Plenty of people have toured the “Van Gogh Alive” exhibition that’s running through June 17 at the Arizona Science Center, but reactions to the multi-media presentation of Van Gogh’s work and words vary. I stood in a single spot for a very long time, reading Van Gogh quotes projected onto an otherwise blank wall. Pasha Yamotahari recalls heading for a corner — looking at the silhouettes of people lingering in front of towering screens featuring rotating images of Van Gogh paintings and related fare. Yamotahari says he was struck by “people standing frozen in time with something timeless.” And then it hit him.
“Hey,” he recalls thinking to himself. “I wrote something about Van Gogh some time ago.” The exhibit conjured memories of a screenplay written about eight years ago when Yamotahari was studying theatre, film and television at Scottsdale Community College. It was about a little’s boy first museum experience, which included an unexpected encounter with one of Van Gogh’s paintings. He pictured Van Gogh coming alive to interact with the boy, but felt at the time that staging such a thing would be rather tricky. Hence the choice to write it as a screenplay.
But times are changing in theater world, as new technologies make all sorts of things more doable. Yamotahari knows this better than most as a member of the artistic staff for Phoenix Theatre, where he’s been known to wear lots of hats. He holds both an AAFA in theatre arts and film/TV from SCC and a BA in journalism from ASU’s Cronkite School in downtown Phoenix — but his talents also include directing, dramaturgy and more.
For years he’s been part of bringing Phoenix Theatre’s “Hormel New Works Festival” to life. But this year, he’s adding another hat — presenting a sit-down reading of his own full-length play called “I Am Van Gogh.” It’s an adaptation of his earlier screenplay reworked after that “Aha!” moment at the Arizona Science Center. His is one of two sit-down readings that’s free and open to the public.
Yamotahari’s mother gave him a book during high school that contained letters written by Van Gogh. Yamotahari remembers reading it — fascinated that someone so gifted achieved success only after his death and curious about why so few people recognized Van Gogh’s greatness when the artist was alive. Nowadays it gives him pause to consider what counts as true greatness in the arts, to wonder about the ways we define success and to live with the ambiguity of never really knowing where one’s devotion to art might lead.
“I Am Van Gogh” runs about two hours and features four actors playing close to 20 characters. The play imagines a young son of devout parents who’s magically taken inside a painting where he meets Van Gogh. The artist tells the boy it’s his destiny to be the next Van Gogh, something complicated by the fact that 8-year-old Marc is simply “not that good at painting.”
Yamotahari was born in Iran but his family fled to France around the time of the Iranian Revolution, later moving to Toronto. Play goers meet Marc as an eight year old because that’s the age when Yamotahari first saw a Van Gogh work at a small gallery in Nice. Also because children develop rich memories around that age. Yamotahari notes that Marc “sees Van Gogh throughout his life pushing him.” Marc finds his destiny, but it’s not without sacrifice.
Knowing that Van Gogh is on most short lists of artists who lived with mental illness, I asked Yamotahari whether he’d integrated the issue into the play. Yamotahari notes that the more he worked with the protagonists, the more he realized that some artists feel the only way to truly reach art is to lose their mind. He describes it as “putting themselves in a constant state of pseudo-insanity.” Sometimes it’s merely an artist’s “obsession with a piece that gets misconstrued as mental illness.”
Though we don’t have works of Van Gogh here in the Valley, Yamotahari’s been able to study the artist’s works online via the ”Google Art Project” featuring artworks from 17 of the world’s great art museums. Yamotahari recalls reading the words of Van Gogh, which felt fluid early on but changed somehow as if madness was brewing — especially near the end of Van Gogh’s life.
Yamotahari says he’s fondest of Van Gogh works depicting cornfields, and thinks it’s “cool to zoom in and see those brush strokes.” If you look closely enough, says Yamotahari, you’ll see mistakes — even moments of rage and passion. The playwright wants those who see “I Am Van Gogh” to wonder about the difference between destiny and free will. But don’t expect easy answers. Yamotahari hopes the play will “evoke ambiguity and mystery.”
Coming up: Art meets asylum, James Garcia talks playwriting and social justice, Drawing a diary