In the 2016/17 season, we proudly supported Resident Producer Fay Nass. Fay makes theatre in the dark. She uses her experience as a theatre artist, film maker and Iranian Canadian who grew up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war to make plays that challenge audiences to look at things they rarely see. Using darkness. Associate Artistic Director Chelsea Haberlin spoke with Fay about the work she makes, how her childhood was the Iranian ‘Life is Beautiful’, eroticism, and what’s next for her.
CH: I’ve read your thesis and I’ve read the new proposal you just wrote and read the play and looked at the photos. It’s an exciting project! I so wish I had seen it.
FN: I know, I know.
CH: I’d love to experience the things you talk about the audience experiencing. I know for sure whenever I’ve been in the dark in the theatre I have such a visceral sense of anxiety. Like it’s such an intense feeling so it was intriguing to look at the study of what that feeling is. So, you got your MFA from SFU in 2012 and you did this really unique project for your thesis. Can you tell me a little bit about the project?
FN: The project, Aphotic Dream, was basically the continuation of the project I got into SFU with. The project proposal that I had was this experimentation with darkness which I started in 2010 and it expanded in different ways until it got to the final project, Aphotic Dream, which was my thesis project. I think it’s important to give a bit of a history. The first project I did was a 15-minute only focusing on sound all of it was in Farsi. In a sense there was no narrative script. I was working with my friends who were a part of the Green Movement in Iran and basically they were never on the stage but because it was in the dark and they didn’t need to do ‘acting’ they were okay to be a part of the project. So that one was just 15 minutes. Kind of going with almost international semiotics in order to get the audience in. Sonic semiotics in terms of two people laughing, two people making love, two people eating, and then two people fighting, two people singing. So things that it doesn’t matter if you understand the language or not so that you can kind of follow the emotion and ending with the terror of someone knocking on the door.
So it started with that and then I felt like there were a few things that came up from that like the interesting element of the moments when the flashlights were visible and there were elements of light. So I was like okay I want to kind of play now with this interplay between dark and light. So this second project was – and also I kind of wanted to focus on okay so this project was successful in Farsi, in Canada, in the dark only because it was following certain cues but would it be successful it if was more story based? So the second project which was called The Stranger was a bit long, about twenty minutes and it basically focused on the life of three Iranian women in exile talking about their stories and their nostalgia. And a lot of it was in English, some of it was in Farsi, depending on when they moved to Canada and it was basically focusing on sounds that we have different associations with depending on our background. For example you know in the dark the sound of someone thinking that there’s a drum playing but then the moment that the light would appear it was a woman cleaning rice. How do we associate with sound depending on our cultural backgrounds. So the lighting for that one, we were still in the dark but it was not about the terror of wild noises it was more about a lyrical sensation of longing for the past that you had. The problem with darkness and these experiments is that now what? You kind of feel like you hit a wall. Those who have seen it, been there, because they didn’t ‘see it’, have experienced it and it’s like how far can you take an experiment?
And I wanted to also focus on the idea of gaze and control. From also being interested in the cinema and having an identity crisis of like am I a theatre artist or cinema? I always wanted to bring that kind of cinematic experience, not in the sense of doing projections but what I find very powerful about film is the control that the camera has in telling the story and in the darkness you have that level of control because you are selecting the moments you want the audience you see and in a sense it’s like a cut and paste that you are bringing together. Okay so now can I use this darkness in that way but still very much associating with very personal cultural stories. I was always obsessed with No Exit but since UVic I never did it again. I was like okay I can’t keep doing a second production of this play. I’m an artist that does not grow (laughs).
CH: (laughing) Only one play for your entire career.
FN: Exactly! I was thinking about the idea of perception. There’s something interesting about this process of othering. When we’re in the theatre, when you talk about body politics or being a person of colour, in the dark you don’t have any of those pressures. You can actually exist outside of your own body. It’s only your voice. No one is looking at you being like ‘so this is a black person…this is an Iranian person’. So as much as there is a sense of anxiety there is a sense of freedom in the dark. It really changes and shifts our stereotypes and the way that we view things so we have to rely on our sensory.
