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Howie Stier: Now, though they’re not in a professional drama program to be actors—this is sort of an extracurricular program.
Peter Friedrich: Yeah, it’s sort of—I sort of shoehorn it in any class that I can. And I have some who are convinced that this is what they want to do with the rest of their lives. But for us in the meantime, it’s just…it’s just a way of self-expressing, standing out from the crowd, taking a stand and really learning something about, and teaching something to other people about, the human experience.
Howie Stier: Now, in that process, you had said that they quickly developed the mannerisms and characteristics of actors here in Los Angeles.
Peter Friedrich: Oh, every one of them, yeah. Yeah.
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Peter Friedrich: Well, it was all fine at first, and then about a month before the big show, when they know they’re on stage, every stereotype of every actor you’ve seen in Los Angeles just manifested itself in every single student. You know, you had the tough guy; and the tortured intellectual one; you know, the flirty one; the complainer … I don’t know … the “network,” super-hip guy; gosh, what else is there? They’re actually all described in “An Actor Prepares.” And it was true then, it was true here in L.A., and it’s definitely true in Iraq: There is something about the pressure of being onstage in front of everybody that releases these same character types. It’s very funny.
Howie Stier: You decided to put on a production of “Macbeth.” How did that go?
Peter Friedrich: It was going great until about that time—a month before production—and then it just fell apart like a bad cookie.
Howie Stier: So how did you resolve it? How did you make the show go on?
Peter Friedrich: You know, I don’t know. We were definitely, maybe, not going to have a show at all; I had someone say to me, ‘Well, you know, I just can’t do the show anymore because I’m not playing Macbeth.’ And I said, ‘You’re playing Macduff! It’s a fantastic, fantastic role; I actually like it better than Macbeth!’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s OK; I mean, let me know if you want me to play Macbeth; I’ve had enough.’ You know, at this point, everyone’s memorized lines and that sort of thing, but there is no changing anybody’s mind about that. So finally, I had to throw a Hail Mary and convert everything to an L.A.-style showcase, where we just did scenes from different plays that were tailored to each actor’s strengths.
Howie Stier: So in L.A., that’s sort of professionally looked down on, the showcase—that I constantly get invited to by writers and actors, ‘come see my showcase’; it’s not ideal …
Peter Friedrich: I know, I know. I get—my friends tell me I brought, like, the worst we have to offer to Iraq. But [laughs], you know, they showcased the first production.
Howie Stier: But how did it go over?
Peter Friedrich: It was fantastic. People were crying in the audience; there were parents coming up from Baghdad who didn’t speak a word of English, and through a student who spoke English said that was the proudest they’d ever been …
Howie Stier: I’ve got to interrupt you right there; we have to explain to the audience where your university is.
Peter Friedrich: Right. It’s in Sulaimani; it’s in the northern, Kurdish part of Iraq. It’s a pretty quiet, spread-out, dusty town.
Howie Stier: How far away from Baghdad?
Peter Friedrich: One hundred fifty miles northwest.
Howie Stier: And 50 miles from the Iranian border?
Peter Friedrich: Yeah. That’s about right.
Howie Stier: So you have families coming up. … This was a big production? You had a big theater?
Peter Friedrich:Yeah, a 600-seat theater.
Howie Stier: Tell us about that theater.
Peter Friedrich: You know, I don’t know much; all I know is that it had everything you needed, and for the most part it was sitting empty. And that’s a really strange phenomenon up there right now. I mean, there’s a lot of—there’s a lot of tension; there’s a lot of politics and intrigue; not outright violence as there is, obviously, as we all know, in other parts of the country. But there’s a lot of tension between different parties and different groups, and when it comes to using a big theater space, people are afraid to loan it to the wrong person. So I had to drink a lot of tea and spend a lot of time with a lot of Ministry of Culture folks, and eventually they let us use it. And now it’s great, because nothing bad happened, so now we’re off to the races. We’ve got a theater space; we’re good to go next year.
Howie Stier: So you’re ready for another production. Are you going to have more students in the program next year?
Peter Friedrich: Oh, yeah [laughs]. Yeah, we have an army at this point, since we did that play.
