Iyvon Edebiri: Manifesting What is Unseen Through Theater

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Iyvon Edebiri is a writer, director, theater producer and theater enthusiast. Her passion for theater development is rooted in her belief that it is for everyone and strives to bring diversity within the realm of performance art in order for a more understanding and compassionate society. In our interview below, we discuss her relationship to theater, activism and self-care.

I would say you’re one of the most multi-disciplinary people I know. How did you discover your love for theater?

I wouldn’t say I grew up being a creative child per se. I grew up in an immigrant household so there wasn’t always the freedom to be creative necessarily. More of going to school and doing well.

Where were you born?

I was born in Nigeria and I moved here when I was three. My sisters were born here. I remember doing school plays during elementary school and knew I had a good voice, but I wouldn’t get the roles I wanted because I was too tall, which was fucked up.

I realized I loved theater in sixth grade. I was really dorky so all I wanted to stay home and read. I joined the book club as an afterschool program. My book club teacher brought in her husband to run the drama club. One day, I left my bag in the drama club classroom and tried to sneak back in to pick it up. My teacher’s husband just said, “Hey you there, stand over there.” I was too shy to say I had to leave, so I just stayed. They were practicing for “School House Rock.” I absolutely loved it. I remember surprising a lot of people. I got one of the lead roles in that and I’ve loved theater ever since.

In eighth grade I applied to Laguardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, and took the Specialize H.S. test. I got into Brooklyn Tech, but I turned down Brooklyn Tech because I wanted to sing.

That’s a really good school. Did you like Laguardia?

I loved it! I’m glad I went to a school where the majority of the people would say they’d do high school again. It was a unique place where we didn’t have cliques and if we did, it was artistic cliques, like the drama majors or the altos. It just had a really great creative energy.

You were a director and producer before you started playwriting. What made you decide to start writing?

[Pause] There aren’t a lot of stories that I wish were told, or stories that reflect my life as an African-born American living in New York. I know that’s incredibly specific. There are all these stories that no one wants to dive into, the general stories of “others.” It’s so boring and dull to see the same white middle-class family in a living room having rich people problems. I cannot connect to that at all and I don’t know many people who do. It’s worthless in the realm of storytelling.

Does writing, producing and directing all feel like they come from the same creative impulses?

I have a lot of works in progress because I get writer’s block and I get frustrated and start something else in the meantime. In general they’re responses to things I’ve heard or seen that I don’t see people talking about.

Your resume is pretty decorated.

Oh my God!

[Laughs] You were a Fulbright Scholar and you’ve studied abroad. You work at the Sundance Institute Theatre Program currently, right?

Working for Sundance is great because they treat their artists and staff well. I feel lucky to work at a place where I can travel, because I don’t feel stagnant. If I want to I can also have the space to work on artistic projects if I want. I get the best of both worlds.

What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about writing?

My favorite thing about writing is coming up with dialogue. I’m writing a web series and that’s more fun because I’m taking dialogue from my family and Africans in general, which is really funny. My least favorite thing is writer’s block. I just shut down and am like, “I don’t want to do this.”

In general, is there a stereotype about writers that you feel is true?

Based on the writers and composers I’ve met, I would say that anxiety of perfection is a real thing. It’s this huge ball of anxiety that manifests in different ways. You tend to focus on the negative.  You don’t sleep well; you don’t exercise. You shut yourself in your room working when maybe you just need to take a walk. There’s always that feeling of having to go through 30 million tabs in your head before you find what you need to do. I think creative people in general just need to figure out this balance.

What’s challenging for you in terms of self-care?

I didn’t realize I dealt with anxiety until last year, when it got really bad. I was already withdrawing a bit and having panic attacks. I felt like I was going crazy. I had to take a few weeks off of social media and would just come home from work and reflected on what made me happy and what I was doing just to do. That breakdown was a good turning point. But one way I deal with anxiety is having a weekend to get away and calm down.

Our environment can really affect us.

I notice how much less anxious I am once I am out of New York City—just two or three days of decompressing until I can do it again. Living in Europe, especially Italy, for a year really spoiled me in terms of how go with the flow things are there. When I take my weekend away I can still be around people and there are no expectations of me. I can do nothing if I want to. I can study for a test if I want to. It’s my time.

It’s actually really hard to do nothing.

It’s something that requires a lot of training. I try not to look at my work E-mail over the weekend. Things can wait until Monday. Also, Netflix binges are the best.

Have you always dealt with anxiety or was there a specific time when it began?

I think I’ve always been an anxious person. I’m a go-getter when it comes to my passion projects. But last year was when it got really bad, and it was for weeks on end. It was more than I’d ever had to deal with at once.

What are your symptoms when you have acute anxiety?

When I’m having an anxiety attack my chest gets really tight and my body tightens. I start crying and it’s hard to breathe. In general, my brain is in overload and I can’t sleep well. The thing is, I know the things I have to do to make it better, but I don’t because the thought of doing it also makes me anxious. I know I should go to the gym and run, but I create other scenarios in my head that makes me more withdrawn. It’s an awful cycle.

Have there been other tools that have helped your anxiety?

This is going to make you laugh, but it actually helps with my anxiety. I love baby videos. My ovaries explode but it makes me so happy. I’ll go online and search, baby, funny, video. Those make me happy. Another weird thing I’ve been doing for several months is having purple hair. Purple is a mix of red which is intense (me most of the time) and blue which is calming (which I strive for). It reminds me of strength and being unique and independent. So purple hair has been a great and a random daily anti-anxiety reminder. It’s going to be okay.

When you’re anxious are you more fueled to get things done? Or is it the opposite?

