Returning home

Onelight Theatre's new production, return ticket: Halifax-Abadan-halifax, is a personal story of war, identity and family, based on the life of artistic director Shahin Sayadi

Afternoon sunlight shines through the large front windows of Onelight Theatre's office, a floor above Argyle Street's busy restaurant row. It casts a warm glow, almost like a stage set, bouncing off painted-red walls and wood floors, maquettes from previous shows, well-worn books on the full shelves. It's the day after their play The Veil opened at Ship's Company Theatre in Parrsboro, and artistic director Shahin Sayadi has a terrible cold. You can see it in his eyes---how tired he must be---and yet he's still apologetic for his condition. Sayadi's aunt, in town visiting, is on a mission to find him Cold-FX and more liquids.

Sayadi's nephew from Tehran is also here, a quiet boy with gorgeous eyes who sits with purpose, as if waiting to join the grown-up conversation. Sayadi's daughter, Azat, plays on a computer; bleeping electronic sounds from a kids' game punctuate the quiet. The newest addition to the family, six-week-old Zand, sleeps away, until demanding lunch from mom, Sayadi's wife Maggie Stewart, who is also Onelight's managing director.

Really, this is a familiar portrait. A Saturday afternoon scenario played out hundreds, thousands of times in generations of young families. But this family's story, and its connection to a larger world, is at the heart of Onelight's new play, Return Ticket: Halifax-Abadan-Halifax, which opens at Neptune Studio Theatre on November 20.

The origins of this story go back to Sayadi's childhood, and to his hometown, Abadan, Iran. In 2006, Sayadi wrote an open letter he titled "Rivers, Sharks and Trees," about his family's history. The idea of the play flowed from his own words, almost like the Arvand Rood, the river that separates Iran from Iraq. Sayadi's father's family is from Khorramshahr, on the tip of the Persian Gulf. According to Sayadi, Abadan is about 20 minutes south from there, and both are located along the Arvand Rood.

As a child Sayadi would visit his grandparents' house in Khorramshahr. He loved to climb date trees. From the top of one of those tall trees he could even see the Iraqi city of Basra. But in 1980, Saddam Hussein destroyed the treaty that recognized Arvand Rood as a shared territory. Then he declared war against Iran.

"Saddam wanted to take my river. That river was full of sharks. My river, my sharks and my tree," Sayadi writes in his letter.

On September 18, 1980 (27 Shahrivar 1359 of the Iranian Calendar), Abadan was bombed. Twenty-one people were killed on that first day, including Sayadi's father. According to his letter, troops then crossed the Arvand Rood, towards his grandparents' house and the trees that he loved.

But Sayadi's father is not the direct focus of this play. Return Ticket begins with the story of another relative, a cousin---who died four years ago, from the effects of the chemical warfare---famous for staying in his hometown through eight years of war, never picking up a gun, never leaving. A few years ago Sayadi went back to Iran to write his story, research and to do interviews. This play is about that journey.

"In the middle of this, of finding out about that story, I find out about my own father," says Sayadi. "He died the first day of the war, so he's considered, amongst many, many others, a martyr. And he was also the main person in theatre in our city. I'm going to write a story about my cousin who was a soccer player, who stayed there, and all these people also know my father, and I get caught up in 'Oh, you're his son, when did you leave? How did you leave?' And I have to face when I left, how I left."

Sayadi returned to Canada after his trip, questioning whether he did the right thing by leaving Iran. Should he feel guilty? Or relieved? He and Stewart acknowledge these are common emotion, among those who have left families and cultures behind in the face of conflict.

Stewart says this is a very familiar story of diaspora, from those who originate from places of turmoil. "I think it touches a lot of people from any number of countries from Africa or Afghanistan or somewhere," she says, with Zand's tiny head resting on her shoulder. "Where there's a situation where you're torn between leaving for your own safety and leaving behind your family and culture, and coming to Canada, where you have a life that is so different from the life you may have had there and the lives of your family members have."

Of course these internal struggles also have a rippling effect. In this world we never totally stand alone, especially when in a relationship. Stewart and Sayadi collaborate in Onelight Theatre, they have two children together, and during conversations, they gently correct each other's facts. This is what couples do. And this is why Maggie is also a character in Return Ticket (Actors for the two parts haven't been cast yet). It's a play about identity, but it's also about how those struggles spider out and touch others.

Stewart says, "By putting in the framework of one family---from Halifax to two cities in Iran---is a way people can relate. It's human."

Sayadi agrees. "I think because of the social, economical and historical issues in Iran that are so complicated, Maggie and I didn't want...we don't think we can put anyone else through the story, and tell the story. We're going to some scary dark places. We just couldn't bring ourselves to say, 'This is such and such' and give him a character, and a job."

"I think it would have been too much of our own story anyway not to be honest about it," says Stewart.

"We know it's going to be scary and really emotional, that's where we're going," concludes Sayadi.

When Sayadi conceived of this idea, he was sure that electronic media would play a role in the play's development.