The third piece, my thesis piece Aphotic Dream, aphotic is referring to the deepest part of the ocean where there is only 1% of light so there are these microorganisms. Aphotic was basically focusing on the three marginalized stories of three different people in three different historical moments and in darkness shedding light on their existence. Stories that wouldn’t normally be told. So I used the structure of No Exit, of the three people and then I kind of brought them to different historical or cultural moments. The character of Garson was vey much based on my grandfather. He was an activist and a political communist before the Islamic revolution but I also wanted to focus on this idea of how we lo at ourselves as heroes but then we also often have these faults. But what was interesting about No Exit was that it’s all about gaze and looking at each other but this is in darkness. Again I was very much playing with that. These marginalized people in society that they were the ones that we would see in moments of light.
CH: You make some really interesting connections between eroticism and anticipation and being in the dark. Can you tell me a bit about that?
FN: Yeah, for sure. For me whenever I’m in theatre, and again I’m making a parallel with cinema, I think a lot of times I become bored and I think my boredom is partially because I’m too aware or where I am, you know I can look at all the corners. There is no disbelief left for me in theatre and when the eroticism happens, as I said in the thesis, is the main point of excitement is when the light is off and the light appears and then there’s almost this moment of magic. Or the push and pull that some scripts do to some degree. But again your gaze you can look at everywhere on the stage and you basically know the space very well. Again in film this eroticism happens with the way that the camera comes in close and goes back out. You have to accept that you’re not in control.
And as I said in my thesis eroticism is not necessarily sex but the giving and reciting and that agreement between the audience the viewer and image that any minute you’re going to play this tango with me and I’m going to give something of myself which my phenomenological perception and then loose that control because I am aware that I’m a viewer and giving it to the image because I’m aware the image is going to give me something back. I’m very interested in that space in between. And I think that theatre in the dark was a way to play with those moments and then relax the logic of constantly being aware of looking everywhere. That’s the kind of physical element of it but also what the eroticism of push and pull in a much more of an internal level of being in liminal spaces. And I think walking between these binaries. There’s something very frustrating about it but also something very exciting about it. You know being in a binary between genders, being in a binary between cultures, because you’re constantly going through that kind of giving and receiving within yourself or the world outside of you that is viewing you.
CH: I find that super interesting. I love your explanation and use of the word liminal and the idea of liminal. I talked about that a lot in my MFA too just the idea of theatre generally being ideally a liminal space, a space that’s in between. And for me a really important part of that is the ability to make strange or the verfremdungseffekt. You talk about it in terms of ‘defamiliarization’ and you talk about defamiliarizing objects and removing the semiotics and that being in the dark really helps you to do that. Like you talked about before with the rice. You think it’s one thing but in fact it’s another. Can you talk about that, how you do that with objects? That’s super interesting to me.
FN: I mean we have many different scenes and I think that’s what was erotic. Not knowing. I think there is something very interesting and relaxing you know for example in dance. We don’t ask as many questions when we watch contemporary dance. Like what is the narrative? Whereas there is this expectation with theatre we’re always like so what happened? What is happening? I think that – what we can take away from that is to kind of focus on more on visceral emotional embodiment. Like we can appreciate things from very a different sensory base and perhaps deal with a lot of the issues that we have constantly with the politics of body you know race and gender and all of those things.
But I think that one of the things that I was experimenting with was focusing on the first scene in Aphotic Dream the darkness ends with this flashlight and all you hear is the sound of screaming and then you hear lashes and as an audience member it doesn’t matter what country you’re from you know that something terrifying is happening and that scene just transitions with the sounds continuing and the next scene opens up with the lashes being a fun BDSM party so you know like again the context of where we see images and we make our own presumptions are often related to previous positions that we’re applying to where we are. And how can we play with those stereotypes. So it’s not the sound it’s the context around it that’s making me scared and the next one is making me horny. So what is happening?
CH: That’s so interesting. I love that, that kind of surprise. Like it’s almost funny to have your expectations subverted in such a major way. Takes you by surprise. Okay so, onto a different topic. You worked as a writer and director on this project. How did you negotiate that? What was that like?
