Conceptual Performance Artist
Conceptual Performance Artist

Theatre & me; me & my country

17 February 2014 // AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Theories // No Comments

Theatre & me, me & my country
Lecture by Mehdi FARAJPOUR
5th international Workshop festival, S, Korea 2008

Firstly, it was decided to discuss Iranian traditional performance forms, but primarily I preferred to consider Iranian contemporary theatre in terms of definitions of traditional forms. For many years, I have been thinking about whether theatre has been a suitable shield in the face of warfare, chemical bombs, holocausts, social problems, etc., and I mean many years, actually since my date of birth, the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war. Nowadays, instead of finding a good answer for that question, the question has changed into a new form for me. That new form is the question of whether theatre is prophetic or not. I will discuss the answer to that question in this essay.

Theatre without an open space for dialogue and room for protest, in order to enhance society, is a surplus kind of art that is meaningless. Such theatre is a harmless kind of theatre restricted by politics and religion. A kind of theatre which may be politically one-sided, it is used to recite elegies or propaganda in order to protect and maintain the present system. Notwithstanding the fact that Iran’s theatre is totally under the supervision of the government, and private or underground theatre groups – if they really exist- are considered criminals performing their shows for their unauthorized audiences in dingy basements and the like, it does not mean that these kinds of theatre groups are rebelling against the regime. These groups are looking for primordial freedom for artistic expression, meaning creation in a free and open space. The government tries to control such theatre by strangling its life pulse, known as ‘economy of art’. An organization responsible for this control is known as the “culture and Islamic guidance administration”. Even the words in the title of this organization suggest censorship.

Unfortunately, few theatrical departments and universities – not just in Tehran- have high level art activity. Because there are no structured programs for university drama graduate students, they often become disillusioned after graduation and go to work in offices and marketing, or if they are lucky, join the governmental system in order to take part in dull theatrical activities.

The whole Iranian governmental aim in art is to cater for classical forms of art, because exposure to free expression is threatening to the government. Experimental and modern art often is not supported by the government and they usually oppose this kind of artistic expression, by, for example, non-provision of performing halls for such genres, non-provision of budgets, censorship, etc.

On the other hand, an international theatre event is held every February in Tehran, known as the “International Fadjr Theatre Festival”. This festival offers opportunities to present theatre in a manner depicting the realities of modern Iran. Thus, there is a good chance in this two-week event to present creative works to foreign artists and guests in order to dispel preconceived and inaccurate ideas about Iran. The festival can be effective in achieving this goal, but it is a difficult game to play, as evidenced by my dance-theatre show called “Suddalayadi” which I created in collaboration with Indian traditional dancers in India. I applied to present my project in the festival and they let me perform it in the international competition section of the 26th Fadjr festival. Also, contemporary forms in movement and dance were forbidden in Iran for some religious reasons.

That is why student theatre in universities is a poor substitute for professional theatre instead of exploring another kind of unique form and that is one of many reasons of that. Student theatre, which should be experimental and differ from professional art in performing methods and subjects, has changed into a weak form of professional art. There are many reasons for this. One of these reasons is that students’ background in educational years is very influential on their future professional prospects. Please remember that professionalism is under the control of the government. Everybody can understand this reality by watching performances at student theatre festivals in Tehran. Another reason for the lack of creative artistic works in the drama universities of Iran is the educational system itself and the quality of instruction. Also, the selection process of lectures in order to teach in the universities as well as low payment for lecturers are other reasons for this problem. So, what is the result? Too many elite lecturers are unemployed, but less experienced religious people are lecturing, because religious beliefs are considered more important than expert knowledge within the system.

Also, “Free theatre of Iran” which presents cheap comical performances is not free from government ties. Contrary to the aforementioned name, it means a kind of theatre without any budget. However, religious censors oversee these performances. Thus, the “Free Theater” does not mean liberal theatre, but has an economic meaning. It means a kind of theatre which is dependent on selling tickets without financial support. Casually, this kind of theatre can be very enjoyable, because intellectual theatre when censored is not realistic and is boring.

