From 1967-77, the Shiraz Arts Festival presented more than fifty traditional as well as contemporary and experimental productions from Iran, India, Japan, Eastern and Western Europe, Africa, U.S., and Latin America, and accommodated a number of independent drama productions as “ancillary” programs.18
TRADITIONAL IRANIAN THEATRE
In terms of Iran, the festival had a twofold goal. One was to revitalize the indigenous Iranian dramatic arts, and the other, to stimulate the growth of theatre in Iran and propel it to international standards.
The indigenous Iranian dramatic arts constitute naqqali, a storytelling tradition involving dramatic recitations of Persian epic poetry and other narrative literature; ta’ziyeh (also known as shabih-khani), a Shi’ite mourning ritual commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hossein at the battle of Karbala in 680 C.E.; and ruhowzi, popular performances imbued with social satire.
The inaugural festival in 1967 presented a series of performances featuring some of the most notable naqqals in the country. In the same year Parviz Sayyad presented Ta’ziyeh Horr, the first public enactment of ta’ziyeh outside rural areas since they were banned in 1933. Following the warm public reception of Horr, Sayyad produced Ta’ziyeh Moslem in 1970, and in 1971, Khorouj-e Mokhtar, an account centered on revenge that has comic overtones and no martyrs and is traditionally performed on the 13th of Muharram to provide relief after ten days of mourning. In 1976, Mohammad-Baqer Ghaffari who had traveled for a year and a half in search of ta’ziyeh performers and musicians produced and directed seven ta’ziyehs in different venues, Hosseinieh Moshir in Shiraz, and the village of Kaftarak nearby where about 10,000 spectators attended free of charge. In the same year, the festival hosted an international seminar on ta’ziyeh chaired by Peter Chelkowski, where approaching ta’ziyeh as pure drama and presenting it outside a religious/ritualistic context was a subject of lively and as yet unsettled discussion and debate.
Ta’ziyeh had an important impact on some foreign directors, notably Peter Brook who in spring 1970 had watched an unadulterated, excerpt presentation of Ta’ziyeh Moslem in a village close to Neishabour in Khorassan.
The festival’s interest in exploring and presenting traditional Iranian theatre included a ruhowzi festival and seminar at the 11th festival in 1977.
CONTEMPORARY IRANIAN THEATRE
To address its second goal, the Shiraz Arts Festival launched a playwriting competition in 1967 that in 1969 led to the founding of NIRT’s Theatre Workshop, Kargah-e Nemayesh, Bijan Saffari, Artistic Director, to ‘help writers, actors, directors and designers exercise and experiment independent of commonly accepted professional restrictions,’ which operated in close association with the festival.
The first hidden talents to emerge from the competition were Abbas Nalbandian, a 21-year-old newspaper seller who wrote Pazhouheshi . . . and Mahin Jahanbegloo (Tajadod), a doctoral candidate in Persian literature whose Vis o Ramin, based on an 11th century romance by Fakhruddin Gorgani, underlined the wealth of Persian narrative poems that have scarcely been exploited for their dramatic value. Both plays echoed universal human conditions anchored in Iranian identities and were staged by Arby Ovanessian in 1968 and 1970, respectively.
With Pazhouheshi, the director played a role not as a mere stage-master but as a master artist recreating another artist’s work as his own, a radical notion that opened the gates to the real art of directing in Iran. At the 4th festival (1970) which was themed Theatre and Ritual, Ovanessian timed Vis o Ramin to the movement of the setting sun at Persepolis then lit a fire, a natural artifice with deep, spiritual undertones that was later echoed in the works of Peter Brook and other dramatists. Another outstanding find in 1968 was Shahr-e Qesseh, a play in the vernacular genre that was staged at the festival by writer-director Bijan Mofid. A social commentary with animals representing familiar character types, the memorable production was accompanied by moving songs performed by Mofid himself that were soon memorized by one and all.
Other plays rich with local flavor, social commentary, poetic realism and currency that were developed and staged by emerging and established writer-directors through the Theatre Workshop (1972-1977) included Halet Chetoreh Mash Rahim, Goldouneh Khanoum, Jom’e-Koshi—staged in tea houses--and Shabat, by the talented Esma’il Khalaj, and Emshab Shab-e Mahtabe and Hora Sexta by the gifted writer, director, actor, and painter, Ashurbanipal Babella.
