Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Tom Arthur Davis

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Tom Arthur Davis

In 2012, Tom Arthur Davis and Tara Grammy captured the Best of Toronto Fringe prize for their play, Mahmoud. Now the play is available in published form from Playwrights Canada Press, giving those who missed the staging a chance to absorb this hilarious, unexpected and insightful story of three strangers crossing paths on the busy streets of Toronto.

The title character of the play, Mahmoud, is a taxi driver and former engineer who takes great joy in enlightening his passengers about Persian culture. The two strangers he encounters are Emanuelos, a gay perfume salesman of Spanish descent and Tara, a shy and charming Iranian Canadian tween who longs to fit in.

Today we're speaking with Tom, who directed and produced Mahmoud (as well as co-writing the script with Tara Grammy), as part of our Lucky Seven series. The Lucky Seven is a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadians and gives writers a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest works.

Tom tells us about the real life inspiration for Mahmoud, why theme should emerge from character and some of the differences between writing plays and novels.

Open Book:

Tell us about Mahmoud.

Tom Arthur Davis:

Mahmoud is a one-woman show that tackles themes of immigration and Diaspora through three pretty outrageous characters. There's Mahmoud, an exuberant and a bit too chatty Iranian engineer turned cab driver living in Toronto; Emanuelos, a flamboyantly gay Spanish cologne salesman; and Tara, a twelve-year-old Iranian-Canadian girl who just wants to be "normal.”

Tara and I are both went to theatre school together. As a part of our classes we had to come up with a ten-minute solo performance piece. Based on a real-life conversation she had with an Iranian cab driver who drove her home one day, Tara created the character of Mahmoud for the project. I was enthralled and wanted to develop it further.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

TAD:

There are definitely themes that we explore in this piece: outdated immigration policies in Canada, human rights violations in Iran, displacement, cultural assimilation and homophobia.

And to say we didn't intend on exploring these themes would be misleading, but it wasn't necessarily our focus. We loved the characters we created, and in exploring them the socio-political aspects emerged, somewhat effortlessly. It's always a bit dangerous to worry about the themes of a piece, because then it becomes dogmatic and loses its humanity.

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

TAD:

Absolutely!

It started as that ten-minute class project, and then we introduced the character of Tara with a twenty-minute version. After this we did a fifty-minute production where the character of Emanuelos was introduced, followed by a finalized version at the Toronto Fringe in 2012. All in all, this process took about two years.

Most of the process was coming up with ideas for scenes, vague dialogue, and then a lot of improvisation in the rehearsal hall. We kept all of the best moments (and funniest jokes) and slowly the piece took shape.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

TAD:

Writing this play was different than writing other plays, since the process was so collaborative.

Where normally I need to shut myself off from the world (the internet especially!) and write as soon as the inspiration hits me (before it's lost), in this case we needed each other for the process to even begin. Games, discussions, storytelling: these were all key for the development of this script. Which to be honest, is much more fun!

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

TAD:

This was a unique process. We didn't often agonize over a keyboard racking our brains with what to write. Rather we just brainstormed and played.

Writing a play is a very different process than writing a novel. It's entirely character driven and it needs an audience to come alive. So, much of what the work is based on is testing it with a crowd (which is very terrifying, but exciting and essential). Something might work on the page, but then completely die in front of an audience.

So our advice is: play, then write, then test, then start it over again. But, hey, everyone's writing process is different! So take that with a grain of salt.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

TAD

Since this is a play, I suppose we should mention a play that we drew from for inspiration. Kristen Thomson's I, Claudia comes immediately to mind for its wonderfully nuanced characters, who are terribly quirky, yet subtle in their intentions. Thomson’s ability to drive the action forward through monologue (and in some ways stream of conscious) was a very useful guide from which to glance from time to time. There's so much heart in that piece, and we hoped to bring that same emotional depth to Mahmoud. Claudia and Tara in particular share quite a few similarities in their adolescent quandaries.

It's hard to say what makes a good play exactly, since there are two ways in which to experience them: either as a written text or as a performance text. One is on the page, the other is on the stage. A well-written play is very different from a well-produced one.

I think the advantage to theatre is also its disadvantage: its poverty. Our budget for Mahmoud was always tiny, and people are always claiming that the theatre is dying. But that isn't true, theatre cannot die, because all you need is one performer and one audience member. In that way it is the purest art and the most immediate art since anyone can do it. Which makes it the best art with which to push societal boundaries and cry foul. It doesn't rely upon money to exist like other mediums do nowadays, and though that can be tough, it can also be freeing. So the best plays, I think, are the ones that tackle urgent socio-political issues with zeal and bravery.

OB:

What are you working on now?

TAD:

Since Mahmoud premiered I've been working on a science-fiction based play entitled Birth. It is about a hypothetical word where, with the advancement of medical sciences, people not longer age or die (if they can afford access to these treatments). The population skyrockets prompting governments to make unregulated childbirth illegal.

Tara and I have also flirted with the idea of collaborating on a new project, so hopefully that will premiere at a stage near you at some point soon.

And of course, we continue to tour Mahmoud. So far we have won awards and accolades in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. With any luck, we're hoping to tour it to some European festivals.


Tom Arthur Davis is an actor, playwright and director. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto where he received and H.B.A. specializing in theatre. His work has toured across North America including Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, New York and Los Angeles. Davis also acts as the Artistic Director of Pandemic Theatre.

A recent graduate of the University of Toronto, where she received an H.B.A Drama Specialist, Tara Grammy has worked with some of Canada’s top theatre artists, including: Ken Gass, Leah Cherniak, Soheil Parsa and Martha Ross. Tara is a world traveler; born in Tehran, she has lived in Germany, the United States and Canada, and has traveled all across the world. She is interested in the immigration experience in her artistic endeavours, in an attempt to better understand multi-national identities.

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