Programmes > Professional Development > Perspectives on contemporary Iranian theatre practice

Perspectives on contemporary Iranian theatre practice

On 19 April 2010 Visiting Arts held a sharing session, hosted by Soho Theatre, about the experiences of UK directors and producers who travelled to Iran with Visiting Arts in January 2010. The event was attended by a group of over 30 UK producers, directors and cultural practitioners.

Image courtesy of Christa Holka. Left to right: Gavin Stride, Kevin Dyer, Sarah Chew, Sabrina Smith-Noble, Kate McGrath, Lisa Goldman, Jeremy Raison. 

After a brief introduction by VA, Kevin Dyer, associate writer of Action Transport Theatre, spoke about the relevance of Shakespeare in Iranian theatre. He provided context around the work by quoting information on the state infrastructure of arts funding and support, including details such as actors’ pay scales and the number of shows a director/company/actor is allowed to participate in each year.

On Shakespeare, Kevin read out statements from Iranian directors alongside his own observations and experiences of the Shakespeare he saw in the festival and heard of whilst in Iran: Othello, King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. The Iranian directors outlined their motivations and the resonance that Shakespeare’s worlds have with contemporary Iran and its society. A key message from the accounts was the mythic value of stories to tell truths.

Kevin also drew parallels between the use of Shakespearean texts as sources of social commentary and the Greek myths in Iranian theatre, having seen a performance of Caligula also in the Fadjr Festival. Finally, he showed an unrelated experimental piece about the creation of man from clay to emphasise that Iranian theatre was much more than Shakespeare and Greek myth, that it was sophisticated, conceptual, and that it was not always to be read as political work.

Jeremy Raison, artistic director of Citizens Theatre, followed Kevin with a presentation on socio-political commentary and censorship. He unpicked the local and international boycott of the festival that many Iranian artists participated in, though the festival still went ahead. He emphasised the moral difficulty of the decision to boycott or not, to shut down international communications and relationships or not.

He saw Iranian theatre as a forum which is active in its commentary on socio-political activity, whilst dressing these opinions in visually powerful metaphors and physical expression.

Lisa Goldman, artistic director of Soho Theatre, spoke of her experience of collaborating with Iranian artists in the Contemporary Myths workshop. She mentioned how the translation of ‘myth’ into Farsi was much broader than the English understanding of the word, and how this influenced the work and discussions that developed during the week. She spoke of the experience of working in a context as emotionally and politically charged as Iran was during the period of the workshops in January. She commenting that artists’ persistence to make work, and to be relevant in their work, was inspiring to her personally and in her practice as a director.

Sarah Chew, artistic director of Critical Mass, rounded off the presentations with a short talk on design aesthetics, presenting the use of minimal lighting and props by many of the Iranian companies performing in the festival. She considered this to be a sophisticated and highly creative response to a lack of advanced lighting and technology available on a mass scale, as well as budget and space constraints. Directors and performers in shows she had seen made up for this by designing and selecting props and costume with an acute attention to detail and meaning, with the use of lipstick, fabric, and other simple elements providing strong symbolic messages for the audience.

She also observed that pieces often made use of several different aesthetic forms in order to communicate a narrative in the best possible way, for example mixing physical theatre, circus and conceptual elements to express the story, rather than exploring one particular aesthetic in depth. This mosaic of theatrical form and style had the potential to produce interesting results.

Following the presentations, the four speakers were joined by fellow travellers to Iran Gavin Stride, director of Farnham Maltings, Kate McGrath, director of Fuel and Sabrina Smith-Noble, performing arts manager at Visiting Arts, for a panel discussion and Q&A about their time running workshops and meeting artists in Iran, as well as their experience of the festival platform.

All artists emphasised that the visit had brought about relationships with Iranian artists that they were keen to pursue, and that their practice had been affected by the clarity of purpose that they saw in the Iranian work and artists they engaged with. The sense of knowing who you’re making work for, why you’re making it and what you’re trying to communicate is of utmost importance to Iranian artists and prompted all of the UK artists to ask the same questions of themselves in their practice, to bring a sense of urgency to their work.

“It was a pleasure having you here [Soho Theatre] and amazing to hear those stories. The experience was obviously transformative for the group you took over – so well done to you guys for making it all happen. Please keep me in the loop with anything you are doing.” Paul Sirett, International Associate, Soho Theatre


Images all courtesy of Christa Holka: (1) Panel discussion (left to right) Gavin Stride, Kevin Dyer, Sarah Chew, Sabrina Smith-Noble, Kate McGrath, Lisa Goldman, Jeremy Raison; (2) Kevin Dyer; (3) Jeremy Raison; (4) Lisa Goldman; (5) Sarah Chew; (6) Kate McGrath, Lisa Goldman, Jeremy Raison; (7) Gavin Stride, Kevin Dyer, Sarah Chew.