As a married couple, Brent and Reba Askari take pride and pleasure in each other’s successes. Lately, they’ve had many to celebrate.

She is the theater artistic director at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, and has just opened the 100-seat Maddy’s Theatre, the envy of the Portland theater community with its up-to-date sound and light systems, flexible staging, comfortable seating with perfect sightlines, and evolving plans for ambitious programming that includes plays for kids, plays by kids and ensemble pieces that will travel around the state. She was instrumental in imagining, designing and bringing the theater to life with what her husband glowingly calls “her amazing superpower.”

He is an award-winning playwright, whose timely, political plays about his mixed-race Persian-American background and the challenges fitting in to either culture have connected him with directors, actors and audiences across the country. Most recently, Barrington Stage Company, a regional theater in western Massachusetts with a strong national reputation, workshopped his new play “Andy Warhol in Iran” with Broadway actor Andy Rapp.

They’re both doing some of the best and most important work of their careers at the same time, said Mark Rubin, artistic director at Mad Horse Theater Company and a longtime friend and collaborator. “As their careers are ascending together,” Rubin observed, “it’s just very cool to see their efforts both bear fruit.”

THE BEGINNING

Married since 2018, the Askaris met many years ago while working together as actors at The Theater Project in Brunswick. Their friendship grew through their work at Mad Horse, where both are company members, and other projects. Their “love origin story,” as Reba calls, it, began while she was working on her master’s thesis in theater education at Emerson College in Boston in 2013. Reflecting her love of children’s theater that took root with her work in Brunswick, her thesis involved bringing children and adults together to create a fairytale using the devised theater method, which involves writing a script as a collaborative ensemble.

Brent, now 51, was among the adults she invited to participate in the project. After rehearsal one day, he left his script behind, by accident. Reba took a peek and was astounded at the attention he had given the fairytale.

“I remember opening it up, and you did an additional 40 pages of character studies,” she said, addressing her husband directly during a conversation at Maddy’s Theatre. “You catalogued this amazing backstory of the king that hadn’t been revealed at all. I remember being so surprised that somebody was taking this little project so seriously. I was so charmed there was this whole world of thought beyond what I had done or what was in our rehearsal process already.”

Brent said Reba’s work with kids reminded him of a superhero. “I knew you as an actress and as a generally wonderful person,” he said to her, before shifting the conversation back a reporter. “But seeing her work with kids, it was like meeting Clark Kent – ‘Wait, you have this whole other thing where you are Superman?’ I had seen this superpower that I didn’t know she had. It was a very ambitious project to devise work with kids and adults and create an original fairytale, and the only way I could think of it was that she has this superpower.”

A SUPERHERO FLIES

His mythical impressions grew as he watched her work in the former home of the children’s theater’s on Free Street. She joined the Children’s Theatre of Maine during a dormant period, just before its merger with the Children’s Museum of Maine. She was hired as a freelance director for one season, then began running the program as theater director. She worked in a cramped basement space for a decade, before helping to plan and build the new performance space in the new home of the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine at Thompson’s Point.

“I saw what she could do with relatively nothing. To have the use of all this,” Brent said, gesturing to Maddy’s Theatre, “it’s pretty exciting to see the productions and what is possible.”

So far, Reba Askari, 41, and her creative team have mounted two one-person shows, all plays for kids starring adult actors. The third opens Sept. 17, “The Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus,” directed by Tess Van Horn and starring Savannah Irish. It’s about learning to share the planet, and explores relationships between wild animals and humans.

In the fall, they hope to begin presenting plays with larger casts, mixing young performers with adults on stage to create mentorships and intergenerational connections among actors. There also are plans for creating ensembles for kids that will focus on the collaborative process of storytelling and the steps involved in mounting a performance, instead of the final result.

Maddy’s Theatre, at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, holds an audience of about 100. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

With time, there will be opportunities to teach theater tech to kids, so they learn about sound and lighting design and backstage operations – and there is much to learn at Maddy’s Theatre on the technical front. During the August show, “Apollo to the Moon,” lighting and projection designer Chris DeFilipp created a video using footage from Apollo moon missions and of President John F. Kennedy, who launched the Apollo program.

“It takes our production capability to a whole other level,” Reba Askari said. “In the old space, we would have hung a sheet and gotten a projector. I have done all that at Mad Horse and other places. But to have it so the projector is hanging and all you have to do is pull the curtain back and you are ready for action, we’re pretty excited.”

Playwright and actor Bess Welden said Reba Askari’s ability to shape the program at Maddy’s Theatre is due reward for her decade of work to sustain the theater program at Free Street under difficult circumstances.

