Giti Theatre Group broke records raising funds for flood victims in Lorestan, Iran with a remarkable 10 days of staged readings of Iranian plays. Dr. Ruhollah Jafari, founder, and director of Giti Theatre Group, made a thoughtful selection from pieces written in Iran’s 1950s, 60s, and 70s. This event, featuring repertoire readings, took place from August 22 to 31, 2019 in Sangelaj Theatre, Tehran. It included works from legends of Iranian theatre such as Abbas N’albandian, Bahram Beyzai, Mahmoud Ostad Mohammad, Bijan Mofid, Akbar Radi, and Ali Hatami. When asked in an interview as to why he decided to do purely Iranian pieces, Jafari states that there was a lacuna present amongst youth and their roots. These plays make an effort to awaken the slumberous past and reintroduce the current generation to Iran’s rich literary culture.
I was fortunate to attend two of Jafari’s stage readings, Mahmoud Ostad Mohammad’s Ased Kazem (Mr. Seyyed Kazem), written in 1972, and Bahram Beyzai’s Gomshodegan, or The Lost Ones (1978).
The reading of Gomshodegan took place on August 28 and lasted about an hour. This is the second time this play was performed. It had only been performed in Iran in 2015, in Tabriz’s City Theater under the directing of Ramin Rasti. The play is about a man named Yuzbashi who has just returned from his pilgrimage from Mecca. It seems that he has not encountered much during his pilgrimage and returns with barely anything to tell. Yet, Yuzbashi starts to have frightful nightmares about death. The story revolves around Yuzbashi and the individuals that are associated with him and his wrongdoings. Each character has an unpleasant story about Yuzbashi. Just as he suffers from great selfishness and pride, each character seems to experience the same issue on their own individual level.
Ased Kazem took place on the following evening, August 29th. Published in 1972, Ased Kazem takes place in a traditional coffeehouse (Ghahveh khaneh) and centers on conversations about a man accused of murder, Seyyed Kazem. The remarkable aspects of this play are not only its narrative but its synthesis of traditional Persian elements such as Naqqali (public storytelling), and the performance of Torna Bazi (a traditional game). Ased Kazem has been previously performed on many occasions. The first performance was under the direction of Ostad Mohammad in 1972 and the following year it was presented alongside a play written by Nosratallah Navidi under the direction of Abbas Javanmard. In 2013 Tehran’s Niavaran Cultural Center hosted this play directed by Mohammadreza Rahimi.
After watching the two staged readings, I conducted an interview with the director of Giti Theatre Group, Ruhollah Jafari, to further investigate his decision and motive of strictly utilizing Iranian plays for this repertoire of readings.
Farinaz Kavianifar: Giti Theatre Group’s entire proceeds went towards helping flood victims in the Iranian province of Lorestan. How did the selection of the ten plays take place?
Ruhollah Jafari: Prior to selecting, Giti Theatre Group performs critical research in order to choose something that meets the society’s current needs and interests. Our group had previously working on translated texts, but this time we decided to work with Iranian playwrights. These works were performed without any textual changes or additional dramaturgy. The audience was able to witness the authentic and pure thought of the playwright.
As a teacher, I sensed that the current generation is not so familiar with its own artistic heritage, and in particular theatre from the past. With that said, there should definitely be a conjunction between the great playwrights of past generations and those being performed on stage now, either by contemporaries or by non-Persian playwrights. Fourteen texts were initially selected from thirteen playwrights but unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to perform Abbas N’albandian’s (1947 – 1989) Hadha Habiballah. He was a pioneering figure in Iranian absurdist and experimental playwriting. His award-winning plays were staged in Shiraz Art Festival and London’s Royal Court Theatre and received praise by local and international critics. Ghomalreza Sa’edi’s Choob be Dasthaye Varzil, and Bahman Forsi’ Goldan, also did not gain the appropriate permits. In other words, three works were omitted because we did not receive permission for performance.
