BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Maboud Ebrahimzadeh

Elliot Lanes, Sep. 20, 2018

Today’s subject Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is one of the area’s most versatile actors. Currently, you can see him in action in the very unique Small Mouth Sounds at Round House Theatre through September 23rd. The word unique, in this case, is meant as a compliment, but you’ll have to see the show for yourself to understand why.

Maboud’s area stage credits run the gamut from light comedies such as The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife at Theater J and The Book of Will at Round House Theatre, to serious dramas such as The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at Forum Theatre and The Price at Arena Stage. On the classical side Maboud performed in Timon of Athens and Julius Caesar at Folger Theatre. Other area credits include The Invisible Hand at Olney Theatre Center; Mockingbird at Kennedy Center; Water by the Spoonful and Edgar & Annabel at Studio Theatre; and The Pillowman, Bobrauschenbergamerica, and Scorched at the unfortunately recently closed Forum Theatre.

Other regional credits include Murder on the Orient Express at Hartford Stage; Disgraced and Murder on the Orient Express at McCarter Theatre; Disgraced at Milwaukee Rep; The Invisible Hand [Barrymore Award for Outstanding Lead Actor] at Theatre Exile; The Liar at Gulfshore Playhouse; and The Container at Center Stage.

You might have also seen him on the small and big screens in Jessica Jones, Imperium, and Sally Pacholok.

Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is one of those actors whose performances always leave a lasting impression in the best possible way. Maybe that’s why he is so in demand. Don’t take my word for it though, see for yourself. Check out Maboud and a really wonderful ensemble of actors in Small Mouth Sounds at Round House Theatre for a truly spiritual theatrical experience.

Are you a native Washingtonian?

I was born in Iran, but have lived most of my life in the Washington Metro area so I consider myself a fairly native Washingtonian. When asked where I’m from, I say DC if that makes any difference. Do I get points? Is this a points game? Am I winning?

How did you get interested in performing?

It was by accident, really. I was studying Medicine at Howard University in Washington, DC and then I transferred to Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland to reassess my course of studies. I took an acting class on a lark because I thought it would be an easy A… and it was. I was immediately hooked. You can blame [Washington Stage Guild Artistic Director] Bill Largess for that.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Maboud Ebrahimzadeh
An early career photo of Maboud Ebrahimzadeh in the Howard Community College Outback production of Picasso at The Lapin Agile. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Where did you receive your training?

Once I decided to continue studying Theatre and Film, I primarily took courses at Howard Community College and attended a few workshops outside of school. Other than that, I started working immediately and by some stroke of good fortune I haven’t really stopped long enough to get more formalized training. Over the years, I’ve studied and read books on different techniques, philosophies, and approaches toward acting to add more tools to my toolbox. So now I’ve got my hammer, a bigger hammer, and a screwdriver too!

What was your first professional acting job and what do you remember about that particular opening night???

My first professional gig was at RepStage in Columbia, Maryland in Kasi Campbell’s production of Hamlet. I played a sailor, a soldier, a servant, and… well, any character whose name started with an ‘S’. I was there just trying to absorb as much as I could from all these amazing actors. Right before the big Hamlet and Laertes duel at the end of the play, I was supposed to enter behind Claudius carrying about fourteen champagne flutes on a small silver serving dish and distribute them silently… on a raked stage. Just before the cue light goes off, Nigel Reed, our Claudius, turns to me and says, “You’re doing great, but don’t forget, it’s very important…More cowbell.” And without a moment to spare, he enters, and I follow him on stage trembling, trying desperately to stifle laughter as the champagne flutes vibrate and rattle in a symphony of glass for what felt like an eternity. Somehow, I didn’t drop a single one… that night.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Maboud Ebrahimzadeh
L-R Katie DeBuys, Michael Glenn, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, James Whalen, Andrea Harris Smith, and Beth Hylton in Round House Theatre’s production of Small Mouth Sounds. Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

Can you please tell us a little something about Small Mouth Sounds and your character?

Absolutely. Small Mouth Sounds is an unconventional play. It’s probably unlike anything most people have seen. It takes place at a silent retreat, a la the Omega Institute in New York. Six very different characters watch and listen to an unseen guru as he leads them through their week-long silent adventure.

I play a semi-famous (or infamous) Yoga Instructor, Rodney, who, like the rest of the attendees, has come to this retreat with the hope of fixing something broken within himself.

