Maja Ardal discusses taking Prisoner of Tehran from page to stage


Maja Ardal has more than 40 years of theatre experience to her name. She's worked as an actor, director, playwright and drama instructor, and is the former artistic director of Young People's Theatre. She currently teaches playwriting at Humber College and acting at Fanshawe College. Later this year, she will play Marie Dressler in the new play Queen Marie at 4th Line Theatre.

In April 2012, her adaptation of Marina Nemat's Prisoner of Tehran will take the stage at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto. She found time in her busy schedule to discuss this project, what attracted her to Marina's story and what audiences can expect from the performances.

Q: How did you first discover Prisoner of Tehran?

A: I was interim artistic director of Nightwood Theatre, and the producer Monica Esteves gave me the book to read. It captured my mind and heart immediately. I started to visualize this as a stage play.

Q: What made you want to adapt the book for the stage?

A: The scene that stood out for me, and that I could not forget was in Evin Prison. Marina's best friend Sarah, who had just heard of the execution of her brother, showed Marina the writing she had done all over her body. The writings were of her life, her family, the happiness they used to have. It illuminated for me that the power of the story is in its youth. The generation of young people whose lives were forever altered by the revolution. Marina felt it was her right to speak out against injustices and new oppressive rules affecting her life and that of her friends and classmates. She was put on a watch list, like many of her schoolfriends, and one day they came, arrested her, imprisoned her in Evin Prison, tortured her and sentenced her to death. The spirit of youth lives in this story, and I wanted to explore in the adaptation how the hopes and dreams of young people can be snatched away by violent oppressive government. I was also excited to learn that Marina lives in the Toronto area, and that she might agree to be involved in the process of bringing this play to the stage.


Q: Marina writes that she was "very much involved" in the writing of the script. What was that relationship like?

A: Marina has enormous respect for theatrical process and artistic endeavours. She herself is a poet and a beautiful writer. She agreed with me that for the play I would need to use an element of imagination or fiction to dramatise some scenes while trying to capture the sprit of her memoir, and place it in a factually true circumstance. Her memoir also has some scenes of dialogue that I lifted directly out of the book. I also included some of Marina's poetry in the play. She read everything I wrote and corrected the circumstantial facts, and gave me feedback on the overall work, and added a deeper sense of how she felt during the experiences I was adapting. During the workshop she kept us aware of the actual physical experience she went through. This helped me and the actors enormously. Her encouragement was also a huge contribution for us, as we were offering her back her own life through the lens of theatre.

Q: What was the biggest challenge of adapting the book as a play?

When we asked Marina if she would give us permission to adapt the play, she said that she would but she cautioned us not to demonize Ali, the interrogator who forced her into marriage. She made me realize that this cannot be a story with a tidy sense of evildoers on one side and goodness on the other. I started to write the inner thoughts and feelings of all the major players in the memoir. I filled several notebooks with this writing. I started with Ali. He alone filled almost an entire notebook. I needed to understand him in order for him to become a "playable" character. I discovered that he did truly believe himself to be in love with Marina. But he also believed in his commitment to the rightness of his political cause and the authority of his faith. He himself had been tortured under the Shah, and now he was participating in the continuing cycle of violence, forcing Marina to conform to him, his passion, his life. It became so exciting for me as a writer to feel the complexity of this man. Marina was so honest when she was his captive/wife. She refused his love and fought him continuously, while also recognizing that his family were kind and loving, and that he wanted her to be happy but had no idea that he was ripping away her very identity. One of the hard parts about adapting the memoir to a play was selecting the sections that would become theatrical while keeping the spirit of the memoir intact. I chose to focus on the youthful Marina, during her schooldays, imprisonment and marriage to Ali.

Q: Were there any things that came easily?

A: Yes Once I realized that Marina's love for poetry should be integrated into the story, I incorporated some sections of the poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad to express Marina's character and love of life. It fitted in so smoothly.

Q: How closely did you follow the structure of the book?

A: I realized how much the flashbacks in her memoir contributed to the shock of the present. This is the guidance I took for the early part of the adaptation. Other than that, I have not really adapted the whole book. I concentrated on her youth and her friendships. I did not address the issue of her true love, Andre, as a play, much like a poem, has to refine itself to the essence of the story. If I tried to put the whole book on stage, in a two hour play, the central theme of the play would have been lost.

Q: Does adapting a book based on a true story require a different approach than adapting a novel or a short story?

A: It requires a lot of nerve. I had to stop myself from being scared about how Marina would respond when she read my work. It is after all about a woman who is right here with us when we are creating the play. We have an actress calling herself "Marina" and the real Marina sitting watching. It requires a lot of confidence and self-trust to adapt a living memoir.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from seeing The Prisoner of Tehran on stage?

A: We hope they will see this play as bearing witness to the atrocities of torture and oppression in the world. It is also important for all of us to recognize how ordinary lives can be overturned by extreme forces of righteous, power-hungry governments. I would like to overhear audiences discussing the conundrum of Ali, the man whose love of Marina was so at odds with the fact that she was his prisoner. And perhaps above all, I would like them to be inspired by the girl who believed in truth, and whose spirit never died — Marina Nemat.

Prisoner of Tehran: The Play will run from April 10-28, 2012 at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto. For more details or to purchase tickets, please visit the play's website.

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