Now, these three decades (the 50s, 60s, 70s) mark an important time, even a golden period, in Iran’s theatre as the borders were opened and there was an exchange of culture, art, and thought between Iranians and Westerners. Keep in mind that even despite the 1953 coup d’état where everything relating to culture, society and politics was shut down, theater maintained a presence and kept itself alive.
FK: It seems as if you envision ‘Giti’ as the mythical bird simurgh. In a sense, you view Giti Group like a light that keeps the Iranian tradition and culture alive. Do you sense that there is an identity issue with classical Persian texts?
RJ: The youth of today have cut their ties with its past. They consider Hafez, Sa’adi, Khayam, Farabi, and other great figures out-of-date. It’s the same thing with contemporary Iranian authors. So, to answer your question, yes, I do consider Giti as a shining light, and I’m sure any other group trying to mend the connection between classical and contemporary dramatic literature, and the current generation, would feel this way. Great research and effort need to be done to fix this. We all need to consider ourselves responsible to the degree that our own parameters and occupation allow. When we are selecting a dramatic text, we consider the entire society and don’t restrain our audience to a specific type or another. We target a problem and hope to shine light upon it, or spark interest for further individual investigation.
FK: These ten plays were all repertoire readings. I was quite surprised by seeing your extraordinary yet simple set design, costumes, and music performances on stage. Considering that play readings in Iran are usually bland and unorganized, what sparked your interest to do this differently?
RJ: The thing with classical literature is that it contains a manifold of symbols and incorporates various proverbs. Another thing is that these stories or plays all address everyday issues and subjects. Let’s look at Ali Hatami (1944 – 1996) for instance. Ali Hatami was an acclaimed Iranian film director, screenwriter, and producer. His work greatly and dearly resonates amongst Iranians as he incorporates national and tribal motifs throughout all his work. He uses symbols that are found throughout Iranian literature. He uses a rhythmic language so colorful and beautiful that it portrays itself as a peacock. These colors allow audience members to paint their own images and develop individualistic imagery. The language of these plays is not complex and is written in a relatable way where every viewer or reader can understand and follow it. To transmit the main points of a story, we see ourselves responsible for putting on authentic performance, not just read from a script. Take into consideration that Ali Hatami’s play, The Story of the Silk Spell and the Fisherman was first performed in 1970 in Tehran, and not again until Giti Theater Group presented it as part of this repertoire.
Now, just as reading and reciting plays is necessary, the actors also need to establish a connection with the text. Aesthetics is also an important factor to this project. Music plays another key role. Set design, light, and costume design – everything is vital! When you carefully and sensitively analyze and read a text, you can witness certain forms emerging from the essence of a story. These hidden forms and images showed me how the scene should be set and in what manner the plays should be performed. The whole point of play reading is to introduce work or works to an audience without interference. Giti is portraying the real deal. In these conditions, you can witness a complete bareness in the performance.
To introduce a text, you need to receive support from other production elements in order to make it shine in the best way. Yet, I didn’t go overboard because the audience shouldn’t be drawn into the set design, light, costumes, and other features. Our main purpose is to share the text. So, yes, we use these features but the purpose is solely to beautify and better draw attention to the play. Again, it’s the play that dictates what a director should do, and not vice versa. Some perform play readings without practice. Some writers even build a scene as requested by the director. We chose to use the beauty of music, light, and other theatrical features to assist in the transmission of meaning.
FK: Could you further explain why you selected to do staged readings rather than full performances?
RJ: It’s not the first time Giti Theater Group has presented staged readings, and it is our tradition to utilize these stage readings to support a humanitarian cause. We had a major flood last year that left extensive damage. It was our goal to use theater as a tool to not only raise awareness of support needed but also fundraise to help the victims and their families. The reason why we did staged readings was solely because we wanted to provide the audience a direct and non-mediated interaction with the great history, texts, and people of Iranian Theater in its golden period (the 50s, 60s, 70s).
