2014 Best Set Designer Nominee Interview: Ghazal Hassani for Boston University's "columbinus"

Photo by Shaghayegh HZ

Photo by Shaghayegh HZ

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews.

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

Ghazal Hassani boasts an incredible raw talent and hard work ethic as a scenic designer, excelling in her work as an MFA candidate at Boston University. In her first production, Ghazal reinforced the isolation and haunting reality of Columbine and its aftermath in her set design for columbinus. In her Interview, Ghazal tells about her experiences moving to the United States for graduate school, her research to prepare for columbinus, and some of her guilty pleasures.

Hi, Ghazal, thank you so much for interviewing with us.  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m an international MFA candidate for Set Design at Boston University, originally from Iran, and this is my second year here in the United States. I’m actually new to theatre; columbinus was the first ever show that I designed. I have a BA in Russian Literature and a minor in Interior Design. I started a very long journey that ended up here and I couldn’t be happier; I think this is it, theatre is my new home.

What is the play columbinus?  How did you get involved in the BU CFA’s production?

Well, imagine this: You just got here to a foreign country, English is your third language, you barely know what proscenium arch is and they ask you to design a show on the Main Stage. I was so scared, I asked them “But aren’t you going to teach me how first?” They said “No! You’ll probably die doing it but you’ll learn!” And that’s how it started.

I was so lucky to be part of a very caring and passionate team, the amount of love and generosity was unbelievable. Special thanks to design and production team; they were with me every step of the way and I learned a lot from them. We were in rehearsals every night, the collaboration between design team and director and actors was one of the most special aspects of this production and I believe it shows perfectly.

columbinus is talking about a lot of issues. It brings the attention to the gaps in different social systems, and it targets all the relations, starting from the smallest groups, between high school kids, the parents, the teachers. . . . And it goes up to show the same disconnection among bigger parts of community, like the educational system, judiciary system, etc.  It’s brave in showing us all sides, not judging.

What are your memories of the Columbine shooting?  What research did you do to prepare your set design?

I was back in Iran when the Columbine shooting happened. I’ve heard it in news but I actually have more vivid memories of Virginia Tech shooting. I had to learn a lot before I start designing for this show. I researched in detail about the shooting itself and anyone involved, along with the history of mass shootings in the US, Columbine High School, gun laws, psychology, high school life in US, and anything else related to story of the play. Then I had to start research for the design aspect, buildings in Colorado, architecture, corporate and commercial buildings, educational buildings, construction and different types of concrete and many, many more. The list is endless but it was so important to know all of this. 

Talk to us about your process as a set designer.  How do you begin?  What steps are involved?  Who else is involved in this process?

I begin with research; I have to learn as much as I can about details of what makes the story, and the playwright him/herself. After I feel that I have a good grasp of what is going on in the story and why, then I can start thinking about the space. I usually find it very helpful to look for something that resembles the story for me, it could be a work of art or a photo or a piece of music. Then, I study the similarities to realize what are the features that are standing up for me. Most of the times the director is the first one with whom I talk. The first conversations with the director and design team are my favorite part of the process. It’s just so rich and helpful.

Photo by Ghazal Hassani

Photo by Ghazal Hassani

Describe your set for us.  What themes or ideas did you try to reinforce in the physical set and its presence?  How did this support other technical elements for this production?

After reading the play, I immediately knew that I was not going to design a typical high school; it needed to be more of a general yet commercial architecture since I believed the story is more than just high school, it talks about different systems in society. You could feel the coldness and the isolation, as if the building was frozen at early stages of an explosion, there were gaps in between all the walls and the ceiling. But my favorite part was the explosion vortex itself which was hidden until act III. The audience gasped every night as we started lighting it while actors were walking through the aisles to get on stage. That explosion was the open wound that’s still bleeding today. It was ugly and unsettling and the power was to sit and have it open in front of you as the story was moving on.

Have you designed other sets?  Have you designed other technical elements for other productions?

This year, I designed the set for BU production of W;t by Margaret Edson which was staged at The Roberts Studio, Boston Center for the Arts; and The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca, and a new play, The Tall Girls by Meg Miroshnik, both at the CFA of Boston University. I also designed the costumes for both last shows. I also assisted in our production of Angels in America, a collaboration between School of Theartre and The Opera Institute. I did props for The Adding Machine, another production on our Main Stage at BU.

Of what are you most proud from your stage work?  How about in your personal life?

