Featuring Mona Seyed-Bolorforosh, Pooya Mohsani, Rozz Srabi, and Sara Matin
By Thalia Ranjbar & Deniz Demirkurt
Iranian theatre extends back to antiquity, with theatre forms such as Naqqāli and Ta’zieh dating back to at least seventh century A.D. Throughout history, Iranian theatre has catalyzed massive social and political impacts and consequently, is especially vulnerable to the contemporary Iranian regime.
Integration of “Western influences” into the Iranian theatre scene began before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. However, following the revolution, this integration was halted and theatre has since become deeply segregated and subject to many restrictions.
Music and arts performances in Iran have to comply with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance’s regulations in order to be deemed “appropriate” and approved to be put on, and that approval can be withdrawn at any moment. Examples of restrictive regulations are that men and women are forbidden to touch, women are required to wear head coverings, and women are not permitted to sing in public unless they’re singing in a chorus.
Women’s voices have been silenced in Iran for 43 years. The murder of Mahsa Jina Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman on September 16, 2022, sparked protests that led to the first women-led revolution in the country’s history. Mahsa was murdered at the hand of the “morality police” for “improperly wearing her hijab” and since then, Iranians have been taking to the streets with songs, chants, and peaceful protests that are met with senseless and fatal violence.
This, among many reasons to follow, is why we focused on Iran for this volume of our Multicultural Maestras series. The authors stand in solidarity with the people of Iran, and have interviewed four Iranian artists – Mona Seyed-Bolorforosh, Pooya Mohsani, Rozz Srabi, and Sara Matin – to explore how musical theatre can be an effective medium in amplifying Iranian voices and stories.
Responses have been edited for clarity.
1. How did you first discover musical theatre and what made you want to pursue it as a career?
MONA: When I was in high school, all my friends were trying out for the school musical, which happened to be Footloose. I auditioned with the rest of them and I tried to belt “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”. It was atrocious. I did not even get a callback.
But the orchestra director, who knew I was a pianist, came up to me and asked if I would like to play piano for the show. I didn’t really know at the time what it meant to play piano in a pit, but I said yes, and I did it every year after.
I was attracted to musical theatre for its collaborative approach to storytelling. There are so many different departments involved in a musical, and it’s incredible what happens when all of them come together with the purpose of telling a story.
POOYA: I was initially inspired by films. I was a child of war and the world was very dark. There were power outages, daily bombings, food shortages, etc. But when we put on a film, it gave us a glimpse into this other world. I think that is where I got my appreciation for glamor, color, sparkles.
However, my love of storytelling came from my grandmother. She would tell these very articulate stories and fables. As for theatre, 20-something years ago I was going to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan where I joined the theatre ensemble, which was an improv group.
ROZZ: I grew up going to the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America since my parents were always working. I was taught about various genres of music there such as soul, R&B, jazz, as well as musical theatre. Then when I was eight, my mom noticed me singing all the time and encouraged me to take voice lessons.
I continued singing until high school, and then I applied to The Orange County School of the Arts. I got rejected and I kind of gave up on myself, but my mother didn’t. She told me to apply a second time. I did and got accepted into both of the programs I applied to. That was my beginning in acting and musical theatre, and I’ve continued it ever since.
SARA: My discovery of musical theatre came very young, as performing in musicals is something I’ve been doing since the age of three. As a child, being involved in the performing arts was an amazing outlet and taught me creativity, teamwork, and problem solving skills, but at the end of the day, it was simply something fun to do.
At the age of nine, something shifted and I became deadly serious about pursuing the arts as a career. I dreamed of a life as a full-time artist in that dramatic and desperate way only a nine-year-old can.
This shift within me came when I was cast as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker at a local community theater in Phoenix, Arizona. It was during that show that I fell in love with the creative process.
Since then, I’ve sought to make a career in the arts, and I’d like to think my nine-year-old self would be proud of me now: a young adult providing for herself living in New York City and creating art as a performer, writer, producer, and director.