At first it’s hard for me to do work because I don’t even have the willpower to do it. It’s not until I break out of this bubble that I can calm down and write out what I need to do. As soon as I write down my goals, a huge weight is lifted and I can be proactive. I can go weeks and month getting shit done quickly and having that Super Girl feeling that I get, but then all of a sudden anxiety will kick in and it’s back to square one. I’m learning to remember these things about myself to speed up the process of recovery.

How did the Parsnip Ship come about?

The Parsnip Ship was an idea my creative partner Eric Bourlag presented to me. Eric doesn’t like me telling the backstory but I think it’s cute. He was my boss at Primary Stages and we started hanging out. I actually wasn’t all that interested in podcasts until I listened to “Serial.” And I thought this actually cool and interesting. Our first recording was with playwright Jose Rivera’s “School of the Americas,” which he also directed. It was fantastic of him to do this weird experiment with us.

There are other pod-plays out there but they’re mostly well-known writers or famous actors doing the reading. Eric and I want listeners to feel we’ve invited you into the space we have created during the reading. We make an effort to choose plays we feel you’d want to listen to on your commute or with friends and a drink. We’re excited to finally launch this ship on Feb. 25 at our launch party. So much time and work has been leading up to this and it’s great that we’re finally here.

Then two days later we have another recording happening of a Boston playwright’s play. It’s incredibly busy, but also incredibly rewarding.

You also have a live audience during the recording, which is unique.

We make sure our audience knows they don’t have to be silent. We tell them please laugh if something is funny. We also create drinks or cocktails that go with the theme of the play, and that can be self-directed by the playwright.

There’s an ambience to the experience.

We considered recording in theater spaces, but we’ve started this model of recording in living rooms to create a relaxed environment. We’re sitting down, listening to a play with a drink in our hands. Actually, our next recording is happening on Feb. 27 and it’s a play called “The Aventines” which we began to record in Boston. We didn’t get to finish it due to technical issues, but it was an incredibly fun recording because we made it a drinking game. We’re excited to be able to do it again with a NYC audience full of friends and new people. We love meeting new people, especially artists!

How do you juggle day jobs and personal projects?

I’m a big list person. I’ll either use an app or I’ll write it in my planner. I’m a big fan of Google Calendar. If it’s in my Google Calendar that means it’s important and I’m going to be there. Having great bosses who are flexible to my time also helps.

In your work, you also focus on social activism and diversity. To you, what is the art world’s responsibility to raising awareness?

My work and passion used to be solely about diversity until very recently, when I was just over the word diversity. I can continue to fight for it and talk about how important it is, but I think the focus and conversation should shift to artists of color recognizing what makes them unique and celebrating that without needing validation from white centered audiences. My friends and colleagues already know that diversity is important. So they’re not necessarily my target when I continue to speak about it.

You want to change the minds of people who don’t already agree with you.

Exactly, so I’ve kind of scaled back in talking about it. Diversity in arts and entertainment all come from the top and trickle down. As much as we want to believe that diversity is the forefront of these leaders’ minds, it’s really not. In the end, it’s money.

We can see this in the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. People aren’t necessarily boycotting because the Academy ignored four great performances by Black artists. It’s that this is still a very small number compared to the number of movies that have white stars in it. I’m also tired of hearing people say diversity is a Black and white issue. I want all of the people that exist around the world to have some form of equal representation in films that we spend money on. Studio executives feel that a certain cast won’t bring in money, but they’re proven wrong very often.

The simplest example is the fact that female leads can make just as much at the box office.

Exactly. So why are women still not being paid an equal amount in so many instances? People got mad at Jennifer Lawrence writing the article about gender parity and pay. “She’s a millionaire, she should be happy with what she has. She should shut up and stop complaining,” they said. Why should she settle for less when her co-star Bradley Cooper made more? I don’t hear those people complaining about how much money he’s made.

It can also get overwhelming processing these world issues all the time.

It’s tiring. I feel like you’re just saying the same things over and over to the same people, but they’re not necessarily people you need to convince. I almost feel like people know the right thing to do and then they don’t do it. That’s what’s astounding and that’s what’s dangerous.

The first time I watched “Fresh Off the Boat,” I actually got uncomfortable because it was so surreal to see white cast members supporting an Asian cast.

The cast being Asian does come into play because you can’t not address it, but it’s just purely a great show. It can be replaced with any other minority cast and it could still work if you change the humor. It’s a brilliantly funny show. Asians aren’t just caricatures anymore—they are real Americans.

Same thing with “Masters of None,” which is not about just one thing.

It’s about Dev living his life. Dev just so happens to be an Indian-American man. I love that show because it’s a great immigrant comedy that doesn’t make fun of being an immigrant or an “other.”

What are your immediate goals personally or creatively?

I’d like to stay in New York City, finish up grad school and see what else it has to offer. But also, I think I’d like to be living in Europe, depending on the political climate here. I truly feel more at peace there and I think the lifestyle is closer to what I need to keep balance. It also depends on where there’s great theater. Berlin? Amsterdam even?

What would you say or do for others who are struggling with things you connect with?
I didn’t do this but I should have talked to someone to relief that tension.

I’d just try to sit and listen and be as empathic as possible. Not everyone’s next steps are the same.

In the long run, what would be your picture of a really good life?

Two things. If I live in America, I would want to own a brownstone and raise my kids in Brooklyn. If it’s in Europe, I would want a cute Tuscan villa that’s not near anyone. I’d have it fully stocked with wine and pasta. A happy life would also mean making sure my children are good people. I don’t think that’s something enough of us focus on. There are way too many kid bullies or kids with serious emotional problems because they’re not being taught to be respectful of themselves and empathetic and respectful of others.

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