Although I deeply love all the shows that I worked on, columbinus has a very special place in my heart.

In my personal life, the fact that I’m here, following my dream, is my biggest achievement in life. I didn’t grow up in an easy environment; life is hard in my country, especially for women. There’s nearly no room to grow, hope considers to be a dangerous illusion, freedom is a myth and dreams are luxuries that no one can afford. But I just couldn’t settle down, I had a dream and I worked my way through all the adversities to get here, with no money, no connections, and no one to show me the way. I’m not gonna hide, I’m pretty proud of it!

What do you like to do on a rainy day?

I really prefer to stay inside on a rainy day, have a nice cup of tea with sweet treats, read or watch movies. Just lying in bed would do perfectly as well, considering sleep is such a luxury in grad school.

What is your guilty pleasure?  Do you have any bad habits?

Oh, I have lots of them, and carbohydrates are the main ingredient in all of them! I don’t know if having sugar cones filled with peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, and Nutella for breakfast considers a bad habit or not! 

What is different about designing or working under a university rather than an independent theatre?  What is similar?

Well, I can’t really answer that question since I’ve only worked inside university.  I assisted some of my teachers and friends in shows last summer, but I have not design by myself. But I can say our program at BU is very vigorous and by that I mean very hard core. The goal is to make us ahead of the game and ready to work in all diverse types of theatre industry.

Do you have any idols or mentors?  Why?

Yes, there are a lot of people mostly artists, poets, writers, journalists, and social workers that are a symbol of resilience for me. Ahmad Shamloo, Samad Behrangi, Iran Darroudi, Zaha Hadid, Oriana Fallaci… are just a few to name. Looking up to them, I learned how to fight for my beliefs. But my mentor here is my professor, James Noone. He is the head of Scenic Department in our school, and it’s a privilege to have him as my advisor; he taught me how to design for theatre from scratch. 

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

It’s hard to plan for future when you are an international student on an F1 visa. I take life as it comes, which is thrilling and nerve-racking at the same time. I might have some projects for this summer, and I know I’m designing some shows in our next season of BU.   

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Thank you for having me and many thanks to ArtsImpulse for acknowledging the university productions of different shows. 

2014 Best Ensemble in a Play Nominee Interview: Boston University College of Fine Art's "columbinus"

Photo by Danny Kim

Photo by Danny Kim

Hi, Ivy, Ian, and Isabel.  Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed as part of our Nominee Interview Series.  We are delighted to hear from so many of our Nominees, especially those who make a strong ensemble in a production.  Can you start by introducing yourselves to our readers?

Photo by Tara Lynn Sen

Photo by Tara Lynn Sen

Ivy Ryan (IR): My name is Ivy Ryan I am a rising senior Acting major at BU and I’m from Mill Valley, California, just outside of San Francisco. I’m currently in the basement of a Café Nero, yelling into a phone, finishing my semester abroad in London.

Ian Geers (IG): My name is Ian Geers. I graduated from BU School of Theatre in 2014. I come from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and am currently on tour with The National Players.

Isabel Schnall (IS): And I’m Isabel Schnall, I’m from Manhattan, and I’m am also a rising senior Acting major at BU. I’ve just finished my semester studying Classical Acting at LAMDA in London!

How would you sum up columbinus in 50 words or less?  Who were your characters in columbinus?

IR: I played Faith. Faith is a stock character that stands for the naïve, goody-two-shoes, all-American girl. My favorite character to play, though, was Ruth, one of the mothers of a Columbine student, who appeared in Act Three.

columbinus as a play dissects the isolation and lack of communication felt by many high schoolers all across America. The playwrights explore how this isolation has repercussions in the community of Littleton, Colorado.

Photo by Peter Schnall

Photo by Peter Schnall

IG: I played Jock, who stands for all the sports kids at Columbine High School and then minor characters in Acts Two and Three.

[The play is] a community’s attempt to try and figure to what happened surrounding the events of April 20, 1999.

IS: I played Perfect, who stood for the “popular” girl stereotype in high school, and then in [Act Three], I played Kate Battan who was the lead detective on the Columbine case, as well as other minor characters.

colombinus is an artistic representation of real people trying to navigate life before, after, and during a traumatic event. It’s about communication, and lack thereof, and how people hate, love, fight, and deal with one another.

What was the biggest challenge about doing this play?

IR: the most difficult thing about this show was prioritizing the impact on the audience versus our own catharsis as actors.

