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Behind the Iranian Curtain

Contradictory Stages, a Theatrical Journey to Tehran

 by Torange Yeghiazarian
American Theatre; Dec 2010; pp. 46-51

A year after last June’s contested presidential elections, I arrive in Tehran half expecting closed cultural institutions and a general state of despondency. The streets have been quiet since many demonstrators critical of Ahmadinejad’s government were killed or imprisoned but the stages are burning up with sold out shows and defiant dialogue.  Almost every play comments on the recent events, directly or discreetly, through comedy or drama; the one common thread in every performance is politics. Surprising for a country where government authorities must approve every script. Surprising also for a country ruled by Islamic law that imposes mandatory veiling for women and prohibits close physical contact of members of the opposite sex. But Iran is a land of contradictions, not yielding to quick judgment, demanding attention and deeper analysis.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn about the prolific professional theatre in Iran. As an Iranian-American theatre artist, I too harbor certain negative perceptions about theatre in Iran, particularly when it comes to freedom of expression. Certainly, there are many restrictions on creating theatre in Iran but none have succeeded in stopping it. I’m told even during last June’s massive demonstrations, theatre artists continued to perform their regularly scheduled shows, at times to empty houses, because they did not want the authorities to take over the venues. The artists’ tenacity and sense of mission engulf me as I begin my theatrical journey in Tehran.

Tehran is a dynamic metropolis spread over a 760 km2 area on the southern slopes of the Alburz Mountains. Home to 8.5 million people, although the unofficial estimates are as high as 12 million, this vibrant metropolis has about thirty major performance venues including smaller neighborhood Farhang-Sara (community art houses) and university-based studio’s. Most of the plays on my list are presented at the Teatre Shahr (City Theatre), the Iranshahr art complex and Molavi Hall in the University of Tehran. Built in 1973 Teatre Shahr is a distinguished round building nestled within a large park on the corner of Vali Asr and Jomhuri avenues, two of the longest and busiest streets in Tehran. The Iranshahr complex of theaters, galleries, and cafĂ©’s, also known as Home of Artists, used to be a military complex. Although you would never guess it from the serene park setting where seemingly carefree pedestrians enjoy an evening stroll lost in conversation. Molavi Hall, a large black box studio, is the favorite of many professional artists because of its flexible seating arrangement and excellent technical resources.

Monday, March 8th. I walk into the 579-seat main hall of Teatre Shahr to see my first play: Life of Galileo by Berthold Brecht. I can’t imagine another play more directly critical of the church and its oppression of independent thinking. It is a big surprise to see such a production permitted in this environment. Directed by Dariush Farhang, who has not worked in thirty years, and a highly respected leading cast, the production promises to be a knock out. It isn’t. As the unimaginative staging passes before my eyes, my thoughts plod back thirty years to Ali Raffi’s breathtaking production of Amir Kabir, Iran’s revered 19th-century prime minister, on this very stage. Ali Raffi was but a promising young director at the time but his work was mesmerizing and mature. He continued to work after the revolution; his production of Romeo and Juliet -in full leather clad- was quite a hit ten years ago. These days Raffi splits his time between cinema and theatre. His first film, The Fish Fall in Love (2005) received positive responses and he is now working on his second film. While casting movie stars in plays has become a trend in Tehran, inspired by Broadway possibly, Raffi is casting his second film with many theatre actors. The audience’s feverish applause jolts me back to Galileo. “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” the accusation flies, “No, unhappy is the land that needs a hero!” Galileo responds and the audience goes wild. The exchange may well have been lifted directly from a debate on the Green Movement. Who is its leader? Does it even need one? Other lines like “Declare there is no Heaven –without fear! Declare the Earth revolves around the Sun –without fear!” equally excite the audience. Everything about this production surprises me: the theme, the unabashed questioning of authority, the audience’s response, the low production values, and the clumsy staging. The play closes two weeks earlier than previously advertised due to low box office sales. As it turns out, Tehran audiences are quite discerning.

