Puppet slams, Faust, and Ghost Stories: Interview with Leila Ghaznavi

Republished by kind permission from the FringeArts blog.

Leila-puppet-slamLeila Ghaznavi is the founder of Leila and Pantea Productions, a theater company with an unconventional approach to contemporary drama. She puts her training in mask and puppetry to use in her productions, often using light and shadow as tools for storytelling. The daughter of an Iranian immigrant—and a Daughter of the American Revolution—her multicultural background often comes through in her original plays based on social issues. One of these plays is Silken Veils, which was nominated for the Best New Work award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Her work is often interdisciplinary, combining puppetry and theater with her wide range of other skills, including aerial dance and clown. “When creating work, I pull from my toolbox whatever I need to tell the story the story I want to tell,” says Leila. “I’m always interested in how to tell a narrative story but in a different way.” This year, she is producing three different shows in the Fringe Festival. The Puppet-delphia Puppet Slam brings puppeteers from Philadelphia and beyond together for a night of whimsy, beauty, and raucous fun. The other two shows couldn’t be more different. In one, she partners with Broderick Jones, a New York based puppeteer, to create Ubu Faust, a literature-based but rambunctious one-man-show. In the other, she is reinventing The Turn of the Screw by creating a minimalist set that makes use of darkness as a shadow of mystery to tell the story. I had a chat with Leila about how she came to work as a puppeteer, and what it’s been like producing all of these shows for the 2017 Fringe Festival.

FringeArts: What has it been like producing so many shows for this year’s Fringe Festival?

Leila Ghaznavi: Leila and Pantea Productions is producing three separate events for the Fringe this year. A ghost story called, The Turn of the Screw, written by Henry James and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, a raucous puppet farce called Ubu Faust created and performed by Broderick Jones, and the second Puppet-delphia Puppet Slam, which is a cabaret composed of short puppet works, from the poignantly beautiful to the bawdy and comedic. The puppet slam will feature both local and out of town artists.

What makes all three shows Leila and Pantea Productions is the use of puppetry and the delving into how to use shadow and light as a story telling mechanism. The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story with a minimalist set. Light and shadow create a world that is unseen but literally haunts the stage. Ubu Faust is the complete opposite, a one-man puppet show from New York City-based performer Broderick Jones, it mishmashes puppetry and literature together to create its own unique, irreverent identity. Poetry has always been a prevalent theme in my own work, so I was excited by this chance to present a new artist to Philadelphia that takes these great works of literature and creates his own unique spin! I first premiered the Puppet-delphia Puppet Slam two years ago and it was a great hit! What I love about puppet slams is that you never know what you will see. They are a smorgasbord of puppetry and the short acts involved can range from little gems of beauty, to down-in-the-gutter dirty, to witty and charming. We are currently pulling together the acts for the slam. It will be a mix of local Philly artists and out-of-towners.

This is actually the first year where I will not have a lead role performing in the Philadelphia Fringe, because I will be touring to the Edinburgh Fringe in August. So instead, I decided to produce three shows and appear in Peculiar Works’ Floydada show instead! Although, I will definitely be in the Puppet-delphia Fringe Slam, so keep an eye out for me!

FringeArts: Where are you from? How did you first get involved with the arts, and what was your first show?

Leila Ghaznavi: I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, and was always attracted to the arts from a young age. I used to stand and look in the mirror behind my bed when I was four and practice looking sad, then freeze my face, then run off to ask my mom for a cookie. So you could say, I’ve been practicing since day one! My first show was in kindergarten. I was a in a nativity play and I had the role of an angel singing to the Baby Jesus. Apparently, the first night I spontaneously jazzed up my lullaby, the pianist went along with me, and the crowd cheered and laughed. The second night I sang it straight, no one cheered, and I cried for three days. I was addicted early.

FringeArts: Who are artists that you’ve known that have inspired or influenced you?

Leila Ghaznavi: I’ve been extraordinarily blessed to have a few mentors who’ve believed in me and have pushed me. Ronnie Burkett and Ron Binion have been my puppet mentors. Amy Tofte was my writing guru who helped me create my first hit show, Drew Sutherland coached me on performance, and Giovanni Fusetti picked me up when I was at my lowest point and helped me rebuild my confidence as a performer and helped me to discover my inner clown. There are so many people in my life who’ve nudged me the right way. I feel blessed to have been gifted with all them. As for artists I’ve never met, I have to admit, I’m a Judy Dench fan!

FringeArts: What drew you to puppetry?

Leila Ghaznavi: I backed into puppetry. I never expected to be a puppeteer, ever. I went to grad school for my MFA in acting but the program I was at had a puppet program, and slowly I got sucked in. By the time I left with my MFA in acting, I was performing professionally as a puppeteer! I never saw it coming. What I enjoy most about puppetry is its ability to break down barriers both literal and abstract. In puppetry gravity doesn’t apply, anything can happen at any time, and any creation—no matter its skin tone—can have any view point and be accepted by the audience. It is a world that is only restricted by your skills as an artist and your imagination.

FringeArts: You were trained in so many types of performance – what does combining different disciplines enable you to do?

Leila Ghaznavi: Looking back, every seemingly divergent skill set links together to help me create the work I do now. For example, I was a music composition major as an undergrad with a focus on composing classical music. And while I don’t compose for my own shows, it definitely affects how I select music for my shows, and I have a very visceral connection to how music tells story—which in puppetry is an essential tool for storytelling. For me, I don’t have to think about blending them together, I just do it, because they’re all in my body and in my head. As a training pedagogy we slot skills into separate boxes, clown, commedia, Shakespeare, dance, Method acting, etc. But when you step foot out on stage you don’t have time to pick and choose, you are going to pull on everything simultaneously to make whatever challenges you are facing conquerable.

