Rzgar Hama Rashed؛ my life depends on theatre

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Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You live in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. You are also a Kurd. What is your personal story of coming to Canada?

Rzgar Hama Rashed:It is a long story, and it was not a choice of mine. I was forced to do so; otherwise, I never had a desire to live elsewhere other than my town. However, I left Kurdistan in 1997 and become a Canadian resident in 1999. I wasn’t willing to stay here, my first year in Canada was the longest year in my life. I wasn’t able to watch a play, I wasn’t able to participate in a theatre group, I wasn’t able to make up  my mind on whether  to live without theatre. I had a friend who was living in Ottawa for many years, one day I asked him to show me a way to get to a theatre, but he explained to me how difficult it is for new comers to find their way in theatre. I told him that I wasn’t asking to be a part of a theatre production, I was asking him to help me get me into a theatre venue so I can breathe. I missed that special smell and the air inside a venue.

All my life I never stopped being in a theatre, whether as an audience, actor, director, technician, or whatever the reason, I always just wanted to be there, that was my real life. I went through  many difficult times in my life, but always found my way into theatre, I was in Suleymani, Sangasar, Biqaa/ the border of Syria and Lebanon, Kirshahir/ Turkey, and all the schools I have attend, I have always been in, or created a theatre group. But in Ottawa, I was lost. However I never stopped searching. I started with the yellow pages; I found that there was a theatre company called: Broken English Theatre Company, and they only had a PO Box address. No real address, no phone number. But in a few weeks I found them, I went there and knocked on their door. Their location was somewhere downtown in a basement of an apartment building. First, they didn’t believe me that I just found them by asking people everywhere on the streets. I was asking everyone about this theatre company, and whether they heard about? Do they know where they are? Have they seen any of their shows? I finally found them, but it wasn’t what I was expecting, a few weeks search ended in a 10 minutes answer, which was: we have planned for the next 3 years and all the castings are done.

After that I started searching for theatre colleges or universities, and found the Ottawa University. There I went to see an academic adviser, she told me that it is not a good idea to study theatre in Canada because you cannot survive; you need to find a real job. I told her that my life depends on theatre, it might sound romantic, but that’s who I am.. Anyways, she wasn’t a good help either. Therefore, I decided to move to Montreal.

My life in Montreal became a bit smoother.  I found a job in a pizza store and started to improve my English by attending an adult high school. I managed to speak with some new immigrants to create a theatre group. One day I saw a flyer for a play reading for a local playwright arranged by Playwright’s Workshop Montreal. That was a memorable event for me, because I had a chance to meet the playwright “Nick Carpenter” who had his amazing play read by some professional actors. I was so inspired by his work and told him that I am a foreign writer from Kurdistan. He was surrounded by the audiences but still kindly asked me about my language and my Kurdish background and gave me his phone number to arrange a meeting so we can talk more. He was my guide to the Playwright’s Workshop Montreal, where they allowed me to use their space, late nights, for rehearsals with no cost. I prepared a play called “Siyamand” with a group of immigrant actors from different places.

In 2002 I moved to Vancouver, there, I went through many difficulties in my personal life. I decided to go back to Kurdistan, and I did. In 2005, I went back and in my mind I wanted to stay there for the rest of my life. But I couldn’t stay for more than 4 months. When I was back in Kurdistan, I wasn’t able to recognize my friends, my relatives, the places where I dreamt about. Basically, nothing turned out the way I was expecting. The Iraq war caused chaos in the region, the Kurdish leaders start to split the authority between them, they were so happy that they could go to Baghdad and be a part of the new Iraqi government. They made people believe the lie that they are Iraqis and they were proud of it. In every body’s eyes it was easy to see that they didn’t believe what they said, but somehow, they agreed to say it.

The chaos wasn’t just out there, but it was inside the people’s minds too, it was easy to see the way they were moving, talking and socializing, how lost they were  in such alienation. Building a new Iraq constituted destroying humanitarian values. That was the most disappointing times in my life, during the years of exile in Canada I had always dreamt and aspired about the moment I go back and hug my family and friends, to return and visit the places that left magnificent effects on my life. But nothing was as I expected.

I decided to come back to Canada and continue my writings and watch plays. I participated in creating a theatre group in Vancouver “Jibran Theatre Group”, we had a play written and directed by my friend “Muhammad Jourani” the play was “Jonah and the Falafel War” I was the stage manager of the show. After that I went to take some courses in Douglas College on Stage craft and Event Technology and Performing Arts, hoping that I could find my way into the theatre community in Vancouver.

Jacobsen: You have been working as a theatre director/artistic director. How did you earn that position at Sky Theatre Group?

Rzgar: with a help by a friend of mine “Hemin Khasrow” and the editor “Claire Cheers.” I started translating one of my plays which is called “Waristan” and changed the name into Soldierland and after that, with some theatre friends we created Sky Theatre Group, produced our play, and I was elected to be the Artistic Director of the group.

Jacobsen: Your next play is Soldierland. What was the inspiration for it? What can audiences expect at the play from May 18 to 24?

