Izad Etemadi, AKA Leila at the Toronto Festival of Clowns this week

Last spring I met a wondrous woman. Leila. Bearded, kind-hearted, head-scarfed and absolutely hilarious. She was also a man. 

Leila is the titular character in Love with Leila, a show that is part of the Toronto Festival of Clowns, opening tomorrow at Factory Theatre (see end of interview for details). Leila is a character created by  Izad Etemadi and developed for various shows, situations and media. She is Iranian, enthusiastic and totally lovable. So is he.

Izad met me at the Grenadier Cafe at the heart of High Park and we talked in the sunshine for an hour and a half about a great many things. 

This one is a long one, my friends, but well worth the read.

LR: When I was in Stratford a few weeks ago I saw Liza Balkan (director of Love with Leila) and she told me you were working on it again. I was very excited. I think it's important for the world to see this show!

IE: Yeah. I took a part time job at Saks Fifth Avenue and on Sunday I spent time with these very elegant, white ladies, reminiscing about the clothes from the 70s being back in style. They came back past me later and commented on the beauty of the orchid at the counter I was at. One responded with “Let the Muslims come in here, they will kill it for sure.” We had had such a nice interaction before. I didn’t know how to respond. I shut down. She went away then came back and said “No I’m not going to hide it, get the Muslims out of here!”

LR: No recognition that you could be Muslim? .... That's why people need to experience your character Leila.

IE: Someone approached me after a show recently to say they’d never seen a Muslim woman portrayed so positively. I said “That sucks.” That this is the only positive portrayal?!

LR: Love with Leila is about women, it’s about the Muslim experience. And you’re a man playing it. And that you are a man is not funny inside it. You’re just a great performer…..Leila is just this wonderful creature. It never occurred to me that clown was the way she would have come about. And now she is part of the Festival of Clowns.

IE: Yeah, she was a smaller part of another show in which I played a few characters. The headscarf originally was my version of a mask and mask work. The scarf was an easy way to show the character was a woman. As I developed her she became more of a real person than a character. I stopped thinking of her as a clown after that. The Toronto Festival of Clowns approached me thinking it would be a good fit.

I’ve never done a lot of bouffant work but  I feel a strong connection to it, it starts from an outrageous point but as it develops the crazy clown characters become real. They have the ability and the permission to do whatever they want.

LR: She’s such a real person, I hadn’t considered how she’d been born.

IE: I can’t believe I’m still doing her. It was just an idea that I thought wouldn’t go well…

LR: Tell me about Leila Parties.

IE: It's a new thing. She done bits at New Year's, Birthday, Christmas parties, then there's an incredible real-time talk back with Leila, and then eventually with me. A really safe and accessible setting.

In Calgary at a party this lady was bawling her eyes out. She said "My son just came out to us and we’re scared that’s it’s not going to be easy for him. This gave me hope for him. There are people out there doing brave things and maybe it’ll be ok for my son.” She was looking at me more than Leila, because she hadn’t seen a man dressed as a woman performing before.

LR: What a comfort. You may have to do this for a really long time. You could heal the world with this show.

IE: That’s my goal now….to see how far and how long we can do this. Through Leila I can do whatever I want and people will listen. If I said what she says, I might have rocks thrown at me or people would be very offended.

LR: What do you think it is about her that grants her permission to say whatever.

IE: I have no idea, but a lot of the feedback has been how innocent and naïve she is. She is really just trying hard to be good at everything, do the rights things, make the right choices, even though it never really ends up that way. She’s a good-hearted being…so when it does get outrageous it’s ok because the audiences know she’s a good person.

LR: I think we all feel like children, especially when things gets confusing or messy, but we think we can’t admit it. It’s special that you are offering people that chance to be submerged in that innocence through the show.

IE: A lot of things in the show came from me not understanding how this world works. For instance in the Christmas show Leila moves to Canada. She has a crush on a boy and accidentally throws a Christmas party and then freaks out about it …she has to learn what it’s all about. She learns all the material aspects of it. But then it's Christmas morning and there are no presents because she didn’t realize that Santa isn’t real. She goes to the mall to find him because that’s where he lives.

After that show many immigrant women said thank you because they’ve struggled to figure out this holiday.”

