My Gay Toronto - 416 Scene

Sina Gilani finds mad pleasure in The 20th of November


"The 20th of November is at its core about how people are othered," says Sina Gilani of his starring role in Buddies season opener. "There is a majority and a minority, and what happens to the minority is important." And so audiences are invited to, "An intimate meeting with a madman."

Gilani plays a young man who is about to take a collection of guns and explosives to kill as many people as possible at his school. Playwright Lars Noren pored through the writings and videos a real-life mass-shooter left behind, and constructed the play from those sources. It has been a roller coaster for Gilani, "I've sympathized, empathized, was frightened. But with director Brendan Healy I was in good hands, figuring out who this guy is, who I am, and the space in between. The piece is for the audience - to deal with their own emotional reactions. We all have to meet him on our own terms."

Gilani is soft-spoken and articulate, a far cry from a raving madman. "When Brendan called and said, 'Come in, there's a project I want you to talk to you about,' it was as big a surprise to me as to anyone else." Gilani emigrated from Iran when he was 17 and a stellar student of physics. He shifted focus to theatre, studied and learned, and became part of Buddies Young Creators Unit and other youth programs. "It is a taxing play, a one-man show, my first professional d├ębut..." Gilani was not the only one to be surprised at, even after three gruelling auditions, Healy's casting choice.

"I was bullied in Iran for looking queer, for being interested in men," says Gilani. "And I saw the world from an Iranian context, it's a different language, a different culture. Then for this play I had to read a lot of philosophy, a lot of historical background, immerse myself in the German character. I know what it means to be the other, I understood what it means to be queer. That was my pathway into the character." And an unnatural character became a natural fit.

The 20th of November is being staged in a novel fashion: it is decidedly an "intimate meeting," with Gilani/the madman in the centre and the audience in close proximity. "At no point did it feel, 'This is weird' or 'I don't know what to do,'" says Gilani. "The interaction feels natural. The conventions of theatre are being explored but it's very theatrical. We had to find the style that does the piece justice. It's Brendan's genius not to let it be mandated. I can't imagine the play being performed in any other way."
Gilani isn't sure if the character himself is gay, though he definitely defines him as queer. "On a first reading, it seemed to me that big part of him was in the closet. We had a few discussions around that but its not what's being explored. For me being gay, being queer is more than sexual. For me to be gay without a partner tells me that gay is a philosophy. I as the actor am gay, Brendan is gay, but the character is what I perform." 

Gilani's casting makes artistic sense but how is he faring with the creative process? "It is intense," he says. "There are a lot of words, a lot of thoughts, it is a mental and physical workout that has stretched my soul in ways I didn't expect. Intense and taxing . . . but a lot of mad pleasure as an actor."

The 20th of November runs Sat, Sept 12 to Sun, Oct 4 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St.