Rzgar:  Soldierland is about three soldiers who just survived a war but missed the last train home. Left behind in a desolate area near front lines, they find themselves in a demolished train station.

The show is about the psychological effects of war on individuals and communities as well as the crippling changes it brings to society and human migration. It sheds light on continued wars in micro societies and brings into question love and humanity in a time of war, which is influenced by the power of mass media, governments, and the established orders in this digital age. It’s a raw and unwavering piece that examines the human condition on a subject matter that has plagued us throughout our history, war.

The inspiration of writing goes back to when I chose to make theatre my life, and that goes back to my first steps into a theatre venue and watched a play for the first time in my life.

The first time for me watching a play, was in the first grade; my older brother took me to a show, it wasn’t for kids, but I liked it a lot. To be inside a theatre was like  magic for that little me, to see a lot of people sitting side by side in the auditorium facing the stage, the lights going off and colourful projectors lighting  actors, simple but smart decorations. After a while all the lights turned off again, in the darkness you hear footsteps and see the shadows of people changing the stage design, and then another round of warm acting, beautiful decoration and lightings. I noticed once in a while the people are enthusiastically clopping to an angry actor, which I don’t know what he was saying because I wasn’t paying attention to the words, I was more affected by the environment and magic of lights, sounds, and the phenomenal shapes of everything on and off the stage.

After that show, on my way home, I made a commitment to myself that one day I’ll be one of those actors. I asked my brother to take me to watch more shows, and then I start listening to their talks and was going to imitate them in front of my family and friends.

 Since my childhood, to find the best timing to talk was one of my big concerns. I was watching people talking, getting angry, yelling at each other, laughing, making fun of each other, being serious, sharing opinions on different subjects and all other kinds of conversations I was watching and observing. I noticed that my ability for socialization was limited, I was getting interrupted by others but not fighting to continue talking. I was giving up my talks easily and wasn’t able to converse back when there was a chance.

Every day on my way to school in 7th grade I  passed by a new theatre group’s signboard / Salar Theatre group. For one whole year I was thinking about paying them a visit, and always created different scenarios in my head about my first entrance to that place. Who might I see and what their reaction could be? However, one day with my best friend “Ahmed” we encouraged each other to make that visit and ask for a role in one of their upcoming plays which I heard was for kids and called Animal’s friend. We did and unexpectedly we received a warm welcome by the group and especially by the writer of the play who afterwards became my friend “Shafiq Muhammad”, the same day we both got a copy of the script and asked to be in the rehearsals the next day. I couldn’t sleep that night; I kept reading the script over and over again until I almost memorized all the dialogues of every single character in the play. Anyway, the next surprise on the next day was that Shafiq “the writer” asked my opinion about the play, and when I started talking no one interrupted me, and then I saw that they were listening to each other, while someone is talking and they all were listening patiently. They were sharing different opinions with no anger. From the very first day I’ve got this feeling that never left my life after that day, which is my real world is in theatre, my life, my real friends, family, and basically theatre is my home. It is where I always find the right time to talk.

For the first time I was able to be a part of a professional production when I was 14, in a play for kids, and continued working with different productions. . In my secondary school I met 3 other guys who were actors as well. We decided to create a school theatre group; we did, and start rehearsing in the school’s main hall which did not have a stage. We prepared everything and copied posters and printed tickets, but we had no idea that our principal did not allow such activities. So we were not able to show our play. During the summer break we decided to work in a children’s play that was adapted by one of my friends “Kurdawan” and directed by myself, now we had a busy gang, around 15 kids from the ages of 5 to 17, we named our theatre group “Sarchnar’s kids theatre group” this was during the Iraq – Iran war, we were going to rehearsal with bombardments and shootings and so on. Unfortunately, that play did not see light too. However, in 1987 I start adapting a play from real stories of the Leningrad city during world war two “Cannibals”. This time, and for the first time, I was able to show my play for a few days.

I graduated from secondary school and had my long time plan to enter the fine arts college, but I couldn’t. To be accepted there supposed to have Baath party’s membership for at least 6 month, I waited for the college teachers who tried their best to make an exception for me, but they didn’t succeed. With a broken teenager’s heart I had to enter the Industrial high school. I spent my first 2 years between school and my room, staying up all night to read the college and university theatre method books. In my 2nd year, I decided to create a theatre group in that industrial school. I start training students who liked theatre and afterwards some of them became professional theatre artists, like Sarkaw Gorany and Darwesh Omar. The first day I told them that I haven’t decided on a script yet, but we will start with exercises and acting lessons, meanwhile I’ll keep looking for a script. There, for the sake of acting improvement, I start giving them some ideas to improvise it. After a few days, I told them that I have this crazy idea about making a play without script, we can build the script from our daily improvises. That was my first step towards improvisation in 1988, the year of Kurdish genocide by Iraq. I did not have any resources by then; all the exercises and improve acting lessons were created by me.

