/Interview with Sarah Chew, writer & director of Lipstick: a fairy tale of modern Iran (2018)

Interview with Sarah Chew, writer & director of Lipstick: a fairy tale of modern Iran (2018)

Showing from the 13 and 25 March at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham, is The Beyond Borders season, which focuses on Britain and the Middle East. The mini season includes a part theatre and part drag cabaret show, Lipstick: a fairy tale of modern Iran, written and directed by Sarah Chew. In the middle of rehearsals, Chew spoke to me about the challenges she faced writing Lipstick, how cabaret and vaudeville fed into the work and the discourse of telling a story that has political, legal and religious implications. 

arah Chew & Molly Beth Morossa in association with Critical Mass present: Beyond Borders A season of collaboration and conversation across an Anglo-Middle Eastern axis SUPPORTED BY ARTS COUNCIL ENGLAND
Sarah Chew & Molly Beth Morossa in association with Critical Mass present:
Beyond Borders

On the phone to Sarah, she spoke enthusiastically about how she came across the female theatre artists involved in the Beyond Border season, showcasing their work about culture and exclusion. “They are all people I found, weirdly, through the development of this project. It had public R & D a few years ago. Layla Mohamed was an audience member and a friend through the visual arts. She’s of Egyptian origin, so she has a different kind of background. She had to fight female repression and her art explores the eroticisation of the female body, where costuming, veiling and unveiling play a part in that. So she knew I wanted to collaborate, and Faustina Fahrenheit crosses over from this very presented showgirl dance to this differently presented belly dance, studying the real lives of women in Egypt where she trained.”

Lipstick: a fairy tale of modern Iran tells the story of Orla who intends on opening a drag club in London, but her plans are put on hold when she finds herself in the middle of a revolution in Iran. Lipstick looks at how we observe atrocity. As it is part vaudeville and part cabaret, I wanted to know a little bit more about how it fed into Orla’s story. “The episodic style was very useful for me. The central character in the play experiences various terrorism instances and other traumas while in Iran and left Iran with post-trauma stress disorder. Psychologically that has an interesting effect on how people perceive time, and so to do something cabaret-based where you had episodic images felt like a really helpful way of expressing how people with that particular disorder change in how they perceive time.” I had to agree with Chew when she said, “London is growing a very fierce political drag scene.”

Drawing a Veil #InkyLayla.
Drawing a Veil #InkyLayla.

Chew went on to explain how Lipstick was inspired by her discovery of children’s toy in Iran. “There’s also a thing that I discovered for myself while I was in Iran which is a children’s toy from the end of the 19th century, kind of the 40s when cinema took over. It was a picture box called Shahre Farang and it’s this device that a strolling player would take into a village. The children would look through the windows and he would change the picture and tell a story. Because they were poor people, they had to take any photo set they could get. So quite often they would tell a fairy tale but it would be through a series of advertisement for shoes or holidays, and tell stories by using whatever images they happened to have at hand in order to tell a specific story. It also taps into drag and cabaret aesthetic quite a lot.”

Shahre Farang 1958 (anvari.org)
Shahre Farang 1958 (anvari.org)

At this point, it seemed clear to me that Chew had a deep-seated interested in Iran. “My interest in the Middle East is Iranian rather than it is Arabic. I’ve done little work in Palestine, but haven’t done much in the Arab world. But I went to Iran in 2010, just after the Green Uprising [Persian Spring]  in 2009 which is around the same time the Arab Spring was happening. So it was another moment in the Middle East of what felt like it may be political overthrow but ended up not happening.”

Female voices from the Middle East have been silenced, particularly voices that demand political and social change and request the world to hear their story. I asked Chew about why she was passionate about sharing these female voices’ stories. “These stories are from female political activists in the Middle East which are not told and are not getting out there. There’s this thing called My Selfie Freedom, which is a Facebook group where women go into forests, take off their head scarf and some people think that’s the extent of them [speaking freely] and that really is not the case. There are people who are risking their lives, risking imprisonment and torture to support other women in their revelations through Persian society. Iran has, I think, one of the highest male to female ratios in academia; certainly there are more women film directors in the Iranian film industry than there are in Hollywood. There are women doing incredible things under phenomenal – phenomenal – legal and religious restrictions and it makes me really sad that those stories aren’t being celebrated. But these stories are on tiny illegal websites, so it’s hard to find even if you wanted to read those stories. This did not in any way claim to the education in that it may inspire people to look a little bit further than the stories available in English, easily.  Some of those absolute heroines who are doing – badass – work now deserve to celebrate it.”

