Photo: Jenny Baumgartner

Farnaz Arbabi giving a keynote during Bibu - the Swedish theatre biennale for young audiences, 2024. Photo: Jenny Baumgartner.

Farnaz Arbabi is an award winning Swedish stage director and playwright who often stages stories about identity, migration, exile and power. She has given lectures about her work at the University of Washington, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Aarhus University, Stockholm University of the Arts, and more. 

Born in Tehran, she came to Sweden when she was around the age of two. Being bilingual has influenced Arbabis works, and she often uses language as a symbol for exclusion and inclusion. 

In 2006 her multi-lingual adaptation of Vilhelm Mobergs UTVANDRARNA/THE EMIGRANTS and her direction of author Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s debut play INVASION! earned her the Swedish Theater Critics Prize, as well as the daily newspaper Expressen’s special theater prize. Swedish Radio also named her Theater Personality of the Year. She also received the Vilhelm Moberg prize awarded by the Theater Guild. INVASION! was selected and performed at the Swedish Theatre Biennale in 2007.

In Copenhagen she directed NORMAL, a devised work for teenagers, about sexuality, (Camp X, 2007) and UD I KULDEN/INTO THE COLD by Finnish playwright Leea Klemola (Nørrebro Teater, 2009). In July 2008 her Swedish adaptation and direction of the cult musical HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, at the Stockholm City Theater, kicked off the EuroPride Festival. The same year she directed Anton Chekhov’s THE SEAGULL/MÅSEN at Backa Theater that she and collaborator Elmira Arikan have reworked into a version for young people. She made her opera debut shortly after with Gian Carlo Menotti’s THE CONSUL/KONSULN, a political thriller from 1950, at The Peoples Opera/Folkoperan in Stockholm. Arbabi chose to set the story in a Swedish consulate, where asylum seekers are denied entry – much like todays Swedish migration boards system.

Photo: Lars Pehrson

Photo: Lars Pehrson. 

Arbabi went on to create two very different pieces about Swedens queer queen Christina – the first show at Uppsala City Theatre was a visual, musical and devised pop art performance, which she followed up with the play QUEEN CHRISTINA by Pam Gems at Stockholm City Theatre in 2010. Both works dealt with gender identity and what happens when you break the given gender roles.

In 2012 Farnaz Arbabi was one of the organizers, and the artistic leader for TRIBUNAL 12 – a peoples tribunal held on the 12th of May 2012 in Kulturhuset Stockholm. Inspired by the International War Crimes Tribunal that was formed by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1967, Tribunal 12 sets out to locate the moral, legal and political responsibilities as well as call for a change within the system, under the parole We accuse Europe of continual violations of human rights and the systematic mistreatment of refugees,migrants and asylum seekers! The Tribunal consisted of testimonies of asylum seekers and other migrants, experts and researchers and a number of prominent writers and thinkers of our time (amongst others Nawal El Saadawi, Nuruddin Farah, Parvin Ardalan and B.S Chimni). The script for the whole day was written by the artistic team, including Farnaz Arbabi, who also had the artistic responsibility for dramatizing the testimonies, directing the actors who played prosecutors and working closely with the set designer and art director. The Tribunal 12 was a unique event, live streamed all over the world.

Arbabis version of HEDDA GABLER premiered at Uppsala Stadsteater in 2013. With acclaimed actress Bahar Pars as Hedda, the story became not only that of a woman in a mans world, but also a woman of colour in a white mans world.

Farnaz Arbabi and the leading actress Bahar Pars. Photo: Linus Meyer.

Farnaz Arbabi and leading actress Bahar Pars rehearsing Hedda Gabler in 2013. Photo: Linus Meyer. 

Later that year Farnaz Arbabi directed Jonas Hassen Khemiris I CALL MY BROTHERS receiving raving rewievs and toured around Sweden with Sweden’s national touring theater. It also played in London at (Arcola Theatre) and Amsterdam (RAST) as well as the theater festival in Wiesbaden, Germany.

For their work Farnaz Arbabi and Jonas Hassen Khemiri received the The Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society (SPAS) peace prize 2014 and chose to donate the prize sum to the network Ingen människa är illegal for refugee rights.

The Arbabi-Khemiri collaboration continued at The Royal Dramatic Theatre, where a new play by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, called ≈ [UNGEFÄR LIKA MED]/ALMOST EQUAL TO directed by Arbabi. A play about poverty, economy, class and consumism. The play provoked some of the audiences at Dramaten, to the extent that they tried to interfere with the performance. Some even threw things on the stage to stop the actors from hurting each other.