You know the process was pretty much a devised process in so many ways. I did come in with a script and the idea but a lot of things changed. It wasn’t necessarily easy but generally I think it’s more difficult being a writer and director in the same room but I think because this was influenced by so much theory and I had to defend it there was a different level of writing. It was so much more sound based and experimental that I was like not so feeling like I was wearing the hat of a writer. I was very much a creator of the project so I didn’t feel like there was as much tension necessarily but there were times when it was difficult to let go of so many of the things as a writer because you see that it’s not working. And it’s in your head as a writer and you come to the room and you’re like ‘this is the director’ you know. And like a lot of scenes between the arguments, because I was focusing on visceral, they were improvised. Every night they kind of changed. You know I would tell the actors that ‘you’re fighting this is the argument these are the key words’ and sometimes they were one minute and other nights four minutes. (laughs) Depending on how much they hated each other that day.
CH: Wow so you were really able to let go as a writer. In terms of the actual literal words on the page in the interest of the experience. That’s hard to do.
FN: Yeah absolutely and I think the main reason for that is because even though all three characters were part of me in some ways I was constantly aware that I’m using the structure of No Exit and they are not me. So it was never that personal. To be like ‘this is the story of Fay’. It was more about how this experiment can come and flourish so I was really not thinking about myself as a writer.
CH: Makes you a good artist.
FN: (Laughs) Thank you.
CH: So tell me about this upcoming project. Tell me about Unveiled.
FN: Yeah, I started thinking about this project a few months ago around June when I was in Europe and especially, around July actually, and especially because I have so many friends in Paris and they are fighting about all of these things that are happening and I was in Paris when the terrorism happened in Nice and I could see how much even the people who are open minded and fighting they are falling into this thing of media and Islamophobia is increasing and increasing and increasing so it kind of like that’s where the project started. And kind of dealing with my own internal racism in a way of like for many years, exactly half of my life when I was in Iran, I hated Arabic so much I hated anything Arab. I hated Islam so much because it was the religion that took over.
Then when I moved here I was fighting from the other side because I hated how much people are hated for what they believe. So now that I’m in this middle point I’m like becoming more aware I just like really cannot handle dictatorship in anyway. It doesn’t matter from which perspective. And how often in all of these movements women are getting fucked. A bunch of men are deciding about it. Even when we look at situations like in Turkey with the new fundamentalism that is happening you know the person that gets burned is a female. It’s male to female. So even if you become a trans woman you’re still more in danger. Always historically they have been taken advantage of. So this new project Unveiled is something I was thinking about this idea of othering like we always focus on ‘that shit happens in Iran, that shit happens in other places’ and kind of in relation to the fear that is happening in France and Donald Trump in America and what’s happening in Turkey. I mean Turkey is our neighbouring country and is totally following our history just like 50 years behind. They flourished, they were doing so well the world was respecting them and now they’re going downhill with their fundamentalism.
One of the reasons that these things happen politically is because we constantly think that that’s the other. That’s not us. And again going back to the idea of darkness, the idea of taking that otherness out through darkness so we can now see the faces of these people. I was thinking of focusing on this part of history in Iran that I think is often forgotten because the way that the media shows Iran is this Islamic country and everyone is wearing birka but the history is so complex. So I really wanted to focus on actually not long ago in 1936 the Shaw of Iran was unveiling women on the streets and shaming them if they wear hijab. 30 years later the response was to beat them up if they were unveiled. How these things happen and repeat and all of these women were powerful people and were basically the victim of the games that the men on top were playing. And so the project for me is very important because I have forgotten how it feels to be really invested in a project and loving it from the discourse and conversation. So I started this group a month ago every Friday meeting with Iranian that just want to talk about these things. None of them are actors again. But it’s just fun. You know drinking wine, recording these discussions. How we all come from very different backgrounds and like building this script purely from these recordings and these conversations. And yeah it’s called Unveiled and it’s going to be again a theatre in the dark but this time very specifically focusing on three generations and women and the third one is during the green movement and focusing on the underground queer relationships. This time I’m hoping to bring in more of those elements of magic. We’re perhaps going to have a band the entire band that is going to be there, for example, and then they suddenly appear. Darkness with moments of light that are going to conceptually shed light on moments that we need to be aware of. That kind of conscious awareness.