Small Mouth Sounds is not your first time working at Round House Theatre. Can you please talk about your past experiences working there and what makes it such a great place to work for an actor?

I’ve worked at Round House Theatre on two other occasions, first in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (dir. Jeremy Skidmore) and The Book of Will (dir. Ryan Rilette). I am also a Resident Artist there for the next two seasons, meaning you’ll be seeing more of me, and I’ll be fulfilling some other artistic duties on the company side of things.

Artistic Director Ryan Rilette has made large strides in making Round House a welcome place for many actors. His dedication to cultivating and using local talent, producing new work, along with his general demeanor and attitude, creates an atmosphere of safety and growth for artists. The staff is also immensely supportive of the artists that work there. I’ve felt at home throughout my time with them and that’s a pretty great feeling.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Maboud Ebrahimzadeh
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and Hal Linden in Arena Stage’s production of The Price. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

You recently appeared at Arena Stage in The Price opposite Hal Linden. What was it like sharing the stage with him?

Hal Linden. What a guy! He’s fantastic. He was just a damn treat to work with. It’s funny- here’s this guy who’s been in the business for decades, successful as they come, smart as a whip, full of humor and mirth, a great big heart, and as grateful and down to earth as a person can be. At first, I was worried I’d be getting that stereotypical “you’re just a young buck, so listen to me” sort of treatment you’d expect from some other folks with his level of experience. And yet, there wasn’t a day where he didn’t treat me like a contemporary, an equal. There was a massive amount of mutual trust and respect between us on stage. We became fast, good friends and we still keep in touch. He’s a rare breed. I only hope we get to play together again in something.

You worked at the unfortunately recently closed Forum Theatre on many productions. Smaller companies, in general, have a hard time surviving due to budgetary constraints and other reasons as well. Why is it important that we don’t let smaller theatre companies just wither and close?

If you’ll pardon the gestation-stage manifesto-

Education. Specifically, the education of young and emerging artists, the education of audiences, and the education of American Theatre.

I am of the mind that smaller theatre companies are bite-sized institutions of learning, and I say that with love and respect. I came up through college theatre, to community theatre, to small professional theatres, to large regional houses with 1,500 seats.

Here’s a thought or two for each, though there are many more.

Education for the artists- smaller theatre companies are where the artists can cut their teeth. Actors, designers, writers, directors… for those that didn’t go through undergrad straight into graduate school and wind up on the sweet end of the employment lollipop, small theatre companies are the places we were offered opportunities to hone our craft, to find our voices, to learn from others and each other. It’s impossible to deny the opportunities for growth and development smaller theatre companies offer for artists. But they are more than just stepping stones for artists.

Education for the audience- smaller theatre companies by their very nature have a quality of boldness to them. Often, they take risks because they can afford to and because they can’t afford not to. It’s where they teach audiences that it’s perfectly acceptable to have inclusive non-traditional casting and hiring. It’s no secret that some larger theatres have passed the buck on inclusivity by saying things like “our audiences aren’t ready to accept a person of color in that role”. Surely showing them more of the same isn’t going to change that, is it? Small theatre companies can move the needle and those that do deserve more credit than they get.

Education for American Theatre- smaller theatre companies introduce under-represented voices to the American Theatre. They help change the landscape for artists and audiences alike. Not every playwright comes out with a Pulitzer-winning play on their first try. Not all playwrights want to talk about simple topics that play well to all audiences. Some want to get in the muck and roll in with an audience. Not every play desperately needs to go to Broadway. Some plays affect change and evoke empathy more potent in a ninety-seat house. Those same writers and artists are shaping the landscape, even if in small increments.

I don’t know if it is our responsibility to keep small companies afloat. Sometimes a company sets on out a mission, and if by some good fortune they feel they’ve reached their limit with that mission, then they face a decision, call it a day and close up, or change the mission. Some companies fold due to poor management, financial burdens, or lack of leadership. It is a shame to see them go sometimes.

So why is it important that we don’t let smaller theatre companies just wither and close? Unless we’re content doing the same 36 plays for the next few millennia, mainly, because we can’t afford to. For the same reasons we can’t afford to not invest in education.

After Small Mouth Sounds closes what does the rest of the 18/19 season hold in store for you?

