FIND 2016 »Hearing« between the lines
by Joseph Pearson
10 April 2016
I am speaking with Iranian director Amir Reza Koohestani, who comes to FIND 2016 with his production »Hearing«, about what happens when a man’s voice is heard in a girl’s dormitory.
Koohestani’s trajectory as a director was unusual because he formed his style in a city with limited opportunities. His birthplace, Shiraz, is hardly a cultural backwater – rather it is known for its rich history of poetry – but when Koohestani was a student he couldn’t see any performances in Shiraz; there were no theatres. »The only way to see theatre was to travel to Tehran«. Aspiring directors from all over Iran would usually end up in the capital first to study, then work, and ultimately be formed by its theatre milieu. But this is not the route Koohestani took: instead he remained in Shiraz, taking a BA in industrial engineering.
At the age of 17, Koohestani quite coincidentally fell into an uncommon theatre workshop operating in Shiraz.
»I remember there were some video tapes we could watch from theatre performances in Tehran – one was a foreign play – but we had limited resources. We were forced to explore in our own way. I think this has made my productions distinctive, compared to others in Iran. We had the quite exceptional possibility to explore theatre at our own pace and by instinct«.
After a year with the workshop, in 1996, the workshop members decided to form the Mehr Theatre Group. The 2001 piece, »Dance on Glasses«, brought Koohestani renown in Europe and enjoyed a four-year tour. Autobiographical and intimate, it presented the story of a couple’s painful breakup. Koohestani explains the mise-en-scène, as a »long table, a man and woman on both sides of it. They talk intimately. Close your eyes, and just listen to them: you think they might be in bed. But when you open your eyes, they are four metres apart from each other«. The distance is also a strategy of confronting the interdiction in Iranian theatre of physical contact between the sexes. By accentuating distance, the sense of intimacy is in fact heightened.
Koohestani tells me, »The first time I told my friends about the idea, they said everyone would be bored or exhausted by just a man and a woman talking far from each other. ›Why not try it?‹ I said. I didn’t know better; I hadn’t read a handbook on how to direct. I didn’t educate myself in theatre, didn’t study it. Only after I became a director, after five or six productions, did I go to England to study theatre. But before that time, I was totally unaware of the rules of theatre, the right way of doing things. This ignorance made me more radical«.
Koohestani’s early influences instead came from film. »Cinema was the ›pre-work‹ for me. Theatre is my passion, but I still have the cinema in my head. I have recently started to write for cinema and I use a lot of video in my work. The way my actors perform is very close to cinema. It is very intimate, reduced, in a way. To use a bad term, it is very ›minimal‹. Because I had not been exposed to theatre before I got into it, my first impression was that theatre actors performed strangely, unlike in cinema. People in the theatre do not act as people do in the street, and one of my initial ideas for stage acting was: I wanted actors to act like people in the street. At that time, I was totally unaware of the problems involved: that there were technical reasons why theatre acting is exaggerated, because of their distance from the audience. Because I was unaware of the difficulties and problems the actors have, I was able to explore other possibilities«.
»Hearing«, Koohestani’s new piece, is influenced by the 1989 film »Homework« by Abbas Kiarostami. The documentary was shot in a primary school and interviews pupils on the task of completing homework. This simple question opened a door to vast problems in childhood education, parenting styles, or the oppressive authority of a film director in a closed room observing these children.
»Hearing«, which Koohestani completed at a residency in Stuttgart between 2014 and 2015, also takes place in a school and also takes a simple issue as its point of departure. He tells me: »The initial idea for ›Hearing‹ is what happens when someone hears the voice of a man inside a female dormitory, where a man is forbidden. In the play, we are talking about a medium, voice, which is not a real thing. The voice represents something else, a man, but it is not the man himself. The one who heard the voice – who thinks there is a man inside – sets a snowball rolling: someone reports, someone follows the story, they end up facing a panel of investigation. But the initial thing was just a voice, not the real thing, but a representation of something. It is something that can be in your head, it might not be real. It can be something you hear but others do not«.
The spectre of this voice, its semiotic ambiguity, is mediated through video, what Koohestani describes as a »visual reality, to represent something that seems real, but is not real. We do not have props on stage, just video and real women, a battle between the visual and real world, between representation and presentation, between cinema and theatre. That was the initial core concept of the production«.
This is the starting point for other innovations in »Hearing«: an actor in the audience who might have both a body and a voice, depending on where the spectator is sitting. The director explains, »For me, it was important to have a character who is between presentation and representation, between media and real, between something that exists and does not exist, between voice and body«.
Our conversation turns to speaking about the intercultural experience of presenting Iranian theatre to Western audiences. The Islamic Republic continues to present a provocative image for many foreigners, because of the various ways that religion shape daily life. Koohestani gives me an example of how his pieces play differently at home than in Europe: an Iranian audience has a greater tendency to laugh, especially in the first act of »Hearing«.
