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Night out on Broadway
Theater industry is as alive as film

By Soma
January 21, 2000
The Iranian

Any country and many artists are capable of creating works that can endure through the ages. But there are moments at which works of quality can flower and spawn with ease and grace. Many accommodating elements have to be present. At the juncture of modernity and tradition, at the interstices of time immemorial and the political reality of the moment, the Iranian society is witnessing a movement whose demands will determine the fruitfulness of the artistic future of the country.

Two years into the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, an impeachment away from losing the cultural stronghold of the Islamic Republic, the indomitable Ataollah Mohajerani is driving his policies in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance at a gallop. The flippant Ershad minister has been able to keep the pace of reform within a battlefield that has not ceased to see engagement ever since his name was forwarded as commander.

Since its very inception, the Islamic Republic came down strong on cultural footings. If it is an overstatement to equate the rate of occurrence of the adjectives "Islamic" and "Culture", it won't be to claim that most of the times the two have been used interchangeably. Not a public, municipal building can be found that does not adorn its entrance with the vague designation "culture". Not an educational organization to be found that does not claim to be a cultural one, to the point where the word has lost all its semiotic significance and has come to connote nothing in particular.

Yet, the Islamic Revolution has come to be regarded, in the main, by its architects and subsequent power holders, as a cultural phenomenon. Many, notably the Leader, have designated culture as the main field within which the East/West, Good/Evil battles are and will take place.

It is not surprising that Ershad has occupied one of the most important positions in the political hierarchy of the country. Heads of Ershad, along with those of Radio and Television, in the past 20 years have had lasting impact on the overall policy making of the Islamic Republic.

It may come as a surprise to many that the current head of the Executive Branch, Mohammad Khatami, was an Ershad minister for a total of eleven years before he was forced to step down from his position during the first Rafsanjani presidency. In reality, he resigned after it became apparent to him that a conservative 4th Majlis, having been just elected in February 1992 and ready to gavel in on June, fiercely opposed his post-Iran/Iraq war policies and would not stop of anything but his ouster. Ironically, the day he appeared before the Majlis to hand in his resignation (23 May 1992) corresponds date-for-date to the day five years later when he was elected, on a wave of popular suffrage, to become president of the Republic.

Now, three years into HIS presidency, Khatami's policies of cultural openness, which he tried to introduce in 1989, are back on the agenda with tenor. At no time in modern Iranian history has the country been witness to such a surge in cultural activity. This, of course, is not an objective evaluation, but a simple observation.

To stop only at one example, the City Theater has so many shows ready to be staged that it is hard to keep up with new ones appearing. The notorious bureaucratic disorder that is in place actually ends up shuffling and bungling many of them to the point where earlier in the year the director of BLOOD WEDDING, Ali Rafii, threatened to abort the show (written by Garcia Lorca and translated by Shamloo, and staged for a second time in the past year) because, he complained, interjections by other programs (notably Shahram Nazeri's concert in November) affected a discontinuity in the group's performance. He didn't make good on his threat, and the audience kept coming back for more, so to speak, turning the show into a box-office triumph.

The success of DANDOON TALA, a play by the renowned film director Davood Mirbaqery, has pre-empted the showing of THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI, a play by Bertolt Brecht, which was scheduled to start at primetime in late December, but which was instead slotted to 4 pm with much delay. According to the press, DANDOON TALA has been the biggest moneymaker in Iranian theater history, raking in over 7 billion rials over a period of eight months.

Since two years ago, the City Theater has opened two smaller stages: the Qashqaii, and earlier this month, the House of Khorshid. Both are low capacity and easily sell out.

Merry theatrical matrimonies have also been consummated in the prolific dominion of Ataollah Mohajerani. A particularly effective one seems to be the 1997-established PARCHIN which boasts Bahram Beyzaii as a member, but also well know directors like Hamid Amjad, Mohammad Rahmanian, and actors like Mojdeh Shamsaii, Mahtab Nasirpour, and Habib Rezaii. Other groups like NARGESS SIAH (currently staging Genet's LES NÈGRES in the House of Khorshid) are also worth mentioning.

Twenty years into the Revolution of 1979, the Iranian theater is more alive than ever. Though overshadowed heavily by its more prosperous visual associate in the film industry, the theater is making it dent in ways that can be said to silverline a dramatic promise in the cultural scene of the country. Perhaps it is not too farfetched to expect a cultural renaissance of sorts in the space that has opened since the election of Mohammad Khatami into office.

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