The Boy Who Danced on Air breakout star Troy Iwata on the compelling musical and why he loves provocative new theatre

MV5BNTAxZTYwMjAtOGExOC00MjhjLTg0YjgtNTU5YTliMmYyN2MyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTE1MjE1ODk@._V1_UY1200_CR85,0,630,1200_AL_During times full of sensitive social issues, theatre has always been a medium through which to confidently address the taboo. Theatre does not exist purely to entertain – sometimes, it’s important to be challenged to understand cultures and perspectives which may make audiences feel uncomfortable. The Boy Who Danced On Air, set in modern-day Afghanistan, pushes these boundaries as it explores bacha bazi, a cultural tradition in which wealthy Middle Eastern men buy boys from poor families, train them to become entertainment dancers, and very often sexually abuse them. The off-Broadway musical, playing at the Abingdon Theatre Company until June 11, tells the story of two dancing boys who fall in love during their search for independence amidst the power of tradition.

Troy Iwata leads the company as Paiman, a meek yet inspired teenage dancing boy who falls in love with the confident and independent Feda (Nikhil Saboo). The two quickly become entangled in a secret romance as Paiman explores the power of the human spirit and embarks on a journey from innocence to independence.

Iwata, a native of Lake Arrowhead, California, has the distinction of being the first minority actor to play the leading role of Percy Jackson in the recently acclaimed musical The Lightning Thief, which most recently received a 2017 Drama Desk nomination for Best Musical. Iwata played Percy in the TheatreWorks tour of The Lightning Thief prior to the off-Broadway run in the spring of 2015.

In additon to working with the up-and-coming duo of Charlie Sohne and Tim Rosser who created The Boy Who Danced on Air, Iwata is passionate about new musical theatre and has collaborated with several celebrated new musical theatre writers including Drew Gaspirini and Drew Fornarola.

Stage Door Dish sat down with Iwata to discuss the importance of taking chances on new art, leading a controversial musical that tells a fictional story based on heartbreaking truths and working on screen with powerful Broadway actors.

You’ve been with the show for a while. Can you walk me through when you started? I know you did it in San Diego.

I did do it in San Diego. I met Tim and Charlie, who made the show, in the fall of 2015. I worked on a separate project that they did, and after that project I did a couple concerts with them. Then they told me about this show that they were working on and they asked me to participate in some of their workshops and readings. They actually originally asked me to play Feda. That took place over the next few months, and then they told me that they got a production in San Diego and asked if I wanted to join them. I asked if I could audition for Paiman, because I think they just assumed that I would continue playing Feda.

What appealed to you about Paiman?

Paiman scared me a little bit more. Feda puts on this very confident front, which is a little more like me, and I think what intrigued me about Paiman was that he is a completely open book and very vulnerable all the time. He has this wide-eyed, naïve, pure innocence – but not in an airheaded sort of way. There’s an inner strength in Paiman that drew me to him. His journey seemed like an interesting arc to me, even though Feda is fantastic and Nikhil does a great job.

I know the play is based on the documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, but this is a subject without much source material. Can you talk about the challenges of dealing with that?

They told me about the documentary and I watched it. It’s not even a long documentary; it’s about 45 minutes long. Other than that, there’s not a lot out there. There’s the historical fiction book The Kite Runner but that’s about it. So we really just had the documentary as the base which is wonderful because it starts off from one perspective but they do interview actual dancing boys and their owners. It’s really interesting just to see their perspective and understand why this tradition exists, why they do what they do, and why it doesn’t go against their morals. There are certain interviews where the dancing boys were happy to be there because they came from poor families and were bought by these wealthy men, so they’re basically taken care of and given food and shelter. Then they’re often either married off or at least given a sum of money. Of course there are always cases of abuse, and sometimes once they turn sixteen or show signs of manhood they’re just thrown out on the street. We were fortunate enough in San Diego to have a couple dramaturges with us, some of them from Afghanistan, who weren’t involved in that world at all but who had connections to people who were so they were able to help us understand a bit more. In San Diego we had a very delicate process moving forward; it was very slow because we wanted to make sure we weren’t jumping to conclusions or making any incorrect assumptions. I hope that we’ve done a good job of representing it in the most respectful way possible.

One of the things that really struck me in the show was the beginning, and it also happens throughout the show, when you’re behind a curtain. It makes such a stark contrast between the towering man and this small child, and it says so much about the story, too.

