Featured Member — Mohammad Yaghoubi
*Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Mohammad Yaghoubi, a playwright, director, screenwriter, theatre instructor, Co-founder, and co-artistic director of Toronto-based NOWADAYS THEATRE company. His plays have been translated and produced in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Kurdistan, Russia, Sweden, The Czech Republic, Turkey, and the USA. His highly acclaimed play A Moment of Silence has been anthologized as one of the new Iranian plays published by Aurora Metro (United Kingdom) in 2021.
With over a decade of experience in theatre, Mohammad moved to Canada in 2015. After founding NOWADAYS THEATRE company in 2016, Mohammad Yaghoubi staged the English premiere of his play A Moment of Silence at the 2016 SummerWorks Performance Festival. A Moment of Silence has been anthologized as one of the new Iranian plays published by Aurora Metro (United Kingdom).
In 2018, with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, he wrote his first play in English Persimmon. Toronto Arts Council has also awarded him a grant in 2020 to write his second play in English titled Earworm.
Recent Credits: Dance of Torn Papers (Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival, 2021), Winter of 88 (Next Stage Theatre Festival, 2020, Factory Theatre MainSpace), The Only Possible Way (Canadian Stage, 2019).
Selected Awards: The Promising Pen Prize from Cahoots Theatre for his play Persimmon, 2021; The National Theatre Critics Society Award for Outstanding Play — Drought & Lies; First place winner of the Iranian Playwrights Society and third place winner of the New Play Contest in Toronto’s Fringe Festival — 2016 for Outstanding Writing — A Moment of Silence; The National Theatre Critics Society Award for Outstanding Writing — Geraniums; The National Theatre Critics Society Award for Outstanding Direction- Dance of Torn Papers and The Fadjr Theatre Festival Award for Outstanding Direction and Writing — Winter of 88.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got your start writing plays.
Born and raised in Iran, I grew up in a small town named Langroud, in the North of Iran. Our family’s financial situation wasn’t great, so I couldn’t buy books or magazines, so a friend of mine would lend me books and another friend of mine gave me the magazines that his parents bought that he never read. After I read those magazines and books, I would tell their stories to my friends. Time went by quickly. In high school, I wrote some short stories. My dream was to become a novelist back then.
When I finished high school, I went to Tehran (the capital city), far from my family, and started to study law, just so my family could get off my back. A few months after I started studying law, I noticed that there was a theatre group in the university, so I joined the group and didn’t tell anybody in my family about this, not even my brother who was studying law like me in the same faculty. In that group, I experienced acting for the first time in my life. At the same time, I started reading plays; let’s say I devoured them. Around six months later, I wrote my first play titled Return and gave it to my friends in that theatre group, and all of them liked it.
I decided to finish studying law so that my family was assured that I was “settled down” and would become a lawyer in the future. So four years studying law were enough time for me to learn theatre simultaneously. During this time, I was being trained in acting and directing classes instructed by two of the most influential theatre practitioners’ Hamid Samandarian’ and ‘Mahin Oskouei.’ During these four years, I changed my goal to be a novelist.
I wrote three plays during this time, and my friends were the only ones who read them. I was still encouraged to write more plays, but I was not confident enough to give them to directors and ask them to read. Everything I know today about writing drama stems from those acting and directing classes and reading numerous novels and plays while watching a lot of theatres and movies. I attended only acting and directing classes instead of playwriting classes because I didn’t have that much money to attend more classes. So I thought to myself: “Which classes should I attend to help with my writing with the money I have in my pocket?” I thought: “Well, I can learn playwriting from reading plays and books on playwriting, but I can’t learn acting from just reading books. I must act.” Attending acting classes taught me how to write for an actor. I never attended acting classes to become an actor. Though I wanted to be able to direct my own work, so directing was in my backpack- and I always tell my students in my writing classes to get trained as an actor and, secondly, take directing lessons. I know that directing your own work isn’t really a thing in North America. In North America, the writer and the director are different people. It’s quite common to see the playwright acting in their own play, which I find quite interesting, but in Iran, which is pretty much influenced by European theatre, such a thing is not common. In Iran and Europe, writers direct their own work, whether in theatre or cinema. The main reason I believe a writer must direct their own work is so that they don’t have to run after producers and directors to take a look at their play to see if they want to put it on stage or not. I believe playwrights shouldn’t wait to be discovered; they’d better stage their play and turn their dream into reality.