2. What is it like, as a female Iranian American musical theatre artist, to create works concerning Iran while living in the US?
MONA: It’s a mix of joy and longing.
During the first eight years of my life, I had a lot of Iranian influence around me because we were living in the Bay Area in California. But then we moved to New York in 2004, three years after 9/11. We now had such close proximity to where this horrible thing had occurred, and there was so much anti-Middle Eastern sentiment without any nuance or understanding of the different countries of the Middle East.
In response to that, my parents began to keep our culture and nationality quiet, as did a lot of Iranians during that time. They didn’t want us to be the target of any hateful speech or any bullying in school. So anytime I make Iranian art, it is joyful because it feels like those first eight years of my life when I was surrounded by that community. It’s similar to the way I feel when I cook the food or speak the Persian language – it’s very homey and it reminds me of my family.
There’s also very much a longing because I wasn’t born nor raised in Iran, and I’ve never been to the country due to familial situations. But I feel inexplicably connected to it because of the culture I have been able to experience through my family and community. There’s a lot of yearning and pain around that.
POOYA: When I was 20, 21, 22, there was no place for me as a trans[gender] Iranian person. In fact, I left the industry for many years. How can you be in a business where there is no business?
However, in the last decade there have progressively been more opportunities. I have known Sanaz Toossi since I acted in the first reading of English four years ago. Her play was the first of its kind. English was so successful because it was a very specific story presented to a very large audience. It was liberating, unique. At one point in rehearsal we asked, “Is anyone going to come see it?” because it didn’t [seem to] have “commercial appeal.” But it did.
We had the dedicated New York theatre audiences, but it also connected with immigrants in general and people of color. We were sold out in the last four weeks of the show. English is now being done in Boston, it’s going to be done in DC, and I think one or two other places. People were inspired, and it’s going to give more work to more Iranian actors and Iranian directors.
It’s very serendipitous that English happened and then the Iran protests began a few months later. In the play, the characters talk about the feeling of being “stuck” and why you feel that you have to go outside your country to have a life. This parallels the protests taking place right now.
ROZZ: When you write and perform for a marginalized group, there’s this pressure to take on the entirety of that community. Not many people know about Iran, so when they meet me, I become a spokesperson. However, no one person can be every identity or address every struggle within our community. That pressure is something I continue to learn to let go of. I focus on being respectful and truthful to myself.
But during my childhood in the US, having the duality of being an Iranian and American, it often felt like I could pick either one or the other. So when I’m writing or acting in such material, I try to tap into what it means to exist as both. And it’s very complicated because there are things that I’m proud of and there are things that I’m ashamed of in both of those identities, and sometimes they fight each other.
So, as a performer, I write what I know. My parents left Iran in their twenties, and they take great pride in their American identity. For many of us, we have parents who are traumatized from their past, and they don’t want to necessarily share everything about our culture. When it comes to creating Iranian art, my scope is limited due to how I was raised and the parts of my culture my parents decided to teach me. There’s a bit of fear of not understanding my culture to its fullest extent. When I write, I’m representing a very small demographic of people who strive for that culture and understanding. That hunger is very potent in most children of immigrants.
As a woman, it’s scary because through the lens of Sharia law, everything that I’m doing is “haram” or wrong. But I don’t live in Iran where that’s enforced. I don’t view art that way, so it doesn’t discourage my passions.
On the brighter side of things, when you find people in your community who create art, it’s one of the most gratifying and confirming communities to be a part of.
SARA: Creating art as an Iranian-American has always felt like a privilege to me and it is an honor I do not take lightly. The ability to create art freely and without restriction is so beautiful and is not something that has always been granted to Iranian women.
Take, for instance, the story of Googoosh. Googoosh is an Iranian pop singer, legendary performer, and personally, one of my favorite musicians. She initially rose to fame before the Revolution and had a remarkable impact on music and fashion at the height of her fame. Her performances were attended by adoring fans and her music was cherished by Iran’s people.
