Theatre, A Response to a Need
An Interview with Arbi Ovanessian
23 December 2008 Mohammad Abdi
The name “Theatre Workshop,” which in the 1970s had an important role in shaping Iran’s modern and experimental theater, is inseparable from Arby Ovanessian’s name. But since the revolution, Arby has been living outside Iran and has kept the secrets of this valuable movement in Iran’s theatre by not having any conversation in Farsi about it.
Arby lives in Paris. He has been teaching theatre in some accredited universities such as Columbia and the Sorbonne. But a generation of Iranian youths and artists has been deprived of his knowledge and skills in creating advanced theatrical works, especially when it comes to training actors. A great actor such as Susan Taslimi still acknowledges how much she owes her acting skills to the Theatre Workshop.
Arby has a fascinating and precise memory, but his silence does not allow us to learn the details of his life and activities during recent years. Arby Ovanessian was born on February 20, 1942 in Jolfa, Isfahan. He finished his high school education majoring in Math at Armenian High School. In 1961, he founded the theatrical group Armen with his classmates. He says Shahin Sarkisian called him his stage designer when Arby designed something simple for one of his plays. He then officially became the stage designer of his group. After the sudden death of Shahin Sarkisian at age fifty two, the group asked Arby to assume the role of director as well.
From 1963 to 1967, Arby studied cinema in London, and after a period of continuous viewing of theatrical plays in various European cities, returned to Iran. He intended to make the movie Shohar-e Ahoo Khanom (The Husband of Mrs. Ahoo), which because of disagreements was left unfinished, and finally was completed by the cinematographer of the film. In 1972, Arby then made the movie called Cheshmeh (Spring), which was shown in the Tehran International Film Festival.
In 1969, Arby and others opened the Theatre Workshop to fulfill his goal of supporting those talents who did not have any place in Iran’s conventional theatre. He then staged a play in the Shiraz Arts Festival called “A Deep, Vast and New Exploration of the Fossils of the Twenty Fifth Geological Period”, written by Abbas Nalbandian. This play, which many thought would be impossible to perform, won the National Television and Shiraz Arts Festival awards.
The Theatre Workshop continued its activities for many years with its four famous groups: The City Actors, under the supervision of Arby Ovanessian (with participation of actors such as Susan Taslimi), Koocheh (Alley) under the supervision of Esmail Khalaj, Ahreman, managed by Ashur Banipal (with Shohreh Aghdashloo and young Atila Pesyani as its actors) and also the Iraj Anvar Group. In later years, Arby played an important role in opening and managing Chahar Soo Hall in Tehran’s Theatre Shahr. When the revolution began, as Susan Taslimi put it, the door to the Theatre Workshop was not only symbolically, but actually boarded up!
Since 1979, Arby has been living in Paris. In 2003, he went to Iran and stayed for a short while to help establish an experimental theatre workshop for Armenians living in Iran.
I had a chance to visit and talk with Arby in London’s Beacon Bar at the time of Iran’s Modern Theatre Seminar, where he was joined by Susan Taslimi, Iraj Anvar, and Shohreh Aghdashloo to explore memories of Theatre Workshop after more than thirty years. One can talk to Arby for hours whose transparent mind and memory shed light on some pages of Iran’s history of theatre. But the time we had was limited and only allowed us a short conversation. Many stories were left untold until some other occasion should arise.
Mr. Ovanessian, you studied cinema in London. Why then did theatre became your main interest, with your growing even more inclined to it over time?
When I returned to Iran, I started to make the movie Shohare Ahoo Khanoom. The production faced challenges with its producers’ fraudulent acts, which is a long story. Parts of my screenplay were cut, and the cinematographer became the director and completed the film with a different cast. I still have the twenty minutes of that film that I made with its original cast. Anyway, that work was interrupted and stopped. Since I had done some theatrical work with Shahin Sarkisian, as his stage designer, I returned to theatre. After Sarkisian passed away, his group appointed me as director. We staged two plays in the Society of Iran and America. One was “Mademoiselle Jollie,” in Farsi, and the other, “The Honorable Beggars,” in Armenian. When the first contest for playwriting was taking place in the second year of the Shiraz Arts Festival, I chose to work with the play, “A Deep, Vast and New Exploration of the Fossils of the Twenty Fifth Geological Period”, written by Abbas Nalbandian. Everyone thought it was beautiful, but it couldn’t be carried out. I suggested if I had a few days of rehearsal, I would show them that it could be carried out. I then began the work.
There are rumors about the role and effect of Peter Brook in Theatre Workshop. Was he influential in your work?