Let’s see, for the 2018-19 season, I’ve got King John at Folger Theatre, Oil at Olney Theatre Center, and I’ll be back at Round House Theatre for Oslo as well. There’s also some film work, and some other irons in the fire, but that’s what I can safely say for now.

Special thanks to Round House Theatre’s Associate Director of Marketing and Communications Sarah Randall for her assistance in coordinating this interview. Interview with Maboud Ebrahimzadeh

Men At Some Time Are Masters of Their Fates: Interview with Maboud Ebrahimzadeh on THE INVISIBLE HAND

Theatre Exile’s production of THE INVISIBLE HAND features an all-star creative team, including director Matt Pfieffer and actors Ian Peakes as Nick Bright, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Bashir, and Anthony Mustafa Adair as Dar. Henrik Eger conducted interviews with all four. In this interview, we hear Maboud Ebrahimzadeh’s thoughts on this provocative new work.  [Studio X, 1340 S. 13th Street] May 12-June 5, 2016;


Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (front) with Ian Merrill Peakes in THE INVISIBLE HAND. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Henrik Eger: What was your first response reading the script of The Invisible Hand?

Maboud Ebrahimzadeh: I thought it was brilliant. I had read Disgraced a few years back and was enthralled by Akhtar’s specificity, though the play itself left a lot of questions unanswered for me. And while it was a step forward in the diversity and representation of characters of color conversation, it didn’t quite do it for me. The Invisible Hand seems to take many of the same questions and handle them with the grace and specificity that Akhtar is becoming known for and surpass my expectations. I think it answers many of the questions that were left unanswered in Disgraced and further examines the perceptions we in the US have about war-torn regions like the one in The Invisible Hand and the circumstances that have led to the actions in the play.

Henrik: What did you bring to this challenging play as an actor?

Maboud: My family and I emigrated from Iran just after the revolution [after a few years in Germany, his family moved to the U.S.]. I think one of the wonderful bits of nuance I was able to mine and merge between myself and the character was the sense of belonging, or the lack thereof.

Bashir is a deeply complex character and, as I see it, is one of the millions of people caught between cultures. As an Iranian growing up mostly in the United States, I often had trouble understanding my own identity. I was trying to assimilate into a culture and society that wouldn’t have me, and from a place where, if I were to return, would see me as an outsider as well. This is not a particularly unique situation but a deeply complex one that breeds a lot of self-doubt.

Bashir’s journey also includes a tumultuous family life that has also added to the stress of being between two worlds and of none. So having no feeling of safety, acceptance, or home can draw a person down some dark paths that one wouldn’t normally expect.

Professionally, I’ve been granted a wonderful series of opportunities which let me explore darker parts of myself without the risk normally involved in doing so. I think it requires a deep understanding and fearlessness to surprise yourself when staring down into that abyss and facing the horrible actions that a story might require of you, and I’ve had a series of directors who don’t shy away from it and provide encouragement to find those hard to reach places where morality is about as clear as a penny in a muck filled pond. And when I do, they don’t judge me for it. I’ve been very lucky.

Henrik: Going into the rehearsal process, what were the toughest parts for you?

Maboud: So much of Bashir is right there in the text. Akhtar has done a marvelous job of dropping delicious moments that tear a person in two in plain sight and still giving enough room to the actor to fill in those gaps. Reconciling two varying motives, forcing a person’s hand, these kinds of moments are especially difficult because he doesn’t let you choose one or the other. He just makes you hang there in uncertainty. And it’s fantastic.

Staying true to those moments where the text doesn’t allow you to move one way or another but makes you want to, that translates to an audience and with the help of Matt Pfeiffer, we were able to stand on that knife’s edge and let them take the journey with us. To show the audience what a character is feeling is pretty easy, but to make the audience feel it too, that’s a bit more difficult.

With this play, it’s incredibly important to maintain the ambiguity and difficulty in these moments and it presented a great and fun challenge for us.

Henrik: What did you bring to a play in which cultures, economies, religions, worldviews, and personalities clash in terms of your own cultural, economic, religious, ideological, and/or behavioral background? 