At this moment, there are about sixteen productions on stage in Tehran. For every theatre artists that is working, there are at least three who are not permitted to work. I don’t mean that they are under house arrest or imprisoned, simply that their proposed productions have not received the approval of the authorities. There are several steps in making theatre in Iran. First, the written text must be reviewed and approved by the Supervisory Council (Nezarat) of the Center for Dramatic Arts, a part of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Irshad). This step alone can take months; Nezarat may approve, reject or suggest changes to the text. If approved, the Center for Dramatic Arts will designate a venue and allocate a budget to the production. Once rehearsals begin, officials will visit to ensure that everyone involved is abiding by the various laws on dress and decorum, and that the production in no way questions or disturbs the values of the Revolution. Even with this level of control, sometimes a production may be ordered to close right after opening due to some unforeseen objection. The process is further complicated by the frequent change in leadership. Each cadre enters the scene with their own values and criteria. It is full of ambiguity, this evaluation, approval and budgeting process but it seems to work for some of the people some of the time. And after all, while often frustrating, ambiguity does have its advantages.

Winter in Tehran has been unseasonably warm and I struggle to keep on my scarf and coat inside the small Sayeh studio of Teatre Shahr. The play is 12 based on Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose. The cast is huddled on the stage as the audience walks in over loud electronic music; upstage a large digital counter indicates 12. The 113-seat house is packed, there are people sitting on the steps. When the bright white lights come on, we see a racked stage with white walls housing twelve swivel chairs kept in row formation by straight raised edges along the depth of the stage. The twelve members of the jury contemplate the fate of the accused in this sterile atmosphere; they begin from near consensus, only one person doubts the guilt of the accused. But of course over the course of the next 90-minutes, new questions are raised and one by one, the members of the jury slide their chair to the Innocent side of the stage. The digital counter upstage keeps score. Although many in the audience know the outcome of the play, we anxiously anticipate it, our eyes glued to the digital counter until it displays the number 12. Directed by Manijeh Mohamedi, veteran Iranian director, translator and teacher, whose legendary staging of One Flew over the Cookoo’s Nest right after the revolution is still alive in the minds of Tehran’s theatre lovers, this production feels complete: all the design elements work beautifully together with the actors to deliver an intense human drama. The parallels to the current situation in Iran, do not escape the audience: the pending judgment against the innocent, the sudden swing of the pendulum of Justice in the “wrong” direction. I ask Manijeh why she chose this play, an American classic. “Because of its social relevance,” she responds matter-of-factly, “If the criticism is directed at the US, it is easier to get past the censors.” The audience identifies with the story none the less. This is one reason the productions of the classics, the Greeks, Shakespeare, even Brecht and Becket, are quite common on Iranian stages. Also why, some young playwrights set their plays outside of Iran. The Dark Distance between the Stars, written by Azadeh Shahmiri is a good example. Presented at the Molavi Hall, the play is set in Algiers during the War of Independence. Frantz Fanon’s clinic was neutral ground where Algerian guerrillas as well as French officers were treated. Shahmiri’s play imagines an encounter between the two sides at the clinic. While Dark Distance is clearly a historical play, the feeling of being occupied by a foreign power in one’s own country resonates with many in the audience. This is how some Iranian activists have describe their relationship with the government today. Clearly, the censors do not share this view. The Iranian government’s official anti-imperialist position would make it difficult to reject a play that praises Algeria’s fight against colonialism. “We have become experts at self-censorship,” Manijeh Mohamedi comments during one of our conversations. I get the impression that a lot of creative energy is spent on figuring out how to get by the censors, an art many in Iran seem to excel at.