The workshop was in existence two years before Brook’s arrival, and my play “A Deep, Vast…,” which was also seen by Brook, had already been performed. He invited me to work with the International Center for Theatre Research, which he was in the process of founding in Iran. My theatrical work started before I met Brook. He worked on his Orghast at Persepolis (1971) project after I did Vis and Ramin (1970). The sunset scene in Vis and Ramin is repeated in Orghast at Persepolis. Everyone thinks I copied that scene, but it is just the opposite. Even Europeans think this way, except for those who were present at the time. It looked like it was Brook’s idea, but that was not the case. We were struggling with the thought that if theatre is to survive in our time, it cannot be done the old way. Many people around the world also thought the same. Some had started researching this subject, and some began consulting with each other, like in the center that Jerzy Grotowski founded in Poland, or that Brook founded in Paris. The Theatre Workshop was established in Iran even before Brook’s center. I am not saying these centers were all at the same level, but this phenomenon started at the same time around the world, as the need for it manifested. It was even present in America.
In Brook’s play Orghast at Persepolis Iranian actors also played some roles. They were mostly actors from our workshop, in addition to some from the university and the Center for Theatre. We both selected those individuals. Before Brook arrived, I worked with the Iranian actors for two months. Then Brook’s group from Paris joined us and we all worked together.
You mentioned in your speech about Ta’zieh (Religious passion play) being officially played in the Shiraz Arts Festival. Do you think Iranian traditional theatre had any influence on your vision? Do you see any connection between your plays and something like Ta’zieh?
I had seen Ta’zieh in Iran several times. But it was its formal staging in the Shiraz Arts Festival for the first time that gave it another meaning. It was played in the first year of the Festival before my play “A Deep, Vast…” I have to add that in the fourth year of the Shiraz Festival, the title of the program was changed to “Theatre and Ritual”. In my conversation with Nader Ebrahimi, which was published in the festival’s catalogue in both Farsi and English, I mentioned that my play Vis and Ramin, in which both time - past and present - and also places come together, and also because its execution resembles a ritual, could be considered a step toward creating a Ta’zieh of our time. Of course, not quite in that format. The “Little Prince” and Shakespeare’s plays are mostly played like Ta’zieh, but not in format, only in content and concept. I mean if we are going to have Ta’zieh in our time, we first need to ask what is our tragedy, what is the theme of our time.
Do you think Theatre Workshop belonged to an era that is gone, or can we consider the modern theatre of today’s Iran as its continuation?
Everything that Workshop did for organizational and administrative renovations of theatre, and educating actors was disrupted and ruined. The Workshop added three theatres in Iran, and created at least six theatrical groups during its existence. At one point, its entire repertoire was performed in all three theatres of the workshop, and also in Theatre Shahr and in Chahar soo Hall. The actors were able to maintain the repertoire. This phenomenon had never before been seen. The workshop’s effect was especially felt with its two plays “A Deep, Vast…” and “Shahre Ghesseh” (The City of Tales), Bijan Mofid’s production. These two plays changed the meaning of coffee-house theatre and foreign origin theatre forever. The foreign origin plays seen in Samandarian, Pari Saberi and even Nooshin’s works were mere reproductions. Since they were working with foreign texts, the elements of innovation and creativity were missing in their execution. For example Khalaj’s work was different from the coffee-house plays shown in Theatre Center and Shahrivar 25 Auditorium. This belief that theatre can present a different idea started with the Workshop, both in regards to Iranian texts and foreign texts. One generation lived this experience for ten years; some watched carefully and were influenced by it. So the page turned. We can say that the Workshop was effective. It influenced a generation, with some of its members like Atila Pesyani still working in Iran.
Do you see any distinct influence on what you see in today’s Iranian theatre?
The young generation belongs to the present, and each generation brings something new to his or her era. This is only natural. This new phenomenon in Iran’s theatre is like what happened in the Workshop. What is missing today is the positive environment that was created and that allowed its members to grow. The new generation in Iran and outside Iran is facing some unhealthy environments. Consequently, this generation is sidetracked from the right path.
What are you doing these days?
The same as always. I perform. The old social and political conditions are not here anymore. But the nature of my work hasn’t changed. The only difference is that I consciously do not do any work in Farsi. I believe the art work belongs to the country in which it is performed, and not to outsiders. The Farsi speaking audience residing outside Iran lives in a rather unnatural environment. Also the type of work my colleagues and I used to offer at one time is not possible to offer inside Iran anymore. Therefore, it is not feasible for me to follow the path I believe in for Farsi performances. So I don’t work in Farsi these days.
So you have performances in other languages?
I had a few in English, French and Armenian, but my goal was never to have successful performances in different cultures. My goal is presenting a cultural work, in response to a need, not to a market. So each of my plays is performed with this logic and goal in mind.
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