In the meantime, I experienced directing a play, The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, as a final project for the directing class. It was a wonderful experience because I learned how to work with actors. However, I had a problem after a private showing of it. As the director, I told my actors that they could hug each other (the scene where Tom comes home crying and Laura hugs him) and that they can smoke. In Iran, a man and a woman are not allowed to touch each other if they are not married, and even they are married, touching each other on stage is not allowed and also, no smoking is allowed in the months Ramadan. After all, it was a private showing, so I thought breaking the rules wouldn’t be an issue. However, there were auditions in the same theatre for a TV show, so a bunch of hardcore conservatives saw us and wrote about our play in the newspapers. The police came to our apartment to arrest me when I was in my friend’s house. Then they raided our house many time early in the mornings in hoping to find me. I knew that they didn’t have a formal order by a judge. So I stayed at my friends’ houses for two months waiting to be summoned legally and officially.
It’s a long story, and I wanted to say that this happening shaped my thought about theatre as an artistic way of action for freedom of speech. Two years later, I staged a play by Marsha Norman, Night Mother; faced again with many problems caused by the censorship office, and it is another long story. In the meantime, I wrote my play Winter of 88, which made me well-known when it went on stage a year after I wrote it. It was the first time I was confident to introduce myself as a playwright and director in a theatre festival. The play won writing and directing awards and two actors in my project won acting awards. This was around February of 1998. I was 29 back then. After that, I wrote another play, Dance of Torn Papers, which also won writing and directing and acting awards, and so on and so forth.
You were already an established playwright and director in Iran before immigrating to Canada in 2015. Can you tell us about the challenges you face building a career in the arts in a new country and the steps you have taken to overcome them?
My wife is an actor and director, so I was not alone in this adventure. It could be difficult for me if I didn’t have her beside me. We were lucky since my brother-in-law was a student here and was a member of the Iranian Association at the University of Toronto.
So I started a stage-reading at the university for the Iranian community and conducted two classes for playwriting and acting. We met Soheil Parsa through a mutual friend, and he helped us a lot and gave us some advice regarding what to expect. We were told not to expect a huge audience turnout since another established Iranian actor/director put on a show, and only 25 people showed up. Considering our shows in Iran, which were mostly sold out. So our biggest challenge was that we were not going to get much of a huge audience turnout. For example around six months before we arrived in Canada, our last work in Iran had an audience turnout of 15000. Canadians find this weird whenever I tell them! Fifty nights sold out. Every time we did a show in Iran, it was guaranteed that 30 nights would sell out. One of our shows was supposed to be at 7 pm, and people lined up at 7 am, in the cold, hoping to get tickets that were sold at the door (since most of the tickets were pre-bought). This is one of the biggest yet painful differences we have been experiencing here in Canada.
However, here we have been enjoying the freedom that we were deprived of in our home country. We wanted this challenge to breathe freedom instead of losing numerous audience members. Freedom can shape our minds to work differently. Then we decided to found our theatre company ‘NOWADAYS THEATRE’ which is the translation of our theatre group in Iran, named ‘InRoozHa’ which means ‘NOWADAYS’. We started to produce English-speaking productions to connect with the English Speaking audience members. We applied for the SummerWorks Performance Festival with one of my well-known plays, A Moment of Silence, and the application was accepted.
Thanks to Soheil Parsa and the Modern Times Company as our supporters, we were fortunate to have the support of [the] Toronto Arts Council and the Iranian Businesses of Toronto. We decided to cast only Canadian actors for two reasons: to improve our English and our network because we didn’t want to be isolated in the Iranian community. It was a great challenge to communicate with actors through a second language, thanks to them for their efforts to understand my broken language when directing them. The play was well-received. There were positive reviews and negative reviews. I wouldn’t say I liked the logic of the negative ones because they weren’t accepting the idea of having Western actors portraying Middle Eastern characters. I couldn’t get it. This is such an old and traditional mindset. How is it acceptable to do Chekhov with western actors? We are living in a world where Hamlet is played by a black actor or even a woman. How are they acceptable? I don’t believe in this old and traditional mindset.
After staging A Moment of Silence, we found out it was the right decision to perform the Iranian plays for an English audience that can make us stand out. Ever since then, we have presented more productions in English, including: Dance of Torn Papers (at the DanceMakers, with the supports of Toronto Arts Council and Ontario Arts Council), Swim Team (at the 2018 SummerWorks lab, and the Theatre Centre in 2019, with the supports of the Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and Toronto Arts Council), The Only Possible Way (as the company residency at Canadian stage, with the supports of the Canada Council for the Arts, and Toronto Arts Council, 2019), Winter of 88 (at the Next Stage Theatre Festival, with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, 2020), From the Basement to the Roof (Virtual on Zoom, with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, 2021) A virtual 360˚ experience with two short play: Mother and Birthday Present under the title of Dance of Torn Papers (at Toronto Fringe Festival, 2021). We received amazing reviews and feedback for the mentioned shows, including 5Ns review from Now Magazine for Winter of 88, and Outstanding Production, Outstanding ensembles, Outstanding Direction, and Outstanding design for Swim Team, also mentioned in the list of Canadian Stage Award for Direction as Honourable Mentions.