LR:  I grew up in an atheistic household and Christmas became a time for concentrated family togetherness and presents for people you loved. I liked it when I was younger but have started to feel a bit of futility to the whole production as I've gotten older. I never considered the desire of people new to Canada to be part of  it or understand it….Since I don’t have the religious attachment, it sometimes just seems like a big hassle.

IE: For me it was hard…My parents did the Christmas thing for a while but then they stopped.  I would make up presents to tell my schoolmates about because my parents weren’t really into it. I totally forgot about all that until I started doing the show last year. It’s a sensitive time for immigrants.”

LR: Funny…not funny ha-ha…

IE: Because you wouldn’t think of it, right? And maybe I’ll see what it’s like to be working at Saks at Christmas time and witness that. 

LR:  I know this job is fairly new, but it must be interesting in relation to Leila.

IE: I write everything down so I can remember. At some point I want to immerse her in the world. I find I’m saying things like “this is only $700" to shoppers in the store. I would never spend that, but “you’re saving $1400!!” What would happen to Leila if she became obsessed with luxury shopping….I see my coworkers buying into it….a shoe, skin cream, a bag. They’re spending their paycheques. I did buy skin cream. I waited until it was on sale and then we got a big discount. I wear shirts from Wal-Mart there and no one knows.”

LR: Nice. 

IE: There are more stories I want to do with Leila. We all have that insecurity, we don’t want to show it or admit we have it.

LR: I see that with the parents of our son’s classmates or friends, afraid to admit that their kid isn’t perfect. I hope my son feels good about not being good at everything. They are six, they have gaps in their abilities. That’s why they are children and not adults….if you can’t let your kid have a flaw or weakness, if you can’t admit your own, how can you really relate to another human being? This is a root of a lot of our problems world-wide I think.

IE: My nephew wasn’t walking at 14 months and people were criticizing.

LR: Yeah I remember that. It’s ridiculous. As long as they all get there at some point, who cares when it happens?

IE: When my nephew figured out how to walk they filmed it. He got up started walking and then started running, like “I’ve got this now.” 

LR: Do you have a significant other?

IE: No

LR: Have you had one during Leila's life?

IE: I had one while I was developing her,  and then he dumped me one day out of the blue. He ran back inside the closet….there was no explanation. I was working on Leila and I didn’t know how to finish the show…and I didn’t know how to deal the break up, everything had been going well….then one day I was hopped up on coffee and wrote the end of the show based on the experience. So, no significant other….I don’t even know if I’ve really tried since then.  I don’t know if I have the time right now…I don’t even think I want to right now.

A lot of Leila’s influences have been because I’ve been single. The constant flirting. The scenarios we make up in our heads.

LR: She is a flirt, yeah.

IE: She is but then she gets scared when someone responds.

LR: I think a lot of women would relate to that….That’s why some women get called a tease. We try flirting and then when someone calls us on it we back away and say “oh no I was just seeing if I could”. I remember those days. It was shocking if a man responded to my lame attempts. Run for the hills!

IE: I was working with someone on branding the show and we found our audiences are 80% women. It’s not really an LGBT show.  We can look at it that way because I am gay and playing a woman, but it’s really a show for ladies.

LR: How do men respond to the show? As passionate?

IE: In Port Hope I did the Christmas show with a lot of older, stern men in the audience and they were not laughing but half an hour in they just opened right up and pulled me on their laps, flirting with me. I’ve found with the older men it takes a little longer but then it’s great. Sometimes I’m everything they’re scared of. A gay Iranian boy dressed as a woman. 

LR:  Have you taken the show to the States?

IE: They were my best audience. Sometimes people hold back, especially Canadian audiences, because they don’t want to offend or seem racist by laughing at some of the things Leila says. But the Americans don’t give a shit about that. They just start laughing their heads off. The show may be more relevant in the States, because the racism is more open there.”

LR: That may be why Canadian audiences are more tentative and try to be polite. The country’s approach to multi-culturalism at least tries to be about inclusivity and sensitivity. We’re not always successful, but it’s definitely different than in America. I was just visiting Washington and talking with a lot of Bosnian-Muslim Americans. They had lots of questions about Canada and Canadian politics and multiculturalism. It may seem a subtle difference to us in Canada, but to the people I was talking to anyway, the difference is marked.

I remember one thing we talked about when we met last year was auditioning for film and television roles. It must be so interesting as an actor in film and television where you get slotted in ‘culturally’.

