Disabled people’s experiences in Iranian theatre could be seen in the Fourth Hope-Maker International Theatre Festival in Isfahan
Mohammad Ali Sarmadi
A Look Towards the Past
To understand the history of theatrical activities for disabled people in Iran, one should travel back in time to 1924, when the first school for deaf people was founded by Jabbar Baghtcheban. In such institutions, known as “Schools for exceptional students,” theatre was used as a subsidiary program to empower disabled students, particularly in Baghtcheban’s school, where he had a hand in writing children’s plays. However, the plays written and performed in such places were often staged only for the students’ families, never having an opportunity to find a general audience outside of the schools. However, looking over the intermittent history of disabled theatre, some notable events stand out, such as the staging of Khale-Sooske (Auntie Beetle) in the 1970s, directed by Mojtaba Yassini and featuring deaf actors, which garnered much attention at the time. Yasini continued to work with disabled students as a theatre mentor in the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanoon-e Parvaresh-e Fekri-e Koodakan o Nojavanan), and in 1979, he staged another play in a public theatre featuring deaf actors.
In recent years, various plays have been staged making use of disabled people’s artistic talents. Among these, some have been more successful than others in attracting a wider audience. By being staged in Tehran and on tour, certain plays have had a broader impact. These include Eugène Ionesco’s The Chairs directed by Hossein Rahimi, featuring physical and mobility impaired people; The Stairway (Pellekan), written by Akbar Radi and directed by Shahed Peyvand, and Bitter Orange Season (Fasl-e Bahar Narenj) directed by Gholamreza Arabi, both featuring blind actors. Nevertheless, due to the lack of permanent rehearsal spaces, these independent groups have only managed to obtain limited, sporadic experiences.
Holding various theatre festivals for disabled people in Tehran and other cities indicates that some attention has been paid towards such activities over the past decade. However, since holding festivals requires a large budget, independent groups have not yet been able to hold a festival for disabled people without relying on government subsidies. Since 2003, though, the Ministry of Community and Social Services - despite being a welfare and service provision organisation which is fundamentally non-artistic - has held four international and forty local festivals in different cities. The most important function of these short-term, periodic festivals is that - aside from the common slogans and clichés about helping disabled people - they create opportunities for theatrical groups to acquaint themselves with the styles and qualities of other groups who work with disabled people. This creates an opportunity for mutual interaction, and also to attract and interact with more audience members.
The “Fourth Hope-Maker (Omid-afarin) International Theatre Festival,” which focused on theatre for disabled people, was held 2-7 ِDecember, 2016 in Isfahan. During these days, forty-one plays were staged in the festival’s different sections, including thirty-five plays from Iran and six foreign plays, from Uganda, Germany, Armenia, Holland, Belgium, and Italy. “Children’s Theatre” and “Street Theatre,” each had a separate section, and on the closing day, the participating groups competed for prizes according to their type of disability. It’s worth noting that many of the Iranian plays in the festival had originally been performed at six smaller, local festivals, which are held on a regular basis in their various cities.
Based upon estimated statistics, as quoted by the official Iranian media, disabled people constitute 12-14% of the Iranian population. These statistics rank Iran among the top 10 countries globally in terms of its percentage of disabled people and indicate a 2-4% growth in the disability rate since 2011.
Theatre: A Medium for Connecting Cultures
The staging of plays from Holland, Uganda, Italy, Armenia, Germany, and Belgium alongside plays from Iran, besides being an event about disabled theatre, was an opportunity to build cultural companionship, acquainting different cultures with each other. Therefore in festivals like this, disabled theatre can create an opportunity for its audience to go beyond common assumptions about this kind of theatre, and it indicates that these events have the potential to elaborate on issues beyond disability. Nevertheless, the media which covered the news of the festival often reported on it only from the perspective of its participants’ disabilities. This neglect could result in the formation of an image of disability based on pity, rather than highlighting the equal opportunities for the involvement and acceptance of so-called disabled individuals. The cultural connections of this festival may, therefore, be an important step towards changing views as to the potential of disabled theatre. Looking at the daily festival brochures, as well as interviews with the festival judges, supporters, and audience members indicate that the experience of watching disabled theatre turned out to be a unique experience for them. For instance, Afsaneh Bayegan - a cinema actress who’s been a judge in several editions of the festival - gave an interview to the daily brochure recounting her first experience of seeing disabled theatre: “The first time that I decided to attend the festival as a judge, I didn’t have any idea about it, and I didn’t know what kind of performances I was going to watch. I thought that I would see fairly average, high-school-level performances, like those in high schools. Surprisingly, though, there were performances which I hadn’t even witnessed in professional Iranian theatre.”
