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My Home is a Suitcase: A chat with creator Rzgar Hama

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Playwright/director Rzgar Hama, Artistic Director of Sky Theatre Group, is never idle. Over the last year, he put together a cohort of refugees to share their stories in a three-phase project whose first phase finished in January 2020. Dramaturg Kathleen Flaherty asked Rzgar to talk about the project just as he was ramping up for Phase Two, over a month ago. The daily changes to our social circumstances will doubtless affect these plans, but the project My Home is a Suitcase retains its relevance.

KF:  Can you describe the project My Home is a Suitcase?

RH:  The project started two years ago. It’s focused on the migration crisis, refugee crisis, around the world. It goes through three phases. The first phase is sharing the stories. After working a few months with the participants, we were able to have seven stories, written by themselves, edited and prepared for publishing at 2500 words each. We decided to share some parts of those stories with audiences as the first face of producing My Home is a Suitcase.

The idea was to create a relationship am­­ong those who are mostly called “different”, they weren’t born in Canada, in Vancouver… trying to make this real connection between these people and the communities in Vancouver, to create a deep understanding between them. When we hear “migration”, or more specifically when we hear the word “refugee”, we just hear an abstract word, we don’t know what’s inside there. It’s like a box. So I thought if we could slightly open this box, to have these stories shared, so the audience will know this person has a life besides what we see. We shared those seven stories twice, once on Granville Island and once at UBC. Now we are preparing for the second phase, which is creating a performance based on some parts of these stories, but connected together.  Then we can start writing the script and preparing for the performance which is planned to be July 1-5, 2020 at the ANNEX.

KF:   Let me dig into this. How did you connect with the participants?

RH:   We put an ad out there – website, social media, many different places. It was translated into many different languages so people would know what it’s about, especially newcomers. We made the time to see them and to see how open they are to sharing their stories with people. We started from there.  And I didn’t know any of them before, but we are starting to know each other like very close friends now.

KF:   Is there a common language?

RH:  English.  It’s broken English, but we understand each other.

KF:  Wow.

RH:  Some of them, their English is perfect, basically they have all different levels of English.

KF:  How many people?

RH:  Seven.

KF:  And all from different places?

RH:  All from different places. Columbia, Ukraine, Kurdistan, Brazil, Afghanistan, Iran, India. So it’s all different places. And I have to mention that, during this time, for this first phase, I had two assistants, Lennora Esi and Hila Graf, very good assistants, they made it happen to have these readings.  It wasn’t easy, but they made it easier for me. They stepped forward.

My Home is a Suitcase Reading

My Home is a Suitcase Reading December 22, 2019, at the Arts Club Rehearsal Hall, Granville Island. Front row, l to r: Hila Graf, Lennora Esi, Rzgar Hama. Back row, l to r: Yaroslava Perehinets, Nisar Ahmad, Ricardo Vallejo.

KF:  How did you encourage the participants to write stories? Did you give them prompts? What was your process?

RH:  We started with some games, writing games, like giving them a subject and asking them to try to write a story from their own experience. For sure, we started from a suitcase: talk about a suitcase in your life, something strange happened maybe.  And we did a few exercises with a suitcase, different stories from different angles. And for a period I encouraged them to speak about their life before they decided to leave and then to talk about it in detail, ‘Why did I have to leave my home?” And after that, about the transition between home and somewhere, we don’t know where it is, and after that their experience in their new home – how did that go? what’s their plan? how do they carry all this history with them to lead a different life?

KF:  What are some of the common threads you found? Or did you find common threads?

RH:  Because each of them have different experiences in life and different communities and different societies, each of them is different.  It’s difficult to find something… but I think that for all of them, maybe you can say they’re happy to be in Canada.

KF:  Oh. They’re not waiting to go home?

RH:  No, they’re trying to build their life in Canada and to integrate.

KF:  And that’s more successful than sitting and hoping life will get better back home.

RH:  That’s right. (laughs)

KF:  Did they write all their stories in English?

RH:  Yes.  That was a bit challenging for them. That’s why it took a few months. We went through a lot, especially for them, because they had to write honestly about themselves, in a second language.  hat’s a big challenge for all of us.

