Within a few minutes of speaking with Izad Etemadi, it’s easy to imagine his alter-ego, Bad Girl Leila, as a post-modern Disney Princess, who is eager to sing, dance and make new friends. Etemadi is quick to draw a comparison to a different celebrity, though, calling Leila the “Persian Judy Garland,” although he is quick to express his gratitude to Leila, the opportunities she has provided to him and the audiences and friends he has met along the way.
The talented actor originally created Leila as a minor character in his play Borderland, which he then took on a three-month national Fringe tour. The character was written as an older, intense Persian woman played by Etemadi in a one-person show. At the time, Etemadi was having difficulty finding work as an actor and breaking down the stereotypes associated with being a queer artist of colour. He felt that writing his own shows were his best opportunity to perform and advance his career. However, Leila became a breakout hit and audiences were enthralled. Encouraged by his director, Etemadi revamped the character into a younger, outgoing Persian immigrant who is new to Canada and looking for love in the original production, Love with Leila. The show was a smash hit, and in the last few years, Love with Leila has been performed over 100 times. A Very Leila Christmas soon followed with a tour across Ontario and Leila has headlined at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, and showcased at the 2018 Next Stage Festival. Leila has addressed some of the stereotypes faced by Etemadi, as they piloted a project that worked with refugee youth, bringing diverse people together to share stories through words and actions.
Audiences attending Leila’s latest show, Leila Live! during its limited run July 18-21 at The Cotton Factory in Hamilton Fringe Festival can expect the beloved character to showcase her vocal abilities, share her favourite songs and artists while putting on a cabaret. While the music of her longtime crush, Zac Efron, doesn’t make an appearance, Leila will explore a whole new world of music with an Ariana Grande medley.
As the solo performer in a high-energy show, Etemadi is also quick to credit the importance of the audience to each production, who play an active role throughout the show. “Leila speaks directly to the audience; there is no fourth wall.” Etemadi said. “Leila relies on audience participation and talking to the audience, so every show a little bit different.” With a strong background in improvisation, Etemadi frequently relies on this skill as he jokes and shares stories with the audience. He is also cognizant that many audience members may not want to openly participate and actively works to frame audience participation moments so that those who do not want to be active participants still feel involved. To keep his stories fresh and honest, Etemadi frequently utilizes his own background for inspiration, although he has been working with the character of Leila for so long that she now has a personality and stories of her own to contribute.
Etemadi credits Hamilton with being one of the key places where he received crucial feedback into the development of Leila, allowing the character to become who she is. “Hamilton has supported me and given me moments and a true understanding of this show.” He says about Bad Girl Leila’s past performances. “It’s exciting to come thank the city that created this character.”
Although nervous about the recent hatred faced by Hamilton’s LGBTQ2S community, Etemadi acknowledges the important role that Leila plays in creating a dialogue and notes that having a character and show that so openly addresses barriers makes a Leila performance- especially now- “more important than ever.”
Bringing people together is critical to Leila’s show, and is a key message that Etemadi hopes audiences take away from the production. “Everyone comes together through Leila. By the end, we’re dancing, laughing and eating together. It doesn’t matter who you are, how you identify; we’re creating a space where people can come together and have a great time.”
Who: Bad Girl Leila
What: Leila Live!
Where: The Cotton Factory (270 Sherman Avenue North)
When: July 18-19 at 7:30pm, July 20-21 at 2pm and 7pm (as part of the Hamilton Fringe Festival)