Howie Stier: So if you could explain that—you started out with a handful of students …
Peter Friedrich: Yeah, like 10 committed to the show, I think I had, maybe … we do other things; we have an improv troupe; we have filmmakers; we have a huge elocution contest ... and there’s also a lot of other volunteer faculty that help with all of this stuff. But the Shakespeare stole the show of the whole year, which is amazing.
Howie Stier: What was it like to be there in an Iraqi theater—a place that had never seen a Western theatrical performance before; a lot of the audience members did not speak English, and the performance was in English … ?
Peter Friedrich: Yeah. I wish I could have turned a camera on the audience the whole time. I’m a moron for not doing that; I really should have done that. But I can tell you, I don’t know which is better—to see Shakespeare for the first time, or to watch an audience seeing Shakespeare for the first time; it’s just, it’s like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, or a grizzly bear, or something. It just … from the moment the first actor walked out, arms outstretched—this actor in particular moved too quickly, and finally I had to just say listen, you’re on the moon, just space-walk …
Howie Stier: Well, why … could this have been any play? Why is Shakespeare the relevant production?
Peter Friedrich: Even if you only get half of what’s being said, the universal, timeless themes of love and jealousy—you know, war and loss—it just, it speaks to everyone, anywhere; it speaks to every human being.
Howie Stier: Now, this is a nation that is at war. You are teaching in an area of Iraq that has long had sectarian violence. And you have students from different factions in your school.
Peter Friedrich: We do.
Howie Stier: Could you explain some of that dynamic?
Peter Friedrich: Well, there’s a long shadow of history; discussing problems doesn’t seem to do much good, I’ve found. It’s better just to embark on projects together and learn things about each other, that all the discussion about racism or prejudice…you know, you won’t get anywhere. You’ve got to get past the discussion and start doing something.
Howie Stier: Did your drama training evoke some feelings about the war, about the previous wars and the ongoing conflict, among the students?
Peter Friedrich: More than half of our students have lost a parent or both, certainly several relatives, from one of the many wars. And if you think about that too much as a teacher or a director, it’s sort of paralyzing. I just prefer, actually, not to think about it. To me it’s like climbing a mountain and looking down the whole time, if that makes any sense. You’ve got to just keep your focus. And I don’t think they much like being talked to like they lost a parent; I think they like being talked to like an actor who’s trying to play a role.
Howie Stier: What’s on the bill for next season, for the next semester?
Peter Friedrich: [laughs] Well, we’ve got a theater. You know, we’ve written a couple of plays; it’ll be interesting to see if we can expand that into full play form. I certainly have had an open invitation for any acting company who wants to come out, to let me know, and let’s talk about it. The tough thing about theater, or really anything, out there is that they’re isolated; you know, they don’t get to see other … they don’t get to see another Shakespeare company perform. Imagine what that would be, for them to have that kind of bridge. So I would love to find a group of actors—and, of course, the grant money—to make something like that happen.
Howie Stier: Now, again, you’re visiting Los Angeles for a few days, visiting your colleagues from your theater group. You’re going back to Iraq. How are you feeling? Are you looking forward to this?
Peter Friedrich: I really am. I really am. At this point, I don’t … I love, obviously, coming back to Los Angeles; I’m having a fantastic time. But yeah, at this point, I feel like they’ll have to carry me out of there for me to quit. It’s just amazing, and I wish everyone could have that experience.
Howie Stier: What is the most satisfying thing about teaching these Iraqis?
Peter Friedrich: I think just watching them discover—watching them discover, and I’m discovering it too—the nature of theater again. That it’s the most dangerous safe thing you can do. You know, at the end of the day, no one’s going to die from doing a show. But it is so absolutely terrifying. And people watching can’t believe it, you know; for all these people in the audience—and for these guys, they’re basically performing in front of every single person they know—and you just think of the stakes of that and what it brings out in people. And afterwards, everyone’s in tears, and just … you know, that’s pretty cool.
Howie Stier: The curtain comes down.
Peter Friedrich: Yeah.
Howie Stier: And with that, we have to say goodbye and thanks for coming in.
Peter Friedrich: Thank you, Howie.
Howie Stier: Peter Friedrich, senior lecturer of fine arts and head of the drama and film department of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.
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