By Persis Karim
For Torange Yeghiazarian, the founding artistic director of the Bay Area’s Golden Thread Productions, COVID-19 and the shelter-in-place have presented not only obstacles, but also opportunities. Because of its founding mission, and Yeghiazarian’s desire to create a home for artists of Middle Eastern heritage where “we can tell our own stories in our words,” this theatre company is well aligned with the national conversations taking place today. “I see Golden Thread emerging from the pandemic even stronger than before,” says Yeghiazarian. “The conversations around social justice and cultural equity that have now become common parlance were a part of our conversation at Golden Thread from the beginning when we started nearly 25 years ago.”
Although the pandemic has had a serious impact on live theatre, Yeghiazarian and the staff of Golden Thread has innovated for these times— including hosting a series of live-stream conversations with theatre artists, and adapting a play that was set to hit the stage this fall into a radio play, she has embraced this moment as an opportunity to position Golden Thread for the next 25 years.
How Yeghiazarian established Golden Thread is, in itself, a part of her journey of adaptation and innovation, and her early exposure to performing arts in Iran. As a child in Iran, Yeghiazarian was around artists, performers, and musicians from the moment she was born. Her parents met and fell in love as teenagers and married despite their families’ oppositions to it – ostensibly because of their religious differences: her father was from an Armenian Christian family and her mother was from a Muslim family. Yeghiazarian’s mother began performing in films when she was seventeen and continued to do so after marrying her father. “Initially, my father joined the Iranian Royal Air Force but soon left it to open a café gallery, “Monde” on Hafiz Street.” After her mother stopped performing in films, her parents opened Club Couchini on Kakh Street, a supper club with live music and dancing. Later, they also opened Couchini Shomal in Noshahr, which, in addition to a dance club, included a motel. “A number of singers and musicians began their careers at Couchini,” says Yeghiazarian. They included the Black Cats, Farhad, and Ebi, among others. Many of the musicians performed American Rock and Roll and Rhythm and Blues, and Couchini also gave the stage to a number of Iranian musicians, and international bands.
“One of my aunts was a choral director. She and my sister played the piano,” says Yeghiazarian, adding that theatre, performance and music were the lifeblood of her family. “My childhood was filled with music, dancing, and all kinds of artists, writers and actors that would hang out at Couchini or our house,” she says.
All this was interrupted by the events taking shape in Iran in the late 1970s, and, the impending revolution would be the decisive event that would change her and her siblings’ lives. “My sister and I left Iran in December 1978 when I was fourteen. My understanding was that we would return the next summer. But that did not happen. We stayed with our uncles on the East Coast and years passed.” Yeghiazarian completed high school in the US and eventually received her undergraduate degree in Clinical Sciences from Northeastern University where she had also taken several theatre classes. “I was also active in the Armenian and Iranian diaspora communities where I performed in plays in Persian and Armenian. For graduate studies, I was deciding between medical school and an MFA in theatre. I chose theatre. It was the 1980s and I was not too happy about the way medicine was being practiced during Reagan’s presidency.”
Because Yeghiazarian’s mother’s side of the family lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and her mother had moved to Los Angeles where she was pursuing acting in TV, film, and Iranian theatre, Yeghiazarian decided to move to the Bay Area and apply to San Francisco State University. SF State had one of a very few MFA programs where students could focus on acting, directing, and writing. “Unfortunately, that program was cancelled two weeks before my audition but I eventually did make my way to SFSU’s theatre department and received a Masters in Theatre Arts.”
Her time at SF State served her well. Yeghiazarian says, “I can’t over emphasize the impact of my time at SFSU. We had a small graduate cohort of very smart and very dedicated students. And my teachers were world class. Camille Howard taught me to take my writing seriously and not to cut corners in research.” Mohammad Kowsar, who, unfortunately passed away unexpectedly in 2018, was her graduate advisor and “challenged me and wisely guided my professional path.” Larry Eilenberg who was the artistic director of the Magic Theatre, at the time, was instrumental in helping Yeghiazarian develop the mission statement for Golden Thread Productions. Yeghiazarian started this company as she was completing her graduate studies at SFSU, and her graduate thesis “Operation No Penetration: Lysistrata 97!” was to became Golden Thread’s inaugural production.
