Inhibited And Yet Inspired

by Narges Hashempour

August 26, 2021. December 2019 was a strange month in Iran. Proximate to previous December, air pollution was more than ever. A combination of nationwide air pollution, cold snaps, and flu spread (who knows, maybe it was already the Covid-19 virus) led to frequent school closures. Also, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses were mandated by the government to stay home.

Meanwhile, the flood of sanctions applied by Donald Trump's administration on Iran affected people's livelihoods and also chronic patients' conditions due to lack of medicine and medical equipment. By early December, the massive protests which had commenced in November and had taken place following the redistribution of gasoline, having left many dead, wounded, detained, and having caused extensive damage, were gradually subsiding. An Internet shut-down for several days had cut off the society from itself and the outside world.

Decline of the theatre sector

This disruption of the Internet caused irreparable damage to the advertising and sales cycle of theatre performances. Many theatre places were empty and financially disadvantaged; especially, the semi-private theatres which had been established in the last 15 years by artists who were struggling to liberate themselves from the state and official theatre system as the authoritative organization for theatre. As in general, Iran's theatre has always had a small share of the national budget, the state was welcoming the financially privatizing of theatre, but paradoxically at the same time, wanting to control the entire content of the theatre practices from dependent to independent.

Theaterbrief Iran 1 Yamaha directed by Kahbod Taraj RezaJavidi u"Yamaha" directed by Kahbod Taraj and performed live in February, 2021 © Reza Javidi 

The Performing Arts Center of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, as the main government trustee of the theatre, failed to provide financial support for the affected theatre artists, neither state nor private. Due to lack of budget and privatization policy, the Performing Art Center announced that from beginning of 2020 theatre performances were required to pay a 9% VAT at their box office; even though artists, especially theatre artists, who are legally exempt from paying taxes. Treating performing arts as a commodity was particularly a detrimental view that started to plague theatre groups, as of 2020.

However, the theatre was still breathing, and many theatre groups had announced their readiness to participate in the 38th Fajr International Theatre Festival as Iran's major performing arts event in February. At this festival, the most exciting part for me was the newly added section called "other genre performances," where I was invited to be a member of the selection committee. The artistic works had to present their idea, form, space, and theatrical communication differently from conventional theatre productions. During the selection process, the committee was positively surprised to see the variety of creative works.

But on January 7th, the Boeing 737-800 operating the route from Tehran to Kyiv was shot down shortly after takeoff from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport. All 176 passengers and crew were killed. Up to three days after the accident, the government emphasized that the plane had crashed due to a technical defect. Then on January 11th, 2020, they admitted that the accident occurred due to a human error by a military operator, having mistaken the airliner for a cruise missile. At that time, Iran was on the highest defensive alert state and was prepared for a full-fledged war. In honor of the victims, many artistic activities, most theatres, concerts, and art exhibitions were stopped by artists. More than thirty-one performing groups withdrew from the Fajr International Theatre Festival, including most of the groups in the "other genre performances" section.

Covid-19: Theatre’s suffocation…

The last straw for Iranian theatre in 2020 was the Covid-19 virus outbreak. Performances were canceled, and the theatre places were closed. The closure of the theatres endangered the economic condition and livelihoods of the theatre artists even more. In such circumstances, private theatres which were mostly leased venues and provided their expenses through the performances, were also driven to bankruptcy. So far, no theatre groups have been truly supported by the Ministry’s Performing Arts Center. In the shadow of the promises to help the performing artists' livelihoods, by March 2021 about 25,000 theatre people lost their jobs and about 120 theatre halls were closed, in Tehran only.

Theaterbrief Iran 3 CityTheaterFarsAgancy HamidTavakoli uDisinfection of the Tehran's City Theater complex to combat the coronavirus in May, 2020 © Fars Agency Hamid Tavakoli

As the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, took the step in January 2021 of banning the government from importing vaccines from the US and the UK, the only legally imported vaccines were (and still are) from Russia, China and India. However, In Iran under sanctions, which has the highest death rate from Covid-19 in the Middle East, less than 3 percent of the population of 84 million have received both doses by August 2021, mostly imported from Russia and China.