Performances at the “Hope-Maker” Festival
The forty-one plays in the festival were classified based upon the abilities of the disabled participants, as well as the themes and content of their plays. Some of the teams, including directors, actors, and playwrights, were a mixture of disabled and non-disabled people. In most cases, a non-disabled director had put the play together. However, the presence of disabled people was not limited to directing and acting - there were disabled playwrights as well. In addition, on the fringes of the festival, directors who had previously worked with disabled people shared their experiences. There was a great diversity in the performances in terms of their immediate relevance to the themes and concepts of disability. Some of the pieces were not focused on the experience of disability, with only the actors and directors being disabled themselves. On the other hand, many play themes revolved around disability, while their crews consisted of disabled and non-disabled people. However, some plays which chose not to focus on themes of disability instead opted to draw attention to other social issues. Wish (Kashki), for example, directed by Manijeh Massumi, was about child street-sellers who suddenly find themselves in a theatre and decide to perform a play. With its critical social content, Wish highlighted the issue of child labour and juvenile homelessness, bringing their dreams, needs, and demands to life. Alternatively, a play like Who started the War? recreated the life of a man who had been tortured in Abu Ghraib prison. These plays, among others, show that the festival managers and crew achieving one of their main goals - preventing the segregation of disabled people from other members of society.
The non-Iranian plays generally drew greater audiences than the Iranian ones. An Armenian King Lear, directed by Robert Tsaturyan, was one of the most-viewed plays of the festival. The play De Bank, written by Paul Verrept and directed by Luc Nuyens and Frank Dierens, was another piece which was very well received by the audience. It was about a man who, after his parents’ deaths, is sitting on a park bench - broken, depressed, and hopeless - while actors with Down syndrome create a theatrical world for him, full of hope and love.
Not all of the performances used straightforward narratives and performing styles. For example, Flashback to Beckett tried to analyse disability and inability from a philosophical perspective. Director Frank Matzke created the piece with the belief that “In art, there is no such thing as disability, as everything is ability.” The directors of De Bank and Flashback to Beckett also held educational workshops for disabled people and their mentors alongside their dramatic work.
Looking at all the plays, it could be said that the diverse groups displayed a multifarious approach to the issues of disability. As an example, Golnaz Akbari, who dramatised Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, created strong empathy between a disabled actor and the character of Laura, which explored a different approach to disability. There were also plays which tried to draw the audience’s attention towards the issues disabled people face in everyday life. So and So On, directed by Mousa Hedayati and featuring seven mobility and physically impaired actors, looked at disabled people’s efforts to gain independence in carrying out their daily affairs. Nonetheless, despite the endeavours of various groups to probe subjects related to disability, in their final statement, the festival judges advised the directors not to employ disabled actors only as a means of being accepted in such events.
A Look Towards the Future
Considering the number of disabled people in Iran - aside from the welfare and service issues they require - it is important to utilise theatre as an art form which has the potential to increase their presence and participation in society. Unfortunately, however, as often happens after such festivals, the matter gets forgotten and theatre is not considered a necessity for disabled people. Today, the most important obstacle in producing disabled theatre is the lack of appropriate rehearsal and performance spaces suitable for a disabled audience as well as for disabled actors.
Overall, festivals and big events sponsored by government budgets often end up being temporary happenings. This “Hope-Maker” international festival has just been revived after years of suspension. This shows that it is more likely that governments will always be more inclined to prioritise welfare and servicing issues, rather than holding a festival for disabled people. That is why, after the festival, Fatemeh Fakhri - the Ministry of Community and Social Services’ expert on disabled artistic affairs and the “Hope-maker” festival manager - said, “We are in the process of editing a supporting plan, whereby disabled people’s theatrical groups can transform into small theatre companies. It means that we should help them to stand on their own feet. The formation of a small theatre company has an important function - producing professional plays. Certainly, the audience wants to watch high-standard, professional plays, not pitiful clichés.” In fact, the formation of small companies in disabled theatre creates a very important opportunity for the public staging of their plays to non-disabled audiences. These performances can help realise the ideal concept of not segregating disabled people from the rest of society. Having said that, given the challenges faced by theatre in general and Iranian theatre in particular, there seems to be a long road ahead before disabled theatre is regularly staged for a wider audience.
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