Programmes > Exchange > Contemporary Myths > Contemporary Myths I

Contemporary Myths I

17-20 August 2009 Edinburgh, Theatre Workshop Scotland
Report by Sholeh Johnston, Project Coordinator


Visiting Arts has been working creatively with Iranian Theatre artists for the past eight years. In this time our work has probed deep into the cultural sector in Iran and has included producer visits to the International Fadjr Theatre Festival in Tehran, capacity building workshops in theatre management in 2007 and 2009, an Iranian Theatre Seminar at Edinburgh in 2008, and a curators’ visit in April 2009.

The Contemporary Myths project was developed through discussions with Iranian artists, and the Dramatic Arts Centre of Iran, who were interested in developing workshops, skills exchange programmes and collaborative opportunities around the adaptation of myths for contemporary performance.


Contemporary Myths took place in the context of the Edinburgh Festivals, one of the most dynamic and diverse showcases of British and international theatre in the world. This provided a creative backdrop to the workshop and allowed the Iranian artists to gain a wider understanding of the relatively new theatre context in which they were working.


The overarching Visiting Arts objective in this project has been to increase the range and depth of intercultural dialogue, and specifically:
 To provide the opportunity for Iranian artists to begin working practically in an intercultural context with UK artists.
 To provide UK artists with the opportunity to work with Iranian artists on common interests in their work and culture.
 To unite artists from vastly different regions of the world around a common interest in contemporary myth-making.
 To facilitate relationship-building and networking between the international artists and UK artists and arts organisations.
 To encourage intercultural dialogue between artists in the Middle East region and the UK.
 To foster collaborative working and the development of co-created international work.
 To facilitate the development of skills relevant to collaborative working.
 To creatively stimulate all participants, both through the workshop and through the context of one of the world’s most significant theatre festivals.


Graham McLaren, Artistic Director, Theatre Babel (UK)
Tim Supple, Co-director, Dash Arts (UK)
Ninaz Khodaiji, Head of Asian Arts Development, Watermans (UK) Kumars Moradi, Director, Tajrobeh Theater Group (Iran)
Nasim Ahmadpour-Samani, Dramaturge and co-director, Don Quixote Theater Group (Iran)
Mohammad Aghebati, Director, Leev Theater Group (Iran)

There were also a group of actors present in the workshop who were used by the directors to illustrate practically concepts and ideas discussed and “workshopped” during the Contemporary Myths programme. These actors were selected by the directors themselves, in consultation with Visiting Arts, from applications invited through an open call. Those chosen to participate were:
 Yuki Ellias
 Steven Rae
 Soraya Nabipour
 Miguel Pinheiro
 Lucy Rasheed

Film Crew
The workshop process was documented by four film makers/photographers. The media crew involved were:
Christian McLaughlin (Film)
Robin McNicholas, Flat-e LTD (Film)
Charlie Cattrall (Film)
Barney Steel, The Found Collective (Photography)

Workshop Overview

The project gave three Iranian directors who had taken part in the Visiting Arts theatre management workshop programme in Iran the opportunity to visit the Edinburgh Festivals for one week and work creatively with established UK theatre practitioners around a genre of theatre that is popular, perhaps for different reasons, in both countries. Through a four- day workshop programme from 17-20 August, the artists shared experience and expertise, and began to unpick the role that myths play in our contemporary, and increasingly intercultural, existence. This was done through seminar presentations, open space technology, facilitated sessions on practice and method, and free sessions in which anyone could take the reins and lead on discussing or workshopping an idea.

Seminar day, 17 August
Joyce McMillan chaired the opening session of the workshop which consisted of presentations from each of the participating directors. They spoke about their work, their theatre companies, and focused on one or two of their productions that engaged with the theme of contemporary myths, as a means of illustrating practically their practise and throwing up questions and material that could spark discussions in the Q&A session after each speaker. The directors were interested in each other’s work, often abandoning time constraints to learn and discuss in more depth. It emerged that there were many cultural and thematic crossovers between the UK and Iranian directors’ work, and also interesting deviations, for example the Iranians’ manipulation of western myth stories, such as Oedipus, Julius Cesar and The Little Prince. The afternoon session involved the use of Open Space Technology to gather the ideas, questions and statements of interest from the presentations. These were democratically prioritised by the group to reveal the most important areas for exploration over the next three workshop days. The session was facilitated by Julie Ellen. Some of the highly rated priority action points decided by the group (there were 35 in total) were:
 Is it necessary to create a “dream logic” to enable the myth to take shape in a production? Does myth need to exist in a new and/or separate world and/or reality?
 Explore the different attitudes to tradition – is tradition something that the Iranian directors want to break, and do the UK directors try to find and connect with it more?
 If the Iranians seek to escape tradition, why is this?
o To escape from censorship?
o They are given licence by censorship to be creative with their dramatic symbolism – e.g. eating apple to symbolise making love
 What do we mean by myth?
 To learn about the differences in working methods of Iranian and British directors.
 To see where the traditions of theatre making come from. What is the working practice of
the Iranian directors?
o Attitude to myths
o Way of making theatre
o What are the practices directors share, what ideas and working methods?
 How daring can the Iranian directors be in their political climate?
 What does the ‘Shahnameh’ mean to people?
 (How) do we create our own contemporary myths, e.g. exposing media myths through the
telling of two extreme perspectives?
 How different are our audiences, and what do they look for?