As of July 2014 Farnaz Arbabi, together with Gustav Deinoff, is the new artistic leader of Unga Klara, the world famous theater for young audiences, founded by Suzanne Osten in 1975.

Farnaz Arbabi and Gustav Deinoff.                                                                                                    Photo: Sara P Borgström. 

Arbabis first play at Unga Klara was X (#swedishhistoryX) where she examined the correlation between Swedens history of colonialisation and the racism in Sweden today found. Arbabi mixed historical characters, documentary material and devising with the ensemble consisting of 14 actors. The play received raving reviews and sparked a discussion about the whiteness and racism in Swedish theatre and made theatres and directors more aware of perspectives, representativity and power. Unga Klara has since then continued to perform X. The play went on an national tour, also touring in Cape Town, South Africa.

She followed up the success at Unga Klara by directing the poem VITSVIT/WHITE BLIGHT by Athena Farrokhzad - a poem about revolution, war, migration and exile from the perspective of the daughter. Farrokhzad and Arbabi were invited to give lectures on the work at University of Washington and UC Berkeley.

Farnaz Arbabi and Elmira Arikan (far left).                                                                                                                                           Photo: Hussein El-Alawi 

In 2016 Arbabi directed FOREVER ALONE, a play for children 6-9 years old about loneliness and finding your inner strength, written by Elmira Arikan. The main characters of the play were two non-binary children and their imaginary friend a dragqueen-hiphop unicorn.

The artist Jason ”Timbuktu” Diakité engaged Arbabi to create a stage version of his autobiography A DROP OF MIDNIGHT. The performance toured in Sweden and Norway in 2017 and an American version of the performance premiered at Harlem Stage, NYC in the spring of 2022.

Arbabis version of Tony Kushners epic double play ANGELS IN AMERICA premiered at The Royal Dramatic Theatre in February 2018. Arbabi enhanced Kushner political themes in the play: about identity politics and racism, and how LGBTQ+-rights are comprimized by right wing conservatives.

In 2019 Arbabi devised BECAUSE I SAY SO - a theatre piece about childism - discrimination and prejudice against children. The play toured around Sweden and also went on an international tour performing at venues in NYC, Beijing, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Istanbul. The play was elected for the Swedish theatre biennale in 2021.

2020 Arbabi adapted the award winning postmigrant sci-fi dystopia THEY WILL DROWN IN THEIR MOTHERS TEARS, by Swedish-Ugandian writer Johannes Anyuru. This sci-fi story takes place in a dystopian future, where Sweden has a fascist regime that forces any so called "anti-Swedish" citizen into a horrific ghetto called The Rabbit Yard. Arbabi also did a filmatization of the performance that was aired on national Swedish television the same year. This performace was also selected for the Swedish theatre biennale in 2022.

She followed up on the success by directing her own version of the famous Broadway musical CABARET. It received raving reviews and sold ot the main stage of the Royal Dramatic Theatre.

In 2022 she wrote and directed BURN at Unga Klara – a story of two teenage girls whose friendship is so dangerously strong that it threatens to burn the whole world down. The play has gained international attention and several theatres in Scandinavia are interested in staging it. The performance was given the Swedish Theatre Critics Prize and selected to play at the Swedish theatre biennale 2023.

Photo: Carlos Zaya

 At The Royal Dramatic Theatre in 2021. Photo: Carlos Zaya.

Later the same year Arbabi was invited to Düsseldorf to direct DON GIOVANNI at Junges Schauspielhaus Düsseldorf (D'haus). The play caused a bit of a stir due to an assault scene that some audiences found disturbing. The play received great reviews and is still playing.

In September 2023 Arbabis version of the Broadway musical comedy 9TO5 opened at  Uppsala City Theatre. The show, with music and lyrics by Dolly Parton. was immediately sold out, and will do a re-run i August 2024. 

This year Arbabi is focusing on Sophocles Antigone, with two new plays based on the Greek drama. First up is her own adaptation of the play: MITT HJÄRTA SÄGER/MY HEART SAYS and is running in a suite with Erik Uddenbergs play LEV SKRIK ANDAS/LIVE SCREAM BREATH at Unga Klara. Her second premiere this year will be ANTIGONES VERMÄCHTNIS/ANTIGONE'S LEGACY by Athena Farrokhzad, opening in Berlin at Theater an Der Parkaue in November. This version focuses on the politics of the dead and the living, in a totalitarian regime where Ismene is the only survivor, trying to understand her sisters legacy and her own role in creating a sustainable future.