As Ontario experiences record snowfall against a backdrop of yet another COVID-19 shutdown, the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival has re-entered the digital realm, offering audiences a plethora of new and exciting work.
Amongst those works is Heart of a Dog, based on the Russian novel of the same name and presented by Nowadays Theatre. Intermission sat down with Mohammad Yaghoubi, co-founder of Nowadays Theatre, to chat all things Next Stage: what’s worked, what’s been punctuated by the pandemic, and what audiences might expect from the online production of Heart of a Dog.
Mohammad’s answers have been edited for length/clarity.
Thanks for talking with us, Mohammad! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your practice?
I’m a playwright and director, born and raised in Iran. While studying law, I joined a theatre group at the law faculty and learned acting — but I never wanted to become an actor. My dream was to be a novelist. Then I wrote my first play and received great feedback from my friends in the theatre group that encouraged me to write more plays. A year later, I registered for acting and directing classes instructed by two influential theatre practitioners in Iran.
I decided to become a playwright, so I needed to know how to write for actors and directors. I could learn how to write a play from reading plays and books on playwriting, but it is impossible to learn how to act and direct only via reading books. I wrote a couple of plays and only gave them to my friends to read. I wasn’t confident enough to stage them. But that changed when I wrote my play Winter of 88. I finally felt that I had created something I felt confident to direct.
How about Nowadays Theatre — can you tell us a little about the company’s history?
When I was 33, I married Aida Keikhaii, an Iranian actor and director. After getting married, we founded a theatre group together in Iran called InRoozHa and produced many theatre projects. In 2015, we moved to Canada. We founded Nowadays Theatre company in 2016 — the name is the English translation of ‘InRoozHa,’ which means ‘nowadays.’ We aimed to expand our audiences and connect with English-speaking audiences.
To inspire cross-cultural dialogue and support cultural diversity in Canada, we also translate Canadian plays into Farsi and Iranian plays into English. Our works have been performed in Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Kurdistan, Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Turkey, and the USA.
In early 2020, we started to present online shows. But still, just like other theatre artists in the world, we dreamed of doing in-person shows with live audiences again. So we submitted for the 2022 Next Stage Theatre Festival, and our project Heart of a Dog was chosen as one of the six in-person shows of the festival. After two years of doing online shows, we hoped that we would be able to present our show in front of a live audience at the 2022 Next Stage Theatre Festival. It was heartbreaking when we realized that due to the increasing number of cases of the new COVID-19 variant, it still wasn’t safe to present in-person shows in front of live audiences. However, we’re grateful to the Next Stage Theatre Festival, which graciously offered us our original venue to record our performance.
What was the inspiration for Heart of a Dog?
Heart of a Dog is based on a satirical novel of the same name by the classic Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov.
The story is about a stray dog saved by a successful surgeon who then operates on the dog’s skull and gives him human pituitary glands. Later on, the dog gets hired by the Soviet State and starts working for them. It’s a timeless story that portrays the exploitation of people in any society in which individuals are used and even abused due to particular political intentions of the government.
I’ve staged this play previously in Iran on two occasions, and every time, I’ve faced heavy censorship and restraints from government officials. Now, in Canada, I have the freedom to explore my creative vision without any restriction.
When we remounted Heart of a Dog in 2014, I had a different approach to the project that became controversial. My approach was in response to the image of women after the revolution in 1979. Since then, the state has enforced Islamic sartorial codes for women — they’re in place to this day. To criticize the compulsory hijab and censorial regulations, I asked all the men in the show to wear hijabs. The story’s narrative inspired me to expose the similarities of the totalitarian states of two different countries — of different times and with contradicting ideologies — wherein one communism ruled over people’s lives (Russia) and in the other religion (Iran). I wanted to show how ridiculous these countries are regarding the lack of freedom of speech and opinion.
This is your third project at Toronto Fringe/Next Stage — what’s kept you coming back to these festivals?
We’ve had three shows at Toronto Fringe and Next Stage festivals so far. We’ve always had a wonderful time at the festivals, and will always look back fondly at our collaboration. The festival staff members have always been friendly and helpful, and their structured and positive approach has always inspired us to come back.
How do you hope Heart of a Dog speaks to audiences?
First of all, we hope that it is engaging and that people enjoy watching this performance. Heart of a Dog has an intriguing and timeless story that targets political and societal issues relevant to many communities and countries. The novel can be interpreted as a criticism of eugenics. And while the play is an allegory of the Communist Revolution in Russia, it can also be an interpretation for any capitalistic country and the totalitarian systems such as Iran, China, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Cuba, etc.
When I realized that we had to film the project and present it online, I quickly changed my approach and adapted our performance to accommodate the platform. I should say this change was rewarding, too. The project in its new version is more Brechtian than what it was supposed to be if it was presented in person for a live audience. My biggest goal was to emphasize the theatrical feature of our work: I wanted our performance to be different from a movie.
Any final thoughts?
Now living in Canada, I’m happy to embrace the freedom to direct this play without the constraints I experienced in Iran. The significant difference in our Canadian presentation is our cast. The main character (the dog) is performed by a woman, Aida Keykhaii. She would not have been allowed to perform this character in Iran, since there a woman’s body is a political matter. We also had a diverse team, and it is always amazing to see and hear the play through artists with different cultures and backgrounds. They bring with them authenticity, which is rooted in their upbringing. I learned a lot from every one of them.
You can find out more about Heart of a Dog at Next Stage 2022 (including ticket availability) here.
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