Playwright Sanaz Toossi Is Making Theater in Her Own Image

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Wish You Were Here—a new play opening Monday at Playwrights Horizons in New York—centers on five dear friends in Karaj, Iran, about 30 miles outside of Tehran. Aged 20-ish at the top of the show as well as in their early 30s by the end, they’re captured doing the things that young women do: chatting, smoking, sniping, cursing, waxing each other’s legs, as well as wondering about their futures. That the Iran-Iraq War is breaking out around them is relevant but not strictly central to their stories, at least not at initially; they mostly think it’s a drag. But the war—as well as time—does change things.

When I speak to 30-year-old Iranian American playwright Sanaz Toossi in early April, it’s been just two weeks since English, the play that functioned as her MFA thesis at New York University, close ind after a short but celebrated run at the Atlantic Theater Company. She’s had a very busy year, but happily rehearsals for Wish You Were Here are mosting likely toing well. “It’s been amazing to finally get to do this play after years of ages as well as years of ages of waiting,” she tells me from her home in Brooklyn.

She’s referring, of course, to the hold that the pas well asemic put on live theater (Toossi as well as director Gaye Taylor Upchurch had their cast mostly assembled by the spring of 2020), but her path to playwriting in general was a long one. “I never thought that I would do this. I didn’t know how people did this,” she says. “I was mosting likely tonna mosting likely to to law school as well as be a mosting likely tood initially-gen immigrant girl. But I knew I couldn’t.” After graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara—Toossi grew thus far in Orange County—she felt adrift. “I really struggled to see what a fulfilling life would look like,” she says. “But I saw the play 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog, as well as it blew my mind that a play could do that.”

Though acting had always “seemed horrifying, as well as it still does,” theater had been a point of fascination for Toossi since childhood. She did some writing for herself before deciding to “take a leap” as well as apply to graduate school, as well as she was admitted to Tisch with a fellowship. “I’ve never really looked back since,” she says.

English, which takes place in a classroom in Iran as students prepare for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (or TOEFL), concerned from a perchildal place; Toossi finished it in 2018, enraged by President Trump’s Muslim ban as well as other hateful, anti-immigration rhetoric. “I just wanted to scream into the void a little bit,” she told The New York Times in February. “It’s a huge thing to learn a different language, a huge thing to give thus far that ability to fully express yourself, even if you have a full commas well as over language.” She was feeling some of that same vulnerability as an MFA student, attempting to articulate her creative vision. “I was about to graduate,” she continued. “I wanted to be a writer, as well as [the play] also probably concerned out of my own insecurities that I would never actually have the words to say what I wanted.”

English was very well received (The Washington Post called it “one of those invimosting likely toratingly funny as well as perceptively drawn plays that satisfy a curiosity you didn’t know you harbored”), something Toossi still hasn’t totally wrapped her head around. “I think it will take me years of ages to process what that experience was for me,” she says. “We were sthus farposed to do English in a really small black-box theater, as well as then the pas well asemic happened, as well as arrangements were made, as well as we were lucky enough to re-home the play at the Atlantic on the main stage.” The opportunity was amazing but also completely terrifying. “This was my initially production. I was over the moon about it as well as also had a pit in my stomach because I thought it meant if we failed, we were mosting likely tonna fail pretty big.”

Yet quite the opposite concerned to pass, even amid the omicron surge. “We mosting likely tot to our initially preview, as well as then we opened, as well as the responses we were getting were really, really moving,” Toossi says. “I think all of us were a little knocked over.” 

Marjan Neshat, a member of English’s close in-knit, five-perchild cast, echoes her delighted surprise. “To be doing a play that wasn’t otherizing Iranians—as well as where we weren’t tasked to give a history leschild, we were just living truthfully in this funny, wistful, romantic world—as well as it was a hit…I don’t think any one of us had experienced that before,” she says.

