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Talking to Haleh Stilwell: A Cultural Democracy in the Performing Arts Interview

The Brooklyn Commune’s Cultural Democracy and Representation Team, led by Kyoung H. Park, has designed an artist survey to invite artists to share their experiences working in the field in order to open up public discussions regarding diversity and inclusion in the performing arts. Over the course of the next few months, we will highlight interviews with artists who are in conversation with the Brooklyn Commune’s Cultural Democracy and Representation Team, and we invite members of our community to help us gather more information by completing our survey here. Our team will synthesize our findings and share these interviews and our findings online.

Haleh Stilwell

Haleh Stilwell

1. How do you identify yourself? Does your identity influence or inform your work? In what ways?

I struggle with the question of identity on a daily basis, and my work, I think, tends to reflect my struggle to identify rather than an identity. For example, I am, or can identify as, Iranian-American—but I was born and raised in the States, I don’t speak Farsi, and I often doubt my authenticity, as it were, as a member of the Iranian diaspora. Similarly, I identify as a woman/female (as opposed to any other gender or cross-gender), and I identify as dis/abled, but identifying as such is murky to me. If my work or a work of mine is particularly male-centric, am I in some way undermining my identity, as a female who strongly thinks there aren’t enough accurate representations of modern female-hood on the stage, or works by female artists? Because my disability is invisible and doesn’t visibly affect my quality of life, do I have the right to represent the dis/abled community to the public? Just because I am an Iranian-American, and a female, and have an hereditary disorder, am I obligated to address issues from those communities in my work? These are all questions with which I wrestle in myself, well before I think I can even claim an identity.

2. Do you face challenges in the field that you believe to be based on your identity? In what ways?

I can’t say I as an artist, a writer or dramaturg, have encountered specific obstacles based on any or all of my identities—except the inherent sexism of the theater. Funny (but not) anecdote: A week or so ago I was at Theatre Row for a show and was perusing the window cards of upcoming shows. Every single one was by a male playwright. There was a musical book-writer with an androgynous name that I gave credit to as a female, in a round of magical thinking, but still. I don’t like singling out any producing organization, but I had such a horrified reaction, particularly because Theatre Row is a conglomerate, not a single producing entity.

I also find there has been a perpetuation of a myth of “Millennials,” and I do think being in my mid-twenties completely affects the way others, particularly the older people who currently make the majority of decisions at our theatrical institutions, read and interpret my work. Maybe every generation feels like the generation above doesn’t take them seriously, but I do think a proliferation of media attention on Millennials, be it on popular TV shows or in respected news outlets (NY Times trend pieces, I’m looking at you) has branded us as less-than-serious, or uninformed, etc. when the majority of people I know from ages 20-whatever to 30-whatever are the most informed, dedicated, serious artists and advocates of social justice I know.

3. Where do you (or can you) locate representations of your identity, culture or community within contemporary performance?

There are of course many, many wonderful artists working to increase the visibility of woman artists. Unfortunately, I think we in the theater community are both insular and simultaneously divisive (uptown vs. downtown fight, anyone?), so that one single accomplished artist becomes a symbol of progress for an entire community, when the majority of the community still faces enormous hurdles in being cast, hired, produced, etc. For my communities specifically, I think Noor Theater Company does incredible work presenting plays by Middle Eastern playwrights. I think there are phenomenal woman playwrights and directors challenging what it means to be a woman in the theater, what we have license to write about, etc., like Katori Hall, Annie Baker, Anne Kauffman. Mostly though I find I see echoes of the very issue of representation recurring in single work lately: Nina Raine’s Tribes, Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn.

4. Do you believe that your cultural identity [community] has been (or is) misrepresented or underrepresented in the performing arts? How have you address this?

Often I wonder how the narrative in the country about dis/abilities would change if we cast dis/abled actors in more totally generic roles. Paul Weitz’s play Lonely, I’m Not at Second Stage last season was about a blind woman, and it was in many ways a totally wonderful, standard romcom. But a sighted actress was cast (she was excellent, but—why?). What would happen if a deaf actress, or a diabetic actor, or an actress with leg braces, was cast in your standard roles? There’s no way the social consciousness wouldn’t start to shift.