Maboud: Bashir is one of those special cases where there was a fair bit of overlap, specifically, in the personal and cultural life side of things. One thing that strikes me is the history presented in the play in regards to Bretton Woods [“the landmark system for monetary and exchange rate management established in 1944, developed at the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference held in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire”] and an argument that Bashir makes in the play, that “all those years the world was looking up to you—my parents’ generation, they thought America was the greatest place on the planet . website link. .” I found this quite intriguing and it made me wonder at times about the unintended consequences of billing America as “the land of opportunity.”

People came to the US in search of a better life, often from broken places. It gave people a sense of hope that there was something better for them somewhere else. And in some ways, it was a total con. Modern America, for as much as I love it, doesn’t hold up the same promise it once offered. And this notion has bred a fair amount of resentment, which I think Bashir associates with—[leading to] a type of selfishness in people to leave their homes, instead of bettering their home countries.

Henrik: Looking back, what are some of the most rewarding parts of the play for you now?

Maboud: I’m going to broaden this a bit and say that beyond the reward of diving headlong into this play, the opportunity to work with the folks on this production was the most rewarding thing. The level of joy, vigor, intelligence, and passion that Matt Pfeiffer, Ian Peakes, Paul Nicholas, Anthony Adair, the design team, and the production crew brought into the room made for an amazing experience. This was a great time.

Henrik: What surprised you about the play and/or your own evolution during the rehearsal process and the performances?

Maboud: Without giving too much away, to the point that Ian Peakes, who plays Nick Bright, alluded to [in a talkback session, where Peakes said that he, as an American captive in Pakistan, and his tough captor, became close buddies, almost straight lovers], there was a huge revelation in the relationship between Bashir and Nick. I think it surprised both of us. We found so much love, loyalty, honesty, banter, and friendship in moments where you’d least expect. Much of the credit goes to Matt Pfeiffer for letting us play together and help find these moments where we can connect. It just added so much to the story.

Henrik: Do you have a sense that audiences and theatre critics relate to the complexity of this play, or do you have a sense that some folks might label you and the other Pakistanis as either one-dimensional terrorists and Nick Bright as the only real human being in the play?

Maboud: I think one of the things that Akhtar does so well is to bring that specific idea very much into focus. I like to give audiences credit and say they wouldn’t reduce the character to a one-dimensional terrorist. Instead, it forces us to look at the role we play as American’s in radicalization.

Romeo and Juliet, among other things is about the radicalization of teenagers and that was written 400 hundred years ago. So it’s not new really. What I think Akhtar does is expose the reality of the role America, and more specifically Globalization and Capitalism, have played in the radicalization of people around the world. And it goes way beyond simple religious ideology.

More blood has been spilled in the name of religion than for any other cause in the world, but money is definitely closing that gap. World economics has a lot to do with the disenfranchisement we see in people around the world, here in the US as well. People are willing to go to greater and greater extremes to make themselves heard and sometimes, it’s not a peaceful extreme.

The play presents us with a very real world where corruption is rampant in government—the US is not immune, and it would be naive to think it so. I think that most audiences see that and with any luck will engage more with their civic leaders and begin to ask for transparency in the decisions that affect the lives of millions at home, and around the world.

Henrik: Given the heated pre-election climate in the U.S., what effect do you think this play could have on U.S. voters? 

Maboud: In all likelihood, there will be a small minority of audience members who will feel that no Pakistanis or Muslims can be trusted, but chances are they felt that before they came into the theatre. If one comes in with a blank slate, I don’t think the play will sway minds in that direction. However it will challenge the notions audiences may have about the role of Globalization, Capitalism, and America have had in the world. It may not be a pleasurable challenge but one that must be faced. As for whether or not it will affect voters, hopefully, it’ll lead to a serious demand for transparency and a dispassionate session of self-evaluation.

Henrik: What is the invisible hand that drives you in your life as an actor and a mensch?

Maboud: I think there’s quite a balancing act happening behind the curtain—success, artistic fulfillment, happiness, bills. Without sounding trite, I think I’ve been given an opportunity to fight the good fight, hearts and minds type stuff, and as difficult as it may be sometimes, it’s one I relish. I think humanity is flawed, and I think the answer to much of our problems is in ourselves:

“Men at some time are masters of their fates:/ The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” [Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (I, ii)]

I think the first line of that gets overlooked quite a lot, and I think it’s just as important as the idea it precedes. When we have the opportunity to make a difference, to take hold of fate, it’s a prospect that must be considered.

Henrik: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Maboud: Thank you. I think I’ve gone on quite enough.