IG: Putting your own actor ego aside and trying to do justice to these people. Because these are not just characters that you’re playing. Trying to tell all these stories accurately and honestly and not adding “actor polish” to anything.

IS: I agree. The biggest challenge was trying to really honor the words and thoughts that these people have had, in a way that doesn’t turn them into stage-characters or “types”. Also to not judge the people who I’m playing or who others are playing, and just listen to the stories being told.

What was the biggest reward?

IR: The biggest reward was the spark of interest that anyone who worked on or saw our show walked away with.

IG: The biggest reward was when audience members wanted to continue the conversation after the show, and when they were open, and willing to talk about how to prevent these things from happening and how to move on when tragedy strikes. When audiences want to have conversations like that instead of just praising the show.

IS: The biggest reward was the feeling that our show was important. Not that all theater isn’t important and without a voice, but that these stories deserved to be told and that people who came to see it really came to listen and ask questions.

What is your training at BU CFA?  How did it prepare you for these roles?  For other theatre projects or productions?

We all were (or still are) Acting Majors at BU SOT, and our major, as well as the entire school, is incredibly ensemble- and group-oriented. We learn very early that the best work is not done alone or with your own script, but on your feet and with other people.

Every class at BU talks about this, and how to come at the work in this way, and, because of that, we were all able to enter the room with the same vocabulary. We could trust the things that we had learned and really focus on each other. It was always about the other person. That’s a huge lesson that we learn in our training.

What kind of theatre do you love to perform?  To see?

IR: I like theater that makes me think or question. About the story first and foremost. And always with an element of surprise. Theater that’s not overshadowed by a concept or star-power, but about bodies in the space working together to get a message across.

IG: I like theater that has a social impulse behind it, and will hopefully charge its audience to action. And Shakespeare.

IS: I love seeing new plays and hearing brand new playwright voices. I also like theater that has a specific message in mind and really wants to speak to its audience. Theater that I’m still talking about after the train ride home.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Boston?

IR: My favorite things to do in Boston include sunbathing on the benches outside of 855 Commonwealth Ave, going to a Red Sox game, and spending the afternoon with friends in The Boston Common.

IG: Walking around the city and just taking in all the history, every neighborhood feels like you’ve entered into a different city. And Codzilla.

IS: Finding parts of the city I’ve never seen before. And being continuously on the search for a bagel that meets NY standards.

Why do you think that columbinus earned a Best Ensemble nomination?

Photo by Amanda Rowan

Photo by Amanda Rowan

IR: Never before colombinus had I truly existed in such an ensemble-based environment. Every voice was heard. Every person on that artistic team fully supported each other. We put our own goals aside for the greater goal. I miss that ensemble all the time so it doesn’t surprise me that that energy was palpable to others. It was the strongest and most generous group of actors with whom I have ever worked.

IG: I think the show is about ensemble. Our director talked very early on about how the play was not about the two boys, Dylan and Eric, but was about the community response to what happened. And so knowing the show was about the whole community, including the boys, we always went on as an ensemble. All eight of us were integral to the play, we couldn’t go on without one of us there. And that was inherent in everything about the show.

IS: Ensemble was the word on everyone’s tongue throughout the entire process. The whole message of the show is about learning to listen and communicate, and so I think we all began to practice what we preached and really listen to each other. We became like one body moving on stage, and a lot of the directing and design elements highlighted that as well. It was also always, despite the heavy nature of the play, a constant joy to be with everyone. The room was always filled with love.

If we all went on a road trip, where would we go?  What would you want to do?  What snacks are we packing?

IR: The original flavor goldfish and gummy worms. My goal before I die is to go to all 50 states and I’ve been to 25 already. Top states are Maine, Georgia, and Florida. I’ll pack the sunscreen . . . 

IG: Plantain chips and wasabi peas. I would want to go somewhere all three of us have never been. Maybe the south-west?

IS: Chocolate. And Ian will do all the driving because I’m a true New Yorker through and through and I don’t have my license. I’ll follow them around happily in the passenger seat, preferably to somewhere warm. I want to see the larger and most beautiful parts of the country, like Colorado.

What is one moment in columbinus that stood out to you?  What is one memory from the production process?

IR: The moment that pulled on my heart strings every single night was the moment when I got to reunite with my “daughter” (AKA Isabel) because I think that’s the truest moment where I’ve ever felt a sliver of what its like to love like a parent. To feel for a moment that those kids weren’t just children, that they were high schoolers and someone I could have known. Also, Ian gives great hugs too.

