aware of, and I think this is true of all communities, is that as an artist, you have to make a choice. Do you want to be identified as a member of a small community or do you want to establish yourself as kind of a universal actor? I know that when I was thinking about starting Golden Thread, my college adviser told me: “Be aware this may limit you as an artist, because you will forever be identified only with this community.” That’s something to be aware of, and it’s not necessarily the best choice for every actor.

WWSF: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?

TORANGE YEGHIAZARIAN: That’s a six-hour conversation! Developing a sense of entitlement has a lot to do with it, I think. I find that when I want to do something, I often ask other people, “Should I do this?” As we grow older, as we have more experience, maybe we do less of this. But in the beginning, I feel like women, more than men, ask for permission, ask for confirmation that what they want is okay. I think we need to get away from that and say, “Listen, this is what I want to do, the hell with everybody else, I’ll just do what I want to do, and here it is.” A lot of times, men take it for granted that it’s their right to do something: to play lead in the best plays on the planet, to run theater companies, to get paid more than anybody else. I think women need to get to the point where we say, “You know, my worth is this much, either you can afford me or you can’t afford me,” and not feel bad about that. The other side of it is that people are more comfortable with men in leadership positions. Why is that? I think change is a slow, slow process. But part of it is women having that sense of entitlement and giving ourselves permission to take risks and be criticized for our choices. And part of it is society accepting more women in positions of leadership.  It’s happening, I think, but it’s slow.

WWSF: What gives you hope in American theater?

TORANGE YEGHIAZARIAN: I think the conversation gives me hope. It’s alive and it’s vibrant and people are discussing issues. Also, the conversation is changing a little bit. I think we’re becoming more aware of other communities and what other people are doing and we’re not feeling so isolated. In a way, I think, theater and theater artists are beginning to claim their rightful place in society. It’s like, “Hey, we’re not just in the margins. We are making San Francisco. San Francisco is an artist town.” To make those claims, I think, is empowering and exciting.

Golden Thread’s production of ReOrient 2012 runs through 11/18 at the Noh Space and Z Space in San Francisco.

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