Interview met Sachli Gholamalizad

KVS commissioned writer and video artist Maryam K. Hedayat to conduct an interview with theatre creator Sachli Gholamalizad. Both artists share a number of passions, longings, and a love for Iranian artists Forough Farrokhzad and Googoosh. It was written in the stars that Hedayat should assist the creation of Gholamalizad’s third play Let us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season: as dramaturge, sounding board, and interviewer.

© Francis Vanhee

Where did you get inspiration for your new production?

Every piece, every new story originates halfway through the creation process of the previous one. Which is logical, because you always have a number of ideas you can’t use in just one story. Whatever you have left to tell but couldn’t, becomes part of the next creation.

It’s also something that I struggle with daily: what is my role and society, and how is my role interpreted by the outside world? Some people are offered a podium, others aren’t. And if you are offered a role, it entails certain expectations. Do we play the game but silence ourselves, or do we dare to expose certain practices and accept the consequences of that decision?

My position in society as a woman, and especially as a woman of foreign origin, inspires me to reflect on that society and to create critical performances about it.

What brought you to Iranian artists Forough Farrokhzad and Googoosh?

They came to me, as it were. I didn’t really go looking for them, but they are part of my cultural baggage. It feels natural to open up to them and involve them in my creative process. It would be a waste not to share the many references of my universe with my audience. It’s high time to shine a light on our so-called canon, and to make sure we don’t fill it with uniformity.

What do these women mean to you?

Farrokhzad harbours a universality: her poetry should be read and heard by everyone. As a woman, a feminist and an artist, she was far ahead of her time. She was one of the foremost innovators in Iranian poetry, both in terms of style and the subjects she chose. She refused to accept imposed gender roles and broke unflinchingly with tradition.

Here, there is often too much focus on the so-called ‘Western canon’, like that’s a fixed concept – like no other stories deserve to be canonised. When you overemphasise the history of one part of the world, you are effectively erasing another. I do not want those parts to be erased, because they include my own frames of reference. My canon is much broader and more inclusive than the traditional Western canon. That means it has space for Sylvia Plath and Audre Lorde and Forough Farrokhzad. It’s not either-or, but both. I don’t delete anyone from my canon, I only add to it.

You spent a lot of time doing research abroad. What were you looking for?

I went to Los Angeles because it’s a place where many cultures meet. I wanted to investigate and experience how people there relate to their own and other cultures. It was refreshing to discover that people can keep their own traditions and cultures, while also embracing American culture.

It’s not an either-or story there. We sometimes miss that here. Of course there’s much to be said about the failure of the American Dream, but at the same time many people there are raised with a mentality that says people of various backgrounds should, in principle, be able to live together in harmony while adopting an overarching identity. There seems to be more openness to multiculturalism, which sounds utopian, but you can really feel it. Neighbourhoods aren’t labelled as ghettos. Here, I sometime feel like certain cultures are eschewed from the centre and from society. They are seen as inferior.

Cultures there are also not folklorised or exoticised to the same degree as they are here. There’s an openness and flexibility towards other cultures that you don’t find here. Both socially and culturally, there’s less segregation. Argentina was also very interesting in that regard. I talked and shared a lot with fellow creators there, and discovered how they combine their art with their battle against outdated power systems and the status quo.

Travelling brings about certain freedoms and insights. By travelling you get to know your own culture and identity better. You see your thoughts and ideas against a new background, which makes you redefine or adapt some of them in the new context. Travelling makes you reflect on your own thoughts and habits. You learn that nothing is absolute, and that definitions should be seen in context.

That’s a very important thought exercise, and I want to keep challenging myself that way. As soon as you think you’ve found a definition, it can just as easily be blown apart. It makes people humbler, more worldly, more open. There isn’t an answer to everything. That’s beautiful, the searching for answers, the continuing to build, construct and deconstruct.

There’s a lot of music in your performance. Why does it take up so much space? What does singing mean to you?