However, with the Iranian Revolution came a ban on female singers and Googoosh did not perform for 20 years. Googoosh’s music, like other artists, was forbidden and she was silenced. It wasn’t until she left Iran that she was able to sing for a crowd again and return to the stage.
To this day, Iranians from around the globe patronize her tours to listen to her music and reminisce. Each time I listen to Googoosh’s music, I am reminded of the decades she spent forbidden to create. As an artist, I cannot imagine it. The way I see it, the mere act of sharing my work with others is a blessing. I am grateful to have been born in a country that has valued my voice. The generation just before mine sacrificed greatly so I could be here and have the freedom to speak, to sing, and to create.
3. How do you think musical theatre can be impactful in terms of amplifying Iranian voices and stories?
MONA: A perfect example is the current movement that’s happening in Iran. All that’s being asked for is awareness and understanding. Awareness and understanding that the people of Iran are not terrorists, nor anti-Muslim, nor any of the harmful stereotypes placed on them. Musical theatre can be impactful in creating that understanding because in a piece of theatre, you have anywhere from an hour to two and a half hours to tell your side of the story, uninterrupted. How often do we even get to do that in a conversation?
For me, it feels obvious but true to say that the shows I love the most are ones that make me feel. When we feel something, we connect to it on a human level. If you have never been to Iran or have not had any exposure to the Iranian community, your perception of the country and its people might only be based on what you hear in the news. It’s very easy to sensationalize something or make a story out of it if you’re not regularly interacting with the people who are the subject of those stereotypes.
So I think musical theatre is a platform for that humanization, understanding, connection, and on an emotional level, dealing with subjects that are universal because we’re all just humans.
POOYA: There is a very old and famous Persian musical play by Bijan Mofid called Shahre Gheseh, which translates to The City of Tales. Almost everyone I knew had a cassette tape of it. It is an allegorical satire where animal characters are used as a device to bring forth political subtext. The characters are archetypes of old “characters” in Iranian society that represent corruption or hypocrisy.
In cultures where people could not openly express dissatisfaction with their regime or the corruption of religion, they would turn these characters into animals to claim innocence. It’s the only way you can tell these stories without consequence. Here is an Iranian story showing the world what it is and what it can be. Sometimes the world does not want to see itself for how it is.
ROZZ: I think even this female-driven revolution in Iran right now can become a musical. I worked on a similar project by Cheeyang Ng and Eric Sorrels titled Māyā, which was about the Salt March in 1930 in India.
Musical theatre is the perfect outlet to provide criticism on social and political situations and educate people in a non-aggressive manner, because music is so beautiful and impactful. Middle Eastern music and sounds have not been explored that much in musical theatre yet, other than The Band’s Visit, which I have a signed poster of in my room because I remember how touched I felt when I first saw the musical.I thought to myself, “There is room for us in this industry.”
I think there’s a lot of room for musical theatre to tell these stories through comedy. So many immigrant stories are rooted in pain and drama, which of course have their place. However, I challenge that it can make them a bit inaccessible for people, especially for those who might not view our demographic with so much empathy after 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I think comedy has a very beautiful way of opening up anybody of any background to laugh and listen. We can show the pain of Iranians, but also show the joy, the music, the laughter – show all of it. There, in the midst of laughter, can people start to relate to people they thought they had nothing in common with.
SARA: Amplifying Iranian voices in musical theatre and elsewhere is so important because so often, our voices are not heard. In recent weeks, we have seen so many brave women speak out and protest in Iran only for their cries to be met with violence from their own regime.
You will find images from only a few generations ago of women wearing mini skirts and go-go boots walking down the streets in 1970s Tehran (Iran’s capital city). The choice to wear such a thing now or simply to choose what we want to do with our bodies, with our hair, and with our voices has been taken from us. Those who are brave enough to do so are beaten, killed, or see their families and loved ones tortured for their actions.
It seems so trivial to think that telling Iranian stories in musical theatre could make an impact, but it can. The stories we tell have the power to bring attention and awareness to issues we may otherwise have limited exposure to. People connect with stories and characters, they always have, and that connection can foster care. What the people of Iran need right now is our support and our care.
