Act of Devotion: Couple wins over Syracuse theater scene, 20 years running
Navroz Dabu prepares for an upcoming Hamlet set design by building miniature models in his at-home studio. Each sketch and model requires hours of measuring out the dimensions for each final object. Photo by Christine Rushton
Binaifer Dabu plays Lady Bracknell in the “Importance of Being Earnest” at the Redhouse in 2015.
Photo courtesy of Bimaifer Dabu.
Binaifer Dabu on stage. Photo courtesy of Binaifer Dabu.
In the 2013 Redhouse production of “Noises Off,” Navroz Dabu steps from behind the scenes as a set designer into an acting role. Photo courtesy of Navroz Dabu.
Navroz and Binaifer Dabu visit with their son Behzad in January. They have two sons, both who share the arts with their parents as singers.
Hints of spice waft in swirls of steam. Pastel teacups brimming with brewed Indian chai rest on the sanded wood of a low table.
Binaifer Dabu and her husband Navroz Dabu sit side-by-side on their leather couch, the twilight sun still warming their faces.
Leaning toward Navroz, Binaifer offers him a cup of the family recipe she dares not alter.
Glass plaques rest on illuminated shelves across from the couple. The Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) awards for acting and set design reflect their dedication to the local arts.
Taking part in productions from “Hamlet” to “Noises Off” and “Othello” to “Cabaret,” the Dabus have donated their time to the Syracuse theater community for more than 20 years. Both act and Navroz also designs sets.
One of Navroz’s SALT awards was given for Non-Performing Person of the Year. Another of Binaifer’s was given as Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for her role as R2-D2 in “Star Wars: The Musical.”
Combined they have 18 performing arts awards, including others from the Theatre Association of New York State (TANYS).
“I don’t know what we would do if we did not have the theater in our lives,” Binaifer said.
Navroz sketches detailed designs of each set he creates. He uses the skills he developed while studying architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to model his vision for each production. Last year, he committed his spare time to constructing about seven theater sets.
“At times, I have to put my own money into the set because they don’t have the budget for it,” Navroz said.
His designs come to life in the studio he keeps in his and Binaifer’s downtown apartment. Standing in the center of the room, Navroz picks up a 3-D foamboard model of his latest set, “Hamlet.” The 12-by-4 inch design shows a miniature of the life-size version: a painted red door, latticed windows and stacked stairs.
Navroz started using his architectural skills in theater for fun in 2007.
His son Behzad’s middle school production of “Fiddler on the Roof” needed help. The school, Chestnut Hill Middle School, had a small budget, and Navroz knew how to build using inexpensive cardboard as opposed to the traditional plywood.
He turned a simple set into a recreation of the entire town in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Usually middle school sets have mostly painted backdrops,” he said. “But, we created a whole Russian village with the outside and inside of homes; a railway station; and even a large chimney for the fiddler.”
In 2008, he debuted his community theater design in an Appleseed Productions play, “The Dragon.” His design won the TANYS award for Best Scenic Design that year.
Navroz has used his architectural education building sets for several local theater companies including Le Moyne College’s Gifford Family Theater, the Auburn Public Theater,Appleseed Productions, CNY Playhouse, and Syracuse Shakespeare Festival.
Navroz also has worked for Schopfer Architects for more than 25 years. He contributes to building design projects in and around the Syracuse area.
While theater gives him an opportunity to use his talents in the performing arts, he said this season he will take on less projects than in the past. High demand for his designs have strained his time, and he wants to alleviate stress on his creativity.
“Never take anything from the theater. It’s always about giving to the theater.”
“My main motivation was threefold,” Navroz said, “to give my creative juices a chance to be expressed, to be a part of the activity and passion of both my sons and my wife Binaifer – which was theater, and this gave me a chance to volunteer my skills and creative artistic passion for the community.”
Binaifer also works outside of theater for Welch Allyn Medical.
She feels most at home on a stage, though.
Binaifer remembers her house as a child in Surat, India, as in a state of constant chaos. Her parents invited dancers, singers and actors over to practice for local productions. Her father Yazdi, now 78, founded the Parsi group Karanjia Drama Group, which still travels and performs.
“I would come home from school and all I would see in my living room was people rehearsing,” Binaifer said. “My mom would make chai and everyone would rehearse. They were acting like crazy people around the house.”
Like Binaifer and Navroz, Yazdi performs for free. His group only requests accommodations for room and board when they travel.
“Never take anything from the theater,” Navroz said. “It’s always about giving to the theater.”
Binaifer and Navroz grew up in a Parsi community of India. Parsis are direct descendents of the Persian people and migrated to India thousands of years ago. Binaifer describes her Parsi people as lovers of the arts and performers on the stage.
“(Parsis) are eccentric. They’re like ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding,'” Binaifer said, referring to the movie about a traditional zealous Greek family. “They were also the inventors, the researchers, the philanthropists, writers, creators; in our culture.”
In 1981, Navroz left his city in the state of Gujarat, India, to study architecture at MIT in Boston. Binaifer joined him in 1982 after their families agreed on an arranged marriage. Navroz had fallen in love with Binaifer years before during their childhood. Binaifer, though, hadn’t considered the chance of moving around the world, isolated from family.
She spent her spare time in Boston finding acting jobs and learning the art of auditioning. Performing reminded her of her father. And, it took her mind off the trouble of immigrating to a new country.
Navroz didn’t fully consider the cost of living in America because he knew he wanted the education. So, the couple worked to survive on a limited income.
“I came in a naïve way, I just came,” he said. “I genuinely didn’t think of the money.”
Battling unemployment, lack of income and expiring immigration papers, the Dabus settled in Syracuse around 1989.
Two sons later, the couple felt at home in the city. And, they’ve stayed committed to their Parsi heritage through the arts.
“I think in a way we are honoring the memory of our parents,” Binaifer said.
She has continued acting in the Syracuse theaters, and will play the role of Mrs. Sowerberry in the Redhouse Arts Center production of “Oliver Twist” later this year.
“As my father stated,” Binaifer said, “I want to leave my last breath either on the stage of acting or in the classroom of teaching.”