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Q&A With John Farmanesh-Bocca

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Maintaining Humanity in War and Art

Our focus on Juilliard community members with ties to the military led us to directing alum John Farmanesh-Bocca. His Los Angeles-based company Not Man Apart (which has been recognized by Backstage as one of the world’s innovative physical theater ensembles) has put on several war-related plays. He’s also developing a TV series about war and veterans. Farmanesh-Bocca chatted recently with doctoral student Christopher Herbert about his work.

John Farmanesh-Bocca

John Farmanesh-Bocca

(Photo by Theo & Juliet)

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How did you become a director?

I started my career as a dancer in both ballet and post-modern, which naturally led me to choreography. I went to N.Y.U.’s Tisch School Experimental Theater Wing, where movement experience matched well with acting. Before finishing at N.Y.U. I became a teaching assistant for physical ensemble classes. Eventually I got brave enough to direct shows, all the while still working as an actor and choreographer. I spent much of my time after N.Y.U. working in theaters up and down the West Coast. Every once in a while, I was asked to direct. What I do—physical theater—was somewhat unique there; just before I went to Juilliard, in 2003, I started Shakespeare Santa Monica, which was dedicated to that. 

What led you to Juilliard?

While I was directing and acting in California, I also mentored arts-focused high school students, helping them seek admission to college. Each year we would make a school tour in New York. On a Juilliard visit, one of my students got sick and we excused ourselves to sit in the lobby. She was looking at a brochure for the directing fellowship and said, “You should do this.” So I applied and I got in. It was this wonderful, improbable thing that I was one of the two directors chosen from such a huge search. It was a fun competition really. It felt like American Idol for directors. It was an honor. 

You were at Juilliard from 2003 to 2005. How was it?

Everything was very difficult at first. Almost as soon as my first year began I was dealing with a lot of personal issues. My father had just had a stroke and there were several stress-filled family concerns throughout my time. My personal life made Juilliard a real up-and-down experience. That being said, as a result I learned a tremendous amount from the variety of failure and success. I think some people leave Juilliard with an expansive experience—ready to tackle the world. Other folks leave licking their wounds because they’ve had such a difficult and necessary transformative time as an artist. For me, Juilliard was both, and it propelled me. My first year out, I did 12 opening nights in one year, either as a producer, director, actor, or all of the above. 

Speaking of transformative experiences, you’ve focused a lot in recent years on creating success for your theater ensemble, Not Man Apart.

Part of our mission is to tell tales that re-examine our world; we primarily take ancient stories and cast them in a new light. I believe that if a story is ancient and still around, there’s something intrinsically true about it. In the past several years we’ve produced shows including Pericles Redux, Titus Redux, Hercules Furens, Lysistrata Unbound, and Ajax in Iraq. The first three were contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare and Socrates. Lysistrata Unbound is a retelling of the classical story by Eduardo Machado that featured Olympia Dukakis. Ajax in Iraq, which we produced in 2013, is a brilliant and heartbreaking play by Ellen McLaughlin. 

What drew you to Ajax in Iraq?

The previous shows dealt with “after-war” or “returning-home” experiences. We decided we wanted to do a show that took place in war. Ajax parallels the ancient Greek tale of Ajax with the modern story of A.J., a female American soldier in Iraq dealing with sexual assault in the military. This parallel may seem like a stretch, but McLaughlin weaves it together beautifully. Post-traumatic stress eventually leads to both characters’ madness and suicide. It’s a stunner. 

Many of these stories deal with war. What about that subject is so potent for you?

I’m from a military family. In addition, my interest comes from the fact that for the last 222 of the 239 years of our union, we have been at war. War is here. It’s our lives. I am of mixed nationality—American and Iranian. This combination makes me hyper-aware as an artist of what is happening in the world right now. War is a life-and-death struggle; it is therefore intrinsically dramatic. It exemplifies the ugliness of man but also illustrates some of the greatest humanity, kindness, and sacrifice. I strongly believe that one of the most valuable things a soldier can salvage through a war is his/her humanity. By the same token, two of the most valuable things an artist can maintain in this world are humility and empathy. There is a striking dichotomy for both soldiers and artists: the balance between a necessary tough hide and a sensitive relationship with humanity and life.After performances of Ajax, we did weekly talkbacks with a group called New Directions, which is mostly run by patriotic, anti-war woman who primarily help female vets with PTSD and other trauma, but also a good number of men. These sessions were eye-opening and continued to educate us after the curtain went down. We found it helpful to put all the emotions and energy we created in the audience to good use by giving them an opportunity outlet to get involved locally by donating clothes and time, and a number of our company members continue to do workshops and volunteer work at New Directions. 

What does the future hold for you?

I want to continue to tell the stories of war and show how hope and growth can come out of conflict. Right now I’m developing a TV series about war and veterans. The Veterans Suicide Prevention Bill was signed into law in February and it’s important that people talk about our veterans. The fact that more of them are committing suicide than are killed in combat is a huge tragedy that gets swept under the rug. I do ask myself all the time, “What right do I have to tell this story?” But then I think, “What right do I have not to?” I’m an artist. It’s my job to tell stories and to tell them well. My job is to connect people’s hearts to their heads.

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