In the meantime, due to declining cases, the government stated that the theatres must be opened without any obstacles; but as the number of cases grew once again, they ordered a theatre shutdown. Anyhow, mostly the young theatre groups tended to take the risk to perform publicly. Since July 2021, the Delta variant has spread all over the country and most cities are now situated in the “red” zone. Therefore, theatres are forced to be in lockdown again. The theatre still has no clear vision for its future.

…and a creative opportunity

In comparison to many theatre groups who are waiting to return to the live-real theatre, some groups, however, take the advent of corona, quarantine, and lockdown as an opportunity to experiment with digital tools and social media to engage people in a new art format. Among those groups, a noteworthy one is the Re-connect Online Performance Festival. Not as rigid as artists with an utopian view who see digital and online platforms as more powerful, capable of eliminating competition between artists, or who think digital platforms should be seen as the future of performing arts, ascribing them democratic features, the Re-connect festival team seems to be opening up an opportunity to break through the boundaries of space and time and challenge the structure of theatrical communication.

The Re-connect Online Performance Festival was organized as non-profit and meant to bring artists from around the world together as an act of solidarity. The first edition of the festival took place between March 25 and April 17, 2020, in the three sections Live Performances, Lectures, and Panel Discussions. More than 200 works from Iran and many other world theatre communities were invited to this festival.

Theaterbrief Iran 5 HafezTheaterDramaticArtsCenter uSince the closure of theaters, a number of theater artists have set up a mask-making charity workshop at Hafez Theater © Dramatic Arts Center

Nima Dehghani, who launched this festival along with several others, believes that "the pandemic was a moment when we started to realize how little space we have and how great the potential of technology is to help with communication and to convey ideas and awareness." For the Re-connect Online Performance Festival group, digital and online theatre (not the pre-recorded videos) are not here to replace real theatre but to engage people in a new art format.

Both threat and opportunity

However, Quarantine and Corona, in any case, are both threat and opportunity for the Iranian theatre. Considering the structural problems that Iran’s theatre was facing before, it may not be easy to imagine a clear vision for its recent Corona era. Nowadays, many theatre practitioners are settled down or turned to side jobs.

But on the other hand, the pandemic situation has been motivating the theatre makers to build a new knowledge base for media and platforms, which was formerly largely unfamiliar to them, and to discover new spaces to communicate with their audience and provide a new perception of the performance experience for them. The online and digital theatre platforms, despite unfair internet restrictions, such as blocked websites or the often severe disruptions of Internet service, etc., also provide an opportunity for the Iranian audience to connect with the broader world; for instance, the possibility to see the recent work of Amir Reza Koohestani, i.e. "Woyzeck Interrupted" at Deutsches Theater Berlin, through the Vimeo platform or to watch recordings of famous theatre works.

Digital tools and virtual spaces are going to be a tool for a group of performing artists in Iran to circumvent and challenge the barriers and restrictions imposed on them in society; restrictions in areas ranging from culture to politics, from geographical boundaries to the conventional forms of performing arts. Perhaps we will see more coexistence of virtual spaces and digital technologies in Iran's performing arts future, more than ever before, while it is also probable that the destructive effects of Covid-19 management crisis along with the economy under sanctions and the unstable sociopolitical conditions heralds an indistinct future for Iran's performing arts.


NargesHashempour privatNarges Hashempour is a scholar, actress, director and dramaturge. She finished her PHD in theater studies at Freie Universität Berlin (2009–2012). Since 1991, she has been involved in international theater projects and festivals. She is the recipient of several prizes including the 2019 special Jury prize as the best director from the 37th Fadjr international Theater Festival Tehran and the 2001 Gordana Kosanović Prize for Outstanding Acting awarded by the Theater a. d. Ruhr in Mülheim.



This article is part of a cooperation between the International Research College "Interweaving Performance Cultures" at Freie Universität Berlin (editors: Clara Molau, Antonija Cvitic) and (editor: Elena Philipp).

So far, Letters from Argentina, Chile, EgyptUruguay (German only), South Africa, Turkey (German only) and Japan have been published as part of the series.


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