Style and Substance: Yael Farber

Style and Substance: Yael Farber

We speak to the playwright, director, and theater artist

Yael Farber sits in front of a computer screen in her usual spot in her favorite café, facing the window that looks out to the busy Montreal street. Her back is to the boisterous tables of older Italian men playing a noisy game of cards and the regulars huddled over their espressos. Two TVs broadcast separate European soccer games.

It’s a rowdy time of day in the café but Farber remains in a Zen-like state tending to the demands of her work as a playwright and director. On this day, she is applying touch-ups to the script of her wildly successful play Salome, which was performed at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater and won the prestigious Helen Hayes Award in seven categories.

The plays she has written and/or directed, such as Mies Julie, Nirbhaya, Salome and, recently, Les Blancs, have all been critically acclaimed and seen by audiences worldwide. In the international theater world, she is a multi-award winning rising star. But here, where she sits silently writing every morning until she picks up her young daughter from school, she is just another single mom, freelance artist-of-something in this boho, immigrant neighborhood. “It’s lovely and humbling here,” she says of Montreal, the café (Club Social), her neighborhood and the small apartment she rents as a refuge between flights.

Those flights take her all over the world. “My commute to work is an international flight,” she says, wryly. And the plays are also set in places all over the world: India, South Africa, and an ancient Middle East. “It’s about going where the story lives,” she says. The example she offers is Nirbhaya, a play about sexual violence that takes place in India. “India isn’t the only country with that problem, but that is where the story manifests itself most powerfully at the moment.”

All her pieces deal with difficult subjects, such as race, colonialism and oppression. Farber grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and says topics like those shaped her vision of the world. “From an early age, I was already accustomizing myself to being critical and in opposition to what I was told was normal.” One of her earliest memories was at about five years old, when she saw a young black South African teen in tatters being beaten up by a white man. By fifteen, she says, she was already attempting to, as she puts it, “have conversations across the color line.” She began to understand that society has its “insiders” and “outsiders.” That insight drives her work and underpins the stories she tells today as she gives voice to those outsiders and continues to have conversations across boundaries.

Looking back at her Johannesburg childhood and the little plays she and her sister created on the wide picture window of her family home, she says, “It was always going to be about storytelling.” “By 11 or 12, I was already saying I was going to be a film director,” she says. The jump to theater came very naturally.

She studied directing at The School of Dramatic Arts at University of Witwatersrand and then became an actor. This actor, though, couldn’t stop watching and questioning everything directors were doing. “You have to be in a profound state of ‘yes’ to be an actor. I was in a profound state of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing half the time.’ That told me I was a director.” But the plays she wanted to direct just didn’t exist. She knew she would have to write them, a process she still finds excruciating.

The writing and directing translates into roughly 10 international flights a year. Those become difficult when set against the backdrop of her most important responsibility and greatest joy: raising her nine-year-old daughter. “There’s no glamour in that,” she says, laughing. She does take her daughter with her on trips, especially if she is gone for long periods as she was in India for Nirbhaya and more recently in London at the National Theatre for Les Blancs. The past few years alone, she has been to Japan, India, France, Spain, Australia and South Africa. On the long flights, she says she works on her scripts and sometimes just relaxes with a glass of wine. She also appreciates airlines that still ban wifi, which allows her to enjoy a little time, unplugged, before landing in a city, jumping into a taxi and heading toward a hotel or the theater to, of course, work.

Despite a busy schedule, she tries to make time for museums, yoga and massage. The Tate and the National Portrait Gallery in London are favorites. Each place, she says, ignites her in a different way. In London, it’s the history. “You’re just walking down the street and, architecturally, everything just feels integrated.” In Mumbai, it was the yoga and massage. “The city is just so vital and alive!”

And what about the celebrity that comes with all the work, the awards and media articles on her? “Theater doesn’t offer the stratosphere of fame that some people know,” she says modestly. Of course she admits she has been at some high-level events in the theater world, such as the Olivier Awards and the Evening Standard Theatre Awards (She was nominated for both British prizes).  For her, acclaim takes a back seat to the welcome opportunity to dress up for a really big party. “You get to go and buy yourself a lovely dress,” she says. “I love to dress!”  Farber’s favorite place for those award dresses is Julie Pesant’s Éditions de Robes. The simple precise cuts by Pesant herself and design duo José Manuel St-Jacques and Simon Bélanger of UNTTLD have been seen at awards ceremonies globally. And she adds with a smile that the shop is conveniently located right next to this place, her very favorite café in Montreal, where soccer fans cheer for their respective teams and a playwright quietly creates critical, provocative and inspiring plays for theater audiences around the world.