KF:  Did you have to do it, too?

RH:  At the beginning I had to share my story with them. Last month was my 20th anniversary of being in Canada (laughs) so I had to share even more stories with them.

KF:  How many, if any, have any theatre background?

RH:  Besides Lennora and Hila, one of them is very “into” acting, but with no experience. One with good experience, in fact she has graduated from a theatre university, another one is an Audiovisual Promoter. But they all have dancing, singing and some performance background…

Photo of My Home is a Suitcase reading

Participants in My Home is a Suitcase reading December 22, 2019, at the Arts Club Rehearsal Hall on Granville Island, l to r: Himanshi Upadhyay, Nisar Ahmad, Lennora Esi, Yaroslava Perehinets, Georgete Da Silva, Parmida Maleki, Ricardo Vallejo, Shaima Jaff.

KF:  Performance in some way.

RH:  Yeah.

KF:  Was theatre something that attracted them or was it more the opportunity to tell their stories?

RH: Well, I think a few things together. They love theatre, but besides that, there are a few other things involved. One thing for sure is to have the opportunity to express themselves in English. That’s a big step for them. And to be able to present that, to talk in front of people in English and to share their story.  I think that’s one of the big things that they are after.

KF:  I was also wondering about whatever different understandings or traditions of performance they brought with them that gave them something in common. 

RH:  They all have different understandings and for sure different traditions of performance that will give our project a rich and diverse taste of performance. (laughs)

KF:  So far, what’s been the biggest challenge for you working on this?

RH:  Starting with this project was a big challenge by itself, In the beginning I was thinking about this project because…. shall I speak about why I was thinking about this project?

KF:  Yeah!

RH: A few years ago I was in Germany visiting my brother. One day he was going to visit a newcomer friend in a refugee camp and I was very interested to go. When I saw the situation, those refugees in the camps, the environment, the isolated place that belongs to nowhere, far away from cities, it wasn’t normal for people to live in such a place, family members all together in a small room, not separated from the other rooms properly. I sat there, talking, friendly talking with them, I asked them many questions about their daily life in that camp, their life before leaving their country, the challenges they have faced to get here, and I was listening to them carefully. So I started talking with them and for me the question of ‘home’ became a bigger concern. What’s home? They were happy because… at least that’s what I heard…because they feel secure in this area, it’s not home, but at least they don’t have this fear that they had in the passage. So, finding this place that’s secure and you feel safe, however, is it home?  So, for me, this project started from there. Still I am trying to find the answer to the question, “What is home? Do we really have home in this new world?” I am not talking about refugees in general.  But how, in a few words we try to describe home, and do we have that kind of home in our new life actually? In this new world? And what’s security? Do we really feel secure in this world? Anywhere? So that’s the question that made this project more serious for me. So I prepared to start and I knew it might be difficult and challenging but I thought it’s worth it to go after this question and hopefully find some answers. (laughs)

KF:  Since except for the First Nations peoples, none of us are home here.

RH:  It’s not our home, and somehow it’s not their home like it used to be.

KF:  Did you find that conversation with the people that you worked with?

RH:  In the beginning I made it complicated; I tried to talk about the project and why we wanted to do this.  After that, actually, we mostly tried to work on it.

KF:  Did you find any surprises in what they wrote?

RH:  A lot. Yes. Each of them had long stories and talked about different situations, important situations in their lives. Of course in 2500 words, it’s not enough for anyone to talk about their life, but they’ve been able to talk about important situations in their lives and in every one of them you find something interesting and different. Shocking sometimes, how they’ve survived. Sometimes how small events have changed their lives.

KF:  You said they chose pieces of their stories to read in front of other people. What was the response to that?

RH: All good, I heard that for the people who attended the events, they were affected. In a few moments I saw people get emotional, crying, laughing, they got involved with the stories. However, that wasn’t what we were after, but wasn’t unexpected.

KF:  You said there were two phases – you are going to create a performance of excerpts and then later you will create a play using the material as inspiration.

