The Middle East takes center stage with Golden Thread Productions

“Nobody else was telling our stories and on the rare occasion that they were telling our stories, they weren’t doing a good job of it.”

In 1996, Torange Yeghiazarian founded Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco, California. With the hopes of connecting the outside world to authentic Middle Eastern stories, Yeghiazarian has since gone on journey after journey, shining light on the struggles, triumphs, wonders and beauties of the Middle East. In creating the United States’ first mainstream theater production company focused on the Middle East, Yeghiazarian and her colleagues have brought a plethora of innovative and authentic plays and programs to the country. Since it’s opening, Golden Thread has put on over fifty productions. These productions include full scale ensemble productions, a multifaceted program centered on Middle Eastern women playwrights called What Do the Women Say, and short-play festivals called ReOrient.

An Armenian-Iranian playwright and storyteller herself, Yeghiazarian initially struggled to find a community that was interested in telling the stories of the Middle East. “Even when they were interested, they didn’t know how to approach it. They didn’t have the right tools to [do so],” Yeghiazarian said. “So that’s why I felt the need to start a company for theater artists of Middle Eastern heritage and also non-Middle Easterners who wanted to sort of explore the region as a topic for their plays. We could then support them in telling better informed stories.”

Identity played a vital role in the creation of Golden Thread and continues to play a crucial role in the sustainment of the company. “Identity has been a constant topic, whether explicit or implicit in various plays that we’ve produced, not because we’ve sought it out, but because it’s on people’s minds,” said Yeghiazarian. However, even when the company tries to steer away from identity-focused productions, Yeghiazarian said that the audience often absorbs the production in an identity-centric manner. “When the narrative of the industry for so long has been focused from a white Anglo Saxon perspective, then anything outside of that feels like an identity play,” said Yeghiazarian. “So even when a Middle Eastern play is not explicitly about identity, it may feel like one because it’s from a different perspective.”

Within production development, cultivating authentic and powerful stories requires a level of commitment to a complex process from the collaborators involved. Yeghiazarian finds that identity often manifests itself in intricate ways within every theater production. She finds that theater acts as an incredibly dynamic medium to represent that level of complexity. “You want to make sure that you have the right voices in the room,” said Yeghiazarian in regards to the artists she brings on to act in and produce productions.

Stringing together multiple perspectives and voices using a diverse assortment of artistic tools also requires a desire to learn. “[Theater] is also a great way to self educate, because with every new play, every new production, you kind of have to learn about the details of those characters and where they come from and what their issues are,” said Yeghiazarian. “You’re constantly in learning mode, which excites me.” The act of educating someone through a theater production happens naturally and organically. “Educating someone sometimes may be interpreted as being explicit about the five points you want someone to get from a story,” said Yeghiazarian. “And sometimes that’s necessary and important, but most of the time by just bringing people in communion with those characters, you already create a learning experience, whether they’re aware of it or not.”

In order to take advantage of a community’s natural attraction to learning, Yeghiazarian finds theater to be a powerful medium to push for greater exploration. By virtue of examining raw, emotional stories and lived experiences through art, audience members become further invested in the stories themselves. “I think that’s where the learning actually happens,” said Yeghiazarian. While conveying specific, factual information is important to a production and to an education process, “that’s secondary to what theater does organically, which is create an environment where you may not even be aware of it, but you are transported and you are learning just through exposure and proximity.”

Aside from pushing others towards exploration, curiosity and learning, Yeghiazarian was pushed to grapple with her own set of challenges and nuances. In representing a geographic region often introduced or discussed as forever being plagued by wars, moving outside of a conflict-centric lens proved to be challenging. Managing both her own and other people’s expectations prompted another level of growth for Yeghiazarian. “There was learning around how delicate these topics are and how personal they are to people and how best to handle that,” said Yeghiazarian. Once the war in Iraq began in March of 2003, Yeghiazarian faced further pressure to facilitate and manage delicate and nuanced conversations. “Over the years since then, I learned how to manage personalities, how to manage people’s expectations, my own expectations and how to facilitate conversations in a way that honors everyone’s experience without minimizing our differences or making light of our differences.” For example, the Golden Thread Production team utilizes theater lobbies to provide context for productions replete with U.S. foreign policy or centers conflicts in the Middle East. “Most of the plays that we produce are critical of [the U.S.’s] foreign policy in the Middle East. And the audience is mixed. Not everyone understands that perspective and that experience, so we had to, through conversations and program notes and lobby displays, give people context for why we’re critical.”

However, Yeghiazarian also explained how a constant focus on war stifles the possibilities of Middle Eastern culture to truly be expressed and celebrated. “Because we aren’t just [war], you know, there is joy, there is poetry. Poetry is such a big part of our communities. So to incorporate poetry and music into our productions, it’s just lovely to have that opportunity.”

Yeghiazarian has also worked to promote productions catered to younger audiences. “My friends were having kids and they weren’t coming to see our shows. And I would say, ‘Well, why aren’t you coming’ and they say, ‘Well, your shows aren’t suitable for kids’. And our kids also need programs and artistic outlets.” In response to her community’s need to include children in the audience, Yeghiazarian started Fairytale Players. Inspiration for the Fairytale Players productions came mostly from Middle Eastern literature and folktales, many of which were Yeghiazarian’s favorites growing up. “These are stories that are popular stories or poems that we’ve grown up with and I want the next generation to also enjoy them and love them as much as I love them.”

“The kids in the audience for the first time felt like they had permission to be who they are and talk about their family traditions and celebrate among their classmates,” said Yeghiazarian. “This play offered them that opportunity and that’s pretty invaluable.” Identity reflection often begins at an early age for individuals and communities underrepresented in the media. Deeper personal reflection often stems from questioning your placement in society as a function of the media you’re consuming. “At some point, we all reflect on identity. Whether we are conscious of that is somewhat a factor of how well we fit in the mainstream.”