It was also a strategic decision from our creative team because this is such a culture shock, especially to America and the Western world. Putting it behind something made it a little subtler and a less in-your-face pedophilia. It’s an artistic twist that made it more stylistic. As intense and disturbing this world is, I think it helps ease the audience in a little bit more. And using shadow play also really helped to represent how small Paiman is when he’s first bought, and through time we’re able to step closer to the light and show his growth. Obviously at the beginning Jahandar isn’t nine feet tall.

The other very powerful stylistic and visual element is the choreography. There’s one scene in particular where you’re on crutches and dancing silently. You don’t say anything but the scene speaks for itself. What is it like having this non-verbal tool as a performer?

Obviously dancing is a huge element in this story and in this world. Our choreographer, Nejla Yatkin, is brilliant. I think this is her first time choreographing theatre. The story is really important to her, first and foremost. Some choreographers are like, ‘It needs to look pretty and it needs to be impressive,’ whereas she can really simplify the choreography and still tell the story and create a really beautiful picture. I give kudos to her for keeping the story the top priority. And it’s pretty incredible to communicate with the audience without speaking.

I’m not a trained dancer, so when the process started I was incredibly nervous. Then I met Nejla and heard about her background; she may have been lying to me but she told me she used to train Russian ballerinas, so you’re expecting this lady with a tight bun and a cane. Nejla is this tall beautiful woman, and she is strict, but she’s also so soft and sweet and she understood that I don’t have a background in dance. I don’t know if she had choreography planned. I think she met me, and I just mirrored her for a little bit, and she watched me to see what my body was capable of. Then she came up with the choreography after that. There were many, many different versions of each dance all the way up until previews and the show morphed into this very fluid sculpture-type story communicated through dancing. It was the first time that choreography had an emotional affect on me. Nejla’s shown in this musical that dancing can be the forefront of the story.

Troy Iwata and Nikhil Saboo in The Boy Who Danced on Air.

Troy Iwata and Nikhil Saboo in The Boy Who Danced on Air.

It’s lovely that you’re making your off-Broadway debut in this musical because you have such a history and connection to the material. Can you talk about the process of bringing it off-Broadway and knowing that the choreography was kind of tailored to you?

It’s a huge honor. I don’t think a lot of people can say their breakout role was in a new off-Broadway musical. Just the fact that it’s new and such a unique and innovative story and one that not many people have heard about makes it very special and important. A lot of actors prefer roles in pieces that feel progressive and that force people to see from a foreign perspective. The perspective in this show is kind of the polar opposite of what we all know. It’s a privilege to portray that onstage.

What’s your favorite part of the show?

It’s either the end of act one or the end of act two, because Charlie’s written such a wonderful build-up in both acts that even though not everything is resolved at the end of act one, there’s such a beautifully tragic bow at the end of it.  We always get a few hollers from the audience there. The end of act two shows that even in this dark, twisted, misguided world, love still conquers all and there is still hope for change and progress. Even in the darkest places you can choose to see the light, and sometimes we need to be reminded of that. I wouldn’t exactly call it a happy ending, but there is a small shred of hope and light at the end, and that’s really all you need.

Why do you think musical theatre, especially new musical theatre, is important?

I think a lot of people don’t realize that art can be used and is successful at presenting new ideas and educating people and broadening their minds. It has an important role in our world’s progress. I always welcome new ideas. I’ve been presented with new ideas that I don’t like but you still have to respect them.

What have you learned about yourself or about the craft of acting through working on this show?

I’ve learned that the limits I thought I had weren’t even close to what they actually are. Two years ago, I would have been petrified to even read this script. Most of my career I’ve identified as a comedic actor, and this is not a comedic show. I’ve learned that I can push myself much further and that excites me for the future, knowing that I can just keep pushing myself and that if something scares me, I should do it. But it’s also exciting to learn that the big picture is more important than your own insecurities. Two years ago, there were times when I would have said, ‘I’m not going to do that role because it makes me uncomfortable.’ This show does make me uncomfortable but who cares? It’s an important story that needs to be told, so I can put that on the back-burner and forget about my feelings and be part of something that’s really beautiful.

Can you speak about how it might take a toll on you to play this sweet, deeply fragile character?

In real life, I kind of put a comedic wall up to deal with things, so in a way this is an outlet for me. It is scary but it’s also refreshing. I really love Paiman and I love playing him. One of my favorite things about Paiman is that he is very vulnerable and he is a little bit naïve but he’s a very strong person. When I first approached the role, I was having a hard time because I kept thinking, ‘Why is Paiman so stupid? He doesn’t understand anything.’ After working on it for some time with the director, I realized that he’s not airheaded or stupid; he’s just observant. He doesn’t understand a lot of things, but he knows that he doesn’t understand and he wants to. He has a very good instinct. He is wide-eyed and very sweet, but he’s also kind of a badass because he’s very resilient. Throughout his arc, he finally gets a fire under his ass and becomes willing to go to the literal ends of the earth for what he knows is right. It’s refreshing in a way to play this fearless character because most humans are not that way.