“It was not at all a theater space. It was a basement with low ceilings, but she made it work and she made it really inclusive,” said Welden. “Having this state-of-the-art theater for kids and families is the payoff that she so well deserves for investing so much time and energy and her stick-to-itiveness.”

Teaching theater to kids, Welden added, is vital work – and often underappreciated. It’s about teaching how to get along, interact and support each other.

“I cannot imagine anything more important for kids,” she said. “It’s not about creating professional actors, it’s about engaging bodies, voices and imaginations and doing it with a group of people and building trust and having a live audience receive this thing you have made. And I think we will need that all the more going forward. Having spent so much time in isolation, to have the chance to delve into your imagination and create something with other people is a real gift.”

TIME TO GET PERSONAL

Brent Askari has been delving into his imagination most of his life. He wrote his first play in high school, and continued writing plays in college. In addition to writing for theater, he has written a novel (“Not Ready for Prime Time,” published in 1999 about a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band) and for TV and film. He sold several screenplays and a TV pilot, “though nothing ever really got made. But I was able to get by doing it,” he said. He has performed in audio dramas and narrated the syndicated TV show “Animal Science,” which earned him a Daytime Emmy Award nomination for outstanding children’s program.

More recently, success followed as he began exploring his own mixed-race identity in his writing, often with a biting satirical edge. His mother’s family grew up in Portland, his father in Iran. He grew up “all over the place,” as his father pursued an academic career in Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas and Virginia.

“I think it’s common growing up mixed-race, whatever side of the family I was on, I felt somewhat deficient. When I was with my WASP family, you look at the pictures, and it would be a sea of blond hair and blue eyes – and then there is these two brown ones. And when I was with my dad’s side of the family, I felt deficient because I didn’t speak fluent Farsi and have never been to Iran,” he said.

“It took me a long time to realize that, actually, being from both worlds was was a valid perspective. Once I was able to accept that, it changed what I was writing.”

His recent plays have explored themes of identity and fitting in through the cultural lens of modern American politics. “Andy Warhol in Iran” tells a fictional tale, based on a true story about the artist’s 1976 trip to Tehran, where he met and photographed Empress Farah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran’s wife. In Askari’s retelling, Warhol shows up in Iran to take Polaroids of the empress, but instead is encountered by a revolutionary at the Tehran Hilton where he is staying.

Barrington Stage commissioned the play, which Askari wrote during the early days of the pandemic. The actor Andy Rapp, who starred in the original production of “Rent” on Broadway and in the film, read the title role during a workshop a few weeks ago. The play was scheduled for a staged reading, but was canceled because of severe weather. “That was disappointing, but the process was great,” Askari said.

“White Party” is a dark comedy about a couple who feels victimized and confused when they host their annual “white party” and none of their guests show up. They blame their cook, who is African American; their bartender, who is Latino; and Hank, a Middle Eastern guy who shows up uninvited.

Set in Florida, “American Underground” is about a future where Muslims are persecuted in the United States, where Islam is illegal and where its followers are jailed. He wrote “American Underground” out of the fear of the anti-Middle Eastern rhetoric that has accelerated in recent years.

“History is full of examples where animosity and prejudice toward toward a particular group started out as mere rhetoric and ended up as persecution and genocide,” he said. “I found that I was having waking nightmares about where this kind of rhetoric could eventually lead. I feared for my relatives living in this country.”

“Hard Cell,” produced at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York in 2019, is about Nick Abtahi, an American-Iranian college professor whose car breaks down on a cross-country trip. When he is accused of being a terrorist and his life is threatened, Nick poses as a terrorist to stay alive and uses his attackers’ Islamophobic fears against them to survive.

Askari has won numerous awards. His play “The Refugees,” about an American WASP family forced to flee a disaster in their homeland and settle in a foreign country, won the 2019 National New Play Network Smith Prize for political drama. “American Underground” was a runner-up for a new play award at Barrington Stage. “White Party” was an O’Neill Conference semifinalist.

The couple met on stage as actors. The twist to their recent successes is that neither has much time for acting anymore, although Reba Askari is directing the season-opening show at Mad Horse, “You Got Older.” The play was scheduled to open in spring 2020, but was canceled by the pandemic.

“I love directing, I love teaching, and I love acting,” she said. “While I am still trying to carve out spots for that, if I want to build the program at the Children’s Theatre, I need to sit down, manage budgets and write grants. And that is where I am right now – it’s realizing a dream, but right now I am in this buckle-down period so I can prove this dream can sustainably happen.”

Her husband is doing precisely the same thing, and they’re succeeding together.


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