Egyptian-trained belly dancer, and feminist academic Faustina Fahrenheit
Egyptian-trained belly dancer, and feminist academic Faustina Fahrenheit

With this in mind, Chew explained to me the initial challenges she came across as writer and director of the show. “I think the thing that is a constant challenge and constant, kind of, responsibility for this script is that the job I am doing, as a British person who hasn’t had a lot of experience of being in Iran for weeks, months or years; doesn’t speak Farsi; or doesn’t have a particular Iranian knowledge background, is the type of stories that we are carrying for women who are from Iran, and the responsibility of carrying the words from those women while acknowledging actually I don’t know – accurately – enough what word I am carrying. But it is the only channel to get their story out there; there are very few channels to get their story out, at all. So it’s a challenge to tell those stories as responsibly as possible and also be humble as possible in acknowledging I might not have got it right. The story is very much about how you tell the story and how you keep the people’s voices alive while not presuming you are a documentary voice.”

Lipstick is a scratch performance, which according to the BAC* website is defined as, sharing an idea with the public at an early stage of its development. I had to ask Chew, why it important to receive audience feedback and interaction for a work of Lipstick’s nature? “The storytelling doesn’t exist without an audience. Cabaret doesn’t exist without an audience; the people in the room, even though they are sitting in chairs in the dark, are absolutely interactive and an important part in the process. That’s always the case with new work. The stage is definitely more terrifying because people will ask you questions in a raw way. We’ve had two brilliant weeks of rehearsals and I’m really proud of what we’ve got, but it isn’t a full production; you cannot hide behind some of the things that you could do if it was on fully staged. They will be seeing the writing in a very raw way, which can be terrifying, but it’s a raw way of getting feedback on the characters and the shape of the work.”

Speaking of the audience’s active participation in the show, Chew wanted Lipstick to also raise awareness of these suppressed female voices and get the audience to “also think about our position of privilege. We live on the safe side of the coast, so it’s what we can do to celebrate, protect and maintain the freedoms that we have where those oppressions and micro-suppressions exist in society. Also, I wanted to look at what we can do, if anything, to learn from and support people on the other side of these hard borders. Atrocities are happening and people are fighting them; risking their life and liberty every day.”

Having spoken to Chew about seeing themes of this nature on stage or TV, I was drawn to the film, A Hologram for the King, with Tom Hanks as an American salesman and ex-husband selling hologram telecommunications software to a king, who also finds himself in a clandestine relationship with a Middle Eastern doctor, also a divorcee. Possibly a bad example to use here, but I found that the way that Tom Tykwer’s film depict the way they had to conceal their relationship – considered illegal in Saudi Arabia – was another act of suppression. Fully aware that it is a Hollywood blockbuster, Chew followed with, ‘the danger of writing traveller stories is that you are consistent in othering the people you are travelling to. I know many Middle Eastern actresses who say, ‘I’ve been cast as a terrorist and battered wife. Those are the kind of things I get cast in’ and really trying to open those stories out; a diverse range of voices from people of different backgrounds and ethnicities, which I think is an important job as artists and storytellers.”

Cast: Laura dos Santos and Nathan Kiley (aka Topsie Redfern)/ Set design: Molly Beth Morossa/ Sound design: Nick Blackburn/ Dramaturg: Penny Black/ Asst. Dramaturg: Aaron Lamont

Lipstick: a fairy tale of modern Iran is showing on Friday 16 and Saturday 17th March

16 March – 4.00pm Lipstick matinee (80 mins,) followed by company Q&A hosted by Aaron Lamont £6

7:30 pm Lipstick (80 mins,) followed by long form panel discussion “Crossing Lines” hosted by Penny Black (60 mins) £6

17 March: 7:30pm Lipstick (80 mins) followed by long form panel discussion “Writing around Censorship” hosted by Penny Black (60 mins) £6

Purchase tickets here: www.omnibus-clapham.org/event/beyondborders-lipstick

This is a scratch performance which will be script-in-hand. lipstick.org.uk