Through music, you can communicate with a large and diverse group of people about things like pain, loss, joy and happiness. Music can be incredibly healing and connective.

You can’t say everything with just words, which is why I don’t like doing only text-based performances. I recognise feelings like displacement easily in music, and I like to share them through music. There’s an emotionality in music that I can’t express through acting alone. I want to use my voice in various ways to approximate various emotions.

Music is also a way to get out of your head. I don’t want to get stuck in the role of the explainer. I want to escape rationality. There are multiple ways of telling a story. Music is an important part of my world and my inner workings. It harbours things in a different place, at a different frequency. It means allowing for multiple layers with which to understand and question the world around me. There’s no escaping yourself or your voice in music.

Music and singing are also universal. Women have had to demand their right to a voice throughout the centuries, in all cultures and continents. It’s a tool for empowerment and freedom, for relinquishing the dominant structures. Music has historically been used in many forms to criticise society, challenge it, but also address large groups of people.

Today we need new lyrics and new songs that express how we feel, and that carry within them many different worlds just like we do. I want to use my voice as a tool for empowerment.

How does the third part of your trilogy relate to your previous works?

An idea, a concept, and a performance all grow through time. Just like us humans grow, go through certain processes and learn from mistakes in the past, you also learn from your performances and try to create new ones that embody who you are at that moment and what you believe in. I want to question the masks we put on in this performance, confront myself through the dominant ideologies and how they help or hinder me in life. That means that, besides the narratives around me, I also want to investigate my own creative process and my role as an artist. The insights you have today are perhaps different from the ones you will have in a year, so the crux is to dare to be critical time and again about yourself and your context.

How would you describe your evolution as an artist?

As an actor, I still feel the need to perform my first creation A Reason to Talk after six years. The piece transforms me every time, because it takes on different values and meanings for different audiences in different countries. As an actor, I grow through the new meanings I find in it. It transcends my own story, becomes universal, and works in a connective way.

I also trust myself more and am no longer afraid to speak from my own perspective. I feel like I don’t have as much to lose. I don’t feel the need to mean anything to anyone. I feel freed from the need to be loved. By letting go of that, you create space to choose who you want around you, what types of people and ideas you want to nourish yourself with. It creates room to grow, to accept yourself. I no longer want to please, and that will become clear in my future performances. I learn from my experiences and my creations, and that gives me the confidence I need for the future.

What do you want to tell with this performance? What would you like people to remember?

That’s a difficult question, because the performance hasn’t been created yet. But I can only hope to be understood, even though us humans will never fully understand each other due to language’s inadequacy. But if I can pull people into my reality, that’s something to be thankful for.

If the play makes people think, talk, question things, it means we can grow and progress together. It’s important to keep inspiring and feeding each other, even if we have different perspectives on life. I don’t want to force anyone to change their minds, I’m not interested in propaganda. If people are ready to listen to my stories and look at what I want to show them, I’m satisfied.

I don’t want any more fakeness. I want to live in truth, and I expect that truthfulness from my audience as well. The times we live in call for us to surpass superficialities and masks, and to truly get to know each other as the complex beings we are.

When is a performance successful to you?

The creative process of this performance is just as important as the result. It was extremely enriching to work with this team, we complement each other well. It’s very inspiring to work with people who agree, but who can also bring a unique perspective to the table. On that count, the performance is already a success.

What counts for me is that the audience can find consolation and recognition in my creation, and that they gain insights from it. I want to do more than just communicate with my audience; I want to forge a bond. I want to hold up a mirror to them and to myself, create a safe space where we can find insights together. I want to keep questioning myself and dare to be insecure and humble. Humility does not mean keeping quiet and small. Humility means having the courage to talk, because you want to contribute to society.

Staying silent is often cowardly and even narcissistic. People are often too afraid to be criticised to sacrifice their security. I want to surpass that and tell the stories that don’t get told, that often don’t even seem to exist. By telling them I don’t just give myself the right to exist, but I also try to make visible those that do not have the privilege of being heard. That, too, is humility to me.