Life brims with dreams and expectations. Dreams and expectations put Chicago-based actress Fawzia Mirza, a queer Muslim woman, where she belongsin front of audiences.
Mirza's journey began Canada. She was born Ontario, but lived in Nova Scotia until age 16, before Mirza and her family moved to Wabash, Ind.
"I grew up always being an 'other.' You definitely felt very different…very alone."
Those cultural differences were as obvious there as they were in Hoosier state. However, Mirza endured starkly different reactions to them in the Midwest.
"When I moved to Indiana, I had never had people making fun of parents' accents," she said. "Nobody used it against me. It was kind of jarring."
Entertaining people, even at her own expense, became Mirza's coping mechanisms. It also fulfilled a desirewhich humans shareto be like everyone else.
My way of expressing myself was making people laugh," Mirza said. "Laughing at myself and having other people laugh at me made me feel safe."
She took advantage of the few performance opportunities in high school, which included participating in band as well as speech and drama clubs. By the way, she played the French horn in band.
Family expectations tempered Mirza's dreams. Her strict Muslim upbringing sanctioned structured group activity, while only prizing individual pursuits deemed worthwhile.
Heading to the University of Indiana at Bloomington changed all that. Like most students, education wasn't the sole focus of Mirza's college years.
"For me, it was about life…experiencing freedom," she said.
Mirza left a conservative Muslim, which forbade attending prom. After all, it was just hanging out set to music.
"Hanging out wasn't OK, because you weren't doing something specific," Mirza said. "It could lead to something not useful."
So, she seized those college days for all they were worth. Mirza started as a journalism major, but ultimately double-majored in English and political science.
But family expectations still lingered, making Mirza's dream major unacceptable. She longed to study theater.
"That wasn't something OK to be a career," Mirza, the daughter and sister of doctors.
When graduation rolled around and the real world called, she had to stall. Law school was Mirza's diversion.
"It was way to not get bogged down in other possibilities of life," she said.
So, Mirza got three more years of "a future that included avoiding future decisions." Law school was the lesser of two evils. It brought a hidden blessingin the nick of time.
Mirza participated on the trial team as a third-year law student. "There was some theatricality about it," she said. "Giving an opening statement that people want to hear … that was fun!"
The experience proved more than fun. It unleashed a dormant desire.
"That prompted me to rethink this fantasy that I tucked away," she said. "It connected with something inside that was just gone. It really reinvigorated my spirit."
When summer of 2003 ended, Mirza graduated law school and took the bar. She discovered she'd passed the exam in the fall. Mirza grabbed her dream with both hands after, respectfully, putting others' expectations aside.
"I opened myself to be an actor," she said.
Law school taught Mirza not to fear information. So, she began to do research. "You just kind of stumble through these baby steps of what being an actor is," Mirza said.
So, beginning January 2004, she made multitasking an art form. Mirza led a double life for nearly three years, working and learning. She was a litigator by day, eagerly learning to act by night. That working and learning paid off, when she snagged a role in Catharsis Productions' "Sex Signals" open call.
"It's essentially a funny show that talks about sex violence prevention," Mirza said.
The production has taken her to Ivy League and Big Ten campuses as well as seven countries. Sex Signals is mandatory viewing for the military. "It's just this beautiful, beautiful group of people," Mirza said. "They took me in at a really transitional time."
Mirza's father died as she emerged from a legal cocoon to become a full-fledged actor.
"It was a transition year in so many different ways … on so many different levels," she said.
Although Mirza defied expectations to become an actress, family loyalty and cultural pride remain. An abiding love and respect for her mother runs deep.
Catharsis Productions will pilot Mirza's one-woman show, "Me, My Mom & Sharmila Tagore." Workshopping and piloting begins early 2013. Sharmila Tagore is a famous Bollywood heroine.
"[It's] partially, in some ways, a love letter to my mother and my culture," Mirza said. "I am everything that I am because of those things. I want to embrace all of my identities."
Embracing all of her identities inspired Mirza to produce the short documentary, "Queen of My Dreams." She co-wrote and directed the project with Ryan Logan. It also features Tagore.
"Queen of My Dreams" will be on Chicago International Film Festival's lineup on Oct. 16.
Mirza turned the Bollywood film fantasy on its head. Instead of a sexy man singing to her, a sensuous woman serenades her.
"It was kind of an experimental project," Mirza said. "For me, it was a way to embrace all these layers of otherness."
Mirza most recently appeared as Marshall in the locally filmed production Scrooge & Marley, a gay take on A Christmas Carol. Other acting projects include Promised Land, Silhouettes, The Widow, Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together, Two Sides of Suicide and Not Quite White. Mirza also produced two other documentaries: Fish Out of Water and A Message from the East.
She's also earned notice as "Kam Kardashian." Kam, the forgotten queer Kardashian, began as a character Mirza did for an audition. "Whether you like them or hate them, they are a huge brand," Mirza said.
Kam has become the star of her own faux reality Web series to "make them accessible to a queer audience."
"One of the goals was not be mean," Mirza said. "That's not the comedy I want to do. When you think about someone disowned from a family, it's sad."