A number of veteran Iranian theatre directors appeared at the festival. The well-known and popular stage and TV director, writer and actor, Parviz Sayyad, staged a play in a tea house based on the merry “eavesdropping” seasonal rite, Falgoush, written by poet-artist Manouchehr Yekta’i that enjoyed a very warm reception. Another renowned actor and director, Abbas Javanmard, produced Bahram Beyzai’s Ghoroub dar Diyari Gharib (Sunset in a Strange Land) and Qesse-ye Mah-e Penhan (The Tale of the Hidden Moon), two one-act puppet plays sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and Arts and performed by actors from the Goruhe Honare Melli (National Arts Ensemble). A final example among veterans is the pioneering writer-director Ali Nassirian who staged his ruhowzi-inspired Bongah-e Teatral in Saray-e Moshir.
The festival also presented a younger generation of Iranian directors, including Iraj Saghiri, a native of the southern city of Bushehr who staged his Qalandar-Khouneh and Mahpalang, both richly inspired by local traditions and colors, and Shahru Kheradmand a former member of the Theatre Workshop who staged another Ministry of Culture production, Rostam and Esfandiar, a tragedy of epic proportions that pits two iconic heroes in the Shahnameh against one another.
The collective result was a paradigm shift that propelled Iranian theatre from a domestic stage to an international one.19 This was the first time that Iranian plays were reviewed in foreign media, and favorably so, while Pazhouheshi . . ., which became the subject of a doctoral dissertation,20 also made history by being the first Iranian play to be invited to international theatre festivals. Another significant milestone was Ovanessian’s production of Albert Camus’ Caligula (1974) that toured Poland and was staged in Latin America, making him the first Iranian to be invited to direct a foreign play in the West.
TRADITIONAL EASTERN THEATRE
In addition to previously noted Indian Kathakali, Purulia Chhau, an Indian masked dance-drama, and Indonesian dance-drama, the festival hosted Wayang Kulit, shadow theatre from Malaysia (1973), Japanese Noh, and Bhavai, folk theatre from Gujarat (1977), in all, over a dozen excellent examples of non-Iranian traditional theatre.
CONTEMPORARY AND EXPERIMENTAL INTERNATIONAL THEATRE
The most memorable foreign productions at the festival were presented starting in 1970 and numbered [then] Eastern Bloc (8); Western Europe (5); U.S. (10); Latin America (1), and Asia (2). Only Japan and Brazil presented both experimental and traditional theatre at the festival. On the 10th anniversary of the festival in 1976, a number of directors were invited to return with new productions.
Eastern and Central Europe
Poland set the tone of contemporary theatre at the festival in 1970 with one of the greatest theatrical works of the 20th century, Jerzy Grotowski’s Constant Prince, a product of the director’s radical concepts, the ‘theatre laboratory’ and ‘poor theatre.’ Groups of forty spectators seated inside the Delgosha Garden pavilion watched in awe and dread as Ryszard Cieslak enacted the anatomy of resistance, anguish and pain with perfect control over every muscle, sinews and vein in his body. The astounding quality of Grotowski’s work and his personal gravitas, palpable during the morning seminars and debates imbued the festival with a heightened sense of intensity and drive. In 1973, another Polish director, Kristof Jasinski staged Polish Dreambook and Fall with Teatr Stu from Cracow, and Atelier 212 from Yugoslavia performed Slobodanka Alexic’s Hamlet in the Cellar (1974) and Miracle in Sargan by Ljubowirz Simovic, directed by Mira Trailović (1976).
