When playwright Sepideh Khosrowjah was two years old her parents gave her a doll, which she immediately destroyed. “Toys were boring,” she says. I can understand why dolls would frustrate a future playwright; there’s nothing inside them. This weekend (March 8,9,14,15,16) Berkeley's Darvag performance company will begin staging Khosrowjah’s Farsi language play, “Dar Soogeh Kazem Ashtari,” (In Memory of Kazem Ashtari) and there is plenty inside the characters [rehearsal photos]. Besides humor, love, cunning, ambition, jealously, shame, and frustration, there is also a surprising secret. It was fun reading the play twice, the second time knowing the characters were hiding something from each other.
I asked Khosrowjah, “can you tell when people are acting in real life, and is that necessarily a sign of insincerity?” She replied,
“Everyone acts in real life. We all act all the time. We play different characters under different circumstances; I play a mom with my son, a professional woman at work, a cool person with friends, a good girl with older people, etc. This is not at all a sign of insincerity most of the time; it is a sign of how life is just a constant play. Those insincere people are bad actors both in real life and on stage.”
After 23 years of writing plays, Khosrowjah would know what makes a bad actor. In fact one of the characters in “Dar Soogeh Kazem Ashtari,” is supposed to be a so-so actress. I look forward to watching this character on stage, as it takes an accomplished performer to play a mediocre actress. Actually I’m doubly curious because Khosrowjah herself will be playing this difficult role.
The playwright revealed something about her approach to acting when I asked her about her favorite character in any work of fiction.
“My favorite character in a play is Jessie in 'Night' Mother,' a play by Marsha Norman. She is a woman who has come to the end in life and she wants to commit suicide. The play is about her last night and how she wants to put everything in order for her mother before leaving. She gets to explain why she has decided to do end her life or as she puts it to ‘get off the Bus of life.’ When you listen to her you realize the alienation in life and how we lose opportunities to make thing different for each other. It is a very sad play, but it is a masterpiece. I was lucky enough to play Jessie many years ago, but it made me so depressed that I could not think of going back on stage again, like with Jessie dying I was also dead as an actor.”
How did it come about you auditioned for Jessie's role in ‘Night' Mother,’ and would have ended the play differently?
"One of the advantages of having your own theatre company is that you don't have to audition. People who have worked with you for years know you and are aware of your abilities. Hamid Ehya translated the play to Persian and directed it. Darvag produced the play and I got to play Jessie and Mojdeh Molavi played the mother. I would have not ended the play differently. It was totally justified for Jessie to end her life. I can't think of any different ending. This was the tragedy of the play and the tragedy of our lives. You understand the character so well that you don't dare give her the usual clichés about thinking positively!"
Yet “Dar Soog…” does dare think positively, though not in clichés. A thoughtless act of insincerity by the deceased, Kazem Ashtari, has created chaos for his wife, his daughter and his mistress. In response, the three women characters defy expectation by making the right decisions! Now we begin to sense these women’s mediocrity in life was perhaps due to Kazem Ashtari.
“Was there ever a period in your life when a man seemed to dull your talents?” I didn’t really ask that question. If life were so straightforward, we wouldn’t need artists. Khosrowjah does say, though, that when she started acting she realized not many playwrights were telling her story. This is why she began writing her own plays at the age of 25. Her first play aptly named “Aghaz,” began a long career in the dramatic arts, not just as a playwright and actress but also as a theater company founder.
“I was one of the co-founders of Darvag. With a few friends who loved theatre, we established Darvag in August 1985, but after the first production, Darvag became much more than a few of us. I just became part of a group of wonderful people who also loved theatre. Mansour Taeed who is playing in Dar soogeh Kazem Ashtari was also one of the founding members and Bella Warda [also in the play] joined us from the first play, and Hamid Ehya [director] joined us in 1986. It is amazing how we still enjoy working with each other. Of course, we had lots of ups and downs, but we are still together after 23 years. We are so happy and excited that Shadi Yousefian also joined us in this play. Shadi is a young, beautiful, talented, energetic artist who is an amazing addition to our group and I hope she will carry the torch after my generation.”
Here in America, not many performance companies are telling our story either. Darvag is one of the few, and we would certainly like to see more productions. Khosrowjah identifies the challenge indirectly:
“I have been writing plays for 23 years and after all these years my book containing three of my plays were published in Iran by Nila publishing house. I really enjoy doing my art and don't like to promote it as much because the time I should take to promote my work I can think about writing another play. I always like to think of the flying because I know the bird will die, "Parvaz ra beh khater bespar, Parandeh mordanist". Creating art is like flying and you want to go higher and higher to be free!”
So that more birds will fly, the sky must invite.
Find info on "In Memory of Kazem Ashtari on Darvag's homepage, darvag.org.
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