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Languages of Diaspora with Fay Nass

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In the late winter of 2020, Kathleen Flaherty asked Fay Nass, Artistic Director of the frank theatre company, for an interview about the company’s plans for their project (then just finished phase one of its process) called Diaspora. That request led to a fascinating conversation that went much further than the project, which is ambitious in itself.  Months later, that interview has been transcribed and seems as fresh today as when Fay shared her ideas with us. When we asked Fay to have a look at the transcript for errors, it seemed that despite how many of the ideas resonate even more a few months afterward, there has been a significant development to the project:

As the result of the pandemic, we have been re-thinking the notion of exile in relation to social distancing and quarantine. We are in fact, taking Diaspora to a new-media/virtual form, working with professional media artists, filmmakers as well as our core members from last year as well as extending it with international queer participants. We are hoping to connect the diasporic community in a global level.  We are in the process of development and hoping to have the showcase ready by November.”

As AD of the frank, Fay is working on the virtual platform presentation of Diaspora in November of 2020. Her other projects include Underground Absolute Fiction: by Anais West, virtual reading at Queer Art Festival 2020, Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep by Tanya Marquardt, a devised creation and  The Cafe Project: in development with Aphotic Theatre and ITSAZOO.

“What is being in exile?  What is living in another country?  And how is that linked with the idea of identity, whether it’s language or gender/sexuality, all those intersections that exist within diasporic community?”
 

KF:  So, tell me about Diaspora.  What is it?

FN: For many many years I’ve kind of been thinking about the notion of living in exile… a lot of my thesis focused on identity culture and diaspora, my Master’s studies. And so I’ve been thinking about, “What is being in exile?  What is living in another country?  And how is that linked with the idea of identity, whether it’s language or gender/sexuality, all those intersections that exist within diasporic community?” So the project Diaspora was something I was planning to do for over a decade and the idea was kind of this grand, epic, one week festival that I had in my mind with different kinds of work all done by immigrants or refugee artists, but also in the form of a play that highlights the voices of people who live in Canada as immigrants or refugees as well as their own stories.

For this specific project, the original idea was to focus on the LGBTQ bodies and how as a queer refugee or immigrant coming to Canada, a lot of times from countries where your identity can end in death, how does that translate when they arrive here and they are confronted with a culture within the LGBTQ community that is really linguistic based? When you think about it in terms of, say, women’s studies classes or in queer communities, often there is a lot of use of lingoes, like academic jargon or, the idea of moving forward politically using the language as a tool to make that political movement. For example, non-binary people identifying as ‘they’ and ‘them’; how does that language translate for a culture that doesn’t have pronouns? A person who comes to Canada and doesn’t even speak English as a first language, just ran away from the fear of being executed, and now is thinking about other layers of intersections within the LGBTQ community and the language that is incorporated in order to be able to express yourself within that community.

So that was kind of the original thought that I had.  But I think that’s part of my practice, whenever I do devised work with the community, I realize that a lot of the investigations or thoughts that I have can easily go out the window if that’s not what the members want to talk about. And that’s something that I’ve learned a lot as “wise practices”– to prioritize the actual direction of inquiry instead of trying to manipulate it into what I had imagined.

“…the stories they wanted to share were less about moving here and more about wanting to highlight the memories and the senses and their experiences in their own country.”

What happened was we invited Aftab Erfan, who is the Director of Dialogue and Conflict Engagement at the University of British Columbia and has an extended experience with social justice and conflict resolution, for the first workshop, to which we had invited 20-25 queer identified folks who have come here as immigrants or refugees to basically talk about their experiences. And we had certain questions that would sort of lead to language and this discussion, but it just felt like people were talking about so many different things, you know. It became evident that so many people have not even arrived yet. My conceptual theoretical questions digging further into the ideas of nuance in language of queerness have become relevant maybe because I’ve been here for 20 years and because my work is so rooted in academia. I have had the privilege of thinking that far about those intersections, whereas many people  were still back home, and the stories they wanted to share were less about moving here and more about wanting to highlight the memories and the senses and their experiences in their own country. So the project kind of shifted. I would come to the room with all these questions and it ended up being these four-hour discussions about the first love or the smell of grandmother’s home and the house and the cooking. So then I was, “You know what, it’s not the time for that project. This project is really about Diaspora Part One, which is ‘you still carry so much lived experience and sense memory of the place that you are still holding on to so tightly and not wanting to let go completely’.”