CH: I’m really excited to see it. Those are voices that I’m very curious to hear because as you’re saying we just don’t hear them enough and I really want to hear these stories told from that perspective. Can you tell me about how your experiences as a child influenced your work?
FN: Absolutely. I feel very privileged that way because I think that almost every single person who was the same age as me has very traumatizing experiences. You know 1982-87/88 which was the war between Iran and Iraq and right before that the Islamic revolution. But because my parents are quite silly and magical they were kind of like the movie “Life is Beautiful”.
I don’t have a lot of memories from the war. My friends think that is crazy because there were sirens every hour. I have to admit that so many people died in the South of Iran. We were lucky to be in Tehran where there was less bombing but still every two hours you would hear ‘bee, bee, bee, bee’. I still remember the sound. Like ‘bee, bee, bee’ go to a safe place because the bomb is going to drop. So I do remember the sound but I don’t remember the word bomb or any fear associated with it because my parents were totally anti-running away. They had this like philosophy that like the psychological and emotional trauma that’s going to leave us, or the child, if we are saved, is going to be far worse than if we are just chilling and we die. Like later on they told me that.
The only thing they would do is we would go under the stairs or something inside the home, we never left actually, and we would play. My dad would do shadow puppet plays. There was a shortage of electricity. There was never enough light so he would just sort of put candles and we would play. So they were actually like some of the happiest childhood memories for me. That was one of the things that darkness in the beginning wasn’t scary because you knew my dad is going to manage and the fun is going to happen and then things were normal. The lights would come back up and we were back on it. So of course that really affected it.
The first time that I went to theatre, because my aunt is an actress and director in Iran, and I was like 5 or 6 and it was the International Children’s Festival in Iran. I remember sitting there an audience and the lights went off and I was kind of like ‘oh, what kind of darkness is this? What should we do?’ and then the light appeared on stage and it was like magic, it was so fascinating. And also what was interesting about that experience, I have to admit, is that the play was from Tajikistan so none of it was in Farsi but I remember I loved it and I understood all of it. But that’s also the ability that children have because we connect with things through our emotions and our senses. So of course all of my childhood experiences were what affected by relationship with darkness.
CH: It’s incredible that you’ve been able to remember that life experience so viscerally and then be able to translate it into an audience experience. It’s wild. An amazing story. Your comparison to ‘Life is Beautiful’ is so interesting. Incredible parents, eh?
FN: For sure. I can’t imagine it otherwise. But you know what is so interesting. I’m not good at being in the dark.
FN: That’s the funny thing. I really like the magic and interplay but every single night that I did theatre in the dark I had all these conversations of telling the audience like if you’re not feeling well use this little flashlight and the usher will come get you. Every night I was the one who was almost going to pass out.
CH: Do you think that we feel dawn to making theatre we’re a little bit afraid of?
FN: For sure.
CH: Because I’m about to do this horror [play, Hidden] and I don’t wanna do it. Like I don’t wanna be in the dark, I don’t wanna be in the woods, I don’t wanna be up high and don’t wanna do it. And like this was my idea. What is that about. I make this ‘in-yer-face’ stuff and I’m so squeamish like I hate violence and I hate blood and I hate cruelty and yet I make theatre about that stuff. So it must be that. Listening to you I’m really like yeah I guess we’re drawn to the thing that we’re the most afraid of because maybe we want to understand it or we want to like interrogate it right.
FN: Absolutely and I think there is something very arousing about fear as well. I think it adds to that idea of eroticism for me. I absolutely agree with you. The other thing I really hate in theatre as an audience member is to forcefully participate in a process when I don’t want to and the theatre that I have been creating for the past 6 years is exactly that!
CH: Me too! As soon as someone talks to me or makes me move. I am like ‘go fuck yourself’ but that’s all I want to do to an audience. It’s so weird hey. But I guess-
FN: But maybe that’s sadistic.
CH: Maybe that’s it, maybe we’re just shitty people. I love it. That’s so funny.
During her time as Resident Producer, Fay is working on new pieces: Unveiled, a devised piece about the Iranian Revolution through the lens of womens’ bodies; Kill Your Lovers, premiering at the Rhubarb Festival in Toronto; The Prisoner of Tehran, based on the memoir of Marina Nemat.