In 1977, Squat Theatre, a group of young actors who had been exiled from their native Hungary in 1973, performed Pig, Child, Fire!, an experimental play created to denounce brutality and violence. To erase the space between the audience and the action, the performance was situated in the window of an empty store on a busy street and could be seen by passersby. One vignette, performed on the sidewalk, depicted the “slaughter of the innocents,” the biblical account of the massacre of male infants in Bethlehem by soldiers bent on destroying the newborn “King of the Jews” whose birth had been announced to Herod by the Magi. In the scene, a uniformed soldier wearing a heavy ankle-length military overcoat, trousers and high boots snatches two babies (plastic dolls) from their mothers’ arms, snaps off their heads and throws them to the ground. A third woman, pregnant and wearing a long, flowery skirt, hurriedly pulls a long dress over the body of her young boy and puts lipstick on him to make him look like a girl, and then seduces the soldier to save her child. The soldier grabs the woman from behind and the two bend back and forth to imply love-making, her hair floating up and down as they move.21
The scene was meant to induce repulsion against the tyranny of power; instead, it generated an urban legend, source unknown that was reported in the press the following day according to which a naked actor had raped a naked actress on the street before hundreds of onlookers. The tall tale quickly went viral among misinformed, gullible, and irresponsible people that had not even been there, with unfortunate consequences. Among these was an edict issued by Ayatollah Khomeini on September 28, 1977 then in exile in Najaf, which declared that “Indecent acts have taken place in Shiraz” and urged the [religious] “gentlemen” to “speak out and protest.” Anthony Parsons, then British Ambassador to Iran also recorded his outrage for history, writing in The Pride and the Fall: Iran 1974-1979, that he was told by an “eyewitness” that a “rape . . . was performed in full (no pretense) by a man (either naked or without trousers, I forget which.”22 The wretched fiction continues to circulate even today even among those who were not born in 1977. Slaughter of innocence.
Two more works from Poland deserve special mention. In 1974 Lovelies and Dowdies, written by Stanilsaw Ignacy Witkiewicz “Witkacy” in 1938, was stripped down and staged by another pioneering theatre director and theorist, Tadeusz Kantor, as Impossible Theatre, a happening where the actors took shape on the spot and the spectators were dragged into the action. Kantor came back to the festival in 1977 to stage his most famous work, Dead Class; he played himself as a director in a classroom where the children are lonely marionettes and robotic adults cannot relate to their childhood, ambiguous characters that endlessly morph, disintegrate, and finally harden in a dead class. Both plays were produced by Cricot 2.
Western Europe and Latin America
Victor Garcia, the Argentine-born director, produced two plays at the festival with Teatro Núria Espert in Spain, Jean Genet’s Maids (1970) and Divinas Palabras (1976). In 1974, working with the Ruth Escobar company in Sao Paolo Brazil, he directed AUTOSACRAMENTALES, allegories illustrating the mystery of the Eucharist by Calderon de la Barca, playwright, poet, later Franciscan priest and the foremost dramatist of the Spanish Golden Age in the 17th century.
Group TSE, from France, directed by Argentinian Alfredo Arias, staged the World Premiere of Honoré de Balzac’s Heartaches of an English Cat (1977), a satirical animal story involving Beauty, a magnificent English cat, Puff, an older Persian cat, and Brisquet, a chatty little French cat discussing proper, Victorian behavior, society, politics, and other topics of interest in mid-19th century Europe.
The International Centre for Theatre Research (French acronym, CIRT) founded in 1970 by Peter Brook and Micheline Rozan in Paris was a research center, built to explore the cultural, geographic, spatial and linguistic boundaries of theatre.23 Brook’s visit to Iran in spring 1970 and the screening of his films at the 4th festival in the autumn, led to the presentation of CIRT’s first major research project, Orghast I & II, as a “work in progress” at the 1971 festival.24 Centered on Prometheus, the Greek culture hero who defies the gods and brings fire to man, with added elements from Zoroastrian and Armenian mythology, the work was an experiment led by Brook in Paris and Iran in collaboration with drama directors Arby Ovanessian, Geoffrey Reeves, and Andrei Serban and a cast of twenty-five actors, that aimed at discovering the essential sounds and vibrations common to all languages. The British poet Ted Hughes participated in the process and created a non-verbal “language” that became the title of the ongoing work. Orghast I was staged before the tomb of Artaxerxes in Persepolis, and Orghast II, about seven miles further northwest at Naqsh-e Rostam. For Brook, the opportunity to explore new intuitive possibilities and processes in space, time, language and performance in an ancient landscape and culture was a profound experience that also marked his later work, Conference of the Birds and Mahabharata, among them.
