Reclaiming the Stage

Azadeh Ganjeh

I…, a member of the Iranian Theatre family, in empathy and companionship with the „Women, Life, Freedom“ Movement, declare: 

  • I won’t perform on a stage where „women“ or men are forced to perform in Hijab.
  • Thereafter, my productions won’t stage bogus bodies and imposed atmospheres. I will try to stage the reality of „Life“.
  • In loyalty to „Freedom“ I won’t give in to censorship in any condition, any format, any time, any place, and any government or state.

This Manifesto is not a suicidal end to my artistic life rather, it makes me free cause we are now aware that any space is a stage.

This content was posted on Instagram by a few Iranian theater-makers On the 23rd of November, 2022. This was the result of a courageous collective attempt in the time of terror, overt violence, kidnapping, and imprisonment of Iranian oppositions since the uprising in protest of the brutal murder of Zhina Mahsa Amini on the 16th of September 2022.
To comprehend the importance of this Manifesto in Iran’s performing arts scene, one must perceive the reality of this hegemonic scene.

More than one hundred years ago, „Modern Theater“ was imported to Iran. Although mobilizing theater through Iranian borders was done by Iranian Elites who studied in Europe, this mobility could not have been possible without the authorization and financial support of the state. The state, as the center of communication, found theater an effective tool for teaching the nation. The so-called nation-state was supposed to be a constitutional monarchy, but soon it became an autocracy because of neglecting democratic features and exercising executive and policy-making power by the king. In this king-centered communication system, citizens were considered minors who shall receive propagating ideological values through state-determined concepts and policies. This communication is based on hierarchy and has a decisive objective: to form a state-approved culture and social understanding. Since the 20th century, Iran’s political system underwent several changes, from invasion by aliens to the abduction of the king, from coup de tate to a one-party state, and finally, a revolution. In fact, the change was from autocracy to dictatorship and, finally a totalitarian regime. All these regimes shared two main characteristics in their policies toward public cultural productions:

  • Building Hegemonic nationalism, although the definition of nationalism was different for each. The king (Reza Shah Pahlavi) was extremely affected by the national socialists of Germany and the flawed and racist Aryan Invasion Myth, which was developed in the late 19th century. The king was determined to make bonds with German nationalists. Theater pieces with concepts of national pride and the ancient roots of the monarchy were supported and authorized by the king himself.
  • Promoting supremacy of leaders over other citizens. Theaters which inject the belief that citizens are minors and need a wise, powerful sacred human figure to decide for them.

This habit of authoritarian control over cultural and artistic productions was legalized. Any kind of control needs to function with the help of a system, I call it a „licensing system“. Consequently, the state has strictly controlled the linguistics and aesthetics of any public performance through surveillance and interference. These structural surveillance methods became an inseparable part of public art productions through the years.

Since 1980, one year after the revolution of Iran, the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance has been the responsible organ for licensing any proposal for performing art events. This monitoring system is based on interference and supported by surveillance. This means issuing a permit is the first step to take months before rehearsal or pre-production. During the rehearsing and while staging the production, there is extreme surveillance by the members of the so-called „Monitoring and evaluation committee“. The monitoring process is not only about what should not be done according to the law but also what should be staged to ensure the domination of the state. The propaganda has a clear aim: All men should become ‚one man‘. Undifferentiated Mankind is a condition of a ‚perfect totalitarian government‘, as Arendt mentions.

The totalitarian state terrorizes its subjects to disable them from freedom of action. Contrariwise performing arts have a strong trait of spontaneity, thus freedom of action. Theatre – the cultural product which was meant to serve the domination of the state became a potential threat. The regime took the matter in hand by forcing every public performance to follow a pre-designated path. I find the Performing Arts, particularly the Theatre of Iran, metaphorically a hybrid body that could not receive the right of appearance without being oppressed. This body is the main site of cultural oppression, and it is being marginalized because of its characteristics. However, the state tried to keep it under its center of attention and surveillance. For years Performing Arts appeared inside state-owned theater halls and officially-labeled cultural venues. The state even occupied the body of Street-Theatre, accommodating it as a propaganda tool. When in 2004, I decided to perform in the streets of Tehran, and my aim was to take the marginalized body of Performing Arts out of the state’s controlling sight to give it back its autonomy and audience: People in the public space. As a theater activist, in order to get free of the totalitarian pre-designated path and reclaim the essence of theater, we had to give the chance of dialogue to all participants of the event. Reclaiming the right of appearance needed freedom in the aesthetics of performance. One of my very first actions was to get used to the aesthetics of spatiality.

Performance spaces such as theater buildings, official open-air stages, and rehearsal rooms in governmental theater spaces are monitored and controlled by the dominant power. In fact, a totalitarian system adapts architectural spaces to serve terror and surveillance. Bodies are subjects of terror and are expected to perform state values. The presence of bodies and their appearance is performative and has the power of transformation. In 2004 I chose a yellow phone booth as a space of appearance. A performative space in the heart of the city invites citizens to get engaged in a dialogue with an unknown person on the other end of the line. Any performative action can happen only between bodies. If a performance has a will for freedom, then these bodies should have freedom of action, and all citizens should have access to these spaces of performance. This is how a performative action can change the public space to a public sphere that functions against the authority of the state. The phone booth did not attract so much attention from the censorship authorities since they did not have any idea about the aesthetics of an interactive and immersive performance. The event was considered a weak attempt by a young theater collective who could not produce a high-quality piece.

