‘Appearances’: A Quest for Family Connection, Love and Inner Strength

Creator Sharon Mashihi discusses her new podcast: a one-woman show that straddles the line between fiction and truth

Mariel Cariker
PRX Official


There’s the family you grew up with: your mom, your dad, your siblings. And then, there’s the family you carry around in your head for the rest of your life. “Appearances” is about that second family, the one that lives within you.

From Mermaid Palace and Radiotopia, “Appearances” brings to life an Iranian American family and community through the real and fantastical mental machinations of main character Melanie Barzadeh. The show touches on themes of motherhood, relationships, and what it’s like to be a first-generation immigrant in the United States.

We spoke to the show’s creator, Sharon Mashihi, about how this project came to be, what it was like to do most of the voice acting herself (!), how the show reflects her past experiences, and influences who she is today.

Can you walk through the inception of “Appearances”? How did this project begin?

There are many moments I can pinpoint as the beginning of this project. Part of me wants to say, “This project began when I was born.” Or, “This project began when my mother came to the United States and there was a revolution in Iran, and she couldn’t go back.” Or, even further back: “This project began in the year 727 B.C. when a nomadic tribe of Jews first arrived in what is modern-day Iran.”

Another beginning is when I was talking to Kaitlin Prest (Editor and Executive Producer of the show) about my wish to have a child. At the time, I was in a long term relationship, but the relationship was struggling.

I was like, “Should he and I break up and I just have a child on my own?” And Kaitlin said, “Yes, but don’t have a kid yet. I think you should make your own radio series before you have a kid. Because if you wait until after you have a kid, it might be harder to get your own show off the ground.”

Creator Sharon Mashihi

Then she said, “If you spend one year pitching the show, and one year making the show, then the following year, you can have your kid.” Since I’ve now spent a year pitching the show (really, a year and a half), and a year making the show (really, another year and a half), I now face the daunting task of figuring out how to become a mother.

You describe “Appearances” as a “one-woman show that straddles the line between fiction and truth.” What does this mean to you?

I describe “Appearances” as a “one-woman show” because I borrow from the theatrical norms of one-woman shows. I don’t play all of the characters in “Appearances,” but I do play most of them. In their own ways, most of the characters are a version of me, and all of them live inside my mind.

As for straddling the line between fiction and truth, the show wrestles with what is and what isn’t true the same way I do as a person. When I first set out to make this show, I wanted it to be documentary. But then I became worried that documentary would be exploitative. As Kaitlin often says, sometimes fiction is better at getting at the truth than documentary. But after a while of trying to make an entirely fictional show, I realized if I brought more of my real life into it — more of my vulnerability — the show would be stronger for it.

What are some influences that went into the creation of this series?

Early on in making “Appearances,” I re-read the book “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen to see if I could steal elements of how the book is structured. I also re-watched the first season of “Transparent.” I re-watched “Scenes From a Marriage” and Allan King’s documentary, “A Married Couple,” a couple times each.

I am always thinking of Anna Deavere Smith and Spalding Gray in everything I do. They’ve both been very big influences on me.

“Hunger” by Roxane Gay was an influence. So was “The Argonauts” by Maggie Nelson, and the novel “The Other Americans” by Laila Lalami.

Tell us about the audio world-building that went into “Appearances,” what was that process like?

I love talking about sound design because when I first started making radio, I was really really bad at it. I would put together a pretty good edit of a radio piece, and then I would try to add music and sound design. Everything I added seemed to ruin the piece.

Then, I started working in sound from the very get-go, sound designing each scene as I went along. “Appearances” didn’t start with a script; it started with me making very, very rough episode drafts and sharing them with Kaitlin. From the beginning, these drafts were fully sound designed, and often improvised directly into my microphone.

Sharon Mashihi (L) and Kaitlin Prest (R)

It’s very time consuming to work in this way because instead of spending a couple of hours writing a draft of a scene that ultimately might not make it into the show, I will spend a couple of days fully sound designing it, only to find when the draft is finished that I need to scrap the whole thing.

For me, it was worth the extra time because the way the show came out, you can’t really separate the words from the sonic world that they exist inside of.

What was it like recording all of Melanie’s family’s voices yourself? Why did you make that editorial choice?

It was so much fun! A lot like being a little kid playing with action figures, dolls or barbies. The imaginary world you’re creating comes into being and you get to inhabit every single part of it.

At first, we weren’t completely sure if I was going to do all the voices, or if we would cast actors. In the early drafts, I did all the voices just because it was faster and easier that way, and Kaitlin was like, “YOU MUST KEEP IT THIS WAY.”

At some point in the process, we tried casting actors, but it didn’t sound quite right. That’s when we started to realize that the show wasn’t a representation of “reality.” The show was much more subjective than that.

It made more sense for all the family members to be performed by one voice because these were the family members as Melanie (and I) perceive them; not necessarily as they actually are.

Tell us about your favorite episode or scene from the series. Why is it your favorite?

This is such a small thing, but at the very end of Episode 05, we hear a montage of a series of voice messages left for Melanie by her family. Even though I made this scene myself — wrote and recorded every word of it — every time I hear it, I crack up. The voice messages sound so much like messages I might receive from my own family. I just find that section hilarious.

What was the hardest part of making this series? What came easily?

It was really hard to be patient with the process. We spent a year and a half making this show, but it was only in the final six months that we figured out what it “is.” Early drafts were way too wacky to feel real or emotionally truthful. It just took a long time to find the voice of the show.

That first year, every time I worked on it, I felt mad at the show for not being good enough. It was pretty brutal.

Probably what came easiest was writing Melanie’s narration. I have kept a journal almost my entire life, and Melanie’s way of describing things is very similar to the way I write in my journal.

What do you hope listeners will take away from the series?

Personally, I consume art and media mostly to feel less alone. To live inside an artist’s depiction of what it means to be human. I am always hungry for the next movie or the next book or the next performance that I will connect to so deeply, I can lose myself inside of it and feel in rhythm with the pulse of humanity. I hope that at least some fraction of the people who listen to “Appearances” will feel that way about this show.

Listen to “Appearances” now. New episodes — from Mermaid Palace and Radiotopia — will be available twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday.

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