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Magic, Catharsis, and Identity: Director Shadi Ghaheri on ENGLISH and What She Hopes Audiences Take Away from It

Director Shadi Ghaheri
Director Shadi Ghaheri

Ashley Elliott sat down with Director Shadi Ghaheri about her Alliance Theatre directorial debut, English


Shadi Ghaheri first encountered English as an audience member.

“It was the first time the show was being publicly produced,” she says of Atlantic Theater’s 2022 production. “I was just [an] audience member at that point … and I was with the story nonstop — there wasn’t a moment that they didn’t have me. And it was lovely to see this story that [understands] me. That’s the magic — the language feels like home.” She says watching it for the first time made her feel like her “heart and soul were being heard.”

Shadi was born and raised in Tehran, which is about forty minutes away from Karaj, where the play takes place. She spoke Farsi for the first twenty-three years of her life and got her bachelor’s degree in that language before diving into the English language and becoming intimately familiar with the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), the test prominently featured in English

She says that her parents often tell a story of when they briefly lived in America while her father was on sabbatical and they sent her to a playground nearby to play. After a while, they saw her conversing with American children and were confused. She didn’t know any English; how was she speaking with the children? They soon realized that she was just speaking gibberish — making up a language that the kids responded to. 

Although Shadi learned English easily during her family’s time in America, she points out that it was still hard to learn English and continues to work with others when she works on her own bilingual art. “I collaborate with a lot of writers and dramaturgs because it just really doesn’t come easily to me to write [in English], which is obvious because we think in our own original language. You translate it in your head to another language, and you have to come down to your fingers and spell it out, and this process just kills the creation in a really bad way.” 

She also learned English through watching international films and TV shows where the characters spoke the language, such as Friends. Even then, it was difficult to get a solid grasp of the English language since there are sounds not present in Farsi. (She describes language as being “in your body. We don’t have [the sound] “th,” so the placement of the tongue is just alien to us. … Things like this [are] so scientific and it’s just, like, you have to develop a palate in your mouth for it, and for people to do that later in life is just kind of impossible.”) 

“So much is lost [in translation],” Shadi says. “All the time that we are talking in another language, we simultaneously are two different people, and some of our [meanings] will come with the language and so much will not. There’s a line in the play … Roya says to Elham, ‘You are very smart, Elham, but you’re very rude. In Farsi, you balance yourself out, but wherever you land, you’re going to have quite a hard time adjusting because in English you won’t have redeeming qualities.’”

Despite this, Shadi says that speaking English gives her a confidence and a freedom that she doesn’t find in Farsi. “When I came here, everyone found me funny and laughed at me. … That’s just what happens in translation. I don’t need to be the thing that is expected of me in Farsi, because [English] is new and nobody knows me in [English]. … I think the beauty and simplicity of this play, English, is that you find it funny that it’s so challenging for [the characters] to deal with learning a new language. And deeply, they’re frustrated, for different reasons. Elham is frustrated because she has always been the smart person — the person who is studying medicine in Iran. … And then you have Omid, who can easily access English but doesn’t feel comfortable or happy in it.” 

Although this play has its funny moments, audiences may not define it as a comedy. There is a constant undercurrent of pain in this story of people striving to learn a new identity while simultaneously ridding themselves of the old one. It is raw and grips your heart in ways you don’t completely understand. 

“I think that is the beauty of this play and, like, what a badass writer Sanaz [Toossi] is that her play does that, right?” Shadi says, glowing with pride for the playwright who has been her friend for years. “That someone who doesn’t know that world — you can read it and feel like you’re laughing but you can sense that there’s something underneath. And you wonder, ‘I don’t know where to put this feeling. I need to go home?’ I think there are moments [in this play] where your heart just gasps. And you’re like, ‘Why? Why am I feeling this way? It’s a simple story in a classroom!’ But it’s not. It’s about belonging. It’s about identity. And it’s about something deep in us that language is unable to name it.”

Although the story is about five specific Iranian people with a very specific need to learn English, it’s still relatable for audience members and actors alike. Shadi says that all the actors who auditioned for the play talked about how much it touched them, regardless of how long they had lived in America or whether they grew up speaking Farsi or not. “Every one of them who read the play connected somewhere deep in this struggle of ‘Who am I? Who am I with this language and who could I have been with the other language?’” 

Shadi goes on to say that, while the story doesn’t unfold much about the politics of 2008 or the Green Movement that would happen a few months after the play takes place, it unintentionally foreshadows the revolutionary voice of women, men, and the LGBTQ community in the current Woman, Life, Freedom movement-revolution in Iran. She takes any opportunity to bring attention to the oppression, imprisoning, and killing of freedom fighters in Iran in the current time. 

She says that she feels responsible to point out that Iran is still one of the top countries with the highest rate of immigration in young educated immigrants admissions, and that the number of Iranian students in the best Ivy League schools around the world is exemplary. “The high number of young immigrants from Iran is not accidental; there’s a reason for that which I ask all of us to pay attention to!” 

“We are so privileged to have an amazing piece like English and the Alliance to invite us to come. And right now we have five Iranian-American actors; we have three Iranian designers; we have a dramaturg and a dialogue coach and a cultural consultant that are all Iranian women. … It’s like a vision came true, like an example of, if you share the space and tell stories — stories that are being hidden and buried, just choked down for generations — can be heard and, hopefully, through that, we can have a safer world for everyone, especially women and the queer community.” 

Shadi wishes that anyone who experiences this play will see traces of why the Woman, Life, Freedom movement is a necessity today. Although the play isn’t about that, Shadi hopes that audiences will look at the story and realize that they are just looking at people just like them. “A group of humans,” she says, “with desires and dreams of something better.” Just like how Shadi initially encountered the play as an audience member, she wants the Alliance’s audiences to take away a similar feeling that she felt – that sense of magic and catharsis. 

“My biggest hope is that the audience member who comes,” she continues, “can get lost and forget for a second that they are in a theater space. And they could feel something somewhere in their body that they have not allowed themselves to feel for a long time. … For a moment, you laugh so hard or, for a moment, burst into tears unexpectedly, not knowing where it’s coming from. And you find an understanding and sympathy with another human being that you just didn’t have access to before. That’s really my hope.” 

English runs on the Hertz Stage from August 16 – September 17, 2023. 



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