Q&A: Marjan Neshat on ‘Sandra’ and her Iranian identity

The Iranian actress discusses preparing for the one-woman play, and channeling her heritage while performing.

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Marjan Neshat takes stage with her one-woman play “Sandra” at the Union Square’s Vineyard Theatre. (Courtesy of Carol Rosegg)

Roksaneh Salartash, Staff Writer

A spotlight illuminated the Union Square’s Vineyard Theatre stage, revealing only an actress and a single chair. Marjan Neshat is the star of “Sandra,” a one-woman thriller written by Obie award winner David Cale. With a performance praised by The New York Times, Neshat captivates the audience with her ability to play multiple complex characters and convey a wide range of emotions. The play tells the story of a woman in her 40s trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of her best friend after he went to Mexico. She is unsatisfied with her life in New York City and finds escapism in her quest to find her friend. Sandra’s search for clues leads her into a turbulent love affair, and down a path of dangerous territory. The 90-minute show keeps the audience engaged from start to finish through Sandra’s eventful journey of self-discovery. “Sandra” is the first show in the Vineyard Theatre’s 40th season and is running now through Dec. 18. 

“Sandra” has an exciting plot and a dynamic cast of characters all played by the talented Marjan Neshat. WSN sat down with the actress to discuss preparing for the one-woman show and channeling her Iranian roots onstage. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WSN: A one-woman show is a unique and challenging opportunity for an actress. What drew you to playing the role of Sandra?

Marjan Neshat: The thing that drew me to the role was that it tells the story of an every woman, like a person you pass by on the street, who, you know, isn’t necessarily happy in their life and isn’t living the life they dreamed they would be. It is ultimately a soul connection and a love of this friendship that propels Sandra to go on this journey. The story itself by taking risks and following your heart that you would put yourself in a situation that changed your life. I’d never played someone like her before.

WSN: I can’t imagine how difficult it was memorizing 90 minutes of lines and playing multiple characters as one individual actress. What was your process of preparing for this role?

Neshat: In terms of learning the lines, it was kind of a grueling task. I would walk around the park and recite them repeatedly to get the script into my head. I was able to prepare for Sandra’s emotional journey, but it was difficult trying to understand the other characters I played. It is difficult when I’m Sandra in a scene with another character that I don’t get to listen to because I’m portraying both of them. There was a lot of failure in the rehearsal process, but showing up and continuously trying was super important. 

WSN: While watching the play, I noticed the sound and lighting changing throughout the show. Can you talk about the importance of these elements to the story and how they helped you perform?

Neshat: The lighting and sound are my only scene partners besides the audience. I’ve never been in a show where the lighting and sound designers arrived so early in the rehearsal process… I feel like the music and I are talking to each other and the lighting gives the feeling of different places. The set is so bare, there’s just that one chair. The lighting changes give me that feeling like “Oh, I’ve left New York and I’ve gone to Mexico.” It really transports me to a new setting, which is enormously helpful as I perform. 

WSN: Shifting focus from “Sandra,” I understand you take great pride in your Iranian identity. You have been a vocal advocate for the current women-led revolution in Iran on your Instagram page. Can you talk about the importance of social media and using your platform in this movement?

Neshat: Before we left Iran, my sister was picked up by the morality police when I was young. I fell to the ground and started screaming. The only reason they let her go was because I was an unchaperoned kid on the street. If we stayed in Iran, that could’ve easily been me. We were lucky enough that one person in Holland decided to give my mom a visa so we could leave. Seeing these young school girls today — both with and without headscarves — holding hands and screaming their headmasters out the door is incredible. They are with me every second and I am so in awe of their courage. They are the best and most dignified role models of what a person can do and be. A free Iran means people will finally have ownership of their lives, a basic human right. It is our responsibility as human beings to stand up and speak out when people are fighting like Iranians are right now, and social media is an easy and accessible way to do that. 

WSN: Art and poetry are at the heart of Persian culture. As an Iranian actress, do you channel this or take inspiration from your culture in your performances? 

Neshat: Every party we went to growing up, people would play the game of, “I’m gonna say a poem and whatever letter that ends on you have to start” and even all the doctors, lawyers and engineers had reams of poetry just memorized. It is so much a part of the emotional and mental makeup of what it means for me to be Iranian. There’s also something quite universal about it. I was just born and raised in a culture that found everyday value in poetry and art. It has never been exclusive to just artists. It has always been part of the fabric of my family and my life. 

“Sandra” obviously doesn’t take place in the Middle East, but I feel especially grateful to be able to say I’m still an Iranian actress playing that part. I still have all of the Persian influences and this cultural pride, and yet, I completely relate to this woman who people of all backgrounds can resonate with. This role has taught me that we are more alike as human beings than I think we are allowed to feel and portray.

Contact Roksaneh Salartash at [email protected]