"We had plans to use remote actors with fancy phones and having Skype or the phone itself, or internet, or fancy phones like Nokia, where you can just stream the video live," he says. "The idea is that there's this man going with a return ticket, with his wife and daughter in constant touch, and that the wife knows the danger."

During Sayadi's trip, he went right to the border of Iran and Iraq, which has been controlled since 1988, equipped with a voice recorder and a tiny high-quality microphone, built by friends.

"Maggie knowing that I'm going and asking questions and going to places I shouldn't be," Sayadi says, "knowing that there's this woman behind the project---Maggie, which she always is. The two are constantly in touch and talking about this stuff, and losing connections."

During his interviews, Sayadi spoke to a woman who killed an Iraqi soldier with her own hand, and who continued to fight for Iran's independence. Another woman, who has a best-selling book in Iran, spoke about staying alone in the graveyard at night, fighting off the dogs so she can bury the dead, when she was only 16 years old.

"On the other side of the story," says Sayadi, "when you go to Tehran, some of them really believe they're doing the right thing, that they're sending people in the right direction. They seem like nice people, who really truly believe in what they're doing."

Of course, this all happened before the controversial Iranian election last June where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was once again declared a victor, and the subsequent protests, arrests, tortures, deaths and rise of the green movement that are still continuing today. Originally green was the symbol of candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi's campaign, but it now symbolizes a culture's fight for justice.

Social networking websites like Twitter and Facebook also became a swath of green, a means of grassroots protest and communication among family and friends separated by geography. It also confirmed Onelight's decision to incorporate technology into Return Ticket.

"I feel redeemed. We were on the right theme," says Stewart.

Sayadi interjects: "I think for a lot of the wrong reasons. A lot of people had to die, and there are still more people's names that are coming out that are dying. For those three weeks, again, I didn't leave the computer. I was in constant contact with family---my mom, my sister, my brother, friends, friends involved in the system. It was just hell."

Return Ticket has taken on new immediacy because of the election, but don't think of it as a political statement. "We believe in dialogue," says Sayadi. "We don't care about the political propaganda on this side or that side---we want people to talk."

Return Ticket is the second play under Onelight's umbrella Civilian Project, an exploration on how war and conflict impacts even those who aren't on the battlelines. The first production, The Toxic Bus Incident, written by Greg MacArthur, was inspired by a real incident that took place in Vancouver, where passengers on a city bus were convinced they were poisoned, though they were not. The sounds and set for that production---dramatic screens of stark-white sterile blocks---were initially inspired by Sayadi's repeated listens to MIA's music.

They're still not sure how the set and technologies will play out for Return Ticket: Sayadi is off to Vancouver to work with theatre company and friends, Boca Del Lupo, who have more experience in media manipulation for theatre. The story structure is there: what they can do, technically, will help dictate its path.

The future is also unclear for Iran. In January, when Onelight toured The Veil to the Fadjr International Theatre Festival in Tehran, it took almost 11 months of negotiation and the support of like-minded people within the system to accommodate the play, which was controversial because it hit on some taboo subjects that "something that aren't talked about." But in the end, The Veil was performed without cutting any lines.

Right before the election, Onelight was invited to return to the festival with a new show. They've started preliminary work on an adaptation of Habib Ahmadzadeh's novel Chess with the Doomsday Machine, which is set in Abadan. It's envisioned as a bilingual co-production with an Iranian team, where artists, actors and composers from the two countries could collaborate on a single project, and have a shared experience. The plan was for Sayadi's family to spend time in Iran; all the logisitics, even schooling for Azat, was prepared.

But now life is different there. You have to take sides, and safety is a concern.

"The truth is that nobody knows where they stand, whether they're liberal or not. I don't think anyone is on solid footing," says Stewart. "When we enter, our whole family enters on Iranian passports. We go there and one of the main target groups that they're looking at are foreign-living Iranians, living in western countries involved in anything that smacks of liberal arts, culture, journalism, law, sciences.

"Our funding comes from government sources, so it's not a big stretch for someone looking for a reason to ask 'Who are you, what are you doing here,' and to say, 'You're living in Canada, you're doing artistic cultural propaganda work, maybe, and you're funded by your government.'"

In the meantime, the couple stays on top of the news and keeps in touch with family, but they're just not sure what will come next.

Although the audience will leave Return Ticket: Halifax-Abadan-Halifax with a better sense of Iranian history, that is, perhaps, missing the point. Onelight's stories are built on empathy, to resonate with many, from immigrants from other countries, to those who have heard displacement stories from grandparents and other relatives.

"So many people here in Canada are affected by war; whether it's their brother in Afghanistan or Iraq, or their sister is fighting in one of those places," says Sayadi. "Even if people don't, they're still living in this community."

Stewart hopes the production will "shed a light on all the wars and all the disputes and political unrest all over the world," she says. "It's hard to imagine how many people's lives, over and over again, for so many generations, are touched by one thing like this. The example of Shahin's family:from one small drop of water, radiates all these consequences."

Return Ticket: Halifax-Abadan-Halifax, Neptune Studio Theatre, 1593 Argyle Street, times and prices, TBA.

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