Interview: Director Arya Shahi On The Old Globe's Production of ENGLISH

On stage from January 27 to February 25, 2024, with the official opening night on Thursday, February. 1.

By: Jan. 22, 2024
Interview: Director Arya Shahi On The Old Globe's Production of ENGLISH

BroadwayWorld sat down with director Arya Shahi of  The Old Globe production of the critically-acclaimed play English.

Winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize, the Obie Award, and the Lucille Lortel Award, the play is written by Sanaz Toossi (Playwrights Horizons’ Wish You Were Here, Amazon Original’s A League of Their Own) and will be directed by Arya Shahi (PigPen Theatre Co.). 

English plays at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, part of the Globe’s Conrad Prebys Theatre Center, from January 27 to February 18, 2024, with the official opening night on Thursday, February. 1.

In a classroom near Tehran, four adult students prepare for an English proficiency exam. They each have a reason for being there: a chance at opportunity, access, or a new calling. But as they bond over this new way to express themselves, they also grapple with the lives they must leave behind. 

The cast for English includes Mary Apick as Roya (Beneath the Veil, Dead End), Ari Derambakhsh as Goli (Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s English, Twelfth Night at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London), Tara Grammy as Elham (Mahmoud – New York City Fringe, Best Solo Performance; A Simple Wedding), Pooya Mohseni as Marjan (Ensemble Studio Theatre’s The Good Muslim, Baltimore Center Stage’s The White Snake), and Joe Joseph as Omid (Broadway’s The Kite Runner, Broadway’s The Band’s Visit). 

Also, joining Toossi and Shahi as part of the creative team for the Globe’s production of Englishare Sadra Tehrani (Scenic Design), Afsaneh Aayani (Costume Design), Amanda Zieve (Lighting Design), Megumi Katayama (Sound Design), Caparelliotis Casting (Casting), and Chandra R.M. Anthenill (Production Stage Manager).

Ticket prices for English start at $33 and go on sale Friday, January 5. Performances for the four-week limited engagement run January 27 – February 25, 2024, with the official press opening on Thursday, February 1 at 8:00 p.m.

What drew you to direct "English" by Sanaz Toossi?

English is one of those rare plays in the American Theatre that becomes an instant addition to the Canon. The script is unimaginably clever — even when compared to the all-time greats. There are very few artists that are not drawn to it, so I’m just one of many! But perhaps my own history can contextualize the age old question of: “why this play now?” I’m one of the founders of PigPen Theatre Co. which means I’ve been writing, directing, and acting in an ensemble for 17 years. I’ve long felt a calling to try my hand at telling stories that center my Iranian culture while also staying true to the collaborative nature of my ensemble background. This felt like a perfect opportunity to do so.

What challenges did you face in bringing this Pulitzer Prize-winning play to life?

Of course, there is a weight of responsibility when staging the most recent Pulitzer Prize winner. Audiences expect greatness. The theatre-going meta-stakes are cranked up to 11! But that responsibility pales in comparison to the pressure of presenting the Iranian culture, my family’s culture, faithfully and truthfully. I never thought we’d get an American play about the Iranian experience that wasn’t rooted in the exploitation our trauma. Because those are the stories I grew up watching on television and on stage. But finally, change has come. And the opportunity to correct a narrative you never thought would be corrected is an intensely personal challenge that goes far beyond the weight of awards and audience expectations. 

Can you describe the creative process and collaboration with the playwright, Sanaz Toossi?

Iranian Americans don’t have an August Wilson, or Suzan-Lori Parks, or Lin-Manuel Miranda, or Nilo Cruz to look up to. Sanaz is the first… and I wanted to treat her with the same respect I’d treat Suzan-Lori or Lin-Manuel if I were staging one of their plays. Which is to say: I was not expecting an active collaboration! She’s already given us all the gift. That being, she also happens to be an incredibly kind person who responds to my texts when I have questions or ideas about something that could fundamentally change the play. In short, it’s been wonderful.

What makes this production of "English" unique compared to other productions of the same play?

This is the first production of English to be staged in the round. The play, as written, prominently features a whiteboard. Whiteboards don’t work in the round because no matter what you do, someone in the audience will have their view obstructed in some way. So I had to make some pretty big decisions about “the world of the play.” I’m very happy to say the design philosophy of this production takes into account that we are in a transformational space (a quality that a theater shares with a classroom) and that we’ve leaned into minimalism that still feels very real. Ultimately, a million little decisions all came together to do a very important thing: center the people and the words.

What do you hope the audience will take away from this production?

There is immense depth in those who you might subconsciously consider shallow.

How important is the cultural context of the play in your direction?

The strength of this play is that it’s telling the story of billions of bilingual people — through the lens of five Iranian characters. On its surface it’s a play about how to speak English. And it says a lot about that! But the genius of this play is in the things it doesn’t say, the cultural subtext, the unspoken sadness of why these people are leaving their country in the first place, that wrestles with what it means to be Iranian in the modern world.

Can you talk about the significance of language as a theme in "English" and how it relates to the characters?

Language defines not only our identity but our reality. To watch five adults — with fully formed personalities and insights and heartaches and senses of humor — lose their ability to express themselves and be a part of the world in the way they want to be is… profound. Elham, Marjan, Omid, Roya and Goli all respond to this particular struggle in their own way… and that’s what makes it such a stunning story. 

What is your favorite scene or moment in the play, and why?

To be honest, once I’d staged the show I quickly found my favorite moments were multiplying rapidly. These actors are just — incredible. But when it was just a script… just a story I was experiencing my head… Roya’s phone calls to her son absolutely made a puddle of me.

What advice would you give to aspiring directors who are looking to tackle thought-provoking and award-winning plays like "English"?

You are worthy. But do your homework. 

Why must audiences come and see this production?

Oh there’s a million dollars under a random seat in the theatre. Every single night! I probably should have started with that…