FK: Let’s talk about Bahram Beyzai’s Gomshedegan. For this play, you seated your actors in a semicircle with an elevated seat right in the middle reserved for Yuzbashi, to portray his significance and connective role with the other characters. While all the actors were dressed in black, the lighting was also partial, dim, and faded to perhaps evoke the nature of ignorance and innate darkness present in the context of the play. Being the first to perform this play in Tehran, and considering your international audience, could you please provide some detail about Bahram Beyzai and explain why you selected this play?
RJ: Beyzai is a well-known and acclaimed playwright and filmmaker. His plays have been translated, published, and performed in various countries in Asia, Europe, and North America. He’s made ten films, four short films, and about 70 plays in Iran and abroad from 1963 onwards. Beyzai currently resides in California and teaches at Stanford University. Gomshodegan was written in 1970 and was first printed in 1979 but, as you said, Giti Theater Group was the first to perform this play in Tehran.
Beyzai breaks from the tradition of superstition in this play. The audience watches a small society that witnesses scenarios of dishonesty due to ignorance and selfishness. This play shows how a person can be favored and magnified or hated and belittled, purely because of their actions. The audience may sense a kinship with the main character, Yuzbashi, who has done wrong throughout his life. The audience can also envision how and when they behaved like Yuzbashi. This play is about tapping into our innate nature that has a great deal of benevolence and generosity. This dramatic text confronts each audience member with their dark or lost sides. Although the play was two hours and thirty minutes, the audience remained seated and focused on the performance due to its interesting story and appropriate set design, music, and lighting. The play makes people ask why there are still lies, deceit, and corruption in their society. A survey conducted at the end of the performance indicated that audience members had a strong and deep connection to Gomshodegan.
FK: Can you also provide us with a brief explanation on Ostad Mohammad and the cultural elements present in his Ased Kazem?
RJ: Mahmoud Ostad Mohammad (1950-2013) is one of the great stars of Iranian theater. He was an actor and playwright who commenced his career as an actor in plays in his teenage years and shortly after joined the famous Theater Atelier ensemble led by the famous Iranian playwright, Bijan Mofid. Ostad Mohammad has written and directed numerous plays which have been showcased both in Iran and the West and are recognized as one of the most influential figures in Iranian theater.
Ased Kazem uses Naqalli to narrate a portion of the play. Naqalli is perhaps one of the oldest forms of storytelling in which epic poetry is narrated and accompanied by gestures, body movements, and sometimes music. A naqqal, or storyteller, needs to be gifted in improvisation, and have an eloquent voice and performance charisma in order to attract the audience. Naqqali was performed in traditional coffeehouses in which painters would illustrate the tales on coffeehouse walls. The game of Torna shares a similar cultural theme in that it has a religious affiliation. Torna was also performed in traditional coffeehouses and often played during the holy month of Ramadan. Torna is seen both in the traditions of Iranian chivalry (javanmardi) and in religious food offerings (nazri). Alongside its dramatic quality, this traditional game is carefully incorporated into the play to create chivalrous irony as the characters gossip and talk ill of Seyyed Kazem. Ostad Mohammad was a pioneer of using Torna in his plays. To this day, no playwright has been able to do the same. This play is really considered a remarkable piece of art.
FK: Do you have any plans for future stage readings?
RJ: For Giti Theater Group, staged readings are driven by a purely humanitarian cause. We donate all raised funds to those in need, afflicted by a natural disaster or other such crisis. We have researched the transition of language in Iranian literature and we might very well take our next step by holding staged readings of contemporary Iranian plays that have been written post-Iranian Revolution. Yet, at this moment, I hope to acquire the permit and opportunity to hold a staged reading of the three plays (Abbas N’albandian’s Hadha Habiballah, Ghomalreza Sa’edi’s Choob be Dasthaye Varzil, and Bahman Forsi’ Goldan. As Jafari stated, these three works were omitted from his initial Repertoire readings selection) that we spoke about earlier. Overall, our team aspires to build a cultural bridge in which we share the texts of applauded Iranian playwrights.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.