Amplifying Iranian voices in theatre also shows the beauty of Persian culture. For so many, the only images of Iran seen are the ones portrayed on the news of terrorists or are religious in nature. Persian culture in its true essence is really colorful: hopeful, happy, full of family. A simple tea in the afternoon brings pastries and laughter; that is the Iran I know and hold dear. I hope that one day, we will be recognized for our music and our poetry, our food and customs, and the stories of our history and our families.
4. Do you think your country or culture is represented well (or represented at all) in theatre outside of Iran? What are some good and bad examples of representation?
MONA: Not just in theatre, but overall, I would say the culture is well-represented outside of Iran because you have the diaspora of millions of Iranians who left their country. So there is a great passion around preserving and sharing our culture.
In theatre, film, and opera, works such as the films of Abbas Kiarostami, and Niloufar Nourbakhsh’s opera We the Innumerable, which was about the 2009 revolution in Iran, are amazing examples of good representation. Another good example is [the work of] Shadi Ghaheri: a fantastic Persian director I’ll be working with in the spring on Heartbeat Opera’s adaptation of Tosca that will be set in present-day Iran.
Of course, there are bad examples too, the most common one being anytime somebody makes a generic Middle Eastern role and doesn’t pay attention to the nuances of it. Especially in the early 2000s, there was such frequency of casting Middle Eastern people as terrorists in media, which was extremely harmful.
That stereotyping is not exclusive to Iran. It applies to the Middle East in general, as Middle Eastern countries tend to get lumped together in the U.S. But I would rather focus on all of the wonderful representations of this beautiful country that are happening across all mediums like operas, plays, musicals, food, TV, film, and visual art.
POOYA: As an artist, people ask me, “Do you always want to play a trans character or a Middle Eastern character?” but I think that’s the wrong question. The question should be, “Do you want to play good characters?”
It’s not that there haven’t been any Iranian characters, it’s that there haven’t been many good Iranian characters. There have been Iranian characters that are one-dimensional or that are there to serve another character’s journey. We want characters who have agency, depth, humanity, and history. I have no problem playing Iranian characters. I have no problem playing trans characters. I have a problem playing bad characters. I have a problem playing characters who are not human. I would like the theatre to be more reflective of the fact that we do live side-by-side in the world. We don’t all live on our own islands.
Sanaz Toossi’s English was a great example of this where we had an Iranian playwright, a non-Iranian director, and a mostly Iranian cast with one Lebanese actor. When there are people of the culture and experience creating the piece – writing it, directing it, guiding it – that is how change happens, and we see good representation.
ROZZ: We have Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian director who directed movies such as A Hero and A Separation. His works tackle a lot of problems that are present in Iran, especially through the lens of toxic masculinity and Iranian male pride. But I haven’t seen that many works from the point of view of Iranian women.
There’s of course Sanaz Toossi. I think everyone in our community knows her, she’s such a powerhouse and we’re so lucky to have her. And all of the Iranian theatre that Thalia [Ranjbar] has created such as Nima and the Jen and Unlikely Friends at Bloor St. Station have been amazing, and I’ve been so proud to have acted in them.
There are also Iranian actresses like Pooya Mohseni and Shohreh Aghdashloo who inspire me greatly. And I recently saw The Kite Runner, which was a beautiful performance all around. It is not a Persian show, but they speak Farsi in the show, and it’s a beautiful feeling to hear your language spoken on stage.
SARA: Good or even bad representation is scarce when it comes to musicals that feature Iranians. We can celebrate recent productions on Broadway that have explored Middle Eastern stories, such as The Band’s Visit or The Kite Runner. Both of these shows represented cultures rarely featured on the Broadway stage, and seeing these productions made me feel incredibly seen. To be in the audience and hear dialogue in Farsi, hear characters sing “Tavalodet Mobarak” (“Happy Birthday”), or see a character preparing fruit and chaii upon the arrival of new guests reminded me of my own cultural experiences and brought them to life for me on stage.
