Zaraawar Mistry never set out to be a master of one-man shows. And yet here he sits in the little black box theater he and his wife Leslye Orr created, called Dreamland Arts. It's the perfect space for solo performances, and over the past several years here Mistry has not only performed his own work, he has helped numerous artists nurture their own stories into stage productions.
"Doing solo shows, mentoring solo shows - this was never part of the plan," Mistry says, smiling. "The real desire was 'I have a story I have to tell' and there's nobody else interested in it, no theater that wants to produce it, so there's only one way to do it and that's to do it for yourself. Building this place was not an act of wanting to make something special - it was an act of necessity. In order to do what I wanted to do, I had to somehow find a way to build my own theater."
The Other Mr. Gandhi
Photo by Charissa Uemura
This weekend Mistry is remounting his show Sohrab and Rustum, a piece he first developed in 2000. It's the first part in what has become a trilogy of plays Mistry calls "The Sugar in the Milk." The name comes from a story he learned as a child in India.
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Mistry says while the stories in his three productions are not directly linked, they all share certain themes.
"Three things that inform my work are being a Parsi, being an immigrant, and more specifically being an immigrant to America. The Parsis are dying out for a variety of reasons, including our own doing. Slowly the numbers are dwindling, so part of what fuels this storytelling is this knowledge. That is part of the psyche - that our community is dying - but it's a vibrant, successful, dynamic community."
Sohrab and Rustum
Photo by Ann Marsden
While tales of Zoroastrianism and Parsi history might seem like esoteric fare, Mistry's work has found a dedicated audience:
"I never thought that other Indians or Zoroastrians would care about what I was doing in my work, and I was totally wrong. They're not seeing or hearing these stories, this perspective anywhere else. Albeit we're in Minnesota so the numbers are small, but the response from those people who have come to the shows has been tremendous. And it's not just Indians and Zoroastrians who have liked it; people have come back again and again."
In fact, the popularity of his work has led Mistry to tour his shows in places like New York and Texas.
Photo by Charissa Uemura
In the process of regularly creating his own one-man productions, Mistry has become a valued resource for other performers looking to tell a story.
Both Sun Mee Chomet and Katie Hae Leo worked with Mistry to create their individual pieces about adoption, which they then combined to form The Origin(s) Project.
"He is uniquely talented in collaborating with artists who want to create their own work," says Leo.
Chomet adds "Zaraawar has helped me to bring a theatrical integrity to my work, which is allowing it to reach audiences that don't necessarily have a connection with adoption."
Chomet recalls often being in tears while working through her piece with Mistry. Mistry says in some ways what he does is similar to counseling.
"It's usually not about what the show should be, but what is this person bringing to it, and what should it be for them?"
Interestingly enough, Mistry has refrained from being directly autobiographical in his own work. While the stories often draw from personal history, he keeps the references vague.
"Fictionalizing it allows me to be more theatrical, it allows me to open up the piece to different layers that purely autobiographical stuff couldn't do for me."
In the coming months Mistry will remount the second and third plays in his "Sugar in the Milk" trilogy. It's the first time all three will be staged together in a short period of time. Mistry says he's curious to see how they relate to each other, and what revelations might come from seeing - and performing - them side by side.