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Excerpt: How Robert Wilson Once Staged a Play in Iran That Lasted 168 Hours

This Saturday, October 4, a daylong symposium at Asia Society New York offers a reconsideration of the Shiraz Arts Festival, the major multidisciplinary arts festival that positioned Iran as a worldwide leader in the arts from 1967 to 1977. Host to an eclectic mix of avant-garde and traditional performers from around the world, the Festival showcased such artists as John Cage, Max Roach, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Merce Cunningham and Ravi Shankar alongside Iranian contemporary theater as well as traditional Persian arts such as the Ta'zieh (Persian passion play).

Among the Western theater artists who participated in the Shiraz Arts Festival was the American director Robert Wilson, known for such boundary-pushing works as Einstein at the Beach, his 1976 collaboration with the composer Philip Glass. In 1972, Wilson staged an outdoor performance, "KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE: a story about a family and some people changing," over the course of seven days, or 168 hours, at the Shiraz Festival.

In the following piece, which appears in the catalogue for Asia Society Museum's Iran Modern exhibition, Wilson reminisces about how the work came to be and concludes that "I cannot imagine anyone today taking such a risk and commissioning a piece like this."

Iran Modern
Asia Society Museum's landmark exhibition Iran Modern, which runs through January 5, 2014, in New York, focuses on Iranian art created during the three decades leading up to the revolution of 1979. Learn more

I had an idea to do a play that would be performed continuously for seven days, a kind of window to a world where ordinary and extraordinary events could be seen together. One could see the work at 8 a.m., 3 p.m., or midnight, and the play would always be there, a twenty-four-hour clock composed of natural time interrupted by supernatural time. It would be a bit like going to a park where you could daydream, watch clouds change, observe people passing, and even read a book, then suddenly there would appear a prepared stage work combining the real with the surreal....

I first thought to present the work in Persepolis, and so I went to Iran in 1971 to find a location for my proposal. On the way there I visited a garden where seven Sufi poets were buried. After leaving this beautiful oasis, I noticed seven foothills that rose progressively higher. I was immediately attracted to this barren landscape that reminded me of my home state of Texas, with a garden at the base....

I could not possibly write and direct a play that was seven days long, so I created a mega-structure that I divided into hours, with twenty-four segments a day. I worked with an international core group of over 100 people and in the end we had over 700 people participating, including local students, people I had met in the bazaar in Shiraz, and people who lived in the foothills who had never been to Shiraz and did not know man had been to the moon, as well as people I had invited from Latin America, the United States, and the Far East. I wanted to stage large crowd scenes, and so it was suggested that I work with the Iranian army, and I gladly accepted. I divided the play into seven themes over a week. Day one took place on hill one, day two on hill two, so by the seventh day there were activities on all seven hills. The participants were divided into groups and each group had a time slot and that would repeat and run throughout the week....

At the base of the first hill I erected a sort of tower of Babel that had seven levels. Walking up this scaffolding structure, one could sit and converse with a wide range of people: artists, housewives, teachers, scholars, shepherds, etc. People were talking about anything and everything: politics, art, how to make a pizza, and how to build a house. There was an elderly storyteller from the bazaar telling stories from the past and a housewife from New Jersey conversing with local women from the city of Shiraz. It was a real cross-cultural view of the East and West. The entire seven-day play brought together a mix of extraordinary people. There were some with formal education and some with no education. Looking back at it now I think this was the most interesting aspect of the work. I cannot imagine anyone today taking such a risk and commissioning a piece like this. There was no censorship, no one telling me I could not do what we did....

I often think of this work as a cross-section of people with very different political, religious, social, and cultural backgrounds working together for an event that would happen only once, like a shooting star. We were like a large family evolving.

Excerpted from "KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE: a story about a family and SOME people changing, a 168-hour play for the 1972 Festival of Shiraz" by Robert Wilson, in the catalogue accompanying Asia Society Museum's exhibition Iran Modern, on view through January 5, 2014.

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