We have a long way to go in representing Middle Eastern stories, but we are making a start.
5. Are there any changes you wish to see in the musical theatre industry (in Iran or in the world)?
MONA: The biggest things I wish for are wage transparency, better pay, and an acknowledgement of work-life balance. I wish that musicians had more bargaining power and more union strength. There are so many contracts that are issued which are not under union protection, which means that the rate is completely up to the whim of the employer and your ability to negotiate within your position. I’m thinking of workshops, readings, and the position of Music Assistant. So if the rate is not right, you either have to walk away, or you have to accept lower paying work, which then perpetuates what’s happening to one of us for all of us because that low pay becomes the market rate.
Many of my colleagues also struggle with the fact that if we are not pulling double or triple duty, we’re not able to make a living wage. But then the consequence of that is you don’t have time to rest, relax, or have a life. I have seen improvement around the topic of living wage, but there is still a long way to go.
I don’t want to see wonderful artists being burned out or pushed out because they want to have a family, or they want to have work-life balance. But many of us feel like this industry can’t afford it. Entry level jobs that allow young professionals to begin their careers (for example, music assisting) often require an extensive skill set without appropriate or sufficient compensation to live. With these limitations, we will continue to create an industry in which only certain perspectives can flourish.
POOYA: Right now I am in a play with nine people, eight of whom are white and cisgender. I am tired of the world where this is the default. That is the change I would like to see. I want to see an actor of color playing the president without eliciting an, “oh my God!” reaction. I want to see a trans woman playing the mother of the family without an, “oh my God!” reaction. I don’t necessarily believe in specific shows that are all-Black, all-Iranian, all-queer. I understand why they are necessary, as they create a balance to shows we have traditionally seen. However, the show I am in right now, I would have never existed in five or ten years ago.
We are getting to the point where different people can exist in stories that were previously very homogeneous. We need to get the opportunity, and that is dependent on people who have the power. Theaters, producers, people who invest in shows need to believe in these other stories that are happening.
I also believe change happens much slower than any of us want. But then you also realize that change doesn’t have to happen to us for change to be happening. We are all just one link in a long chain of little links. If you just focus on the fact that you have to do a great job as one link, you are connecting the people who come before you and those who come after you. So then you can be more comfortable with the fact that we can only accomplish what we can, and whatever we can’t accomplish, the person after us will.
ROZZ: I want shows to be more accessible, whether that be in terms of finances or having enough space. I hope more shows explore important social and power dynamics. What’s happening in Iran right now should be immortalized in art because that is the only way these stories will get told without being influenced by a political or economic agenda.
SARA: I would love to see support for new musicals from the entire theatrical community across the globe. There is so much theatre beyond Broadway, and I wish that all of these environments would value new works more in the seasons they select. What young writers need is for someone to take a chance on them: to offer them more than a reading and place trust in what they have to say.
“Woman, Life, Freedom.” This is the slogan for the human rights movement happening in Iran right now. They are fighting for freedom of speech, the freedom to sing, the freedom to express themselves without fear of police brutality. The Western theatre world has the privilege to tell stories freely and has a responsibility to elevate the voices of those who do not share those same rights.
While Iranian representation has not been the norm in Western theatre and media, these four powerful women are pillars of strength and hope for our evolving industry. With their art, advocacy, and collaborative spirits, they are certain to inspire great change where stories of a rich and beautiful culture will finally find the stage.
To keep up with Mona Seyed-Bolorforosh, Pooya Mohsani, Rozz Srabi, and Sara Matin and their work, please visit their pages for their social media and contact information. We encourage you to learn more about the mission and advocacy of Multicultural Theatermakers and keep an eye out for Vol. 3 of Multicultural Maestras coming soon!
Additionally, if you would like to educate yourself on the current situation Iran, stand in solidarity with the Iranian people, and be notified about local protests, we urge you to follow the following accounts on Instagram: @masih.alinejad @golfarahani @shirin_neshat @shelerhaghanifar @iamnazaninnour and @womanlifefreedomnyc.