Growing up in Iran, Aki Yaghoubi was excited about becoming an actor. But after performing in some productions, she felt a great deal of disappointment.
“Pretty soon, I realized that I did not like the roles that were offered to me as a woman,” Yaghoubi tells Pancouver over Zoom.
These characters were not compelling or even interesting to her. So, she decided to join a director’s team backstage with the goal of writing roles that she liked for women and herself.
To her good fortune, Yaghoubi was able to train with celebrated Persian drama professor and director Hamid Samandarian. She later worked alongside widely admired Persian playwright and director Bahram Beyzai. And she learned that creating a play is not as easy as it appears.
“I didn’t know that writing would consume all of my time and energy, leaving no time to pursue my acting career,” Yaghoubi says. “But I have to say that writing is the most joyful experience one could have.”
This is an apt description of her latest project, Parifam, which will be presented in a stage reading on Wednesday (February 1). It’s part of Ruby Slippers Theatre’s Advance Theatre Festival at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts.
Yaghoubi was working at Teesri Duniva Theatre Co. in Montreal when she told artistic director Rahul Varma that she wanted to write Parifam.
“He told me, ‘Go for it. You have our full support. Just work on your project.’ That was 2017,” Yaghoubi recalls. “It took me four-and-a-half years to finish it.”
Parifam is an architect and painter
Panthea Vatandoost is directing the stage reading of Parifam, which revolves around an architect and painter, Parifam Mana. While living in Montreal, Parifam meets a childhood friend named Ramak, who’s now a documentary maker.
With Ramak’s help, Parifam is trying to create an Iranian-style museum in Canada. But Parifam encounters obstacles along the way.
“She’s very much obsessed with these art pieces that are in different museums around the world—and they belong to our country,” Yaghoubi says.
The playwright derives a great sense of satisfaction from creating characters.
“I love my characters—all of their weaknesses and their strength, and the way they navigate their world,” she declares. “I feel like I’m responsible for their future. It’s like you grow this baby and now they are out in the world but you’re worried about them. They’re not that independent from you yet.”
Yaghoubi also reveals that she had a unique writing process with Parifam, which is presented in English. She switches between Farsi and English because in each language, she can improve some aspects of the play.
“I usually start by first draft in English, but when I reach a point where I cannot improve the text further, I know that I need to translate it into Farsi,” Yaghoubi says. “I can improve the emotional aspects of the text in Farsi because it’s my mother tongue. And then again, I translate it into English and work on it.”
Experiencing repression in real life
This flipping back and forth between languages offers certain advantages. For instance, Yaghoubi feels that she can create a stronger structure when writing in English whereas the depth comes when writing in Farsi.
It’s certainly a very emotional journey for her lead character. Parifam’s parents were both political activists and it’s disclosed in the play that she was born in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison.
In real life, Yaghoubi herself was arrested in Iran for not wearing a hijab in a manner that satisfied the Islamic religious police.
“I was so scared of them: the Islamic regime’s police are scary,” she recalls. “Now, I am seeing these young girls shouting for freedom and they’re not scared of being killed by them. Everything is changing.
“I understand them very well because they are tired of living a lie,” she continues. “They do not believe in the lifestyle that has been dictated to them for so many years. They want to be who they are.”
Yaghoubi believes that the regime’s goal has always been to ruin the culture and the language of her homeland. “But they will never succeed in that because Iranians always find their way,” she adds.
She left Iran in 2009 while it was in the throes of the Green Revolution, which was crushed by the government. She moved to Montreal, hoping to continue a theatrical career in Canada.
Parifam includes a cast of six
Her breakthrough came in 2017 when she won the DémArt-Mtl grant from the Conseil des arts de Montréal and a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to write Parifam. Two years later, Yaghoubi was cast in the film Sin la Habana. This earned her the outstanding actress award at the 2021 Reelworld Film Festival.
She’s now working on her second play in English, Tara’s Barrier, which is also funded by the Canada Council for the Arts.
Parifam includes a cast of six: Evelyn Chew (Parifam), Sharon Crandall (Ramak), David Kaye (Kian), Pedro Chamale (Justin), Raugi Yu (Casra), and Chris Lam (The Man/Prison Guard/TV Reporter/Voice of Mr. Mana).
Yaghoubi will be at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts to hear the performance.
“It was workshopped in Montreal,” she says. “After that, I developed the play more. This time, it’s the second workshop.
“It hasn’t been produced yet,” Yaghoubi continues. “I hope the play sees the light of day soon in Vancouver and other parts of the world. I think it is time to see stories about courageous Iranian women on the stage.”
As part of the Advance Theatre Festival, Ruby Slippers Theatre will present a stage reading of Parifam at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts at 8 p.m. on Wednesday (February 1). For tickets to plays at the festival, which begins on January 30, visit the Shadbolt Centre website. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.