“I keep wanting to come back.” I must admit that it’s exactly what I want to hear. As a lifelong Hamiltonian, I want my hometown to be the kind of place where people want to be; as an artist I want my community to be a place where the arts are supported. When I stop and think about how much the arts scene has changed in the last five years I get giddy. As I hear my own excitement reflected in Izad Etemadi’s voice I am glad he cannot see my ridiculous notebook dropping happy dance through the phone. I may be a little biased in favour of the Hammertown but I am in good company.
When Etemadi first came to Hamilton to perform a one man show ‘Borderland’ in 2013 he only knew one person in the city; two short years later he has connected to hundreds of people here, fans of his work who he feels more comfortable calling his friends. Originally from Victoria he has toured across Canada and tells me that he often connected with other touring artists in the cities that he visited but Hamilton was different. Here he felt that he really connected with the community, the audience. One evening, during a post-show discussion, a Hamiltonian suggested that one of Borderland’s characters was so fantastic they could have a show of their own. The idea stuck with Etemadi and the following year he found himself in the Hamilton Fringe Festival again, performing exactly that. ‘Love with Leila’ was a hit, many performances were sold out, and the audience was hooked. Etemadi tells me he often got messages from audience members after performances telling him how they had been affected by his work; not only its humour but its darkness as well.
During one performance he, as Leila, spontaneously promised the audience that he would return with a Christmas show, and so he did. ‘A Very Leila Christmas’ was performed at the Staircase Theatre in December 2014. It doesn’t stop there. After the 2014 Hamilton Fringe Festival Etemadi connected with the Immigrant Women’s Centre and hosted a series of storytelling workshops that culminated in a performance on International Women’s Day hosted by Etemadi as Leila and featuring 4 women from the centre. ‘Leila’s Girlfriends’ gave these brave women a chance to tell their own personal stories. “My whole life has been consumed by Leila and I couldn’t be happier” Etemadi laughs. There is even a webseries.
Both ‘A Very Leila Christmas’ and ‘Leila’s Girlfriends’ are being developed further for Christmas 2015 and International Women’s Day 2016 respectively but it is ‘Love With Leila’ that has become the biggest ongoing project for Etemadi. He will be touring a new updated version of the show this summer with performances in Toronto, Winnipeg, Stratford, and The Sunshine Coast. Etemadi still wanted to keep his connection with Hamilton and the Hamilton Fringe, and so a special performance of ‘Love With Leila’ will be held at the Pearl Theatre on May 21st as a benefit for the Hamilton Fringe Festival. This updated version of the show contains never before seen content and characters, including Leila’s parents, so even dedicated Leila fans will see something new. Although he is set to travel far and wide again, Etemadi tells me that Hamilton is a special place: a supportive community where artists are safe to explore the journey of creating something new and honing their skills. “Hamilton loves the journey” he says with a smile in his voice and I can’t help but smile too. Hamilton audiences love Leila and it seems that the feeling is mutual; “Hamilton Rocks” Etemadi concludes, “You can quote me on that”.