IE: Yes I just was cast as "East Indian ensemble". I got sent to a casting for Caribbean role. Mainly I go out for Arabic. Directors ask me to just talk in Arabic, not from a script, like I will just know it. Like all the Middle Eastern languages are the same. 

LR: I find it fascinating the way acting works, especially film and television. The “hit” or the casting descriptions. Like “young ethnic female”. What does that mean? I feel like it exists less in contemporary dance, but is that true? Our conversation last year about casting has made me think about how I want to cast my next project.  What is the community of artists that I am really a part of?  That’s what it should look like.

IE: Because that’s what it really looks like. When I performed in Winnipeg last year the audiences were not into it.  It was like they thought the show would be a history of Iran…

L That’s a good possibility for Leila. Leila does the History of Iran!

IE: Ha…But what I noticed in Winnipeg is that the shows that did really well were all solo white men shows….They weren’t really bringing any new stories to the table. I left Winnipeg quite discouraged. I threw my hijab off and said I’d never put it on again! But then I went to Halifax and it was different.”

LR: Really clever audiences there. They seem to like the unexpected. You have to get to St. John’s. They will give Leila back as much as she gives there. And they probably would be an audience not as familiar with Iranian culture.

IE: Those are my favourite audiences…. Those encounters are great because Leila is such a different view. Not just a bellydancer, a terrorist or a poor immigrant, which are so often the Middle Eastern roles.

I heard about a new show of Nancy Drew where they cast a Persian actress as Nancy and it got cancelled because it was too “female heavy”.

LR: But we can have 14 television series versions of Sherlock Holmes…. Although they did hire Lucy Liu as Dr. Watson on one. She’s Asian and a woman.  I wonder how that casting went. Did they know they wanted her? Or did she walk in and change their minds? I like either of those possibilities.

IE: Yeah. When I was in New York recently I saw a few Broadway shows and I was really encouraged at some of the diversity I was seeing in the casts and the stories. 

LR: Another reason why Leila is so great is because she tells a story of choosing to wear the headscarf. 

IE: I have a cabaret show for her in which she will take off the headscarf and wear a wig to experience what that’s like….I have my own questions about the headscarf and I wonder if this show is supporting something that’s maybe not great in the world? I want to talk about it a bit more, because I want to understand that. It would be interesting to have a conversation about it on stage.

LR: The headscarf is a symbol of the mysterious other. And it’s not just with Muslims…

IE: There are a lot of  really fashionable Muslim women who always look fabulous. There are women who do cosplay with their headscarves. There’s one woman who becomes Princess Leila, one did Alice in Wonderland.

LR: Self-expression rather than oppression. One of my favourite parts of Love with Leila --I often try to recreate it for people but not very well -- is when Leila explains the different headscarves by the song Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes. I actually think they should teach that in schools in Toronto so kids can understand each other’s cultures!

IE: Yes…I used to do that part differently but it changed because I wanted to present it like: this is how they teach us about headscarves in school. My stage manager suggested the song. I didn’t know the song so they taught it to me and then I changed it.

LR: That is the perfect depiction of Leila’s interest in Eastern and Western culture.

IE: That’s the part of the show is where I know what my audience is going to be like. I know how much work I have to put in for the rest….Whether they will go in for the whole experience or whether it’s about the emotion. It keeps me really present in the show..…I was in a kids show once where half-way through I’d wake up and realize I didn’t really know how I got to that point. I was on autopilot. I structured this show so that I couldn’t ever stop being present.

LR: It’s so much more satisfying  as a performer to be present even if it takes so much more energy. And more satisfying for the audience, even if they don’t know why.

IE: Liza Balkan (director of Love with Leila) said about my writing to make sure I didn’t fall into the habit of telling instead of showing. 

LR: Leila definitely shows as she tells. Her heart is fully on her sleeve all the time. That’s why we can’t help but love her.

IE: The reason I wrote Love with Leila and have kept doing it is to accept who I am, where I am, all the time, regardless.


Experience Leila. You will be so glad you did.

Toronto Festival of Clowns
June 8-12th, 2016 at Factory Theatre

Love with Leila is appearing in the Studio Theatre
Wednesday June 8th, 8:45pm
Saturday June 11th, 4:15pm
Sunday June 12th, 7:15pm
All tickets are $16.50 and are available online and at the Factory Theatre box office.


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