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PLAYWRIGHT’S COMMISSION : BRINGING HOME WOES OF HOMELESS

‘I want my theater to matter. In order for it to do that, I’ve got to address issues that really matter.’ --Zara Houshmand

Zara Houshmand knows that theatergoers are not at all eager to be bombarded with another depressing treatise on the homeless.

“And I don’t want to screech in the dark,” stressed the playwright, whose “The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be” opens Wednesday at the Burbage Theatre. “So, somehow, I’ve got to make this exciting theater. I’ve got to make people want to see it, in spite of the fact that it’s hard. I’ve got to get them to want to stay in their seats, want to be surprised. The art has to be so good that their heads will be turned around.”

It’s a tall bill for the first-time playwright, 33, who acknowledged that she became interested in the topic only after being commissioned (by director Deborah LaVine) to create a play on the homeless.

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“Two years ago, this wasn’t such a hot subject,” Houshmand said. “I was halfway into my first draft before the ’60 Minutes’ report on (activist) Mitch Snyder.”

Lately media attention to the topic has mushroomed--including the high-profile Hands Across America Memorial weekend event. Meanwhile, Houshmand says, the situation (due to federal cuts, the deinstitutionalization of mental patients and urban renewal) continues to deteriorate.

Since she began working on the project, the playwright has lived in Hollywood, Spanish Harlem, San Diego, Laguna Beach and San Francisco (where she currently resides): “researching, observing, talking to people, but no in-depth going out and living on the streets. Yet it was there, in each neighborhood, right on your doorstep. You couldn’t not look at it.”

“My concern here was to get people to see (the situation) differently, and to destroy that whole romantic myth about poverty: that they’re on the streets because they want to be, that they’re eccentric people out there by choice. Reagan as much as said it: ‘We have the shelters, but they don’t come in.’ Well, the decision is between a rock and a hard place; it’s a choice that is no choice. Often what we’ve given them is so degrading that it’s better to be out on the street.

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“Another misconception is that (the homeless) are people who don’t want to work--which of course, always (accounts for) a percentage. But I think there are a lot of people out there who would do anything to have a job, to be making money. You know how hard it is to go on a job interview. Imagine how much harder it would be if you couldn’t get a shower first . . . I’m not trying to make any generalizations about these people. All I’m saying is that we should open our eyes, try to look at them as human beings.”

Stylewise, “I was very much writing for Deborah LaVine, for her type of theater. She’s done marvelous things with Brecht, von Horvath. So it goes back to the tradition of political theater more than to docudrama and realism.”

The story, which she described as a black comedy (embracing both fantasy and larger-than-life characters), “follows one very ordinary woman, who’s thrown out of her house and finds herself alone on the street. It traces her progression downward, her frustration trying to get back in, dealing with the situation. Hopefully, if she’s an ordinary person, you will identify with her. At the end, she looks like any other crazy on the street, but you’ve seen how she gets there.”

The willingness to satirize such a sensitive subject, Houshmand said, is likely shaped by her personal perspective: “I’m an American, but I also have an outsider’s view.” Born in Orange County, she grew up in the Philippines, studied in London, then migrated to Iran to “check out the family roots.”

With a background in audio-visual work (museum, industrial and training films), Houshmand stumbled onto theater three years ago, and has spent the time since “getting my feet wet: doing ‘tech’ work, stage managing, really learning about the business.”

Her next project-in-the-works: examining the growing presence of fundamentalists and evangelicals in the political arena. (“The way things are going, it’ll be just in time for Pat Robertson’s election.”)

“I want my theater to matter,” Houshmand said firmly. “In order for it to do that, I’ve got to address issues that really matter.”


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