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A vibrant theater community is waiting to be discovered in Iran's capital.
This is the quick summary of several weeks of theater going last fall. In spite of consistent underfunding, directors and actors succeed in putting on shows that are entertaining and often thought-provoking for large, enthusiastic audiences. Theater operates in the shadow of the Iranian film industry, which has garnered worldwide acclaim. Still, with prices modest (about double an already-reasonable film ticket), theater fans can afford to keep up with current stagings.

Home to half of Iran's population, the Tehran area has an exclusive on the country's major theater activity. The capital's two major venues -- the formal Vahdat Hall and multi-space Shahr (City) Theater -- share close to $1MM in municipal subsidy. Funds are allocated to each event to underwrite most of the production costs or sometimes only certain associated expenses, such as publicity. As elsewhere in the world, connections pay off. Ticket sales account for the remaining approximately two-thirds of the operating budgets of these theaters. Five other unsubsidized spaces downtown, 7plus a smattering in northern Tehran, complete the landscape.

Training of theater professionals is concentrated at Tehran University's Dramatic Arts Faculty, headed by Hamid Samandarian, who studied in Germany with Edward Max. Samandarian has had enormous influence because most in the Iranian theater community have studied with him at one time or other. Actors normally supplement the University's formal program with private acting classes taught by the leading directors. In look, most productions fall somewhere between our Off- and Off-Off-Broadway. Costumes are decidedly more memorable than sets, but lighting and sound schemes are rudimentary, even allowing that new theater construction and major renovations have been halted for two decades. On the plus side, large casts are economically possible, and rehearsal time is sufficient to achieve polished results. Criticism tends to be as rambling as the scripts, and at least in the English-language press, take-no-hostages invective is interspersed with cozy commentary characteristic of a close-knit community. One unexpected feature is an obligatory evaluation of how the script's moral content relates to society as a whole.

The system works like this. Each director must form a company to propose pieces, which are then assessed first at the theater level, usually by audition, and then reviewed by the Dramatic Arts Center for language and moral suitability. (Because audiences are drawn from more sophisticated sectors, this latter step has become more or less perfunctory of late.) Actors and tech staff are free to participate in any production, but directors are limited to one shot per year at the desirable Shahr Theater but no restrictions elsewhere. Pay is on a sliding scale depending on experience, and full-time professionals appear together with younger nonprofessionals. Comedies, both serious and farcical, form the bulk of the repertory. Dramas are often adaptations of Shakespearean tragedies and other Western classics.

The big annual event is the early-February Fajr Festival, which commemorates the start of the Islamic Revolution. After sorting through several hundred entries, the Festival jury invites about 90 authors and directors to audition their productions to vie for thirty coveted places in the theater lineup. Selected events are given a few times during the ten-day spree but return for longer runs in the following months. The other key appointment is the International Puppet Festival, which commandeers fifteen indoor and outdoor venues for a week in September.

To outsiders, Iranian spoken theater can seem long winded and static, with speeches approaching the length of those in the French Classic theater. A combination of influences likely accounts for this impression. Islam definitively elevates word over image, but also important is the enduring Iranian passion for poetry. Moments of inactivity are likely to be Wagner-length poetic parentheses meant to engage the imagination. While the Western tradition includes an actor's torso as an expressive vehicle, in Iran facial expression and voice tone are the principal tools at the actors' disposal. Iranians tend to use few gestures when speaking, and fortunately, this reserve seems to be generally respected onstage. The major shortcoming is what must be a complete absence of voice training, but audibility becomes a problem only in the largest spaces.

Most interesting of the fall offerings was a double bill of Wendy Wasserstein's monologue Bodybuilding with Lynn Nottage's Poof! The production marked noted translator Hooshang Hessami's return to stage directing after a twenty-year hiatus. Though his somewhat mischievous smile probably conceals as much as it reveals, he did admit admiring both authors' positive take on feminism. (Note: Hessami died unexpectedly shortly after these performances.)

Golab Adineh revealed herself to be a major acting talent as a widow liberated from her exasperating husband in Poof!, while Sima Tirandaz easily suggested Bodybuilding's independence-loving (and privileged) creator of exercise tapes.

The production wing of Dramatic Arts Center presented the first foreign offering in Rome's newly renovated Coliseum this past summer. Director Pari Saberi set Antigone with the trappings of a traditional Iranian passion play or ta'zia, itself based on tragic incidents in early Islamic history. Her indoor restaging at Vahdat Hall revealed a disappointing bombastic quality that smothered the plot.

Also at work during the fall, two author directors weighed in on the comic side. Hamid Amjad's Thirteenth Night Comedy at Shahr Theater's thrust-stage Large Hall connected a glimpse at Iranian women's status in the early 20th century to key political events of that period. Farhad Ayiish's Last Supper featured a sparkling cast of television and film actors in a satire of Iranian mores.

At present Iranian theater's greatest perceived need apart from better funding is more contact with professionals working in other countries. Iran has historically been a cultural crossroads, but misleading information on the outside and economic constraints within have curtailed interchange. A few foreign companies do appear at the Fajr and Puppet Festivals, but the German government's recently-announced exchange program represents the first significant reversal of the Iranian theater community's isolation. Not that there is any lack of internal discussion. If my experiences were representative, the dialogue between artists and audience in Tehran is a lively one that other countries would do well to emulate.

Note: Fellow journalist Kathy Salmasi collaborated on this article.

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Key Subjects: 
Tehran, Iran, Vahdat Hall, Shahr Theater, Fajr Festival
Writer: 
David Lipfert
Date: 
March 2001
Subtitle: 
What's On In Tehran