RH:  I’m thinking about connecting these stories through a tiny little line in the background from the beginning to the end, there will be more music and traditional dancing involved. After that, I will start preparing for the final phase. However, the final script doesn’t have to be based on these stories.  This is the research phase, the inspiration.

KF:  I know you haven’t written the play yet, but what are you thinking? What are you thinking it’s about?

RH:  I have something in mind, but I don’t like to say. (laughs). To make it general, it happens in a nowhere place. I think the start for the play is a Nowhere. Can’t be a place. Or it’s a place, but we don’t know where.

KF:  I know you can’t speak for everyone in the group, but what is your sense of what it gave to the other seven and to you, as you collaborated on this piece?

RH:  For me, I have been curious about that part of my life and everyone else’s. I couldn’t just keep it inside or write a few words about it, then say “okay, I did my part”. No, it was bigger than that.  For me, it’s a good opportunity to let it out, what’s been held inside for a long time. I think for the participants, it’s almost the same.  There’s a reality of some kind of discrimination around the world for those people who don’t speak their new country’s language properly. When we talk about discrimination against visible people in workplaces, [we know] sometimes it’s not on purpose, but it happens. This is another aspect.  We might see it here, but we don’t pay attention to it, a person is facing the same discrimination and he’s not talking about it. When we see someone who is not from here and not able to speak proper English, French, or German…

KF:  Has lost their voice essentially.

RH:  Think about a cashier in a supermarket. They (he/she) will ask a customer something, like if they have air miles for instance, the customer, who is a newcomer, doesn’t understand English very well, is just looking at the cashier and not able to answer, the next customer in the line is late, so he talks in anger voice to both of them to go faster. And this interaction might lead to raised voices and some stress.  So these small things, I think are big moments in a newcomer’s daily life. It is important for them to get a chance, to be able to bring and share their stories, and to say “I’m not able to do everything here, but that is not all of me! I am able to do many things in my life, if the language barrier allows me.  I grew up in a community, I had friends, family and life, but something happened that forced me to leave.  I am here alone, I have no friends here. I had to leave my friends who I grew up with, I had to leave my family, I had to leave everything behind. But now I am here. I am not able to communicate very well, my English is not good, but I am willing and trying my best to learn as soon as possible and I will. I might be different in some way, that is because I am from a different culture, a culture that taught me how to love people, how to be supportive; it is not for the sake of comparison, it is not about bad or good, it is just about me being in a different zone and trying to find my way in, to be accepted among your communities. I am trying to understand you, I prepare myself to integrate, to begin, to start my life from the beginning.” I believe listening to their stories, opening the box slightly, will allow the audience to learn more about a newcomer’s daily life and how to avoid any known or unknown discrimination.

KF:  That’s powerful. So, how long do you think it’s going to take you to write that play?

RH:  (sighs) I never know.  (laughs) … Well, me and Lennora already started and it is going be ready by the end of March, hopefully.

KF:  Thank you so much.

 

Rzgar HamaAbout Rzgar Hama

Originally from South Kurdistan, Vancouver-based playwright, theatre director, actor, acting coach and writer, Rzgar Hama currently serves as artistic director for Sky Theatre Group. He started his theatre journey in 1984. Rzgar’s first adaptation and directing project was Cannibals in 1987, a play based on true stories of the city of Leningrad during World War II. Rzgar’s works as a director included: Spartacus, Resurrection of the Dogs, Tableau, Rain, Siyamend, Scream, The Last Game, and a play based on Arthur Rimbaud’s poems, A Season in Hell. His recent work as playwright and director is Soldierland, which premiered at the ANNEX in Vancouver, BC, from May 18 – 24, 2018 and is still in progress for other performances.

Rzgar has created works and collaborated with many theatre companies in Vancouver, Montreal, Turkey, Iraq, and Kurdistan. He also ran an acting lab for nine months, focused on improvisational techniques and actor training to help participating actors discover their potential for play development and performance. Rzgar has written and held several seminars and workshops about theatre, performances acting techniques and arts in many places around the world.

Rzgar believes that theatre can play a magnificent role in developing a healthier society for the next generation, and that theatre, as a current event, is a place for expanding one’s thoughts to build a better life.