March 9th. I go to Iranshahr theatre to see For a Fistful of Rubles, an adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor based on short stories by Antoine Chekhov, produced by Leev Theater Group. The action takes place on a tilted circular platform raised about four-feet off the stage. An actor is seated on stage and observes the audience as they enter. This is the Writer, the common thread that connects the five episodes. Minimal and dynamic, the ensemble acting is fluid and seamless. I speak to Mohamad Aghebati, a member of Leev Theater and this production’s manager. Aghebati characterizes the group as artists in their 30’s, born right around the 1979 revolution, who have been working together for nearly ten years with the goal of creating more opportunities for its members. After the events that followed the elections, the members of the group needed something to keep their spirits up. Everyone could use a good laugh. For the most part, Leev Theatre’s take on The Good Doctor stays true to Chekhov and Neil Simon’s comedic sensibility delivering the laughs and the punch lines. One episode, however, stands in stark contrast to the lightness of the rest of the play. It deals with the sadistic pleasures of power and authority depicted in an outwardly consoling conversation between the master of the house and the young teacher working for him. Performed by the director, Mohamad Hasan Ma’juni, the dehumanizing master crushes the teacher like an ant under his thumb as he calmly asks a series of misleadingly simple questions that turn the teacher’s honest and naive responses into self-criminalizing statements and force her to endorse the master’s illogical and unpredictable sensibility. This chilling interrogation scene seems to be presented more realistically than the rest of the play, or perhaps it just feels more real. One of the episodes in the original play that is not included in this production is the coming of age story of a teenage boy whose father takes him to visit a prostitute. The reason for the omission is presumably because love, sex and any kind of physical intimacy is a huge no-no on the stages of Iran. Women’s head must always be covered on stage (and film) even if the scene takes place in a private space where women would normally not cover. I have to admit that for the most part, mandatory veiling on stage is practiced with such wily creativity that it becomes almost invisible. Yet negotiating the intricacies of publicly representing private space is an on-going effort in Iranian theatre and cinema; as is the desire to create an independent Arts sector, one that is not funded by the Center for Dramatic Arts. According to Aghebati, For a Fistful of Rubles received only 20% of its original budget from the Center, the rest is raised through box office sales. Lucky for the group, the number of viewers during the three-month run surpassed 12,000, as reported by Shargh Daily. 

