Artist and producer Shabnam Shabazi: ‘I was a political refugee from Iran, so I had a lot of stories’

Shabnam Shabazi. Photo: Project5am Shabnam Shabazi. Photo: Project5am

After working as a director with Max Stafford-Clark and Ian Rickson, Shabnam Shabazi began to move into live art, creating a series of autobiographical pieces about the nature of home. She tells Tim Bano about the latest iteration of that work, Body House Version III…

How did you get involved in theatre?
It started when I was 14. I knew very clearly that I was a director. I had just come to England as a political refugee from Iran with my family, so I had a lot of baggage and a lot of stories. I used to write and be encouraged by my drama teacher, as we all probably were, and I wrote a play called There’s No Place Like Home about the experience of leaving my country. I entered it for the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre. I didn’t win, but I got a letter back from an American intern they had who said: “Try to write from your own personal experience.” But the play was so personal that I couldn’t even change the name of the families, so I went crying to my drama teacher Andrew Brennan. He contacted the Royal Court and the wonderful David Sulkin was so kind, he came to my school and had a chat with me, and we got invited to see the Young Writers’ Festival. I couldn’t believe that there were grown-ups taking young people seriously. That still remains a passion of mine, and at the heart of my practice. I continued that relationship with the Royal Court when Ian Rickson was in charge of the Young People’s Theatre, and I fell in love with the work of Max Stafford-Clark, and had the opportunity to be his assistant director.

What prompted you to start creating your own work?
Around 2003 I was working at the Contact Theatre in Manchester and I started to want to develop more of a visual language and make a body of autobiographical work. So I went to the Live Art Development Agency and developed a self-directed programme with Arts Council funding, which was the start of a trilogy – Speaker’s Corner, Body House and Snail Portrait. Working with words and text is still there, but because I was making a body of work inspired by my own heritage and experience it made sense for me to step into the work – I’m doing a Hitchcock. Now I call myself an artist and a creative producer. I’m really happy with this version of Body House because I’m letting my theatre self and my performing art self, the director and the live artist, hang loose.

Why is ‘home’ such an important theme in your work?
Every artist has a signature theme, and I feel like this is one that everyone can relate to. With the many migrations and atrocities that led to people having to move from their country of origin, there was nowhere else for me to go except this conclusion that my body is my house. Of course it doesn’t take the yearning away to make a return, but I’m always returning psychologically. Snail Portraits is inspired and influenced by the current refugee crisis. I made that in 2015, and worked with live snails because they carry their home on their back. I was thinking, in a naive way, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were no more borders and people could just be at home wherever they are? It is idealistic and romantic, but I have to hope. Making these shows is a small drop in the ocean, but it’s the way that I can shed some light. It’s that phrase: the personal is political. I don’t start with politics, I start with stories.

CV: Shabnam Shabazi

Training: Aural and Visual Culture, Goldsmith’s College, 2009
First professional role: This Island’s Mine, Edinburgh Fringe, as director (1992)
Agent: None

Body House Version III is at Rich Mix, London, on September 8