In fact, 100 years ago, some Iranian performing groups of female activists and religious minorities moved productions out of dedicated buildings into spaces previously used for other purposes. Changing sites was a solution to distance from the center of power. These public spaces were accessible to all citizens. In this case, I am not pointing to the underground theater or private performance art productions which invite a few chosen audiences. On the 22nd of April, 1910, the Iranian Women’s Society held its very first public theater by women for a female audience in a park. Besides members of the Society, every audience member could give a speech before or after the play. This public performance about women’s rights formed a public sphere to communicate thoughts on women’s rights to equality and literacy with the state.

Getting out of the official theater halls and public venues monopolized by the state helped our collective to start a „communicative action“ to transmit and renew cultural knowledge in the process of achieving mutual understanding. It then coordinates action toward social integration and solidarity. Finally, communicative action is the process through which people form their identities. This identity is not based on a homogenous standard and differs with the state introduced: total identity. Having a new unique identity gives the audience member the capability of new beginnings and action. To make this happen, the performance should involve every participant and incorporate audience participation. The liminal experience and the irreversible formation of identity in a performative event can give the benefit of rehearsing political action, as Augusto Boal tries to make this possible in the theater of the oppressed.

Having this in mind, as young performance activists, we showed up in the streets under cover of a mixed group of a film crew and cast, pretending to shoot a film for the Iranian state-controlled media organization (IRIB). I chose a mix of invisible and forum theater to attract and encourage potential participants from the audience while keeping them aware of the fact that they were being watched both by other people (witnesses) and by Big Brother. On a cold afternoon in the winter of 2006, curious spectators gathered around us in silence in front of the Tehran city theater. After repetitious long takes which revealed our scripted core story, our supporting actress (protagonist) refused to perform in a scene where she was supposed to obey her husband after catching him red-handed on a date with his second wife. She announced to our audience her objection to representing an oppressed obedient spouse. To solve the dilemma, spectators were invited to either perform as the protagonist or propose personal and legal solutions to help the first wife claim her right in this marital relationship. Just like our previous experiences with the same performance, a dynamic and sensational dialogue started among spect-actors. Soon a public sphere formed, and plurality gave birth to political activism. The audience started sharing their points of view on state politics in the public space. Thus, a collective formed, and besides criticizing a totalitarian system, people actively gave suggestions for just and effective policies. After two hours of performing, debating, and sharing knowledge, we were obliged by the security forces to leave the venue. However, participants were still occupying the space in small groups, discussing the issue of polygamy. We achieved our goal: revitalizing free dialogue in a pluralistic atmosphere and forming a public sphere through performance art.

The collective memory is another target of state censorship, and the theater was chosen as a platform for building false memories. It is not hard to achieve this goal In a hierarchical relationship between the stage of the orthodox theater and the silenced audience in the auditorium. In 2011, we drove a taxi in the urban sites of the green movement, a political movement that arose after the 2009 Iranian presidential election. Millions of citizens protested against the manipulation of their votes. Despite peaceful demonstrations, many protesters were arrested or killed. Our taxi was meant to be a place of remembering forbidden memories of these brutal events in the alliance of bodies, a performative site for documenting collective memories.

Does the state remain indifferent to the increase in these demands for freedom and the tendency to revitalize the power of people through performance art? In fact, the state became sensitive and felt threatened. Since the public realm is under full control, the first effort was to prevent such events. Many performances either don’t get a license for public performance at all or get banned after their premiere. In the case of licensed events, sometimes the audience gets arrested after their participation. The imprisonment of the members of the theater collective is another common reaction. After years of being banned from performing in public spaces, we tried to find a new space. Our life on digital platforms and social media is an extension of our body and public space. Yet it is not fully dominated by the Iranian government and state. Iranian theater activists who were kept for years in the margins, artist-activists whose presence was omitted from official stages and public space, found the online stage a chance for freedom of expression. To decrease state power, we used freedom and plurality of online communities by staging an accessible and democratic performing collective. The online performance combines virtual and actual reality to form a new public sphere. The corporeal body of performers and spectators mediate the technology to present an active digital body in the performing space. Our site-specific performances stayed inaccessible to the state’s interference system. With legislative efforts to limit citizens‘ access to the global Internet and monitor online activities, the probability of surveillance is strong. For this reason, participants do not connect themselves with their real names and identities. Performers, directors, audience members, and the production team are all anonymous. But not everyone has access to these online platforms, and the audience is limited and, in some aspects, privileged. Therefore the right choice is to stay active both in virtual and real-world spaces. Iranian theater-makers cannot freely express their opinions and engage in their performative productions without fear of violence or prohibition. Still, they set themselves free from the limits and values imposed by a totalitarian state. With the courageous actions of protesters in the „Woman, Life, Freedom“ uprising and the performative aspects of these protests in public space, any act of censorship is a betrayal to the participants.