Having seen 12 and For a Fistful of Rubles, I feel better about the state of theatre in Iran. But these excellent productions do not prepare me for having my socks knocked off by what comes next: a breathtakingly innovative retelling of Macbeth, directed by Reza Servati, a 26-year old student of Tehran University’s School of Dramatic Arts. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at last year’s University Theatre Festival as well as first place in direction and set, costume and lighting design, Servati’s hour-long Macbeth is the result of a year and a half of workshop development. Poetically stark, the costume and set design’s timeless elegance and minimalism are evocative of Julie Taymor’s best work.  The physically potent acting style and the directorial choices remind me of the Japanese master director, Tadashi Suzuki’s reinterpretations of the classics. The play begins in stunning silence; the darkness abruptly broken by a sharp white spot light on the narrator delivering an eerie welcome speech. Looking more like the gatekeeper of hell sporting a handsome axe, the narrator introduces us to a tomb upstage, a versatile box/bed/door/gate -the focal element of the set design- on top of which two body bags rest. But there is no rest here. Before we know it, one corpse is decapitated and the headless body clad in a red velvet gown roams about the stage while the “separated” head remains speaking on the tomb. Within moments, the audience is unmistakably jolted into a surreal space understanding subconsciously that in this world, any thing is possible; there in lies the great achievement in creating and pleasure in experiencing this performance. The next moment we come face to face with Lady Macbeth performed by a bald male actor who looks curiously alike the bald male actor who plays Macbeth. Resembling twins in a cruel womb, the two characters struggle to relive their tragedy over and over knowing the outcome only too well. A fetus dangling inside a glass box appears downstage. Lady Macbeth’s lascivious interaction with the box is shockingly uncomfortable and a fantastic representation of her deep ambition. The intermingling of love, war and power continues in the moments preceding the actual murder where Macbeth and Lady M seem to be salivating in anticipation of their monstrous feat. Like a detective, Servati takes his audience on an investigation of the play, zooming in at times and pulling back at others never losing sight of their shared investment in rendering this interpretation meaningful. The play comments on itself through juxtaposed dialogue and like a good little postmodern rendition, pushes the text off its sacred pedestal. Having reduced the text to its most essential elements, the five-member cast inhabits the play with every pore of their being. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s stylized walk down stage resembles being dragged by an invisible rope as if their participation is against their will. The witches, performed by three men of small, medium and large physical features dressed in military uniform, march and sing their predictions in an east-west hybrid martial melody. The music is an original composition by Bamdad Afshar and is played live by a mix of traditional Iranian and western instruments. In the same way that nothing on stage resembles its real self, the musical instruments too are used unconventionally; playing the Santoor with a bow, for example. I ask Servati about his sources of creative inspiration. “Did you learn these techniques at the university?” I ask innocently. Servati chuckles, “I have to spend most of my time unlearning the lessons of the classroom and finding real information.” A sentiment perhaps shared by many brilliant young students world over. He names Gertowski and Kantor as his major influences. Indeed, the central participation of the design elements including music as well as the grotesque surrealistic world of the characters pay homage to Polish theatre. I ask about the actors’ walking technique, a kind of sliding forward by rolling their toes resembling crawling spiders; somewhat reminiscent of Kabuki conventions. According to Servati, this technique was discovered in rehearsal after trying several varieties; it took the actors two months to become comfortable with the walk. Cinema is another huge source of inspiration. Servati wanted to create a space where the audience watched the performance through a camera lens that zooms in and out; he wanted to “edit” the action and use slow motion effects to highlight the precarious nature of particular moments. I ask him why he chose to cast Lady Macbeth with a male actor. Surprisingly, it is not because of regulations against male/female close physical interaction on stage. “First we had two women play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the witches were puppets.” Over time the casting evolved; they replaced the puppets with one then three live actors and the female actors with men. Like many directors before him, Servati says the play should really be titled Lady Macbeth, she drives the action. To him, the important thing was for the actors playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to look androgynous and work together in unity. As I sit listening to this young director discuss his goals and inspirations, I can’t help wonder where he will be in ten years. What opportunities are available to him inside Iran? Will he be able to show his work outside of Iran? Macbeth has been invited to the Tbilisi Festival but Servati needed special permission to travel with his troupe because he has yet to fulfill his mandatory military service. While Servati remains hopeful about his artistic future in Iran, in my head, I review the long list of artists who either have left Iran or no longer work in the Theatre. Will they ever be able to return to the stage? Many believe that Iranian theatre of the 1970’s was at its peak, full of experimental creativity and diversity. Very few from that generation are active today. How will that generation’s experience be handed down to the next? History is such a major part of the Iranian national identity yet historical continuity is a rare commodity in contemporary Iran; the effects of which I am only beginning to understand.

I don’t have time to dwell too much on the past -or the future- as there are numerous productions to see. Next, 11:11 by Hasan Barzegar. I am excited about this new work by Barzegar whose writing was last seen on stage over five years ago. Co-directed with Roxana Bahram, 11:11 depicts a young man’s struggle to piece together the events of a particular night. The information comes to him in bits and pieces of dream and reality forcing him to repeatedly return to one particular moment when the time was 11:11. This feels like a young play about young people. There was a party; his girl friend was there, was she flirting with another? Is the young man paranoid or did something really happen? He is arrested by a very comical traffic officer carrying his own warning lights. The young man’s growing fear and restlessness layered within the hip music and clever repartee turns the performance into an expressionistic psychodrama. The comical traffic officer evolves into an inquisitor who is no longer funny. Standing on opposite sides of the stage during the interrogation scene, the young man watches as the officer flogs a bench deliberately. As the loud sound whips through the air, the audience is frozen, too afraid to exhale. 11:11 closes with a tender image, a glass box upstage lights up revealing a live bird inside, too familiar a symbol, and not completely necessary in the large dramatic scheme of the play, but a welcomed glimmer of hope. While the central character of the play may be dead, the small bird remains alive.

