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International: Iranian theatre back from the shadows

Slow Sound of Snow by Jaber Ramezani ( Slow Sound of Snow by Jaber Ramezani
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While Iranian cinema has been in the international spotlight for the past few decades, Iranian theatre appears to have taken something of a back seat. But in recent years, profile-wise it has been rapidly catching up. In festivals and theatres major and minor across the world, it is easy to see that Iranian companies have built up a presence – from the Barbican, the London International Festival of Theatre and the Royal Court to the Lincoln Center and a near residency in countries including Germany, France and the Netherlands.

It’s hardly surprising. As arguably the world’s oldest nation, Iran boasts an unbroken heritage of 2,500 years that has always put culture to the fore. There’s a 1,000-year-old tradition of puppetry, mime and harlequin, as well as the ta’ziyeh religious dramas that rival our passion plays. In the 1870s, European theatre made its appearance and today you’ll find the likes of Martin McDonagh and Yasmina Reza playing in Farsi to local audiences.

This August, a delegation of Iranian theatre programmers returned the favour to European theatre, arriving in Scotland for the British Council Edinburgh Showcase. It was a notable month, as it also marked the reopening by the UK and Iran of embassies in each other’s countries after a four-year closure – timely in Tehran for the delegation obtaining their last-minute UK visas.

Daedalus and Icarus by Homayoun Ghanizadeh
Daedalus and Icarus by Homayoun Ghanizadeh

The visit is an important step, as Saeed Asadi, artistic director of Tehran’s Fadjr International Theater Festival, explains: “We’re basically here to start a cultural dialogue. Edinburgh is a wonderful platform which Britain offers where the whole world can gather, exchange ideas and have that dialogue. It’s a place for us to see work produced in Britain through the showcase and the rest of the festivals, to familiarise ourselves with the structure of the British theatre sector, nationally speaking. At the same time, we want to show what Iranian theatre has to offer. And, once started, we’re looking to continue this conversation.”

Asadi is also on the lookout for work to take back to the Fadjr festival, whose 34th edition takes place in January: “It’s those combined British and international elements of the Edinburgh festival that have made coming here worth it for Fadjr, since we are looking for talent from all over the world.”

Beleaguered as it has been on the global political stage, Iran has seen theatre, like its cinema, become a compelling ambassador for the country, its people and their achievements. And, as Asadi says, there is a lot on offer: “Our traditional and modern sides have an equal role to play in this. Traditional Iranian theatre, for example, is more about communicating our history and heritage, which creates a different kind of understanding in the audience. Modern Iranian theatre, on the other hand, is a perfect window into how life and thinking are in Iran today. I think people who are far from our country or who don’t have a direct connection may not yet have a real understanding of the quality of contemporary work produced here.”

5 things about iranian theatreThe Iranian model nurtures performance, directing and new writing in equal measure, and there’s a strong bedrock for this, says Asadi. “We have more than 20 theatre academies across Iran where most of our theatre professionals have studied, including all of the younger generations. In fact, we’re proud of the new wave of young theatremakers at the moment who are making their concerns known and pushing forward their own definition of theatre and the performing arts.”

The recent period of breakdown in relations between our two countries means that the UK’s chance to catch that younger wave in action has been sporadic – particularly for directors. In the 2008 Iran: New Voices season at the Barbican, British audiences caught Amir Reza Koohestani’s Quartet: A Journey North and Homayoun Ghanizadeh’s Daedalus and Icarus. The same year saw Atila Pesyani’s Devil’s Ship staged at the Edinburgh International Festival, while in 2012 Hamid Pourazari’s Unfinished Dream, a site-specific project set in a multistorey car park in Croydon, came as a commission by LIFT.

Over the Channel, however, visa- accessible Europe has benefited from a regular stream of Iranians such as director Jaber Ramezani, who has emerged from Iran’s student festivals to make a stir this year with Slow Sound of Snow.

It’s a situation that will now change, hopes Sasan Pirouz, executive director of Leev Theater Group. “The world today is no longer defined by physical distance and our ability to work with each other reaches far beyond that. Additionally, our government actively supports international theatre contact, which means budgets and subsidies for exchanges between Iranian and international theatre companies.

“At the moment the main focus is very much contemporary. The long-term strategy and planning that the government would like to see happen is not limited to showcasing productions but also very much engaging in educational and research activities.”

One growth area is the solo show, attractive for its flexibility and adaptability in terms of local strictures on content and budget. The model today, adopted all over the world, was developed at Edinburgh and in the UK, then exported as ‘monodrama’ in the explosion of specialist festivals globally.

It follows that Iran’s main independent festival happens to be a solo one, Mono Leev, of which Pirouz is also artistic director. “Our monodrama festival takes place across the year through our proactive accessible programming. We have a rolling season of four weeks of showcases. Leev Theater is trying to see what more we can do with the monologue form, to use our own modern language to reflect the concerns and issues not only of life today but also of our past, pushing the format beyond its boundaries.”

There’s no denying that the country has its well-documented challenges, and yet there is also the fact that Iran has a growing population of almost 80 million people where most are young, which converts into a large, enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience for most aspects of the arts. Pertinently, over the last few years theatre, in particular outside of Tehran, has become more developed and you will now find a wide range of cities and towns with impressive venues, infrastructure and catchment areas.

Creating links with IranIndeed, travel across Iran and you’ll find greater diversity than travelling across Europe, all of which adds up to Iran being a potent new market yet to be discovered, matched by its growing sophistication. Asadi says: “Our theatre has the experience of 160 years of contact with the genres and trends of European theatre. The latest articles, books and research published overseas are translated into Farsi and widely read, so we’re also very much updated on what is happening in terms of the theoretical side of theatre.”

So language is no barrier – or excuse – for the UK. But Iran is committed to reaching out, explains Asadi. “It’s a shame that while we know so much about the international scene there is very little understanding about Iran’s, particularly our contemporary theatre. So that is why we are keen to work more in this respect.

“And there isn’t just Fadjr, of course. There’s a wider picture to Iranian theatre all year round. Classical, contemporary, monodrama, student, children’s and puppet theatre, Iran has national and international versions of all of these. But come to Fadjr and experience our showcase, which should give you a perspective of works from the 31 provinces of Iran, as complex and powerful as productions being done anywhere else.”

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