The first rehearsal during our read through, sitting at that table with such an incredible group of designers and collaborators. Seeing all our names labeled on our cups, and thinking, this is it. The lightness in the room despite how deeply passionate we were about such a serious and tragic story.

IG: I always loved when the audiences didn’t know what to do at the end of the second act. And then in the show, I think the entire third act was really beautiful.

The day in rehearsal when Clay asked us what we, as an ensemble, are championing as the message of our production. He talked about how the play asks several questions and gives several answers, so it was important for us as an ensemble to agree on what our cause was and what we all wanted to tackle as a production. And we agreed all together that communication was what we wanted to take on. It got everyone on the same page to tell the same story. 

IS: There was something always spellbinding about walking into the theater together from the back of the audience at the top of the third act, after a (usually) completely silent intermission, and seeing the “explosion” at the back of the set revealed. I got goose-bumps every night.

I would also say the first rehearsal we all had together. That first moment of sitting at a table with actors, designers, and collaborators whom I fiercely admired and respected and knowing that we were going to create something beautiful together. Also every rehearsal that our amazing stage-managing team brought in sweets to make hard moments a little easier.

Photo by Danny Kim

Photo by Danny Kim

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

IR: Stay tuned! I will be in four shows in the upcoming school year at BU, including my culminating senior thesis in the winter.

IG: I’ll be doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged], and Shrek: The Musical at Oklahoma Shakespearian Festival this summer.

IS: I’ll be spending the next five weeks in London and hopefully working with a theatre company there, and then a full BU season next year, including my thesis as well!

Do you have anything else that you wish to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

IR: Read the play. It’s worth your time.

IG: Thank you for recognizing the work that we did! Thank you.

IS: Thank you for seeing the same strength in our ensemble that we felt! And to surround yourself with people you love often and always. 

2014 Best Student Actor Nominee Interview: Evan Gambardella as Eric Harris/Freak in Boston University CFA's "columbinus"

Photo by Erik Rojas

Photo by Erik Rojas

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews. 

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

Evan Gambardella caught our eye in 2012 in Assassins but it was his columbinus that won our respect and admiration. His level of precision, execution, and commitment to his craft and his particular role as Eric Harris/Freak was astonishing and deeply rewarding. In his Interview, Evan discusses the audition and rehearsal process for columbinus, his research into the role, and even his extraordinary background and skills as a professional magician that has taken him all over the world!

Evan, can you introduce yourself to our readers?  Who are you?  What is your performing history? And how did you start performing?

I’m unsure if there was one particular moment that started it all, but I have been performing and training since I was age 3 or 4. I went to a performing arts preschool, and, growing up, I took lots of classes in dance, visual art, theatre, writing, and music. I auditioned and performed in professional theatre and film throughout middle school, and I studied theatre at a half-day arts magnet high school in New Haven. Most recently, I graduated from the Boston University School of Theatre (SoT) in 2014 with a BFA in Acting. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been afforded such fantastic opportunities.

Besides being an actor, I’m also a professional magician, balloon artist, and hypnotist. While I’ve been primarily based in the Northeast, I’ve taught and performed across Europe, Africa, and the continental United States.

Talk to us about your role in columbinus.  What was the audition and rehearsal process?  

The audition was super relaxed. Just me and Clay (the director) in a room. I did a monologue from Annie Baker’s The Aliens.

The rehearsal process was truly extraordinary. I have never been a part of a show where everyone involved, from the actors to the stage crafters and design team, were so caring and passionate about telling a story. We all were so supportive of one another, and picked each other up when the heaviness of the material was getting us down. There was so much love and enthusiasm for the work we were creating together—I think it showed.

What kind of research did you do in preparation?  

A lot. Everyone in the cast did extensive research on the people and events surrounding the shootings. Not only to inform character choices, but also for brain food. The details, while morbid, were gripping. We often suggested books and documentaries to each other, and were quick to send each other links to valuable online source material—there was so much info available to us. We also had Zachary Dyer on hand as our invaluable dramaturg; he answered our endless questions and bookmarked important information for us to read.

Harrison (Dylan Klebold/Loner) and I got together several times to watch a few documentaries, peruse source material, and videos of Eric and Dylan. We actually spent a day at a shooting range, which was a first for both of us—an experience I’ll never forget.

I did a lot of my own personal research. I created a playlist of Eric’s favorite, music which I listened to for several weeks, and to my surprise, started to like a lot towards the end. I also watched one particular video of Eric talking into a camera several dozen times. I’d watch it on repeat before I came into rehearsals for Act II.