He explains, »As you know, in theatre, laughter can be interpreted in complicated ways; it is not necessarily because something is funny. Sometimes, it is a reaction of understanding. You are confronted by something you rarely see in the theatre, and so, the first time you see it, you react by laughing. It is a kind of applause. What was interesting when performing ›Hearing‹ in Iran for the first time was there are several moments in a neutral dialogue, that, reading, you don’t think should be funny. But when we perform in Iran, the audience laughs, reacting – this is my theory – to moments they experience in their daily lives but don’t see in theatre. As you know, the topic of this play is controversial. I don’t think we could have performed it five years ago. That is why we are getting these laughter reactions; we are showing people something for the first time on stage«.
»Is theatre life increasingly open in Iran?« I ask.
»It is more open now compared to what it was. The history is a bit complicated: during the past eight years, during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, it became very difficult to talk about political and social issues on stage. Before him, under Khatami, it was more open. But we are much more open now than during the last eight years. This one of the main changes we’ve experienced after the elections in Iran. The government decided to give more freedom to artists. We can really feel it. ›Hearing‹ is a good example of this change.«
»Western audiences often focus on censorship in Iran, rather than the opportunities that working with audiences in Iran might present«, I say.
He replies, »What is unique in Iran is that we have some rules – which everyone knows – that are not written rules and that nobody dares write down. There are good reasons why these rules are not written down: because when you write them down, they become too fixed. We can’t have physical contact between men and women on stage, for example. But you can find a way to skip over this rule, by saying that the touch is not sexual, even though it is between a man and woman. Imagine a fight on stage, where a woman grabs the hand of man to pull him away. You can say it is a sudden reaction, that it is not about sex«.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Iranian theatre must be that the collective understanding of such rules means that they provide a space of expectations within which the director can manoeuver.
»Since the audience knows the rules«, says Koohestani, »It makes it easier for the audience to go around the rules, to find an alternative. For example – I always use this example, because it is a clear one for a European audience – I produced a play called ›Amid the Clouds‹. At the end of the play, an immigrant woman, intending to cross the Channel, explains that the only way she can obtain refugee status is to get pregnant, and she asks a man to be the father. We then directed a bunk bed scene. A man in the top bunk, a woman in the bottom, but the distance between them is exaggeratedly intimate. Basically, they were lying down on top of each other, but with the wooden bed between them. Obviously, there was no physical contact between them. The Iranian audience knows the restrictions, so how to interpret the scene was obvious to them. When they know the rules, it’s easier to go around them, and ask them to imagine the actual scene. It was a trigger for the imagination of the audience. And the audience is ready to imagine. I, of course, do not support these rules, but I use these gaps between the real and the stage world; I am asked to fill them. The best possibility for me is to use the audience’s imagination, which is difficult to restrict. This is what I learn to do in Iran when I’m doing theatre«.
I ask Koohestani whether or not these rules, and these restrictions, actually present an opportunity for the director. When you cannot do things, you must find creative solutions. A good example is the sonnet, where creative and unexpected solutions in poetry are the result of formal constraints.
He replies, »I think it interesting that, historically, our dominant art form is the Persian poem. What is interesting is that the Persian language is itself quite ambiguous. Rumi’s poetry is a good example. Since we don’t indicate gender, we don’t have a clue whether he is addressing a man or a woman, whether he was in love with his master. We have a love poem, which physically and sexually describes a lover, but at the same time you can claim it’s about God«.
»Forbidden things about Iranian society, from more than a thousand years ago – the wine estate, the prostitute, the female body – also became metaphors of something spiritual and religious, so that you can talk about them but not claim that this is what you see. This is also a historical phenomenon, especially for an Iranian audience: they are ready to interpret«.
I ask, »How does this propensity for interpretation, for searching for a subtext, affect audience reception of documentary theatre in Iran?«
»It makes it quite difficult to present a play that speaks directly, without metaphor and irony, because everyone wants to see something apart from documentary. Art is supposed to be something else, more than what you say. Everything in Iran becomes the representation of something else. This again is a longstanding historical phenomenon – more about how the audience has been educated in the arts – and not just about this or that government«.
»Does this make documentary theatre unfashionable in Iran?«
»Actually, it has become quite fashionable recently, a trend. The main reason is that the audience is not used to seeing direct stories about real people and incidents«.
We finish up our conversation, between Iran and Berlin, and I am left with just a hint of the sophistication of Iranian theatre production, the way unwanted unwritten rules nonetheless present opportunities, and an appreciation of the space afforded us – between the lines.
by Amir Reza Koohestani (Iran)
Direction: Amir Reza Koohestani
Premiered on 13 April 2016