“…this project is not about race specifically, but is a about diaspora… my goal was really to make it as broad as possible about LGBTQ people who have migrated. I think there is a correlation between queerness and diaspora.”

KF:  How did you find people?

FN:  We partnered with Rainbow Refugee. I also invited people that I knew from the Iranian Canadian community, from the Queer community – many of them were not actually available for that one day – through frank’s website, and also through the theatre community. A lot of times I feel like there’s this thirst for people, they come from different countries, they speak different languages, they talk about other experiences. Often things are quite binary in terms of being a white person or a person of colour and the conversation around certain privileges get lost. Privileges such as economy, education or simply one’s citizenship. For instance, people who have lived in mono ethnic societies their whole life and then immigrate, their sense of identity completely shifts, as now they are defined by their race, accent or ethnicity, and suddenly you become a minority group. So your lived experiences as an immigrant are very different from those who were born here.

So, we wanted to highlight that this project is not about race specifically, but is a about diaspora. For example, we had a few folks from Russia who had to flee their country for being queer, so we invited any queer person who was a first-generation immigrant. I invited my wife who is from Spain, and has gone through a lot here. Her degrees are not acceptable here, she gets asked 10 times a day “where she is from” and she has never crossed Canadian/ US border with-out being interrogated. But she didn’t join, because she didn’t feel she wanted to take that space. And I think many other people didn’t come from those countries because of that. Which also makes sense, because the notion of diaspora is different from immigration. There is a misplacement, a sense of not wanting to or not being able to return home due to political/social issues. But my goal was really to make it as broad as possible about LGBTQ people who have migrated. I think there is a correlation between queerness and diaspora.

KF:  That was the first meeting.

FN:  That was the first meeting. After that, people had a chance to continue further into the second phase, which would involve artistic collaboration. We didn’t have budget for everyone, but I think maybe six or seven people were interested and, in the end, we chose five. And the reason we chose those five people was that their experiences were very very different from one another: we had someone from a Caribbean nation who grew up in the United States and then moved to Canada, and a lot of her experiences were about how she felt more diaspora moving from the US to Canada, especially as a black person, the lack of visibility that she feels here compared to Washington, DC. We had someone from Belarus, Viet Nam, Iranian-Caribbean-now Canadian, and then someone who moved from India to the US and then Canada – she moved to Canada twenty years ago. Experiences ranged from never having any exposure to theatre to, for example, someone with twenty years of professional work in the film industry but not so much in theatre.  She’s a very established writer in her own field.  Basically, people who are a bit shy and want to use this process as therapy and people who want to use this process as another level of artistic exploration. So, the group felt like the right group to bring those nuances in.

“…not correcting grammar, not telling someone how to say something, being really true to their bodies…that was the success of it.”

The second phase was meeting with me every week, twice a week, for over a month and a half to basically discuss different aspects of living in Canada, diaspora, home, and doing different exercises to compile material to work with. I used different kinds of devised processes from games that involved body and movement to journalistic questions to investigate more, using different languages to express themselves through poetry, asking specific questions and moving them as a sort of puzzle to see how they relate and don’t relate, finally coming up with a structure within the verbatim style of theatre that would have a beginning, middle, and end. Then the third phase was one day of workshop presentation of this work with very minimal design elements – a bit of projection, a bit of sound and a bit of audience interaction/participation with the piece.

The goal was, from there, to move toward a full production with professional actors and to make the script from verbatim to a narrative text-based play.

I think that’s still in place, but that phase of the work was so important and a lot of people who came to see the piece were, “The beauty of this piece was in how transparent and genuine and authentic it was.”  A lot of people said, “Yes, these stories are important, but we wanted to see these bodies and the way they said it.” With not correcting grammar, not telling someone how to say something, being really true to their bodies. So that was the success of it.

The other plan for it is this community-based project, maybe not in the name of diaspora, but to become part of our annual programming of the frank. To focus on this kind of format of social justice with a kind of art therapy creation process to workshop presentation as an annual event with different LGBTQ communities. Next year we are specifically focusing on language, the project is titled Mother Tongues, I have formatted it so it stays more focused on language and expression.

