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Tehran's Very Own 'Off-Broadway'


30 Aug 2011 20:09Comments

Experimental theater finds a home in Tehran.

[ dispatch ] As night falls on east Tehran's Hassan Abaad, one of the neighborhood's old villas transforms into the setting of a nightmarish performance. For 50 minutes, the tiny audience is transported to an eerie, illusory world in which a slumbering man in white nightclothes confronts the darkest corners of his unconscious, mercilessly tantalized by three women in black spandex costumes. None of the four cast members utter a single intelligible word throughout the performance, relying instead on expressive physical movements and creative props.

This underground production is the latest opus of Naqsh, a nascent performance group dedicated to pioneering experimental theater in the Islamic Republic. With little chance of getting their provocative work past government censors, the group is limited to performing in front of ten-person audiences inside the home of its 28-year-old director Sahar Eftekharzade. Despite their marginalization from the mainstream scene and lack of access to public funding, the group makes the most of its own resources in an effort to introduce its Iranian spectators to the world of avant-garde theater.

"Our work is very physical," says Eftekharzade. "We don't base our performances around a story. Instead, we begin with an object or image and then complete the story around it." Inspired by the groundbreaking ideas of Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowsky, who in the 1960s revolutionized theater behind the Iron Curtain, Eftekharzade's work centers around the idea that the actor's body should be used as the principal method of expression. Unlike Grotowsky, who often used actors to represent objects with their bodies, Eftekharzade molds her performances around a central object and asks her performers to find creative ways of interacting with it. Last year, for example, she based the group's debut performance Alzheimer around an old suitcase and the nostalgic memories it evoked from the actors.

Because of their physical nature, Naqsh performances are a hard sell for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which must approve theatrical works before they can be performed in front of a public audience. There are few sexual references in Eftekharzade's work, but her bold choreography was unlikely to win official support in a cultural environment that frowns upon any artistic attempt to showcase the contours of the female body. As a result of these limitations, the group makes do with performing in front of audiences of up to 15 people inside Efthekharzadeh's family home. With around 20 performances per production, the group supplements the funds it earns from ticket sales with money collected from family members and earned from day jobs.

Actress Astera Mortezaei, 31, worked with several dance theaters in Tehran before helping Eftekharzade found Naqsh last year. "I wanted to be part of a good theatre group, where we could have our own ways and find our own method," she says. "I suppose what we are doing is bringing underground, private theatre to life."

Though isolating, working underground gives Naqsh the freedom it needs to experiment with new ideas. "There aren't many groups that work like us, at home," says lighting and set designer Hamed Soltani, 33. "We don't have underground theatre. This is a big problem in Iran: There is only [public theatre] and it's preventing the development of the theatre scene."

In addition to providing a much-needed creative outlet, working with experimental theatre helps Soltani, an architect by trade, escape from the quotidian realities of his life -- an experience he aims to transmit to his spectators. "That kind of atmosphere that we cannot make in daily life, I want to find in theatre," he says.

While experimental theatre is popular with audiences from Seattle to Calcutta, Eftekharzadeh was initially concerned that spectators in Iran would not be as receptive. "We were afraid that after creating something beautiful, the audience would not understand it," she says.

So far, that has not been the case. After ten performances, the group's latest performance, Phobia, has gotten standing ovations from intimate audiences that mostly comprise young people hungry for an alternative to mainstream Iranian theatre. At the end of one recent Phobia performance, the show's small, yet thankful, audience stood in the villa garden, waiting their turn to step out into the street without raising the suspicions of neighbors and passersby. "What they are doing is brave because they are abandoning the traditional path of theatre in Iran," said Pooya, a 26-year old artist. "Maybe it's not new in the West, but it's new here."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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