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By Brian Robin

Why Michael Shayan Wrote "avaaz"

To say writing avaaz is personal to Michael Shayan doesn’t do the words, the effort or the feelings justice. Yes, they are accurate on the surface. Yes, they are accurate in the general framework of Shayan’s story about his mother’s journey from Tehran to “Tehran-geles” and her often-funny, but heartening tales of building a life in a new country.

But when Shayan calls the one-person play “the most personal play I’ve ever written,” when he tells you about his mother, who he plays on stage, you begin to understand this is a story about a bond that goes deeper than the simply personal.

“I think that at its core, this is a play about a mother-son relationship, and the character asks questions that have always felt urgent to me,” he said. “There’s also, of course, the ongoing, women-led revolution happening in Iran, which adds layers of complexity and urgency. There are so many parallels between what my mother experienced over 40 years ago in Iran and what’s happening now.

“This detail isn’t in the play, but she and her sister were actually taken to the same detention center as Mahsa Amini, whose death in police custody sparked this revolutionary moment. My aunt was held for three days and received 75 lashes for not wearing hijab. One call coming out of Iran is ‘Be our voice,’ and I think that’s part of what we can contribute as artists—in some small way, we can amplify the voices of those who are putting their lives on the line, crying out for ‘Woman. Life. Freedom.’”

Shayan wrote avaaz after finally getting his mother to tell her story in an interview. For years, she had parried her curious son’s inquiries about her past life and background with a joke or gentle deflection. When she finally relented and Shayan set down the recorder, a new world literally opened up.

“That interview stayed with me,” he said. “I was a Fellow at the Lambda Literary LGBTQ Writers Retreat under Luis Alfaro, and he gave us an exercise by Maria Irene Fornes—place a hand over your heart and feel the heartbeat of a character. I did and I got this strong feeling of my mother’s presence. I figured if my mother wouldn’t—or couldn’t—tell me her whole story, then as an artist, I could fill in the rest with my imagination.

“What’s strange and surreal is that many of the details I imagined turned out to be true to my mother’s story, despite her never having told me. It felt like channeling.”

In more ways than one. As he workshopped the play, including during last year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival, Shayan found himself relishing seeing life through his mother’s eyes. He jokes about how playing his mother is “every gay man’s dream.” But once he delved fully into character, Shayan discovered there’s so much more to it.

“I kept making these surprising discoveries about the character’s gestures, mannerisms, her accent. They’d appear in rehearsals. Now, it’s becoming second nature,” he said. “I’ll snap into a gesture, or her laugh. And it’s like ‘BOOM.’ I’m into it. But it’s weird because doing this play feels like an out-of-body experience every time. It’s like something else takes over.”

See how Shayan channels his mother in avaaz, running April 29-May 27 on the Segerstrom Stage.

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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