What was the hardest part about the production?  What was the easiest?

What was easiest for me was connecting to Freak in Act I, before he becomes Eric in Act II. Yes, there were many differences, but much of Freak’s inner frustration and alienation felt quite familiar to my own high school experience. I felt like I had a comfortable amount of raw material to draw from and work with.

Photo by Daniel Kim for Boston University Photography

Photo by Daniel Kim for Boston University Photography

The Library scene into the suicide was the most difficult for me. I remember feeling this weight in my stomach every time we were about to do it. Holding a gun up to my friends was dreadful, as well as feeling this nauseous combination of wild rage, joy, power, and fear. The first time we ran through the scene in rehearsal it took a while for me to shake Eric out of my body. But during the run I had a routine that helped me unwind: Every time I went offstage after those scenes were over I ate a special dessert in my dressing room, and I took a shower during Act III to wash any residual Eric down the drain.

Of what production or project are you most proud?

columbinus. Without question. Not only was every aspect of the production incredibly specific, well-crafted, and handled with such care, but I could feel that everyone involved knew they were making a difference. I can’t tell you how rewarding it was to hear people leaving the theatre talking about the larger questions presented in the play, rather than: “I liked it” or “that actor was great.”

What are some of your role models and idols?  Why?

Some that come to mind right now: Mark Rylance. I saw Jerusalem three times in the front row. Also: Robin Williams (as a comedian and actor), and Danai Gurira (as a playwright and actress). That list is way longer, but I’ll keep it abridged for now.

Why do you think that columbinus was an important production for BU CFA to produce and perform?

This was the most important production I’ve ever been a part of. I think BU CFA already does, and will continue to do work that puts these difficult topics on stage. There have been countless mass shootings and attacks since Columbine; unfortunately, they show no signs of slowing down. columbinus is not preachy, and neither demonizes, nor glorifies Eric and Dylan. It’s so much more than just “that sad Columbine play.” It’s a question, or rather, a lot of questions; and none of them can be easily answered or answered at all! This play has so much heart, and I think audiences are hungry for it.

What are some roles on your “bucket list”?

Any roles I get cast in! I don’t really have a bucket list. As long as I get to act, I’m golden.

What was the training program like at BU CFA?  

The training was stellar. Lots of sweat, tears, and sleep deprivation, but it was well worth it. My acting improved, and continues to improve as a result. But more importantly, I became a better person. The training opened my heart, my mind, and my spirit in ways that I will forever be grateful for. It truly changed my life for the better.

Looking back I think I had a major breakthrough in almost every one of my classes; so I can’t say that one class was more beneficial than another. In hindsight, I often didn’t see how important a lesson was or fully understand it until many weeks or months later. Even a year out of school I’m beginning to understand my lessons in a whole new way, and I doubt the ‘eureka’ aftershocks will stop anytime soon.

As for advice for underclassmen: meditate. It was my saving grace after freshman year, and it helped me to see the important things.

What do you do in your spare time?  What do you do to relax?

Game of Thrones.

What is the funniest thing to happen to you onstage or during an audition?

I’ll pick a columbinus story. Tech was taking a very long time, as usual, and we were stuck at the end of Act II. This is after the Library scene when Dylan and Eric commit suicide. There was a fast cut to black as soon as the guns went to our heads, and the timing needed to be perfect. Since we were doing the scene again and again, it was getting everyone in the room into a funk. Our final time through, rather than putting the guns to our heads just before the blackout, Harrison and I went in for a kiss. The room erupted with surprise and laughter! It was such a necessary release for everyone in the room, and one of my fondest tech memories.

Do you plan to work in the Boston area?  Why or why not?

Absolutely! Right now I’m calling myself an artistic nomad and just going and living wherever I get work. No set living situation yet. At the moment I’m staying outside of New Haven, but I’d love any excuse to get back to the Bean. The theatre scene is great, and it appears to be expanding in really exciting ways. The city leadership also seems to support a growing artistic atmosphere—which is fantastic. Personally, though, the biggest draw for me is the community. Boston has a lot of cool people.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

There are a few projects in the works, but at the moment I’m working on Yale Rep’s world premiere of Elevada by Sheila Callaghan. We are running until May 16th!

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Yeah, actually! I’ve got two new websites that are now operational. Feel free to peruse! www.evangambardella.com and www.evanpresto.com.