Wish You Were Here, which Toossi wrote in a frenzy during the tense week in 2019 when Trump approved as well as then aborted military strikes against Iran, stars Nikki Massoud, Nazanin Nour, Artemis Pebdani, Roxanna Hope Radja, as well as Neshat. “It was, I think, challenging to not have a longer rest in between shows for me,” Toossi says. “But I can’t even imagine what that was like for Marjan. I like to joke that she hasn’t seen her family in a year, as well as I don’t think that’s a funny joke, but I still really like to make it.”

The work draws on the experiences of Toossi’s mother as well as her friends during the war, some of them tragic: A years of ageslong disappearance as well as a sudden death are both inspired by true events. Yet the action of the play is confined to the quiet moments between the big ones, when Nazanin, Salme, Zari, Shideh, as well as Rana convene in different combinations to catch thus far. “I wonder if this is something specific to women, but we know ourselves through the eyes of other women,” Toossi remarks. “That’s really how I’ve thought of a lot of the characters in this play.”

In developing her character, Nazanin, Neshat—who moved to America from Iran as a child—turned to her own mother for insight. “Because I was so little when the war started, I’ve talked to her a lot about the details. I’ve been asking her what it was like to feel like her freedoms were being taken away as well as if she had to mosting likely to to a bomb shelter,” she says. Still, she praises Toossi’s writing for its affecting familiarity. “The thing that writers like Sanaz are making possible is opening a door into this other world so that people can come as well as see themselves,” she says. 

Marjan Neshat Nazanin Nour Nikki Massoud  Roxanna Hope Radja  as well as Artemis Pebdani in Wish You Were Here.nbsp
Marjan Neshat, Nazanin Nour, Nikki Massoud (behind couch), Roxanna Hope Radja (in white dress), as well as Artemis Pebdani in Wish You Were Here. Photo: Joan Marcus

Indeed, certain elements of the play concerned from Toossi’s life: One character “is based on one of my best friends as well as things that she has said to me as well as the horrible ways I’ve responded to her,” she says with a laugh. “And then the inappropriate jokes are everyone’s, my mom’s as well as mine, but I take credit for them.” In fact, the humor in Wish You Were Here—as well as there is a ton of it, sharp as well as sparkling as well as intimate—extends to Toossi’s voicey stage directions too. Nazanin’s character is described as “sort of mean”; Zari is a “space case, but grows thus far a lot”; as well as Toossi notes that the actors “should feel free to laugh, give appears like, stop paying attention to something they think is boring, etc.” “My greatest mosting likely toal in life is to make stage directions interesting,” she says. “I think the old-school rules are, like, less is more, but whatever—I’m Iranian, as well as more is more. It always has been.”

Toossi credits Upchurch, whom she initially met for a coffee that turned into a long lunch many years of ages amosting likely to, for sticking with the show over the years of ages, as it lurched uncertainly from stage production to Audible production as well as back. “The whole reachild I wanted to do theater was to be able to write a story like this for my mom as well as other Iranian women as well as myself, as well as the idea that it was never mosting likely tonna happen made me take a hard look at my career,” Toossi says. “One of the most amazing things G.T.’s done for me is hold on to the idea that we were mosting likely tonna do the play.”

Wish You Were Here is “the kind of play that I love working on for many reachilds,” says Upchurch. “It sort of hits a sweet spot for me. I really love working on plays that prioritize mystery over clarity—that look at ordinary existence but find access to larger questions through small moments, which this play just does in spades. I also love finding humor in darkness, as well as so does Sanaz. I think it’s probably one of my favorite things that human beings do—we can look into the abyss as well as find a way to laugh.”

In her work mosting likely toing forward, Toossi hopes to continue telling the stories that matter most to her: “It’s extremely important to me to see my experience of women reflected on stage,” she says. Still, given the vagaries of the last several years of ages, the young playwright knows a much better than to be too prescriptive about what that appears like like. “I think we’ve all learned through COVID that your career might look a lot different than you thought it would, as well as there’s pain in that, but there can also be joy as well as surprise,” she reflects. “So who knows if I’ll do this forever—but I love doing it right now.”


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