About the creative examples of theatre works in Iran, The outcome of this is that there are severe limitations on theatrical expression inside Iran nowadays. With little attention, it is clear that the international dimension of Iranian theatre could divide in two groups. The first group is governmental directors and theatre groups that usually receive all travel expenses and wages from the culture and Islamic guidance ministry. The second group is comprised of Iranian directors, theatre students, and expatriate artists who do not live in Iran. These have international sponsors covering their travel expenses.

I do not belong to any of the above groups and I earn my travel expenses by conducting workshops and making collaborative performances all around the world.

I would like to give a brief about my discipline. Basically, I started my professional activities as a pantomime artist and at the same time I got my mastership degree in “Hatha yoga”. So, it helped me on my way. And then I found something else. It was modern dance, and then immediately contemporary dance. I spend almost 10 years with this kind of activities but no one of the forms could satisfy me. I was looking for a unique language in performance, something in common with meditation, yoga, dance, performance art, etc. then I tried to make my own method and I did. I established my own performing arts group called “Oriantheatre- performing arts group” and started to research. And I made some performances with my performers. Examples include first version of Suddalaiyadi, My last tape, and Auschwitz. Unfortunately, there is no enough written documentary material about the researches. After all the physically forms, Then, I discovered Butoh. It was a strange kind of contemporary dance, which I found it out very close to my ideas. Then I started to research about it by Taking courses, workshops, read books, etc. But I am not sure that it is the last form which will satisfy me!

Now, I would like to return to the topic of protest theatre in order to describe some traditional forms of Iranian performance. This type of theatre is both comical and critical. Examples include Syah-bazi, Rouhozi, Kheimehshab Bazi (puppet shows), and Sayebazi (shadow plays). These performances are reimbursing the new transformations of society. They try to criticize events using comical language. In my opinion, the climax of a tragic condition is comedy and that is why these plays choose comical language.

However, the most celebrated and famous Iranian play is a form of funeral show called Ta`aziye which is a religious play containing holy men’s adventures and stories. Ta’aziye, meaning Condolence Theater, and Naqqali are traditional Persian theatrical genres in which the drama is conveyed wholly or predominantly through music and singing. Ta`aziye dates before the Islamic era and the tragedy of Saiawush in Shahnameh is one of the best examples.

In Persian tradition, Ta`aziye and Parde-khani, inspired by historical and religious events, symbolize epic spirit and resistance. The common theme is the hero tales of love and sacrifice, and of resistance against evil.

While in the west the two major genres of dramas have been comedy and tragedy, in Persia (Iran), Ta`aziye seems to be the dominant genre. Considered as Persian opera, Ta`aziye resembles European opera in many respects.

Like Western passion plays, Ta’aziye dramas were originally performed outdoors at crossroads and other public places where large audiences could gather. Performances later took place in the courtyards of inns and private homes, but eventually unique structures called takias were constructed for the specific purpose of staging the plays. Community cooperation was encouraged in the building and decoration of the takias, whether the funds for the enterprise were provided by an individual philanthropist or by contributions from the residents of its particular locality. The takias varied in size, from intimate structures which could only accommodate a few dozen spectators to large buildings capable of holding an audience of more than a thousand people. Often the takias were temporary, having been erected specially for the mourning of Muharram. All takias, regardless of their size, are constructed as theaters-in-the-round to intensify the dynamic between actors and audience. The spectators are literally surrounded by the action and often become physical participants in the play. In unwalled takias, it is not unusual for combat scenes to occur behind the audience.

Takiye Dowlat, the Royal Theater in Tehran, was the most famous of all the Ta’aziye performance spaces. Built in the 1870s by Naser-al-Din Shah, the Royal Theater’s sumptuous magnificence surpassed that of Europe’s greatest opera houses in the opinion of many Western visitors. This takia was later destroyed by Reza Shah.

Kheimeh-shab-Bazi is Persian traditional puppetry which is performed in a small chamber. There are two people involved in the performance: a musical performer and a person called Morshed. The dialogue is between Morshed and the puppets. The method of performance, its characters and the techniques used in writing the puppet show make it unique and distinguish it from other types of puppetry. Also, a new genre of Iranian puppetry emerged during the Qajar era. Puppetry is still very common in Iran. Rostam and Sohrab puppet opera is an example of the most notable performance in modern day Iran.

Mehdi Farajpour, June 2008, Poland

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