Workshop days, 18-20 August
Tim Supple and Graham McLaren led the morning sessions of 18 and 19 August, and the afternoon sessions were left open. In both cases the group decided to look deeper into the working methods introduced in the morning sessions, with the Iranians being more active in their vocal and practical illustrations of differences in their own working methods.
Tim Supple used the text of the Persian epic classic, ‘Shahnameh’ or ‘Book of Kings’, as a starting point for his exercises, first familiarising the whole group with the text and then asking the Iranian directors to speak about their approaches to traditional and nationally precious texts such as this. The discussions that ensued touched upon the danger of ‘theatrical tourism’ – the practice of deciding a director’s contemporary vision and interpretation of a text without a full understanding of the depth of cultural significance and reference that the work has in the original language. The universality of some of the characters, and appearances that they make in western myth under a different guise, was also touched upon, leading to the consideration of how myths can have common roots which bridge several different cultural contexts, and can create understanding that cuts across language and national divides.

Graham McLaren’s morning session focused on the way that we read myth, and particularly play texts adapted from myth. He guided the group through a process of ‘actioning’ the script, and worked with the actors to physically enact the stages of actioning. This process fascinated the Iranian directors; a valuable outcome was their challenge to the group to think of how such method could be applied in a context such as Iran, where the sometimes heavily physical actioning exercises would not be allowed on a public stage. They illustrated how, in their practice, they had to create visual, symbolic and/or audio alternatives to physical contact which an Iranian audience would be able to associate with the physicality missing from the scene. For example, a husband leaving his wife for three months would not be able to embrace her on stage in Iran, so he would take the end of her scarf and kiss it as one would an item of immense emotional significance, such as Catholics would their rosaries.

To explore the way in which contemporary theatre tends to overlook scenes or elements of myth that are not politically correct, or are overly disturbing, Ninaz Khodaiji introduced the Iranian directors to the method acting of the Lee Strasburg School in New York. She focused on the text of Taming of the Shrew to illustrate this through Kate’s limp, which is rarely
acknowledged as a stage direction in modern performances of the play; they overlook her disability.

I am really pleased to have taken part in this workshop, as I now feel like we are part of one theatrical family; we are not defined by nation or race, but simply by our presence here as artists. My dream is that the individuals participating in this workshop can continue this collaboration and take these discussions, exercises and experiences towards creating a new piece of theatre, our own contemporary myth, together. The experience of being creatively challenged in the workshops, while simultaneously soaking up the plethora of creative offerings at the Festivals, was one that the Iranian artists relished, especially as they realised that the work being produced in Iran and the methods and approaches being used to create it were in fact similar to that of the UK directors, and the standard was high in comparison to some of the best work they saw in the festival. It’s good to come outside of Iran, where we are relatively cut off from the rest of the world, and be exposed to other practitioners’ methods, because we realise here that we are not behind the rest of the world, we are in fact very sophisticated in our theatre practice and have much more in common with international directors, and much more to offer an international theatre context than we have come to believe in Iran. – Kumars Moradi


As a result of this visit to the Edinburgh Festivals the following activity has already been initiated:
 Nasim Ahmadpour-Samani is now collaborating with The Paper Birds Theatre Company on a research and development project around the theme of ‘the other’.
 Nasim is in talks with the Edinburgh Middle East Festival about bringing a production to their 2011 festival.
 Tim Supple will plan for a visit to Iran to do further research with the Iranian artists who took part in this project, and for them to assist him in building relationships with other organisations and artists in Iran, working towards development for his 2010 production of ‘Shahnameh’ with the National Theatre.
 The Iranian artists would like to pursue the possibility of bringing Graham McLaren to Iran for a workshop on his artistic process.
 Visiting Arts have been invited by the Dramatic Arts Centre of Iran to attend the Fadjr International Theatre Festival 2010, and we are in discussions about holding the second part of the Contemporary Myths workshop in the context of the festival.
 Theatre O are also developing work on the creation of contemporary myths and would like to pursue the possibility of Visiting Arts bringing an international dimension to the project by facilitating the involvement of Iranian artists.

A big thanks to all of the participants of the workshop for their energy, enthusiasm, creativity and generosity – without you this workshop would not have existed. Thanks to Joyce McMillan for chairing the opening session, and to Julie Ellen for facilitating the open space session. Thanks to Christian McLaughlin, Robin McNicholas, Charlie Cattrall and Barney Steel for doing a brilliantly diligent job of documenting the workshop. Special thanks to the team at Theatre Workshop Scotland – Robert Rae for agreeing to host us, and Anne Flemings and Ruth Holloway for sticking with us to the end and assisting with venue arrangements. Thanks to Christine Ross in the Theatre Workshop Café Bar for the delicious lunches and to Aaron for his technical help. Many thanks to Matt Roe at Dance Base for the special reception he laid on for Visiting Arts in honour of our Iranian guests, and to Caroline Brophy at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre for hosting our Producers’ Breakfast event.