Emi Howell is a film and theatre producer who is using her unique talents to make a positive difference in the world. Her current play, Nazanin's Story, follows the unfolding events of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British/Iranian national. In April 2016, Nazanin and her infant daughter flew to Iran to visit her family. When she tried to return home, she was detained at the airport in Tehran and put in prison for allegedly "plotting to topple the Iranian government." Her daughter remains in Iran. Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, remains in England and is working to free her.
Emi's play was long listed for the Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award and continues to inspire audiences to take action. I heard her story on The Guilty Feminist Podcast and I was so inspired by her mission, that I wanted to share it with you!
What made you decide to produce a play about Nazanin?
I first heard about Nazanin's imprisonment in December 2016 - she had been taken in April. I started researching her situation and it shocked me that something like this could happen today and yet I didn't hear about it until 8 months later. The idea that something this horrendous wasn't front page news was appalling. It was so awful that it could have easily been a work of fiction. I wanted to share this family’s ordeal with as many people as possible, and I wanted it to reach them on a deeper level. When most people read a news article it can become just another story in a long list. I wanted to share this story on an emotional level, enable people to connect and then be inspired to do something to help.
It's definitely working. Ever since I heard you and Richard Ratcliffe speak, I've been more engaged with this story. But it's easy to feel powerless to help. What can we do?
Politically there's a petition you can sign calling for her release and Amnesty send postcards from supporters to Nazanin, though it’s unlikely she ever gets to read them. Writing a letter to your MP about Nazanin works as it puts her on their radar and then when a debate or question comes up in Parliament they are already aware and sympathetic.
At Howell Productions we are asking for the public to fill in One Day of Freedom cards. They can be found on our website and ask if you only had one day of freedom what would you do with it, how would you chose to spend it? These cards will then be made into a book and given to Nazanin, and Gabriella, for when they come home. They plan to complete one card a week to help them get back into living normally.
We ask that you share her story with people; friends, family, come to see the play and encourage others to do so. And finally, send messages of support via twitter or facebook. When Nazanin was released for three days she got a chance to read the twitter messages people had posted for her. The fact that so many people cared and were thinking of her meant everything to her. It gave her the courage to cope, knowing she is not forgotten.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced while working on this play? And how have you worked through them?
One of the big challenges is staying true to the story. Stories change as more information comes to light, so adapting the play to not only deal with everyday changes but changes that affect the past information we have, is so important. We're not spinning a fictional tale. Our aim is to stay true to Nazanin's story.
The other big issue is the knowledge that not only is this a real story, but that it is happening as we perform it. And that what we do and say could and has had a real impact on Nazanin. When we first performed the play, Richard informed Nazanin, and told us how she felt so thankful she wasn't being forgotten. That responsibility, for not only myself but the cast, is huge. The emotional nature of the play hits us hard, not only when performing it, but when we get the news she's been mistreated further. When we were in Edinburgh performing last year she was released and then returned to jail just three short days later. On the day she was taken back to prison, we had our final performance and it was heartbreaking to perform that ending.
I love your company's mission - to create stories that will in turn have social impact. Have you always wanted to tell these type of stories?
I've always wanted to create something that has real meaning. Before the play we'd done several events and performances in aid of different charities but nothing to this scale. At that point, I was still acting full time. I had one [acting] job that was exhausting and at the end of it, I looked at the three months I'd spent doing it and I just felt how pointless it was. It wasn't achieving anything significant, it wasn't helping anyone. All forms of art, but Theatre and film in this instance especially, are such powerful tools for making a change, making a difference. I know, because I’ve experienced it personally. I saw Blackfish and it opened my eyes. Watching films and going to the Theatre, it moves you in a way newspapers don't. So I decided I'd had enough of theatre that didn't mean anything. Everything I would create would try to create a social impact, would try to change the world in some small way. Howell Productions started with Nazanin but has also produced similar work; a short film about mental health and alcoholism, which will be released soon, a modern day slavery play currently in development, as is a piece about the other women currently imprisoned in Iran. They are pieces I can be proud of and that will hopefully create a positive change for society.
Who inspires you? Who are your role models or mentors?
First and foremost, my main role model is my mother. She has pushed me to be the best I can be and acts as my sounding board, proof reader and is my emergency call when things are piling up. She was also the first person who drew my attention to Nazanin's story. Throughout the process of this play, Nazanin became a huge inspirational for me - her strength and fight as well as the incredible poetry in her letters, being able to portray beauty and love despite being surrounded by so much isolation, loneliness and terror. I can't imagine experiencing the same thing and yet she still manages to retain her identity, I have the utmost respect for her.
And finally - when is Nazanin’s Story coming back to London?
The current plan is to return the play to London in July. We are currently in talks with several theatres in London to do a two week run. We will then be heading off on a regional and educational tour in October. We are hoping to visit universities and schools as well as theatres, as I believe it is so important to share this story with the younger generation, to inspire them to work hard in making a positive impact, no matter your age.
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Emi!