The Iranian-born Canadian director Soheil Parsa is taking over Buddies in Bad Times Theatre with his remount of Blood Weddings. The play, written by Garcia Lorca, was initially produced by Parsa in 2015 and was a great success. It won six Dora Mavor Moore Awards, two Toronto Theatre Critics Association Awards, and earned a place on NOW Magazine’s Top Ten List for the year.
Blood Weddings returns to the stage from March 4th to the 19th with the original cast and crew. Parsa has gone deeper into the concepts behind the play after six weeks of intensive training with the cast. He hopes to bring light to the importance of the play in our current world as it retains a striking cultural, political, and social relevance to our current age.
Blood Weddings tells a story of two rival families who have more in common than it may appear on the surface. Parsa reminds us that while we may have our differences, we are fundamentally the same and should hold onto that hope for humanity.
Kimberley Drapack: Tell us a little bit about the play. What made you decide to put on this specific piece?
Soheil Parsa: I was fascinated by Lorca and his plays since I was in Iran. I was a theatre student back home. I knew Lorca, I knew his poetry. I always wanted to do this piece. It was very close to my philosophy and it was very close to my heart.
The story itself was inspired by a newspaper story found by Lorca. It tells a story of a conflict between two families, but gets to its peak when a girl runs away with her ex-lover, the son of the enemy, on her wedding night. Thematically, I think the story is about the tragic ending of the unfulfilled love that has been caused by the need to preserve honour and appearance in society. That’s a major theme, as well as the conflict between individuals — their desires for freedom amidst societal law and conventions.
Lorca was a homosexual man and the experience of these social conventions and limitations of being a gay man in a male-dominated society, doesn’t really make sense. For him, society is kind of a precious instrument that locks away the primal response of human beings.
The play has other layers and themes that are really interesting. One of them is the status of women in a male-dominated society. Other themes include love, death, the concept of “being real,” and fate. There are many layers in this piece and that’s why I think it’s a fascinating play.
K: How was casting?
S: I cast the show 2 years ago and it was very challenging to cast it because of the non-naturalistic, non-realistic style of the play. Once I did, in a six-week journey I established a common vocabulary within myself and the cast so we are all on the same page. It’s very exciting. It took us a long time.
K: It must have been a lot of hard work.
S: It’s not a common scenario or style in Canadian theatre, that’s why it was a challenge. The cast is extremely talented, and it was a mutual trust so everything is good.
K: Your first run of Blood Weddings in 2015 did incredibly well. What made you decide to bring it back for a second run?
S: It was a kind of necessity after two years. I think that the themes and the story are more relevant and more immediate after two years, considering what is happening around the world. One of the themes of that play that some people might not notice is an overall tribal attitude: the lack of forgiveness, and lack of empathy or compassion in humanity. Things get tribal and people get so locked in their own culture or their own vision and they cannot see anything else. For me, that’s kind of the source of violence in the play.
Given the success of the play two years ago, we of course wanted people to see it who haven’t yet. It was really important for me to remount this piece in this time, in this situation, with these things happening around the world.
K: The play, although written in 1932, holds certain themes that are applicable to our current world. Why do you think this is?
S: That’s an important question because of certain political situations in the world and the division between us and the other. I think that’s one of the major themes of the play. It’s about the other family that never, ever forgets. The hostility that happened in the past, that lack of forgiveness. This kind of tribal attitude, the importance for the characters of this play to preserve honour and social appearance. I think we see that in many countries around the world right now. National religious identities are often singular. I call it a “choice-less identity.” They cannot get rid of it or open up and see humanity as a whole. We are all caught in our personal, national, and religious identities. Despite all of our differences, I think that it’s important to realize that we have a lot in common. I think for this reason the play at the source doesn’t look so political, but it is. It’s talking about our society, our attitude as individuals, and how we want to please others.
K: It’s interesting — now that it’s your second run, and that you’ve had the time, you can find those layers within the play.
S: Yes, to go deeper to the essence of the play, to give us this opportunity in the second run to go deeper within the characters and the whole concept of the play. It’s been really very useful. It’s not just a remount, it’s beyond that for me. It’s the ability to go deeper in every level, to the essence of the play.
K: What challenges did you face in bringing this script off the page?
S: One of the main challenges for me was communicating and conveying the unique and the unusual style of this play with my cast. The dominant style of theatre in North America is naturalism and realism. This naturalistic approach to acting wouldn’t be appropriate for this play. It’s a highly visceral, poetic, and visual drama. That’s the way that I look at this piece. The play incorporates songs, poetry, music — its action is set in this symbolic and stylized universe. The universe moves between the real and unreal worlds constantly, back and forth. With the naturalistic approach to theatre, it would be very difficult to convey this universe and go deep down and create this kind of theatre. That was a challenge.
I was blessed with having a very strong and talented cast who trusted me and collaborated with me over those six weeks, as I’ve said, in an incredible journey to discover the style of the play and create a powerful production. I appreciate the collaboration of the entire creative team, cast and crew, to help me to get this play off the page.
K: That must have been an incredible journey to share with so many people considering the size of the cast.
S: Yes, and diverse. We have actors from at least seven different nationalities and backgrounds on the stage. Again, it’s going beyond naturalism and realism. That really helped me to diversify my cast because I accentuated the fact that it did not take place in any specific culture or any specific country. We accentuated the timelessness and placelessness of the play. For example, in the first scene, the mother and son are from two different cultures. The mother is from Columbian heritage and the son is from an Asian heritage. After thirty seconds, it really doesn’t matter anymore.