Back to my personal dilemma of identifying as Iranian or not, I do know for other Iranian-Americans, it’s difficult to claim the identity. It’s complicated to feel proud of the culture. For obvious reasons. The resistance in America to understand  anything about Persian culture and history I think makes it really difficult for Iranian-Americans growing up in the States to feel comfortable claiming the heritage. And, even prominent cultural figures even mispronounce “Iran,” so there’s that. Man, I only even know of one strictly Persian restaurant in NYC (Ravagh on 30th street). Basically, I find the Iranian part of my identity is completely underrepresented. This is so silly, but there was a Tori Spelling show some years ago, So NoTORIous, and her best friend on the show was an Iranian-American gay guy (played by Zachary Quinto, hayy), and it was actually a revelation to see the struggle he had with his parents and himself with being both gay and Iranian and American. To be fair, I haven’t seen Shahs of Sunset (but I’m sure it’s a completely accurate representation of Iranian-Americans).

The only way I know how to address these issues and all of my issues is to keep working. If every play I work on or script I engage with helps me clarify a little something of what I think and feel about existing in the world, then maybe by the time I’m dead I’ll have created a work of art that expresses something that inspires someone else to carry the questions onward.

5. Have you been a working artists in another culture [community]? Describe that experience.

Geographically, I’m originally from South Florida, and while I fled to New York as soon as I was able, I now try to keep at least peripherally aware of the theater community there. I’ve tried to get my dad to attend more local theater and whenever I visit I try to see something. South Florida is in a way luckier than a lot of counties because so much of the population is ex-Northeasteners, who care deeply about culture. Still, I think it’s a synecdoche for the not-NYC, LA, or Chicago theater consciousness in America, and at least one (maybe two?) of the community theaters there has shuttered in the past year. Every artist wants to work in New York, but I think the really important arts work is being done in the middle of nowhere, particularly in theater and dance.

Speaking of dance, I’m obsessed with it even though I’m in no way qualified to say I work in it or know anything about its professional mechanisms. I think theater and dance can learn a lot from each others’ models—Again, I know comparatively little about the dance world’s inner life, but I do think I see  the cultural consciousness of dance on the rise, while theater’s is on the decline. A lot of that is, I’m sure, thanks to mega-shows like So You Think You Can Dance and First Position. And Bunheads! Even “theater” shows (Glee? Smash?) are musical-centric. Can we have a So You Think You Can Write a Three-Act?  Drama guaranteed. (Pun sort of intended.)I think a lot of it has to do with the ephemeron of dance, whereas theater texts exist in complete, concretely-copyrighted forms, so finished work is easily recycled, rather than having to be reconstructed or reinterpreted every single time. (I’m conflicted on copyright laws too, but that’s another interview. I’m conflicted about everything all the time, clearly.)

All of this is to say, I think we all, as artists and administrators and engagers and thinkers, should be exposed to as many kinds of art as possible. I’ve learned something that I can incorporate into or enriches my own art from every single person I know who’s passionate about what they do, even if it’s not art at all. Some of my best and most inspiring friends are lawyers, public-health workers, and rights activists.

6. If you have worked in other cities/regions what has your experience been compared to NYC?

The shortest answer to any of these: I haven’t, unfortunately! Does someone in another place want to work with me? I’m very small and sleep very well on couches.

7. What is the ideal scenario in which your work would be supported, presented and received?

The ideal situation I think would be a crowd who entered the theater knowing absolutely nothing about me. Not me personally or any of my previous work. Maybe for my Broadway debut I’ll do no press and not put a bio in the Playbill, and use a pseudonym, and not even tell my family it’s me. Just kidding, I don’t want to put a play on the Broadway oppression mechanism. Just kidding, yes I do.

Haleh Stilwell is a reader of things, writer of things, and eater of things. Her short fiction and poetry has been published by no one of note, but her mother thinks they’re very good. Dramaturgical credits include production studies on rhetorical violence in Pinter’s The Homecoming and Miller’s The Crucible under the direction of Ben Steinfeld (Fiasco Theater), a lot of pre-1700s things like Moliere in black boxes/basements/living rooms, and roundtables of new plays like Robert Lewis Vaughan’s Falling in Love (with Austin Pendleton and Linda Lavin) and Heaven (with Jill Eikenberry). She’s also writing a full-length play about the formative years of the Joffrey Ballet, which leaves her consistently wondering why anyone would write anything, ever. She holds a BA in American Literature and Creative Writing from NYU’s Gallatin School and is in the last legs of her MA in Dramaturgy and American Ideology, also at NYU Gallatin. Follow her on Twitter at @halehroshan.


About kyounghpark

Artistic Director, Pacific Beat Collective


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