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Richard Jordan: Producing theatre in Iran and the US taught me to keep an open mind

Bringing a show to Tehran reminded Richard Jordan that it is not governments that make cities but the people who live in them. Photo: Borna Mirahmadian/Shutterstock
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Last week, I received the accolade of becoming the first British producer to have opened theatre productions simultaneously in the US and Iran in the same week.

Both were works I had co-produced from Belgium. In Iran was BigMouth, a mash-up of great political speeches throughout history that I have toured around the world. And in the US, Us/Them, about the 2004 Beslan school siege and how children respond to terrorism.

There is perhaps a certain irony that the visa process to play in the US was far more complex and costly than Iran, which seemed easy in comparison. On the other hand, were it an Iranian actor performing BigMouth, the show may well have been closed down.

Both these countries dominate the news and face sizeable challenges. In many respects, they are polar opposites but share the vital social purpose of staging theatre that remains urgent in these unstable times.

A theatre is frequently the beacon within a community that can draw many different groups together into a collaborative and welcoming environment. This can help to elicit change but crucially also affords a greater understanding of other people.

That point was made most viscerally in the theatre and work created within the Calais refugee camp, the Jungle, where displaced communities of all nationalities were brought together and differences were left outside. The venue consequently became a focal point for sharing and understanding amid chaos.

Any theatre that has a social conscience running through its work has an enormous responsibility alongside frequent challenges as it faces a changing political and theatrical landscape.

My recent visit to the US took me to Detroit. It’s often been treated as the poster city for the fragility of a nation, as many of its industries and communities have deserted it. Yet from street art to music, Detroit’s cultural legacy is being embraced by its artists and serves as a foundation for urban and community renewal.

Like Detroit, Tehran has developed its own unfortunate image as being a victim to governance under a brutal regime.

When you visit these places, and others like them that have featured heavily in negative news reporting, you are reminded it is not governments that make cities but the people who live in them.

There is an understandable annoyance from these communities in the way they are regularly painted by the media as being devoid of any positivity. That’s not to romanticise about either place; it would be naive not to recognise the colossal issues and challenges they continue to face.

It is a fallacy to assume that one whirlwind visit gives you a sufficient understanding to produce a show in another country

When touring internationally with a production, you often see each city from a privileged position. Your local hosts may even shield you from any dark sides. It’s often why the ride from the airport, usually to a downtown hotel and theatre in a good area, is often a revelatory experience as you pass through the different neighbourhoods along the way.

You are in a similarly privileged position if you are invited on a government-supported trip to meet local artists and writers. Sometimes these events can leave you feeling micro-managed, and even getting directed away from someone whose work looks interesting, and instead towards something less exciting. On one trip to meet “leading artists and writers” in India, it became apparent that instead all the people I met were relatives of the host who was taking me around town.

It’s why doing artistic research before you travel anywhere and reaching out to people yourself is hugely important, especially to find out about individuals and work that looks interesting but is not included on the host’s list.

In my producing travels, I always try to allow a few extra days for myself to meet different artists and get a more expansive – and personal – understanding of the place. This is invaluable as it also allows time to further explore the possibilities of collaborating with individuals you have met while out there.

Meanwhile, if you are thinking of touring a production to that country it allows additional time in its communities to consider carefully what would work there. It is a fallacy to assume that one whirlwind visit gives you a sufficient understanding to produce a show in another country. The process of development and dramaturgy of a work – especially with a strong political and social context – requires understanding and trusted collaboration, which means a considerable investment of time.

For those from the West, it can also be easy to forget that there are many places in the world where to be an artist or writer addressing powerful subject matter can be dangerous.

Producing and developing international work with a strong social and political agenda is achieved through fluidity, commitment and an open mind. There is a great responsibility to serve the story being told and of the artists creating and performing in it. However, the producer must also crucially recognise that the legacy of any such work is not merely the production itself, but what is left behind artistically and emotionally once you have flown home.

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