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‘We create theater with our heart and ourselves’

Hamid Dehghani will graduate in 2022 from Northwestern’s MFA in Directing program ready to challenge misconceptions
Hamid Dehghani
As a working theater director in Tehran, Hamid Dehghani read books and plays about American theater and wanted to learn more about how people make theater in the U.S. Photo by Stephen Anzaldi

Stories that are set far away from us can be the most important ones to experience. Hamid Dehghani, graduating School of Communication student, believes as a director, he has a responsibility to intentionally challenge misconceptions.

“We don’t need to follow the current trend — we create trends. We need to think about what stories we can bring to start a new conversation,” said Dehghani, who arrived at Northwestern in 2018 to begin the MFA theater program in directing.

His passion for theater began early, acting in school plays in Kharg, an island in the Persian Gulf in southern Iran. He studied theater at Tehran University of Art where he first tried directing and discovered “a deep and fundamental joy.” As a working theater director in Tehran, he had read books and plays about American theater and wanted to learn more about how people make theater in the U.S.

As a Northwestern graduate student, Dehghani’s directing projects included “A Moment of Silence,” “Eurydice” and most recently “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” the magical realist drama by Rajiv Joseph that follows two U.S. Marines, their Iraqi translator and a quick-witted tiger through a war-torn Baghdad filled with ghosts and riddles.

Northwestern Now spoke with Dehghani about his experiences in directing for American audiences.

What was the biggest challenge you overcame at Northwestern?

The biggest challenge has been making the transition from working for an Iranian audience. You can’t become an instant American director. You have your whole life and country with you.

The first play I directed here in 2019 was “A Moment of Silence” by Mohammed Yaghoubi. It was very political and a big deal in Iran when it was produced. It was taken down because of the political themes in the play. When I produced it here, I found audiences were not able to get many of the references. They were only engaged in the story. 

I’ve had to figure out how to use my identity as an Iranian director but also create work for American audiences. It has been a three-year process. 

How are American audiences different? 

America is very big, and there are many problems in the U.S. itself. When things happen far away, for example, a war in the Middle East, it is a piece of news. Americans don’t identify with the people in certain countries. They are not humanized because they don’t know them well.

I thought I can be a bridge between what I know and feel as a Middle Eastern artist and introduce American audiences to plays that humanize people who are far away from American people.

Why did you choose “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” for your final project?

America has always been involved in war, and in the last few decades especially, in the Middle East. But American people forget the tragedies of the past wars. Something happens, and Americans say, “let’s solve that with war again.”

It is difficult for audiences to watch a play about war. But the genius of Rajiv Joseph is that the play is also comedic, beautiful, interesting and entertaining to audiences.

Many American soldiers have also suffered and are suffering because of these invasions. Hollywood makes movies about heroes that stir patriotism, and then U.S. soldiers go to war, and then America moves on and forgets about them. 

What are the most important responsibilities of the director?

I encourage the team to invest themselves in the show and contribute. It is the director’s job to show them the importance of what they are creating. And to show them how to be genuine and authentic. If you are honest and vulnerable, bonds are formed.

If the actors feel that the play is important for you, it becomes important for them. If they feel that you pay attention to everything they do, they feel supported and create more. If they know you have strong images and ideas, they want to be in that world of ideas and bring new ideas.

We create theater with our hearts and ourselves. The spirit of each production is based on our souls. If you put love in the center of a production — success is guaranteed. 

What was Northwestern’s biggest impact on you?

I was a director with ideas, but I couldn’t organize, shape or take advantage of them. I learned a lot from this program and all my faculty, especially Jessica Thebus.

The biggest thing I learned was how to have a clear point of view on the play, to show it to colleagues in the process and to monitor my audience.

The emphasis on collaboration and the fact that we can work with MFA designers also had a big impact on me. In this program you learn how to have one point of view and make it an umbrella for all the people and designs to come under that umbrella of point of view and work together.