One of the things I am really interested in within the diaspora context is that next year or the year after we are hoping to focus only on areas of war zones and how that changes your experience as an immigrant or refugee. Then only focus on western countries. Or within mental health. Poverty. All those intersections but following the same sort of social justice model. Because it was really important.  Humbling. Eye-opening. When the workshop presentation happened, I was having a drink with my parents and I came to the Roundhouse and there was a line-up to the door. And until the week before we had 15 tickets sold. So, it’s not only about the process or the project, but the bigger community that’s out there that does not function according to the same type of western Eurocentric way of buying tickets, purchasing passes, but they showed up. I was like, “What are we going to do?” and people were saying, “I can sit on the floor.” The front of house manager added an extra 15 chairs, there were people literally sitting on stage because they didn’t want to leave and… It became its own kind of format because people were sitting on stage. It was really really beautiful to see that. In the first part of the show that involved audience interaction, we asked people to come onstage, I don’t think that Roundhouse has ever seen such diversity on its stage. It was 22 people from the audience, not theatre goers. As someone who has a big network, it was incredible to see that I knew only 5% of the people in that room.  And it’s usually that I know 85% of the people in a room, you know what I mean?

“The first thing that was amazing, that was more validating, was this way that I have worked, which is really outside of the white supremacist Eurocentric model, which doesn’t involve time, which doesn’t involve production, doesn’t involve that idea of ‘excellence'”

KF:  Awesome.

FN:  Yeah, yeah…yeah yeah.

KF:   What are some of the highlights?  What things surprised you the most?  That’s two questions.

“People were crying based on his stories that literally did not follow any grammatical structure, but his language would come out into English and it’s the poetry in his language that made the text so much richer than if I was trying to do proper dramaturgy on it.”

FN:  The first thing that was amazing, that was more validating, was this way that I have worked, which is really outside of the white supremacist Eurocentric model, which doesn’t involve time, which doesn’t involve production, doesn’t involve that idea of “excellence”….in the past 15 years of working I’ve always been asking, “Is that a right model?” That model really worked because it was really human and it allowed everyone to feel super safe and to not feel the pressure of, “Now, this is about me [Fay], this play should be great, you need to now become someone else.” It was, “If you want to keep your script, keep your script; if you want to memorize it, memorize it.” It felt so good because they really trusted to share such deep stories. The thing that is most beautiful is that the project is over and all the people involved in that project are still really good friends. I’m seeing on Facebook, “I’m having a hard time and I’m missing my diaspora group.” And they are meeting each other. They come from such different walks of life that outside of this project they would never even have met. So that’s the most exciting potential of art, especially this kind of art – there are five people in this crazy world who have got each other’s back. I think that’s beautiful and they are all happy about that.

The other thing that was surprising and beautiful was…again…how, outside of this pressure, if you don’t use verb, noun, adjective, conjugation properly, people would not like it. Because we had someone who doesn’t speak English really well and he brought the most poetic element to the piece. He’s originally from Viet Nam. He was so self-conscious, “My English is not good. You can do all the edits.” And I was like, “I’m not going to do edits. These are the things that I might translate, I’m going to do the dramaturgy on it if it means something else completely, but I’m not going to do any edits.” And every single person who came to that show loved him. Because he was so himself. And people were crying based on his stories that literally did not follow any grammatical structure, but his language would come out into English and it’s the poetry in his language that made the text so much richer than if I was trying to do proper dramaturgy on it. That was great that the audience received that! And that the audience is so much more patient and much more intelligent than we give them the credit for. They want to know.  It’s us, as theatre makers, who are putting these constructs of what is professional. That audience is not there for that and that was really beautiful to see.

The other thing that was beautiful was to see how it was not an angry piece. We would talk about things and there was maybe one part that was the experience of racism but the rest of it was experiences of life and kindness and, I don’t know, the things that we all have in common – the first kiss, the first understanding of your sexuality. And it became much more global than anything else because there were people from all over the world and we all know how it feels, as a queer person, the first time you realize that you’re not everybody. And, yes, that has different repercussions in different countries, but as an individual going through it, you’re not yet thinking about that; you’re thinking about your hormones and what the fuck is happening to you, you know. And I think that was something really beautiful – to blur those lines. And the piece, a lot of it, was about border crossing. There was the physical, geographical border crossing and there were the internal crossings of our becomings, of our own stories, how we’re constantly evolving and crossing those borders, in our families saying goodbye, saying goodbye to traditions and a lot of those things are not physical or geographical borders. That was really fascinating.