Aside from the business of being a playwright, what changes did you have to make in the way that you wrote when you began writing in English as a second language?
Writing my first play in English titled Persimmon was the most challenging activity that I have done so far, but I wanted and enjoyed this challenge. I had to spend much more time and effort than I usually do for writing a Farsi play. And I noticed that when writing in English, I had to think simple, and the characters talk simpler than the characters in my Farsi plays. And there were not as many wordplays as I had in my mother tongue’s scripts. I’m proud of overcoming the fear and finishing the play. I started writing the play only to practice thinking in English, and fortunately, I received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, was commissioned by Tarragon Theatre, and won the 2021 Cahoots Theatre’s Pen Prize for the same play. I’m extremely thankful for their supports which encouraged me to start writing my second play in English, titled Earworm, that I finished in September 2021 with the generous support of the Toronto Arts Council.
You have stated elsewhere that “form is as important as the subject matter” for your writing. Last summer, two short pieces from your play “Dance of Torn Papers” were created as a virtual 360˚ experience for the Toronto Fringe Festival. Can you tell us about your experiences adapting your work to new technologies, and how form influences you?
Subject matter and form have correlative relations. The subject matter is an answer to the question ‘what?’, and form is the answer to the question ‘how?’. It is not enough to answer only one of these questions. Either a spectacular form-based work without an impressive subject or an impressive subject-based work lacking correct form; I mean both are needed to have considerable work.
Working on virtual reality was a fantastic experience, an exciting exploration in a new medium. I learned a lot, and it will impact my following works. I liked this aspect of the 360˚ VR that gave audiences the ability to be close to the characters in the room, making them intimately a part of the experience, and they could decide where they wanted to look by turning around with the VR headset or their cellphones, or with moving the mouse. I asked the actors to move the camera with them to different places when they walked, and it gave the work a theatrical aspect, emphasizing that this is a performance. Also, it gave the work unpredictable moments specifically for the audiences who watched our work with VR headsets. I would love to work in this medium again. And also, I would love to record the archival video of our in-person shows in the 360˚ VR. I always got bored of watching the archival videos of my in-person performances, but now I’m sure 360˚ degree videos of our in-person shows should be worth watching.
What are you working on next?
Nowadays, we have been rehearsing the English premiere of a show titled Heart of a Dog that I adapted based on a novel by the classic Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov. It will be on stage in the 2022 Next Stage Festival for five performances from January 19th to January 30th.
I staged this play in Farsi twice in Iran in 1999 and 2014. When remounted in 2014, I had a different approach and asked all the men in the show to wear hijabs. It was in response to the image of women that the Islamic state has disseminated in recent decades. In Iran, the state dictates Islamic sartorial codes for women to this day. I used this approach to criticize the compulsory hijab and censorial regulations. The narrative of this story inspired me to expose the similarities of the totalitarian states of two different countries of different times with contradicting ideologies wherein one communism ruled over people’s lives (Russia) and in the other religion (Iran). That project showed how ridiculously similar these countries are regarding the lack of freedom of speech and freedom of opinion.
The story is about a stray dog saved by a successful surgeon who runs an operation by trepanning his skull and giving him human pituitary glands. Later on, the dog gets hired by the Soviet State and starts working for them. Arguably, this timeless story — uniquely — portrays the exploitation of people in any society in which individuals are used and even abused due to particular political intentions of the government.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays?
I have read numerous Canadian plays so far, and there is a lot I have not read yet. I know that I have to read more to answer this question. But, to express admiration for the writers whose plays I enjoyed reading, I would like to name them. The plays are Butcher by Nicholas Billon, Late Company by Jordan Tannahill, Huff by Cliff Cardinal, Recent Experiences by Nadia Ross and Jacob Wren, You Will Remember Me by François Archambault, Pig Girl by Colleen Murphy, Bang Bang by Kat Sandler, Never Swim Alone by Daniel MacIvor, Love and Anger by George F. Walker, Lion in the Streets by Judith Thompson, In This World by Hannah Moscovitch, Gertrude and Alice by Anna Chatterton, Fronteras Americanas by Guillermo Verdecchia, The Drawer Boy by Michael Healey, Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, True Nature of Love by Brad Fraser, Empire : A Trilogy of Modern Epics by Susanna Fournier.
I can add more if you ask me again in six months and even more if you ask me later.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.