For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed award-winning theater director-filmmaker-teacher-dramaturge-writer-producer Ian Belton. His stage directing credits include the US premiere of Marina Carr’s Hecuba (Skidmore College), Big Love (University of Hawaii), Guinea Pig Solo (The Public/LAByrinth), The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (two Drama Desk nominations), and Barefoot In The Park (Singapore Rep). He is the director of several short films and is a frequent collaborator of acclaimed acting coach Greta Kaufman. Currently he is adapting The Seagull by Anton Chekov with Laura Wagner for stage and screen as well as the book Operation Babylon with Matthew Price.
Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it.
Three things: A screenplay called Operation Babylon adapted from a book of the same title about the 1940s Jewish underground railroad through Iraq and Iran that led to the mass migration of the 2500 year old diaspora. A companion stage-play theater piece, Baghdad Radio, that deals with illegal wireless operators in the Middle East. And then dramaturgical prep for Jim Findlay’s Electric Lucifer, a bio-musical based on electronic music pioneer Bruce Haack, which is being workshopped in January here in New York. As of this moment I am actually in Jim’s piece as a performer, playing an abstraction of a Gitmo detainee.
Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?
I am half-Persian and half-Irish yet I look like I am fresh off the boat from Iran. Like when I mention I am working on Electric Lucifer the majority of people jokingly ask, “Who do you play?” owing equal parts to my swarthy complexion as much as my dark disposition. Thus contradictory identity politics plays heavily in my work. I have a family connection to the founding fathers of Israel yet was raised Catholic. Regardless, it is my staunch belief that a working knowledge of Middle Eastern history, religion and culture is going to be essential if humanity hopes to survive the 21st century.
Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?
I came up in the ‘90’s, when AIDS wiped out a whole generation of artists in multiple mediums. Like Brad Davis would have been the gay Channing Tatum had he not died. Jonathan Foster, who was the founder of the amateur Homemade Theater where I’d do summer stock, was another early victim. HIV positive Mario Garner took his own life after giving the most devastating of performances in The Law Of Remains by Reza Abdoh—a director I worshiped, who generated amazing work literally from his deathbed. Thus, in spite of generally being considered heterosexual, I gravitated towards queer counterculture of Genet, Fassbinder, Monika Treut, David Wojnarowicz and Kenneth Anger. I love art house cinema and wish I could go back to school and get a doctorate in film theory. I have also been extremely blessed with amazing teachers including Joanne Akalaitis, Michael Kahn, Garland Wright, Anne Bogart, Yoshi Oida, Alma Becker and Dave Yergan.
Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?
It varies wildly. More often than not, it is an overwhelming sense that justice be served but then that can also be a huge distraction. Like it is taking everything I have not to drop what I am doing right now and join the protests against having elected a straight-up fascist as POTUS or join the DAPL protestors at Standing Rock in North Dakota.
Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?
I have this model for a 24-hour film festival that we tried out this past summer —to write, shoot and edit a short movie in 24 hours. Everything is done on smartphones with a steadicam-mount in the style of the film Tangerine. This is great for young people as it empowers them and they see what is possible with limited means.
Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?
I usually experience “flow” or “selflessness” after the fact, like an alchemical waking up. This happens to me mostly when I am directing theater, like right after tech, perhaps because I have been doing it for so long. Like with Hecuba that I directed this past April at Skidmore College, I am watching these first and second year college kids tackle impossibly hard material with aplomb and supersized power and I think, “Who did that? How did we get here? Did little elves come in here and make the shoes while I was sleeping.”
Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?
I love teaching and directing undergraduates as well as making films. I think I am doing it, just need more of the same. Would like to try my hand at TV. That and health insurance.
Q: What has been your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?
I am a 9-11 first responder and I lived three blocks away from the North tower. A lot of people don’t realize that the fires at Ground Zero burned until December of 2001. I have had a lot of neighbors die of respiratory related illness. Thank heaven – and Obama – for the Zadroga Act which provides free medical and psychiatric counsel for those affected. At the same time, I don’t think I would have the same interest in the Middle East if it wasn’t for that event. So we will see. That and a not so healthy fear of routine. Doing the same thing with consistency is the only path to mastery—to get to the 10,000 hour mark. Yet time speeds up when you do this and slows down when you break out. Like when you travel to a foreign country and a day seems to last a month. Or you stop answering questions about your art to join a protest movement.
Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?
Read books unrelated to work, yoga, swim and try to sit quietly in “seiza” for a couple of minutes a day.
Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?
My ability to hang on and stay with something in spite of impossible odds is both a curse and a blessing. So tough to say. The playwright Alice Tuan taught me that there is no such thing as “wasted time” for an artist. The inherent problem with this being is that you are working and never working. You are on perpetual vacation yet there is no such thing as “time off.”
Q: What is your favorite piece of art?
The black “Alamo” cube in the East Village, Manhattan, by sculptor Tony Rosenthal. It’s 8 by 8 feet, mounted on a corner. You used to be able to rotate it on its axis in spite of it weighing 1,800 pounds. I loved spinning that thing as a kid growing up in New York. It was gone for a while and I heard it’s back as of November 1! Yay! It also reminds me of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square painting as well as the Kaaba in Mecca.
Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?
Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?
Getting actors to be “interested” instead of “interesting.”
Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?
Q: What is your guilty pleasure?
My Little Pony. Yup. If I could go to Comic-Con and be a full-fledged Brony, I’d be stoked.
Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?
I’d thank my mom for having awesome hair.
Q: Where would you most like to live?
Iceland for a while. Istanbul. And retire to Beyreuth to die watching Wagner operas from my wheelchair with an IV drop of an opioid drug or some other.
Q: What is your idea of success?
Q: What is your idea of happiness?
Family, extended and otherwise.
Q: Final Thoughts?