References to interrogation, imprisonment and torture abound on the stages of Tehran. Some plays contain outright criticism of the government, some ridicule recent proclamations. How they get past the censors, I wonder. Where is the line that artists may not step over? Manijeh Mohamedi offers a perspective: “Obviously political statements are allowed. As long as you don’t call for abolishing the Islamic Republic, politics is not a problem. Sex is.” In fact, not even one play so far has represented any kind of physical or even emotional intimacy. Based on representations on stage and screen, an outsider would judge Iranians to be cold and distant. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.  People typically greet one another with a big hug and three (yes, three) kisses on the cheeks. One frequently sees friends walk in the streets hand in hand. You would never know this from watching Iranian films and plays. This reminds me of a line from Victor/Victoria, “You can kill them but you mustn’t kiss them!” Can love be more threatening than politics?

Family love is at the heart of Blackout Dreams, co-written by Sanaz Bayan and Amir Kyanpoor, and co-directed by Sanaz Bayan and Kazem Sayahi, presented at the Molavi Hall. Acted on a bare stage with only a door frame, hand-operated lights and some sand, the play recalls the period of blackouts and bombings during the Iran-Iraq war. Now years later, the father and daughter, the only surviving members of the family, placed on opposite sides of a closed door frame confront each other and the memory of the past. The opening scene of the play is pure visual poetry: one actor walks across the stage in darkness pouring a line of sand behind her lit with only a flashlight. The play utilizes only elements readily found in a war zone: sirens, flashlight, and rubble. Each element is turned into an extraordinary participant, their minimal presence a painful reminder of the ephemeral nature of life. The door frame is repeatedly moved by the actors shifting the viewers’ perspective; it also creates an insurmountable obstacle between the father and daughter, one they cannot trespass despite the negligible distance. Blackout Dreams succeeds in recreating the ambivalent atmosphere of a home during wartime. The fear of annihilation exists simultaneously with the desire to survive. We watch the family eat, sleep and entertain themselves during the blackouts, responding briefly to sirens, listening for the location of the bombs, relieved it’s not their home, at least not this time. Throughout the play, everyone complains about stomach ache. The mother makes the sound of flying airplanes as she feeds her young daughter spoonfuls of food, “here, eat the bombs,” she says. After this, stomach ache is no longer just a passing malady, but a lifetime of carrying the wounds of war. We see the father coughing blood, perhaps due to cancer or exposure to chemical gas, or both. He and his daughter may have survived the bombing but they are far from healthy. My own stomach responds similarly to this play, churning with the painful realization of what so many of these young artists must have experienced during the eight years of war. I wasn’t there but Blackout Dreams etches a visceral understanding of war deep within my being.

Both Blackout Dreams and 11:11 are constructed episodically around revisiting one defining moment; the final bombing, in case of the former, and the arrest at 11:11, in case of the latter. The writer seems to struggle with an overwhelming sense of disbelief. The memories are disconnected even contradictory at times. “We live in a country where everything can change overnight. We went to bed thinking A had won the elections and woke up learning that B was president.” One actor had said to me early on. The recent election is only one example in Iran’s long history of unexpected (unbelievable?) turning points over the past fifty years. It is difficult to fully investigate the reasons for and the impacts of these events in an atmosphere of censorship and fear. To me, these plays are deeply reflective of this struggle.

A few days before I am to leave Tehran, the University Theatre Festival begins. Over the course of ten days more than eighty plays will be presented at various venues around Tehran. The schedule of events is unfortunately (but typically) made public only two days prior to the opening, still I manage to catch one day of the program. Street Theatre is its own festival category and I’m curious to see a few examples. Tuesday afternoon, I sit on one of the stone benches outside Teatre Shahr to watch five short plays. What these comedic mini-spectacles lack in depth and dramatic impact, they more than make up for with sheer energy and earnest commitment to the common theme of social justice. In fact, the references to the brutal treatment of youth, specifically university students, are so frequent and direct that I fear for the safety of the artists. But my companion who is an experienced theatre professor explains that university-based plays can get away with more than professional productions. From Teatre Shahr we catch a cab to Molavi Hall. The final performance of the night is due to begin at 8:30 pm; we have about an hour-and-half to kill. Dark clouds have covered the sky and rain begins to trickle down. Everyone in the courtyard of Molavi Hall is discussing the various plays of the day. I learn that the play we’re about to see tonight is headed for a European theatre festival. There seems to be a lot of excitement around this production and the artists involved. The performance is a combination of What Where by Becket and Mountain Language by Pinter, directed by Ali Akbar Alizad. The weather outside deteriorates into a full-fledged rainstorm and people huddle inside the lobby. It is packed. There must be over 200 people here, I wonder if they would all fit into the theatre. They don’t. In fact minutes after we are all inside and the doors have been shut, I hear the sound of arguments from the lobby, people demanding to be let in; they even knock on the door a few times.

