“We have to create good art. It’s not diversity for the sake of diversity.”
Credit: Aluna Theatre
For the last three years, I have been trying to get in touch with Soheil Parsa for an interview, but I never knew where to turn. I wanted to learn more about this Iranian Canadian theatre artist and his vision.
Thank Goodness for theatre publicity rep Suzanne Cheriton who made it easier and asked if I would like to speak with him about his upcoming direction of Aluna Theatre’s ‘On the Other Side of the Sea.’
I jumped at the opportunity.
From his Factory Theatre bio: “Soheil is the co-founder and former artistic director of Modern Times Stage Company and has directed over forty productions for the company since its inception in 1989.” I’ve seen several plays he has directed, the most recent being Daniel McIvor’s ‘Monster’ and David Paquet’s ‘Wildfire’ (for which he won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for direction).
Parsa started his theatre school training and received three and a half years at Tehran University, Iran, in the Faculty of Fine Arts, Theatre Department, prior to the Iranian/Islamic Revolution in 1979. After the Revolution, Soheil was in his fourth year. He was honest with me and said he was kicked out of the university because he did not support the Revolution. The other vital aspect also in play was his religious background. He and his family come from the Bahá’í minority under severe persecution.
His journey from Iran to Canada was not an easy one. He fled Iran in 1982 amidst severe persecution due to his Bahá'í faith. He arrived in Canada with his family in 1984; he was twenty-nine then. Not knowing English, he faced the daunting task of learning a new language in a foreign land. Despite the challenges, he enrolled in an undergrad program and completed a second Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Studies at York University. His determination to learn English and continue his education in theatre reveals his resilience and passion for the arts.
On a personal note, Soheil has never had a mentor. Directing has been self-taught, so he proudly states he never stops learning about the theatre. He’s always searching, seeking, and investigating different forms and traditions of theatre. He laughed (and so did I) that as we age, we slow down a bit in our learning. But Soheil doesn’t stagnate at all in the arts. One doesn’t stop learning, no matter what age. He believes artists must keep updating themselves.
Although taking workshops is challenging since he continues to be busy directing, Soheil reads a lot about the arts and the theatre. He goes to see a lot of productions and watches the younger generation of theatregoers (whether on stage or in the audience):
“New generations and different generations of people bring something different, and I think for [we] senior artists, it’s always important to stay updated. There’s no way an artist can stop and say, “I’m done. Now I’m perfect.”
As an artist going forward, how does he feel about the state of Canadian theatre amid its changes in the last three to four years?
Soheil agrees it has been a challenge in Toronto and across Canada. The industry hasn’t recovered entirely, but live performance art remains necessary in connection with others. It may take another couple of years to recover, hopefully without any more pandemics. He still believes that audiences will return to the theatre.
Will there be further changes in the industry moving forward?
“Definitely. When I started my theatre company (Modern Times) in 1989 with Peter Farbridge, the situation then wasn’t like what we are currently experiencing now. There’s no comparison. Yes, there was a bit of a struggle in the first ten years of Modern Times to produce and create shows because whatever I did was labelled as either Persian or multi-cultural, and I hated those words…Change is promising…There weren’t a lot of opportunities for artists like me back in 1989.”
Change is also happening in the leadership within the theatre community, and that’s promising as there weren’t a lot of opportunities for artists of colour back in 89.
Even though Soheil does see the changes for artists of colour, he also gets a bit worried because it’s not just about diversity for the sake of diversity. Art is the bottom line. Whatever artists promote or showcase must be exciting. Whatever is happening is fine, but as an artist of colour, Soheil believes he can speak the truth in saying we’ve gone to the far extreme on the other side now; however, he hopes in a few years that balance will be found in that artists will be supported for their work and for what they do.
When he started Modern Times, he wanted to be recognized and supported for his work as an artist, not because he’s an Iranian-born theatre director. It’s not diversity for the sake of diversity. Theatre must keep growing and flourishing. We have to create good art.
Theatre previews are always exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing Soheil’s next production as director for Aluna Theatre’s ‘On the Other Side of the Sea’ starting February 7 at the Theatre Centre. Written by Salvadorian playwright Jorgelina Cerritos and winner of the 2010 Casa de las Américas Prize for drama based in Havana, Cuba, the play is described on the Theatre Centre website as a powerful, minimalist drama celebrating courage, conviction, and life itself.”
Aluna is thrilled to produce a play from El Salvador, representing the first time the company will produce a work by a Latin American artist not residing in Canada. The plot is not realistic, but the characters are real. There is a fisherman with no name and a civil servant at her office desk, oscillating between loneliness, memory, and reality on a journey toward human connection and renewal.
Beatriz Pizano and Carlos Gonzales-Vio will appear in this Canadian premiere. Rehearsals have gone well. Soheil says he’s lucky to have them for this premiere. He has worked with Beatriz and Carlos before. He calls them generous. Although the process of exploring during rehearsal wasn’t easy at times, the actors kept exploring the text and what lies underneath it. They know how much Soheil values subtext and its importance, so that has been rewarding overall for everyone involved.
Any play has to be challenging for everyone involved, not only for the actors but for everyone involved. If it’s not challenging, what’s the point of doing it?
Parsa calls ‘On the Other Side of the Sea’ a remarkable, poetic, magical, and fascinating piece. The influence of the Theatre of the Absurd on the play is undeniable. He was introduced to the play before the pandemic by a friend who told him: “Soheil, I know your work. This is your play. You have to direct it.”
When he first read the play, Parsa was confused about what was happening. When he read it the second time, he fell in love with the “lyrical beauty of the words and the evocative style. The play is deceptively simple. It’s about hope, and that’s what fascinates me about it.” In Parsa’s words: “Simplicity is simple. You have to achieve it.”
As we began to wind down our conversation, I asked what kept Soheil still excited about the theatre:
“The live connection between the audience and the actors. I think that’s the most irreplaceable art form. We don’t have any art form like theatre to have this direct, live human connection between the creators and the audience. That’s what fascinates me the most. The theatre will always survive no matter how far we advance in the digital or YouTube world.”
What’s next for Soheil once ‘On the Other Side of the Sea’ finishes its run?
There have been requests from theatre schools to direct their shows. Last year, he directed two shows, one for Humber and one at the University of Ottawa. This year, he is teaching part-time at Brock University. Next fall, he will direct a show at Brock University for fourth-year students. Nothing has been finalized yet, but there is a possibility he might be directing for Tarragon Theatre.
‘On the Other Side of the Sea’, presented by Aluna Theatre, runs February 7 – 25 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West. For tickets, call (416) 538-0988 or visit theatrecentre.org. To learn more about Aluna Theatre, visit their Facebook page or website: alunatheatre.ca.