I stripped down the scenic elements: the props and costumes from it’s original Spanish culture. Although the Spanish culture is there, (I’m not saying its totally gone) but it’s not really happening in Spain. The play can happen in any country around the world, or in any culture around the world. It’s so beautiful on the stage, because you can kind of see the human race.
K: Does your production bring anything new to the story?
S: I think through the timelessness and placelessness of the play, I made the story a human story. Audiences from all cultures and ethnic backgrounds can enjoy it and connect to it.
I haven’t really challenged the concept of the story, or the themes of Lorca, but as a storyteller and as a theatre director, I opened it up for people to see it from a different angle than looking at just a Spanish play. It’s one of the most important achievements as a director, that’s what I’ve brought to the story: the universality, even though I’m not a big fan of that terminology. This production goes beyond all cultural and geographical barriers.
K: How did you get into theatre? What about it inspires you?
S: I started theatre back home in Iran at Tehran University during the Islamic Revolution. At this time, I was in my fourth year of theatre school and I was an actor by training. After the Revolution, I was expelled from theatre school because of my non-Islamic background, which is the Baha’i faith. I stayed for another two years, but it was impossible for me continue because of the whole situation. I was in fear of being arrested everyday.
When I was very young, I was attracted to theatre and, like other theatre practitioners around the world, I first wanted to be an actor. When I came to Canada I realized a limitation that I had due to my language and accent. I wouldn’t be able to pursue acting. I gravitated towards directing and I’m really happy with that decision.
What inspires me most about theatre is that it’s direct, human connection with the audience. As an artist and human being, I personally always strive for this immediate, live and direct connection with other human beings.
Another thing that fascinates me about theatre is about here and now. It’s about this very moment they’ve created and it’s about that shared experience. You really see this at live concerts. Film doesn’t have this quality. I’m not saying it’s inferior to theatre, but there is a passionate and powerful characteristic to be live, and be created onstage to connect with its spectators.
K: Why is theatre an important medium for storytelling?
S: Through the live and direct connection. It’s really there, and it’s happening live. The power of live storytelling is really special. It goes back to the millions of years of storytelling and that live connection between people and between families. It’s really unique and that’s why it makes theatre one of the most important forms of storytelling.
K: You established the Modern Times Stage Company in 1989. What was it like to start your own theatre company?
S: It was a different time and the situation was really different in those days. The company was founded in 1989 by myself and Peter Farbridge, an actor of British heritage. In the early nineties, there weren’t any theatre companies that were led by artists from diverse cultural backgrounds. In those days, the appearance of a theatre actor from Iran wasn’t very common. I’d say I was perhaps one of the first Middle Eastern students who studied theatre at York University in 1985. It was a strange phenomenon. I remember some disheartening comments from some members of the community, in terms of my potential as an immigrant to become a successful member of the Canadian theatre community. Eventually, I trusted myself, and that was the reason I fled my country to come to Canada and pursue my dream in theatre.
Perhaps the central motivation for forming the company came from the recognition that there would be little or less opportunity for me to be hired as a director by Torontonian theatres. That’s why I decided to create the company and create my own work with Peter Farbridge. We have been working together for thirty years. It is a very interesting combination: a Canadian of Iranian heritage, and Peter, a Canadian of British heritage. It was amazing when we got together. We never talked about our differences — it wasn’t an issue at all because the work was amazing. We talked about Brecht, we talked about Lorca. We’ve now created forty productions and gained national recognition.
K: You describe the company as addressing “themes of loneliness, the mystery of existence, the search for happiness and truth, and the conflict between Fate and Will.” How does this apply to Blood Weddings?
S: I think these themes certainly exist and are prominent in this play. It’s really close to the mandate and philosophy of the company, and to my own philosophy. Overall, Lorca’s characters are archetypal beings. They’re besieged by the forces that are greater than themselves: the unknown forces that they can neither control nor comprehend. These characters perhaps present fate and destiny. They are leading these actors as they are the masters of these characters. The dark and unknown forces that exist in this universe also exist in Shakespeare. They exist in Macbeth for example with the witches. Who are they? It’s really hard to define them.
Another thing is the concept of loneliness. Lorca’s characters, particularly the women, are fascinating. They are lonely, solitary, isolated figures, yet very strong. You feel in Lorca’s characters the things you cannot understand or comprehend. It’s beyond their control.
K: How can people become involved with the Modern Times Stage company?
S: We have a strong online presence where we try to reach out to people to communicate what we create. The intention behind what we do is not through the identity of politics. As artists, we want to create good theatre and we want to communicate and establish vocabulary between ourselves and audiences. As a theatre company we receive government funding, but it’s not always enough. We try to develop members for the company and communicate with them, to get their support and to get sponsors. In terms of a community or artistic involvement in Mainstage, we have workshops. In April, we have a three-day symposium about the concept of diversity as a practice. We have classes, and we want to involve younger generations to pass on our experiences.
Don’t forget to see Blood Weddings, starring Beatriz Pizano, Bahareh Yaraghi, Carla Melo, Carlos Gonzales-Vio, and more at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre from March 4th to the 19th. To read more about Soheil Parsa and the Modern Times Stage Company, you can find them at http://moderntimesstage.com/ or through their Facebook page.
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