Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Ana Bayat, Multilingual Actor and Playwright

by Alexa Rae Barger

An actress and instructor by trade, Ana Bayat describes herself first as a lover of languages and cultures. Though born in Tehran, Bayat recalls constantly learning and moving – particularly thanks to her family’s circumstances. Her father, Nader, had trained at the Anahita School of Acting under direct students of Yuri Zavadsky, a direct student of Yevgeny Vakhtangov, himself a favorite of Konstantin Stanislavsky at the prestigious Moscow state Institute of Performing Arts; he “adored everything that had to do with theater, film, culture, and languages.” He held a particular affinity for the music and art of Spain – which inspired the family’s move to the country when Bayat was a young girl.

Throughout her upbringing, Bayat recalls being surrounded by all forms of art. The family enjoyed filmmaking and acting both as pastimes and as professional work; “I remember us taking turns filming each other with a Super 8 camera.” She was able to cultivate her love for languages from an early age – by speaking Persian at home, learning French at an immersion school, studying Spanish both at school and through dubbed television series, and absorbing Catalan and German (a language both her parents spoke in her daily life). 

In the meantime, her family had evaded direct engagement with the Revolution – but she soon found herself whisked away from her first diasporic home. Bayat later returned to Iran with her family – but this time, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War. “The Iran that I saw had nothing to do with what I’d seen before the Revolution, and it had nothing to do with what I knew in Barcelona.” Her family was neither political or religious – and they found themselves without a point of reference for the turmoil and unease that surrounded them.

 “Even as a teenager, I remember wondering why there weren’t movies about what was going on in Iran at that time – about what people were actually going through,” Bayat recalls. She struggled to find her experiences represented in film and theater; once she moved away from Iran, she failed to find any connection with Western representations of Iran. Bayat left for England for undergraduate studies in language, literature and linguistics, eventually pursuing further post-graduate education and training in theatre and film. She continued her career in the United States, where she eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 Since then, she has starred in a variety of roles on stage, in film, and as a voice-over artist. She is also currently a lecturer for Spanish and French courses at Saint Mary’s College of California. “There is absolutely a link between my teaching and my acting,” she explains, “because I follow the communicative teaching methodology – which emphasizes role playing and learning to communicate your own interests and needs – on top of focusing on listening and reading.”

It is through her language studies, Bayat says, that she sustains her craft and her connection with her heritage and history. “As storytellers – as actors and writers – we have to focus on honesty and truth, and as we do so we spread empathy for our fellow humans and the stories we share,” she notes. Bayat returned to her roots – and to her travels – in writing Mimi’s Suitcase. A one-woman show, Mimi’s Suitcase features a story not unlike Bayat’s return to Iran. The titular teen Mimi acts as a narrator – and, through Bayat, she assumes the role of twenty-seven characters. Bayat is accompanied by little more than the eponymous suitcase, a trench coat, and a plethora of technical additions to enhance the storytelling further – allowing her, for instance, to present translations of the Spanish, Persian, and French spoken during the performance in the form of supertitles.

Bayat felt it essential to reflect the diversity of perspectives and cultures she had witnessed in her early years. More importantly, she wanted to share her family’s story with a variety of audiences – sharing a story of resilience that could unite all viewers. Since its premiere in 2015, Mimi’s Suitcase has travelled through the United States and Europe. For her Iranian viewers, she notes that “they recognize the story of our generation here – even if my family’s trajectory isn’t exactly like that of much of the diaspora.” Non-Iranians, too, were able to relate to the theme of displacement through personal experiences related to involuntary displacement. “Many of my viewers especially enjoy the humor – which was somewhat unintentional in the storytelling process, but quite impactful on the audience,” she says. Sometimes it is hard to find humor in traumatic historical situations – and the audience is sometimes unsure if they have the “right” to laugh. However, she says, “we all go through things that, while not funny at the time, seem to carry humor as we get older. That’s how we survive.”

Bayat looks forward to taking Mimi’s Suitcase to even broader horizons.  Thanks to a matching grant in Innovative Arts from the Neda Nobari Foundation, Bayat can carry the suitcase even further – this time, planning a Bay Area-based performance of the upgraded show. In the meantime, she continues to teach, translate, and offer coaching services for actors and non-actors alike; she has even begun a new written project. Once again, Bayat has centered a female perspective and a narrative of movement and belonging – but the new play is set in Warsaw before the second World War. “It’s about a song known by everyone in Poland,” she says, “something that has brought generations of people together.” Much like Mimi’s Suitcase, she hopes once again to unite her viewers through the power of storytelling – and the power of language.

We are very excited to feature Ana Bayat’s work on With a Trace. To take a look at her recent roles, visit her website here, and for language services, visit Modern Language Solutions. To learn more about Mimi’s Suitcase and upcoming performances, visit the section dedicated to the one-woman show.

Banner photo credit: Diaspora Arts Connection.

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