“People ask, “How do you identify?” and for me, very much holding on to my identity, it is very important for me (not) to go with any pronouns. Because in Farsi, we don’t have pronouns. So, by the default of me being in Canada, not even having my first name my actual name in Farsi, I feel I wouldn’t be true to myself. Because “she, he, they”, none of them make me feel…me. My name doesn’t even make me feel me.”

KF:  Oh my god. Did you find out anything about language, just while you were…(Laughs)

FN:  No, not really. And it just felt like that was not the thing. Because there were so many different people with such different linguistic abilities, as soon as I would want to go into that world, it would exclude some people, “I’m not very good with English.” and that was not my…. I didn’t want people to think they weren’t good with English, I wanted to talk about the confines of language and how problematic it is when you’re talking about fluidity. And I just think that’s a different project with a group of people that have got a hold of language to look at those nuances and how it is still an obstacle, even when you speak it well. I feel that way. All the time. For example, people ask, “How do you identify?” and for me, very much holding on to my identity, it is very important for me (not) to go with any pronouns. Because in Farsi, we don’t have pronouns. So, by the default of me being in Canada, not even having my first name my actual name in Farsi, I feel I wouldn’t be true to myself. Because “she, he, they”, none of them make me feel…me. My name doesn’t even make me feel me.

KF:  What is your name?

FN:  Agh. (laughs) My original name is Fakhteh, so it doesn’t have a great pronunciation in English.  Things like that. I’ve had situations with people, they feel like I’m failing them. “But you’re not binary. You always feel like gender queer.” And I’m, “Yes. But me not going with that isn’t me being less of an activist. It’s staying true to my linguistic identity…third person pronoun is third person pronoun in Farsi – she, he, and it are…”

“…the other thing I wanted to talk about in the Diaspora project was about people coming from places that have been historically colonized in many ways but don’t know much about the history of Canada.”

KF:  So that’s going to be another piece that you’ll work on in the future. That’s very exciting.

FN:  Yes. Mother Tongues will be looking many of these questions. Another layer of it is, when we talk about inclusion, how often the measures that we put in place to create equity and inclusion can be exclusive. So, for example, my parents are the most liberated people in the world but anyone from Iran makes mistakes with she and he all the time because we don’t have it. So you can be here for fifty years and you make mistakes. Many people, like my parents, many people who speak English as a second language, they can be in intellectual crowds, and these systems that are in place to create inclusion and equity actually excludes them and makes them feel that they are less part of something, they’re less intelligent, they’re less intellectual, they’re less in the know.  Whereas it’s literally an obstacle that they cannot pass. So how can we talk about those things? the other thing I wanted to talk about in the Diaspora project was about people coming from places that have been historically colonized in many ways but don’t know much about the history of Canada. The education system fails to address it, The Canadian Citizenship book fails to cover it, there are ESL class in high school but there should be a class on genocide and Indigenous history. There should be programs to actually talk about the history of Canada and what truly happened. Most immigrants don’t know about the land, unceded territories…they don’t have the language to talk about it. So, they become excluded from the progressive culture. We don’t have any system in place to talk about immigrants, that they come to this country and they can be highly intelligent, highly educated, but they have to deal with fake constructs created by the right, lies about what Canada is and constant limits that “we” as left-wing intellectuals have put in place to fuck them over. (Laughter and applause)

KF:  So you’re thinking the frank is going to have this kind of program every…

FN: …every year.  Social justice, actualization. Into the next year. Every two years for the production of it. Next year will be Mother Tongues.

KF:  How do you balance the art therapy vs theatrical demands and satisfy both?