I want to talk about your film and TV work. You’ve worked with a few theatre people, namely Matt Doyle in Truth Slash Fiction and you appeared with Jay Armstrong Johnson in Quantico, so you already have this theatrical community around you. Can you speak about that experience?

I think it’s a matter of remembering where you came from. It’s really wonderful living and working in New York because theatre is always going to be the main event there, but film is rising. It’s not quite the same in Los Angeles. Theatre is such a big part of your life, but as soon as you meet someone who also does theatre, even people like Matt Doyle and Jay Armstrong Johnson, it’s almost like you’re in this secret club together.

When I was shooting Quantico and I was in the van driving to set at 4 a.m., I was the first one in the van and Jay was the second one we picked up. We had never officially met before but I had sung background vocals for a Broadway Backwards event that he was in, so he said, ‘Hi, I’m Jay,’ and I said, ‘Hey, I’ve never met you but I’ve seen you before and I sang background vocals for Broadway Backwards last year.’ He was like, ‘Oh, great!’ and for the rest of the day it was very comfortable for me to approach him and talk to him. At first it felt like he was on a higher tier than I was but he’s such a great guy and I still text him sometimes.

Even working on TV, you can always tell when someone has a background in theatre because they just have a different relationship with the craft. A lot of people who started off in theatre know what it’s like to do a community or non-union production. They know what it’s like to work hours and hours and not get paid. So you can tell that they have a genuine love for the craft. You meet these theatre actors and they’re so excited to be there because it’s TV, and they know all their lines and ask questions about their motive and they like to discuss the story. They just have a different energy.

Tell me the story about that great commercial you were in for Apple where you snuggle up to your ‘boyfriend’ on the subway.

My agent sent me an audition call for some kind of tech commercial, and they were looking for real gay couples. I said, ‘Hey, people think my roommate is my boyfriend all the time, can I bring him?’ She laughed and agreed to it. So we went and we were the only real couple there and we got it. So we had to pretend to be a couple for like two days and it turned out to be an Apple commercial. Then the commercial came out, and it had a minor explosion on Twitter because Apple depicted a gay interracial couple in their commercial. It was the first time they’d done that, so people thought it was sweet. There are a few articles about it. If you just Google ‘gay Apple couple’ we’ll come up. But sorry TMZ, we’re not actually dating. But since then we have gone in for a couple other auditions together. We always show up and there’s this one other gay interracial couple and they’re both six feet tall and gorgeous and they book it every time. Michael and I show up and just say, ‘We’re not getting it.’

As a relatively up-and-coming actor in the theatre world, have you received any advice or do you have someone that you turn to? 

I always tell myself that whatever happens happens, and whatever happens is what was meant to happen. There are so many things about this industry that are totally out of our control that the industry encourages us to care about, and it’s just a waste of energy. If you show up and you do your best, that’s literally all you can do. The rest is totally out of your control. Even I forget that at times because you want the job, and people are talking about how you look and sound and walk, and that makes you self-conscious. But really the most that you can do is just to be yourself. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Take yourself seriously enough that people know you’re confident about what you do, but there are so many times when even I have to tell myself, ‘Get over yourself. You’re not that special.’ I even say that to other people who talk to me in certain ways.

I’ve met people who are high up in this industry and I can understand how they’re so high up because it seems like they’re the kind of people who can put other people’s feelings at bay and just do what’s best for the company, but they have no right to be treating other humans as if they are less than them. That’s especially the case with actors, because without actors they wouldn’t have a job. I hate it when agents and casting directors and managers have an attitude toward actors, and to be fair there are a lot of conceited actors, but they’re so belittling toward us. Actors can still book work without managers, but managers wouldn’t have a job without us. We’re all a team. Let’s make art together.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

My porn career.

Oh good! I was hoping you would bring that up.

No but really, this show closes June 11 and everyone in this cast is incredible. We have a really great dynamic going. Everyone is very chill yet professional. I love working with Tim and Charlie. I always say that I love working with them because they keep it as unprofessional as you possibly can while still remaining professional. You feel so relaxed and you’re never afraid to comment on something if it’s funny, but you still get work done. It’s a very pleasant and fun experience.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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