Experimental theater comes to Tehran's 'Off-Broadway'

PBS series Frontline, 8/30/11

As night falls on east Tehran's Hassan Abaad, one of the neighborhood's old villas transforms into the setting of a nightmarish performance. This underground production is the latest opus of Naqsh, a nascent performance group dedicated to pioneering experimental theater in the Islamic Republic. With little chance of getting their provocative work past government censors, the group is limited to performing in front of ten-person audiences inside the home of its 28-year-old director Sahar Eftekharzade. Despite their marginalization from the mainstream scene and lack of access to public funding, the group makes the most of its own resources in an effort to introduce its Iranian spectators to the world of avant-garde theater. While experimental theatre is popular with audiences from Seattle to Calcutta, Eftekharzadeh was initially concerned that spectators in Iran would not be as receptive. "We were afraid that after creating something beautiful, the audience would not understand it," she says. So far, that has not been the case. After ten performances, the group's latest performance, Phobia, has gotten standing ovations from intimate audiences that mostly comprise young people hungry for an alternative to mainstream Iranian theatre. At the end of one recent Phobia performance, the show's small, yet thankful, audience stood in the villa garden, waiting their turn to step out into the street without raising the suspicions of neighbors and passersby. "What they are doing is brave because they are abandoning the traditional path of theatre in Iran," said Pooya, a 26-year old artist. "Maybe it's not new in the West, but it's new here."

> FROM TC: You can watch a short video clip of Phobia here.


Balinese arts festival resuscitates theater scene with experimental works

Luh De Suryani, The Jakarta Post, 9/12/11

An ongoing theater festival at Denpasar's Werddhi Budaya art center has resuscitated the island's modern theater scene. Local theater is considered to have lain dormant for years due to a lack of major events and the all too-powerful presence of Balinese traditional performing arts. "Major modern theater events in Bali are a rarity and this festival aims at not only showcasing the best performances from the island's theater companies but also at providing a regular opportunity for actors and dramatists to share their creative processes," [organizer Kadek] Suardana said. It turns out the festival has also became a medium through which theater companies field test their latest aesthetic explorations before a live audience. For example, on Saturday night, the Bali Experimental Theater (BET), a Jembrana-based drama company, performed Rezim, a play [which] did not feature any dialogue or any discernible utterances. The actors relied heavily on movements, gestures and sounds to build dramatic plots and convey their messages. So far, the festival has also proved that modern theater can attract a large number of young spectators. On the festival's first night on Friday, hundreds of youngsters packed the Ksirarnawa stage to watch Kisah Cinta dan Lain-lain (Love Story and Other Things), a play composed by the late Arifin C. Noer, one of the most influential dramatists in contemporary Indonesia.


New artistic direction at Moscow's experimental theaters

John Freedman, The Moscow Times, 9/9/11

The [Russian] theater season has hardly begun but change is already in the air. Two venues whose work has made incalculable contributions to experimental theatrical over the last decade have announced new leadership. Stepping into the role of artistic director at the Playwright and Director Center is Mikhail Ugarov, whose work at Teatr.doc, the Moscow Art Theater, the Et Cetera Theater and the Playwright and Director Center has had a major impact on tastes and trends in Russia in the 2000s. At the Meyerhold Center, one of Moscow's major independent theater organizations, the position of artistic director has been handed to Viktor Ryzhakov, 51, [who] made his name as the director of numerous plays by Ivan Vyrypayev, one of the darlings of the New Drama movement in Russia. The appointment of Ryzhakov to the top spot at the Meyerhold came as the Center's founder and longtime artistic director Valery Fokin announced he was stepping into the largely ceremonial position of the organization's president. By assuming the leadership position at the Playwright and Director Center, Ugarov fills a vacuum that was left by the death of the theater's founder Alexei Kazantsev in 2007. The move puts Ugarov, 55, in the position of running two similar theaters simultaneously, since he will continue actively to oversee work at Teatr.doc, which he founded with his wife Yelena Gremina in 2002.


Experimentation and improvisation: a discussion with director Max Ray
Daniel Thomas Berg, Berlin Art Link, 8/25/11

The COT Theater is an improvisation performance collective founded in London by director and former art critic Max Ray and visual artist/physical performer Satu Suomela. Their shows revolve around an interdisciplinary approach. Productions often include live music, DJs, performance film and photography, acrobatics, and a strong focus on audience participation and humorous interpretation. The COT is currently based in Berlin. [Here's an excerpt from an interview with Max Ray:]

A lot of people say the reason experimental theater (like other avant-garde art movements) developed is to address a general cultural crisis. Do you feel that by doing things in a non-traditional way you are confronting a crisis in culture?

RAY: There isn't one "crisis" per se, that would be oversimplifying the world we live in, to choose a phenomenon and call it an X-Y-Z conflict. There is conflict and crisis everywhere. But you could say that global crisis such as wars or natural disasters become more personal nowadays, with constant coverage and even personal accounts posted online by friends from different countries. Large or small, everyone has at least a couple of ongoing personal crises in their life. There's always different factors pulling to different directions, there's always tension. Even digitalization is a crisis for many people, a social one. The ways we make human connections are really different than they used to be.... That disconnects you from life, which is in a way a crisis. But in a way, accepting these changes is a must in order to be able to negotiate them.

So is the essence of experimental art to respond to these kinds of conflicts?

RAY: Experimental art is only called experimental for the first few years, until it's adopted by everybody else as the way to move forward. And yes, perhaps all groundbreaking works of art are a response to a crisis. Why is Brecht regarded as a more or less a "classical" playwright when in his time he was deported and his plays burned? Even Madonna was experimental at first. Probably the biggest over-the-top commercial artist used to be an edgy provocateur when they started out. It's really just semantics, and how society creates and perceives trends. At the end of the day there's the people producing a creative effort and people reacting to it. I think that's more significant than the label.


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New musical work to capture 50 years of experimental theater La MaMa E.T.C.

Patrick Healy, The New York Times' ArtsBeat blog, 9/15/11

The composer and writer Elizabeth Swados has created a new musical work, "The La MaMa Cantata," comprising decades of quotations by Ellen Stewart, the founder of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, and is set to direct the piece at the downtown theater on Nov. 7 and 8. The piece is intended as a celebration of Stewart, who helped establish the Off Off Broadway scene with La MaMa and who died in January at 91. Ms. Swados is best known for her 1978 Broadway musical Runaways. She and Ms. Stewart also collaborated for years on productions like Seven Against Thebes and Mythos Oedipus. The two performances, part of La MaMa's 50th anniversary season, will include a company of 25 actors, soloists and chorus members. The season will begin with a two-day celebration, featuring a block party near the theater's East Village home and a gala on Oct. 17 at which Patti Smith and Bill Irwin will perform.

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