FN:  A lot of it, for me, is when you expect community members to memorize somebody else’s lines, then we’re talking about certain skills. And I’ve tried that kind of work, with Unveiled, and it’s not successful because I wanted it to be elevated in a way that it looks like a professional work but the skill was not there. And we can sit here and lie to ourselves, “It was beautiful in its own way.” Well, it was beautiful in its own way, but it’s not hitting that bar because I was putting that bar as an ideal of excellence for it. But when we are literally saying, when we’re talking about first love or, I don’t know, how did you leave your country? and this person has told this story over and over in gatherings with friends, writing an application to come to Canada, having a glass of wine, walking down the street. And, when they are actually talking about these words, and that’s the beauty of verbatim theatre, that you don’t see that kind of Shakespearean acting skill so your training doesn’t matter as much. Many people have come to me and said, “They are better than professional actors.” but it’s because there is no idea of acting; I’m not expecting them to talk like King Lear or walk in a certain way. It becomes about what is visceral. And often, it’s about reframing what we think about “professional”. A lot of times, when I’m working with professional actors in the room, all I’m thinking about is intentions, why are you saying what you’re saying? it’s not believable, there’s not the right amount of feeling there. That’s part of the work with professional actors when you’re working on script. With the community folks, all of that I don’t need because they know exactly why they’re saying it, they know exactly what they want to get out of what they’re saying and what’s their objective, they have all of the raw and mature feelings at the same time about those experiences and emotions. What is acting beyond that? I am not asking them to juggle and do that or run around and make a Cirque du Soleil performance out of it. I think if we were to hire professional actors they would not be able to do that, and that was something that many people from the professional theatre community said. “We think the beauty of the piece is in that truly visceral and honest and authentic delivery.” And, in terms of the visual, it’s the same as any other professional work.  We bring in the designers and the beautiful lighting elaborates the work; different sound creates different sensory experiences. Timing is another one of those things. They are not theatre performers, but I think every single person understands when you say, “No, pick up the pace.”

“…that is that tango that, for me, even though it’s been eleven years working in this way in devised, it’s always fresh because I’m always learning. Always learning ‘where can I be a little bit more specific?’, ‘how can I deliver things without hurting feelings but still keeping things contained?’, ‘how can I mix a western practice with a non-western practice?’”

In terms of the material itself, for this version I wanted it to be very raw, but I want it to be tighter and a better script. One of the challenges is, when you’re opening up that space, it’s really hard to tell people, “I’m looking at it from a dramaturgical perspective and it’s not that your story is less important, it’s just that this story is going on for three pages.” And it is hard for people, if they’ve never had a chance to talk about those things in front of others, to actually be able to kill their darlings. And I think that’s something that, in this process, was really successful. Because there was such love and everybody wanted the project to be good, there was such safety and security that no one felt that way. But I have been in other devised projects, there was like, “What about X, she has her section; why do you want me to cut my section?” It’s hard to say, “Because her section has already said all of the things that are in your section.” You know what I mean?  So, we are still creating within the model that is called theatre.  And that is that tango that, for me, even though it’s been eleven years working in this way in devised, it’s always fresh because I’m always learning. Always learning ‘where can I be a little bit more specific?’, ‘how can I deliver things without hurting feelings but still keeping things contained?’, ‘how can I mix a western practice with a non-western practice?’ Those were the challenges and I think I took that pressure off them from the beginning by saying, “Many of you may not be part of [the next phase].  Many of you may go on to do other things and give the right to use these stories. For the first one it’s like this, and for the second one it’s my job, with another colleague, to make something… maybe a lot of words change but I will share it with you and if you’re not happy with it, we won’t do it.” But still to maintain the soul and authenticity of it but maybe not say the same thing over and over for seventeen pages.

“…one of the things that I have always said is that queer work has always been about queering the spaces, queering content, queering practices and methodologies of creation. So that to me is queer. And by queer I mean anything that is outside of the norm.”

KF:  You sort of said this already, but perhaps you can sum it up – what are you going to take moving forward and what has it done to the frank and to you?

FN:  I think, for me, this is the kind of work that excites me. From the moment I took over the frank, one of the things that I have always said is that queer work has always been about queering the spaces, queering content, queering practices and methodologies of creation. So that to me is queer. And by queer I mean anything that is outside of the norm. So, for me, queer theatre doesn’t mean doing over and over again the stories of coming out that are text-based scripts by queer white gay men. That’s not the only narrative that exists. We are interested in looking at the queer viewpoint outside of the European queer viewpoint, queerness from the viewpoint of women and people of colour.  Because even to this day in 2020, there are still so few texts by women and that is something that I’m really passionate about – it’s really really important to me. Queering the way of creation through these kinds of processes, true collaboration that is not hierarchical, all of these things we can use different kind of languages for, calling it ‘decolonizing practices’ or ‘eastern practices’….but to me in this context, ‘queer’ says it all because it’s outside of what we know as the dominant culture or dominant practice. So that is something that has been in my mind and, moving forward, it’s not that I don’t want to do any other kind of work, but this is the work that will take a lot of the focus of the frank.

KF:  Thanks Fay.