How do you talk about repression in Iran? Theater director Parnia Shams found a clever solution. In „is“ Shams tells the story of a new girl in a girls school, but the piece inherits much more than this. Before the Berlin premiere at Festival Internationale Neue Dramatik (FIND) at Schaubühne, Shams talked about the absence of authorities in „Is“, censorship and the theater scene in Iran.
What is the situation for theater makers right now in Iran?
It’s very difficult for people in the community to keep on working and provide a stable income from theater now. It is different to keep on creating new projects and works and translate what they want to bring out of their performances on stage. They may not be able to do it. Their hands would not be that open to bring the best of their ideas to life at the moment.
Theater pieces have to be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. What do they criticize?
On the top of the list would be anything that in any way insults religion and male and female actresses touching each other in any way. Also coverage both for male and female actresses is mandatory. Of course, there are different guidelines for each of the genders‘ coverage, female actresses have to cover their heads, and males wearing shorts that are too short won’t be tolerated. And obscene words would not be tolerated. The list is very long. Those are the things that are most considered.
Is it true that improvising is not allowed, because it “encourages hooliganism”?
Yes, because the shows have to be watched before it enters the theater. Changes won’t be possible. It should be shown as it was seen by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, but in street performances, this rule is more bendable, because of the number of audience, but even for the performance in the street you need acquire a permit. Mostly improvisation is not an option.
Which possibilities do you have to avoid censorship?
A big question in the community is whether to perform or not perform, because if you want to have a public performance and present your work to the public you present it in venues you need to oblige to the rules, to the censorship, to the guidelines of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, but after this movement to the past six, seven months many people decided not to perform. For them, it’s a form of resistance to the current situation. It’s also a form of solidarity with the current movement. But they still want to create and try to find ways to present their ideas just to be able to discuss their performances.
„People pushed the boundaries online“
They have smaller shows in private in small cafés, in group play readings or they go underground in another way or even online. At the beginning of the pandemic, the system didn`t know how to react to online performances, so people pushed the boundaries online. Then the system started to implement rules. Raha was part of a team that created the online performance festival Re-Connect in 2020, from 200 applications many were from Iran.
“Is” tells the story of girls in high school. What was your experience when you went to school?
I moved around a lot as a child. My parents were divorced. My mother stayed in Nahavand, which is a smaller city, and my father moved to Tehran. Then I moved to Tehran with my father twice. The last time was when I was in high school. So that is very similar to the story of the girl in the play. She moves to Tehran in the middle of the semester. She does not fit in very well at the beginning of the school, but then she befriends the top pupil and they become very close friends, this friendship is not perceived very well by the authorities and the other pupils of the class. That’s the main storyline, but each of the other pupils has their own story and background and that adds a lot of different layers to the performance.
„Each of the other pupils has their own story“
You`ve developed the story in 2018 with theater graduates when you were still at the university. How did you approach the topic?
When we started with the piece, the actresses were fresh out of high school so they were very close to the experience themselves. I presented my main idea to them. I had this idea about two girls having to apologize for something they had not done. Something they get accused of by the school authorities and they have to either accept it or they will be dismissed from the school. During the workshops, the students discussed their memories from high school and they talked about their experiences. They started to build on the main idea. They created the different classes and put the story of the two girls in each scenario. Until the end of the last rehearsal, they didn’t have a strict text to work with. They sketched a lot. I also recorded their discussions and rehearsal. Then I started to create sketches from hours of recordings.
In the play, only the pupils have a voice, the authority is absent.
The authority in the school is very significant and the best way to present that dominance was to remove the authorities from the performance. So there are no grownups: no teachers or any school officials in the play, but you feel their presence quite strongly due to the way the girls speak about, what they don’t speak about, how they act among themselves or towards this unseen authority. So you feel this “big brother watching over them” and that gives life to that unseen authority.
„The best way to present that dominance was to remove the authorities from the performance“
Why did you leave out the authorities? Would it be difficult to tell the story with authorities because of the censorship?
No. That’s not the reason. We decided not to include them in the performance, because of the fact that the pupils are fearing something that is not actually there – but not seen or heard – it would even show the violence more. We wanted to avoid just going through the clichés and having a more pronounced feeling for them. Anyone can imagine any kind of worst thing possible that comes to their mind. It becomes a kind of interactive experience in a way and it’s felt more deeply by the audience.
Did you face censorship when you developed the piece?
The censorship is in your mind. You usually apply it to the show as it develops. This show didn’t really face any censorship from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, because it was facing a realistic story from a girls‘ school. This school is still part of the society and obeys the same kind of rules. For example, in the play, the two girls are changing their headscarves. If they uncovered their hair to change their scarves that would have been an issue in the school. But because they are not even allowed to do that in the girls‘ school, they got to do it in a way they wouldn’t show their hair.
„The performance shows a form of reality“
Speaking of censorship. Will you show the same version in Berlin or an international version?
Specifically, when we talk about Berlin, we had to move around the scenery a little bit fitting the venue. That`s the only change you gonna get. Concerning censorship, although in no way censorship is good or encouraged, I believe it creates a form of creativity. The artist will keep on trying to find loopholes or present the work for example under the cover of a comic so the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance can`t get their hands on it.
In her book “Reading Lolita in Teheran. A memoir in books”, Azar Nafizi warns: “Do not under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life. What we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth”. Could you explain me her words?
We based the characters and their stories on memories and experiences, but the place where it`s performed is surreal. The authorities aren`t there and the extremity of the classroom design is staged. The performance shows a form of reality, but it’s not a documentary. At some point, you can think of this classroom as an example of the actual society represented by the story of a simple classroom of a high school.
Translation from Farsi to English: Raha Rajabi
است (is), shown at the Festival Internationale Neue Dramatik (FIND) of the Schaubühne Berlin on april 26th until april 27th 2023
by Parnia Shams and Amir Ebrahimzadeh. Director: Parnia Shams. With: Mahtab Karimi, Sadaf Maleki, Mahoor Mirzanezhad, Yasaman Rasouli, Shadi Safshekan, Parnia Shams, Par, vaneh Zabeh. Dramaturgy: Shahab Rahmani. Set Design: Pourya Akhavan. Costume Design: Pegah Shams. Assistant Director: Mahmood Khodaverdi. Lighting Design: Alireza Miranjom. Graphic Design: Mohammed Mosavat. Distribution: NH Theatre Agency