In directorial debut, I chose Cannibals, because the subject was similar to what we were going through during that time. It was the year of thousands of political prisoners; hundreds were hanged and was the beginning of Anfal process which we heard that the Iraqi regime destroyed villages and displaced the people. I started my rehearsal with a bunch of actors from 4 years old to myself 17 years old. In the first few days I didn’t have a real script, I started with exercises and asking the actors to make scenes from stories that I was telling them vocally. I was inspired by what they did and started writing every day after rehearsals to complete my script. And had the play performed in 3 months without any permission from the government. Back then, every artistic activity is required to ask for permission, especially for theatre required to send the script to go through a censorship process.

To have a play performed with no pre – completed script was not a choice in the first step, but 2 years later for my second directed was done in the same process. The story of the second play I directed was more dramatic, it was a year after the most deadly genocidal year, which was 1988, when the Iraqi regime used chemical gas on Halabja and killed 5000 civilians including all my cousins, and the Anfal process which killed 182,000 civilians and destroyed 4,500 villages. The first day I told the actors that I have a story but I don’t have the script yet, let us try to build it every day! They were all surprised and did not know what we will be going through. However, in 1992 I made my choice of making plays through improvisation, for me that was the best way to improve acting skills, and to involve the participants deeply in the production. I did not have any samples or resources whatsoever of this kind of work. Therefore it was not easy to survive with such a strange technique inside the theatre community.

Moreover, as a Kurd in the Kurdish theatre community, everybody had a responsibility to be a part of the resistance movements. The Kurds have been arrested, tortured, relocated or killed by all the regimes in the history of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, and have had faced genocide several times, the latest is still going on in Afrin by NATO’s and Jihadist’s alley “Turkey”. However,” going back to theatre talk”, when I started my first steps in theatre, I found myself among all those young actors and theatre artists who have just graduated and had their last chance to be on stage before they got forced to sign for the army, and for the Kurds to be in the army during the Iraq – Iran war in 1980 – 1988, meant taking a chance of killing one or more of your relatives, or getting killed by  them. Because most of the families have relatives in the other parts of Kurdistan, so the Kurds from both countries were escaping from the army, some of them joining the Peshmarga, and others just hiding and living a life with fear. However, all those years, theatre was to serve the people in their ethnic resistance, to keep speaking in Kurdish and have a dream of free Kurdistan.

For all those years, I always had hidden fear inside myself, fear of war. I grew up with that fear. Since my childhood, I did not believe that there might be another tomorrow, because for me as 9 years old kid, walking to school under the bombardment every day, watching the killed soldiers in very graphical ways on T.V every night was terrifying me. I had to do something to push my inside fears out. That is why, I think, my first play adopting and directing was Cannibals, which was collected from real stores of people from Leningrad during the WW2. However, I always wanted to write a play about war and its effects on people. I did the same in my novel “The Ocean of White Coffins” and wrote some stories and poems about it, but wasn’t enough to describe my vision and feelings. I started reading about war histories, and bibliographies of war leaders, generals and soldiers. I had many stories in mind, because I was listening to those who were in wars so seriously. And then I started reading about societies who have had war, or had gone through wars.

I wrote Soldierland to express my anger toward wars, all kinds of wars. Moreover, to lighten some corners of inside those who participate in wars, their psychological issues, their destroyed desires, their unhappy and traumatic daily lives, and …etc. I was hoping that someone who read or seen this play will think about it from all those different angles.

Jacobsen: When you are training people in workshops and seminars, what are the general lessons and knowledge that you try to convey to the students?

Rzgar:I am not able to find a short answer to this serious question; it takes me to all the details that we work on as a theatre group. But I can talk about the areas that I try to cover in the trainings:

 I believe that theatre stands on the actor’s shoulder; this might seem very cliché and similar to hear, but in Sky Theatre we take it seriously. The actor will go through different challenges in their daily trainings including reading specific books on the plays subject, body and voice improvement as per the character’s requirement, adding or deleting words or even dialogues if they have a strong argument for it. Also there are many special exercises that are created from the plays subject to make a strong connection between the actors and their imaginary world.

Moreover, in my short term workshops, I focus on preparing the participants to find the best integration between their body and the moments of been on stage, or their character’s vision. Also, discus their relation with their character, speak about all the possibilities of their character’s being right or wrong, these eventualities would take us to experimental process through theatrical tests, and this might include some improve exercises.

 Finally, in all those workshops and even seminars, I like to speak about the importance of discovering the purpose of theatre; I try to prove that theatre can play a functional role in building a better life for future generations.

Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?

Rzgar:Thank you for bringing up these questions, and for giving me this opportunity.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rzgar.

Image Credit:  Rzgar Hama Rashed.

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Soldierland is a play written and directed by Rzgar Hama, it’s about three soldiers who just survived a war but missed the last train home. Left behind in a desolate area near front lines, they find themselves in a demolished train station.

The show is about the psychological effects of war on individuals and communities as well as the crippling changes it brings to society and human migration. It sheds light on continued wars in micro societies and brings into question love and humanity in a time of war, which is influenced by the power of mass media, governments, and the established orders in this digital age. It’s a raw and unwavering piece that examines the human condition on a subject matter that has plagued us throughout our history, war.

Soldierland runs May 18-24 at the Orpheum Annex (823 Seymour St, Vancouver, BC).

Tickets: https://tickets.theatrewire.com/shows/soldierland/events

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