Two extraordinary works were presented from Japan, both by Terayama Shuji, an iconoclastic, provocative, prolific and extremely inventive avant-garde artist who worked in different mediums—poetry, film, photography, and ‘meta-theatre.’ Terayama staged his Origin of Blood in Delgosha Garden (1973), and Ship of Folly at Saray-e Moshir (1976). The performances combined qualities of shamanic dreams and nightmares, magic, madness and lucidity, and the occasional suspension of belief as when an actor descended from a rooftop down to the garden, walking vertically, face-down, seemingly without any device saving him from the pull of gravity, only his will. The effect of the illusion was shocking and beautiful.
The festival presented a variety of U.S. off-Broadway productions both by recognized practitioners of experimental theatre and others that were on the fringe and grew to become iconic in the 1970s following their performances at the festival. One great source of attraction for all dramatists at the festival was that they were free to choose their preferred venue, as available and feasible.
In 1970, Peter Schumann, founder and director of Bread & Puppet Theatre, was the first to introduce the festival audiences to experimental American theatre with Fire and King’s Story. Before each performance an actor read a statement of protest against political oppression then another actor distributed freshly baked bread among the audience, which fit well with ‘theatre and ritual,’ the main theme of the 4th festival, and the play was performed with the company’s trademark giant puppets. Schumann also chose to perform in a number of outdoor public areas, free of charge.
Three more plays in the experimental category were performed in 1971. Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theatre performed two groundbreaking collective “works in progress,” Terminal and Mutations, both in the university gymnasium. Andre Gregory chose a fruit warehouse for his production of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a program of the Manhattan Project. The performance, while meticulously developed, was in the style of an on-the-spot improvisation.
The most singular experimental work in the 6th festival in 1972 was KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE, staged by Bob Wilson—who was little known at the time—and the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, with a mixed American-Iranian cast of live and cardboard cut-out characters totaling nearly 550 listed in the festival program catalogue. Staged like a simple children’s play with no sophisticated lighting or technical support, the play was preceded by an “Overture” staged at Qavam House, an elegant 19th c residence in Narenjestan garden where the audience happened across various members of a “family” posing scenes of daily life in extreme slow motion. There was no apparent storyline and the scenes, set in separate quarters, seemed unconnected. KA MOUNTAIN began the next day on a platform set up as a stage at the bottom of Haft-tan, a hill named after seven Sufis who are buried in a nearby garden. The audience was free to follow the family here and there up the hill nonstop for 168 hours for an entire week and follow disparate scenes, also in extreme slow motion, dotted with fish, animals, birds—some real, others not, as if retreating to an earlier geological era—as Moby Dick was being read out on the platform below. On day seven, the play ended on top of the hill next to a giant cardboard dinosaur with people chanting the “Dying Dinosaur Soars.”
Juxtaposing real and surreal visual elements and slowing down time to the extreme led to a heightened awareness and meditative experience that, without a connecting narrative, was by definition different for each spectator. And yet there was a unifying undercurrent, a quest and a progression toward an end, as if to evoke Attar’s Conference of the Birds where seekers travel across seven valleys to reach the final station atop Qaf Mountain.
KA MOUNTAIN happened because of the trust that the festival put into Bob Wilson’s creative impulses on the one hand and his willingness to believe in seven impossible things on the other.25 The American actors and the Iranian participants—not everyone an actor— had in Wilson’s absence rehearsed fragmented scenes in Shiraz and built some props expecting the parts to come together as a whole later. Wilson arrived in town at the 11th hour and framed the elements on the spot and situated them on the hill. The entire process was a daily improvisation and discovery for the creator himself, the actors, and the spectators. Nothing like it had ever been conceived in the history of theatre, or attempted before. The mythic theatre that was born in Shiraz lives on and takes different shapes in the imagination even today.26
Bob Wilson’s third work at the festival was performed in 1974, A Mad Man A Mad Giant A Mad Dog A Mad Urge A Mad Face, in the Delgosha pavilion.
Andre Serban produced Fragments of a Greek Trilogy, Medea, Electra, The Trojan Women, with New York’s LaMaMa at Persepolis in 1975, a production that was rooted in his experience as a collaborator on Orghast. In 1977, he returned with a LaMaMa production of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, As you Like It, which turned out to be the last U.S. experimental theatre at the festival. The audience merrily followed the actors across Delgosha Garden to hear the melancholy Jacques pronounce “All the world’s a stage,” the famous quote that gave birth to the phrase “too much of a good thing.”