“From the beginning, our vision for the company was inclusivity and open dialogue. We defined the Middle East broadly and included its many ethnic and religious minorities. I wanted to create a home for artists of Middle Eastern heritage where we could tell our own stories in our own words, where we could take risks, and experiment. Educating the public about the diversity and aesthetic range of Middle Eastern American Theatre was a secondary goal,” says Yeghiazarian.
“Taking risks with theatre seemed unavoidable when it came to telling stories of the Middle East,” says Yeghiazarian. “Before 2010, 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq really shaped our work; theatre gave us an outlet, a way to cope with global events we felt helpless to effect. After my sabbatical in 2010, we developed a long-term strategy to strengthen the company’s operational foundation and make our artistic contribution more visible.” It was during that planning process that Yeghiazarian says Golden Thread finally owned the fact that they were the first American theatre company to focus on plays from or about the Middle East. “We felt we had an obligation to lead the field and we could not have the kind of impact we envisioned if our organizational infrastructure was not strong. So, our post-2010 agenda has been one of growth, consistency, building our brand, and amplifying the work and impact of Golden Thread for the future,” she says.
Some of the productions that Yeghiazarian says she is most proud of include the 2017-2018 production of Oh My Sweet Land (OMSL) by Amir Nizar Zuabi which creatively explores the lives of Syrian refugees from a personal lens and which is set in a kitchen. “Instead of building a kitchen in a theatre, we toured the show at home kitchens and community dining spaces. We devised an application process, conducted site visits, and interviewed potential hosts,” she says. In addition to the diverse venues they engaged, such as Glide Memorial Church, Google’s employee kitchen, and a tiny neighborhood café, the play was staged in many private homes. Community conversation and food sharing followed each performance. Yeghiazarian says that representatives from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) were also invited to share information about ways folks could help refugees. “These efforts yielded lasting relationships,” says Yeghiazarian, and the community conversations that accompanied these performances are a part of Golden Thread’s ongoing work that involves audiences in real conversation about real issues. “Building community and generating conversation is now part and parcel of Golden Thread’s regular practice,” says Yeghiazarian.
This philosophy of building and sustaining community has become the lifeblood of Golden Thread and the mark that Yeghiazarian has left on the company, and has been a model for American theatre in general. “I think theatre as entertainment is great, but entertainment has content too. It’s like food. What do you want to put in your stomach? What do you want to fill your heart and brain with? “ she asks.
Yeghiazarian says that reaching diverse audiences includes the work of the Golden Thread Fairytale Players program where they create original shows based on Middle Eastern fables and children’s stories that tour at schools and libraries. “It’s a one-of-a-kind program that is adjusting to the pandemic by creating a radio play for kids,” she says. “Working with children and writing/directing for them helps me reconnect with the playfulness of theatre and to access the joy of creativity and imagination. Watching the children’s response to the Golden Thread Fairytale Players’ performances fills me with pride. It makes me feel like I earned my pay!” she adds.
Because Yeghiazarian considers the work of cultural representation as essential to changing the narrative about the Middle East and Muslims, she says the need to speak to children of these heritages is even more important. “For Muslim and Middle Eastern children, it is very tough in the current climate,” she says. “During our Q&As after the show, the students often say it’s the first time they see a reflection of their own language or culture at their school assembly. Their faces light up when we teach everyone at the assembly to sing the Arabic alphabet or learn about Nowruz. You can literally see them lift their head in pride.”
Next year, Yeghiazarian will be stepping down and handing over the reigns of an organization she started and helped to grow. After 25 years, she’ll be passing the baton to the next generation of theatre leaders. She would like to see the new artistic director have a sense of mission, a sense of community wealth and power, and a commitment to positively shifting the narrative about the Middle East in the US. And what will Yeghiazarian be doing with her time after retirement, I ask her? “I want to write. Travel. Write and travel. And rest,” she says.
We thank Torange Yeghiazarian for her extraordinary vision, her commitment to theatre with a purpose, and for building and sustaining community. She is one of our featured characters in the documentary film we are producing, “The Dawn is Too Far: Stories of Iranian American Life in the San Francisco Bay Area,” and you can watch her tell a little of her own story here.
To learn more about Yeghiazarian’s work and Golden Thread Productions, visit goldenthread.org