When creating work, I pull from my toolbox whatever I need to tell the story the story I want to tell. The demands of the story—location, number of characters, special effects, etc.—will create pillars of storytelling that have to happen. For instance in my play Silken Veils, it’s set in the Middle East and it’s about an Iranian family. So I knew I needed to invoke Iran visually, so I turned to animation to create dynamic backgrounds that would give color and taste to the world. It was about Iranians, which is a politically fraught topic, so I depicted the parents as marionettes and shadows, because when characters are puppets, an audience doesn’t look at them the same way as a human actor. When a Middle Eastern man walks on stage, whatever an audience member already thinks about what it means to be a Middle Eastern man clicks into play. When a puppet walks on stage, because it is an abstract construction, the audience will wait and listen to find out what a puppet thinks or feels. In that difference of perception, I can introduce a narrative that offers alternate viewpoint than what someone may have learned from the media. I keep going through this process, and by the end of the first read-through, the different skill sets I’ll need have usually identified themselves.

FringeArts:What are themes that have interested you in putting together these three shows for the Fringe?

Leila Ghaznavi: For me, I’m always interested in how to tell a narrative story but in a different way. So for The Turn of the Screw, it’s a “traditional” ghost story except its stripped down to two actors, little to no set, and the sound effects are all created live. The drama exists in the use of the light and the actors. It is the Alfred Hitchcock principal applied to theater in my mind. Alluding to the monster in the dark is always scarier than $100,000 worth of special effects. When it came to Ubu Faust, Broderick Jones has always been one of my favorite performers. Since we were producing a Victorian ghost story, it seemed like a fun twist to follow it by a comedic mashup Punch and Judy style show. Punch and Judy were Victorian staples, so while the tenor of the two shows are completely different, they have a thematic connection between them. For people who buy tickets at the door, we’ll be offering a two for one special: buy a ticket to Turn of the Screw and Ubu Faust and get one discounted price for both shows. Ubu Faust is only thirty minutes and will start 15 minutes after The Turn of the Screw ends. The idea was to create a pairing where an audience would be titillated and scared but have the option to leave the theater laughing at the end of the night if they wished. And the puppet slam? Puppet slams are just amazing nights of theater. So whenever I’m producing with the dedicated use of a theater I always try to throw a puppet slam into the mix.

FringeArts: How have you seen the Philly arts scene change over time, and what would you like to see in the future?

Leila Ghaznavi: I’ve been working in Philadelphia on and off for decades. I went to Bryn Mawr College and was a performer in a Mark Lord show in the Philly Fringe I want to say 2000? After that I left to go to grad school, toured for a few years, and then came back to Philadelphia as a performer for the Philadelphia Zoo Jim Henson collaboration. That’s what really rooted me back into the city, and I’ve been performing here ever since.

The Philadelphia art scene has always been remarkable for the wide breadth of work that’s done here. There’s a strong physical theater presence because of companies like Pig Iron and Tribe of Fools which is a standout when compared to other cities. The number of performance venues is another feature that makes the city friendly for small companies like myself. And of course, Philly audiences are the best! They have a taste for new experiences so they’ll come out to try new things and experience new artists. Because Philly audiences are so adventurous, it gives me the freedom to try new things on stage and I know they’ll be honest with me about what worked, (or didn’t work,) but they’ll also be supportive of the dive into the unknown. And that’s rare. In cities like Indianapolis, if you aren’t producing Midsummer Night’s Dream they ain’t showing up to the theater. But Philly really allows generative artists to create work from scratch and I think that’s why the city has so many creative artists based here. The changes I’ve seen over time have a lot to do with changes in the funding landscape. Many of the foundations that used to support independent artists have shifted their focus towards established companies, larger producing entities, or away from the arts altogether. This has definitely had a strong impact on the theater scene where smaller companies have folded their doors and independent artists have either left the city or stopped producing work altogether. So what we have seen is a narrowing of the field. For me that has meant reducing my producing schedule to one show a year instead of trying to build the company out to multiple performances per year. But despite the narrowing of the funding field overall, Philadelphia still has great foundations like the Leeway Foundation that take risks on artists and support a broad breadth of creative work. The work of those foundations that are willing to take risks on unknown artists is what keeps Philadelphia a cornerstone of generative work in American theater.

Puppet-delphia Fringe Slam
Leila and Pantea Productions
$10 / 95 minutes
The Proscenium Theatre at the Drake
302 South Hicks Street
Wheelchair accessible
Sept 23 at 10:30pm
TICKETS + INFO

The Turn of the Screw
Leila and Pantea Productions
$10–$12 / 75 minutes
The Proscenium Theatre at the Drake
302 South Hicks Street
Wheelchair accessible
Sept 20–23 at 8pm
Sept 24 at 2pm
TICKETS + INFO

Ubu Faust
Broderick Jones with Leila and Pantea Productions
$8 / 35 minutes
The Proscenium Theatre at the Drake
302 South Hicks Street
Wheelchair accessible
Sept 20–23 at 9:30pm
TICKETS + INFO

Photos: Brian Hashimoto (banner photo,) Richard Termine (first photo,)Candace Cihocki (second photo and last photo,) Jennifer Bennett (third photo)

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