Finally the performance begins. The stage is bare except for a few chairs on a platform. The lighting is minimal and full of shadows. Becket’s theme of totalitarianism and abuse of power is presented in a slow, calculated pace. An invisible voice instructs the next leader to repeat the same series of vile acts as the previous leader. The endless routine of evolving into murderous dictators is conducted calmly. The seamless transition into the next play makes them feel joined. Pinter’s play was inspired by his visit to Turkey where he learned about the plight of its Kurdish population. The play opens with a group of women dressed in black walking on stage at a hypnotic pace. Some carry an umbrella, one carries a suitcase, she is dressed in pink. The tableau they create together evokes an image of Theo Angelopoulos’ film, Ulysses’ Gaze. The women are waiting outside the prison walls to see their son/brother/father/husband. The guard is sadistic in her consideration of the women’s request. One mother is permitted to see her son. She only speaks in her native language. The guard won’t allow it. The son is ordered to remind his mother that her language is forbidden. She falls silent. The mother and son remain sitting across from each other in silence throughout the next scene. The wife dressed in pink requests to see her husband, she speaks properly, she is not ‘one of them.’ The guard, joined by the sergeant, has some fun questioning the wife. She grabs the wife from behind, presses the wife’s body into her own and squeezes her breast making lude remarks. Both actors are female but the sexually charged moment is unmistakable. While such gestures may be deemed a bit racy in the US, they are actually illegal in Iran, be it homosexual or heterosexual in nature. But like I said before, ambiguity has its advantages. The lights come up on the mother and son who have been staring at each other in silence the whole time. After a moment, the mother utters one word in her own language. In one swift move the guard drags the son away and silences the mother when she stands up in protest. One sharp wave of the arm is enough to silence her, for good. The guard proceeds to question and threaten the son. When she does not receive the desired response, the guard beats the son senseless, leaves his bloody body on stage and exits. Very slowly, the women in black walk to the son’s lifeless presence, they encircle him, one woman gently raises his head. They watch him in silence then one by one the women face the audience. In my mind, I hear the women asking, “How long will you let this go on?” A chilling final tableau that brings the audience to its feet in enthusiastic applause.

In an environment where realistic portrayal of private space and direct representation of social issues are curtailed by cultural and political restrictions, the theatre artist’s predilection naturally moves toward abstraction. In fact, none of the plays I saw over these two months are what one would consider realistic. Part subversion, part artistic choice, this departure from realism requires a commitment to establishing an unspoken agreement with the audience where the subliminal exchange is established one carefully-crafted moment at a time. This was frequently achieved with creativity and courage on theatre stages of Tehran. The audiences seem fully invested and extremely supportive. They clearly value the opportunity to participate in theatre that is giving voice to their social and political concerns.

There is a lot of speculation about the next chapter in Iran’s tumultuous political book. Who will write it? What will it contain? I don’t know the answers to these questions. What I do know is that there is an unshakable spirit in Iran, its presence acutely palpable on the stages of Tehran. After two months of vigorous theatre-watching in Tehran, I can say with certainty that despite ideological, political and financial obstacles, not only is theatre alive in Iran but that it matters- intensely, profoundly and with the power to transform.

Torange Yeghiazarian, Founding Artistic Director
Golden Thread Productions
San Francisco, CA.

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