Erum Khan is a film and theatre maker. Current and recent projects include: Writer and performer for Noor (The Aga Khan Museum/ Generous Friend); creator and performer for Becoming (Rhubarb Festival & Ottawa Fringe Festival, 2018); assistant director for Acha Bacha (Theatre Passe Muraille/ Buddies); production assistant and collaborator for 7th Cousins; performer and assistant director for Concord Floral (The Theatre Centre, Canadian Stage, and The PuSh International Performance Festival); and filmmaker for Banjaare ka ghar (Toronto Independent Film Festival, 2016). She was part of the 2017/18 Emerging Creators Unit at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Recently, she was the Youth Coordinator for the Rendezvous With Madness Festival.
What draws you to theater?
It’s an interesting question, because I feel like it’s the question I am [still] asking myself. Theater was never a plan for me. I was always focused and interested in film and film making. It was kind of by chance when I did a youth theater program when I was seventeen – now, I am twenty-four –, and that led to one thing after another, and suddenly I was immersed into a whole new world. [Theater] is not a whole different medium, but it is a whole different way of navigating the vocabulary of performance. “What is even theater?” is something I am trying to understand. But I guess the aliveness and collaboration, and creating something… which isn’t the way I thought about theater. A lot of the theater I see is very third walled, and you have a script, and the actors are performing [etc.]. In the last few years, I have expanded my perception and knowledge of what performance is, and pushed those boundaries of those distinctions, [using] multimedia, and [having] this live experience.
I am interested in styles of engaging the humans in the room – not in a way that is “audience participation” – but something that feels like we are here together, and what does this mean right now, how are we all going to be in this? So, there is something about [theater] that is very magical, but also forces you to be critical.
But I feel frustrated by the power structures in the theater, and the politics within it, and who gets opportunities, and who is constantly being platformed, and acknowledged [in a successful way]. Noor [for example] was because I had a mentor – Erin Brubacher – whose been mentoring me since I was seventeen, and that relationship shifted into a friendship and collaboration. And now, [Noor] is over, and not like suddenly a lot of doors have opened. Now, I have to figure out by myself what I want to do next.
But Noor’s had a great reception from the Canadian media, and people have been raving about how non-traditional it has been within the Canadian theater scene. You don’t think that success has given you a jump off point into something else?
Absolutely, as a personal sense of doing something that feels so different, and it being received as something exciting because of that difference, [Noor has]. It is so interesting though because that project was at the Aga Khan and the majority of the audience – which I am so happy about! – was so diverse – not just in terms of age, ethnicity, and culturally lived experiences, but institutionally, where people who aren’t theater goers were going [to watch Noor]. They were museum goers, or people within [non-theater] communities in Toronto who had heard about it. In the Toronto [theater scene], I find that the majority is “theater for theater” [in the case of both makers and audiences].
From whatever I know about you, you seem to thrive in a very collaborative space, whether film or theater. Do you ever see yourself going beyond collaboration; that is, doing something just by yourself?
I mean, it’s impossible to do anything by yourself. I think collaboration is interesting to me because it’s a loose word the way it’s thrown around. Because even in collaboration, there is still a certain hierarchy almost? In Noor, everyone was offering their own thing. And that’s exciting, because you are doing something that other people are doing, and then those collaborators bring other people into a room. Because how things are made shape how things are made – that’s the ideology I have been raised on.
You have embodied both roles of the creator and the performer, sometimes at the same time, like in the case of Noor. How has the relationship between those two roles been for you personally?
It’s been surprisingly organic, which is not the case how I thought it would go. Noor, for instance, was written in so many iterations. We had a reading at Rhubarb Festival, and I felt that it was failure for me. And it was in that moment, I realized how much context matters. When we were at Aga Khan two days before Rhubarb, everything just made sense, [even] the open rehearsals. [At Rhubarb], it wasn’t well received. I got a lot of… not great feedback, and I personally didn’t feel happy. I liked the writing, but I realized that I was forcing a thing that I had started writing years ago, and I wasn’t at that head space anymore. And I was trying to work [Noor] as a narrative, or something, and I was forcing this confined structure of staging… For me, that [moment after the reading at Rhubarb] was a failure, and I am so glad it was. [Noor] got to a place I felt very excited about. I rewrote it just before we started our summer rehearsals. So, [the current version of Noor] didn’t have time to be cooked; [it was] so fresh, so happening.
So then, when I [thought] of myself as a performer, I didn’t feel as precious about it, because [Noor] was so new. And I had just performed this other solo show at the Emerging Creators’ Unit at Buddies for Bad Times Theater, and that process was really vital to where I am now. For Noor, as a performer, it made sense as a character because it’s very much me. I mean, it’s not me, but it’s me. And no one was really hitting it [like me], and perhaps that’s why it wasn’t working [earlier]. I think that’s who I am as an artist. I think I am the kind of performer where I am kind of playing me. I am interested in performing myself, and I think I learnt that, and I find that more comfortable than playing a character… I don’t think I can be an actor.
You assistant directed Bilal Baig’s Acha Bacha, and the representation of queer sexuality in Baig’s play is starkly different than the representation in Noor. Did you feel pressured to emphasize queer sexuality on stage, not just because of the representation in Acha Bacha, but also because of the representation of queer sexuality generally in Canadian theater? [For context: In the initial reading of Noor at Rhubarb, queer sexuality was hinted at, while at Aga Khan, the same queer sexuality was portrayed in front of the audience. In Baig’s play, the representation is very overt, while in Noor, the representation is overt but more muted and organic].
This is a big problem. This is why I feel very complicated in queer spaces – especially queer theater spaces – because sexuality is so overtly present. There is a power to that, and it’s important, and it’s also not great, because of navigating all the nuances in different people. So, I went in thinking [Noor] is not something the Toronto theater community is going to be interested in. [I heard it being said in our rehearsal room], “oh, it’s PG.” And, I don’t know what that means, but it’s frustrating.
If you look at the audiences who are coming into Noor, it’s [South Asian] uncles and aunties, and visibly queer people. I mean, it was bringing in everyone, and I felt like everyone was able to identify with something they could hold on to.
But do you have to create for the audience?
One of the things I had trouble with in the last few months of development is that I felt I wasn’t doing the “queer thing” enough. Because, the Noor and Aubrey relationship… you could say it’s a really good friendship. I didn’t want anyone to be like, “Such good friends!” I wanted it to be clear, but I didn’t want [the queer relationship] to be the thing. Because, the relationship is just an element that happens to be there. They happen to be queer.
So, definitely, I was writing it for my family. I wanted them to see something that feels authentic and honest to the world I have seen. I also did think about what it meant in the context of Aga Khan, and the kind of audiences that were coming in. I wanted [Noor] to be a driving force in a positive way. What does it mean to bring people to see something they might normally not have gone to, because of the queerness? Maybe, I am saying this now, but you can’t write for the audience. The writing is not going to come.
But I think it was the first time I believed in my work. I feel like it’s a real thing – which is rare – and I hope [the feeling] stays with me.
This interview was conducted in person on 2nd November 2018 at the Mississauga Art Gallery. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Photos (of Erum Khan, and Noor cast): Phillipa Croft.