Negar Abedi and Mohammad Hassan Majooni in The Sky of Snowy Days (2009) staged at the 27th Fadjr Theater Festival, Iran.
Directed by Mohammad Aghebati
Photo by: Mani Lotfizadeh
Last March, the avant-garde theatre artist Mohammad Aghebati visited a Persian Studies class on Gender and Body in Iran at the University of Maryland. Students were surprised to find that instead of giving a traditional lecture, he had them participate in theatrical warm-ups and exercises.
For one of the warm-ups, the students had to stand in a circle. Someone would start counting at one, and another person would have to follow with two. This process would continue until multiple people said the next number simultaneously or said a number out of sequence. If this happened, Aghebati would have the class start over again at the number one.
Emma Minnis, a student from that class, stated: “At first I felt the game was kind of embarrassing. People kept saying the numbers at the same time, so we had to start over. Eventually, we all got better at knowing when to say the numbers.”
Later during the visit, Aghebati had students act. He gave students a scenario and had them improvise the same scene in different situations. He first began with two students, male and female, who were acting as a couple in the private space of their home. The point of conflict in the scene was that the female character was engaged in another relationship and wanted to break up. Aghebati then stopped the performance and replaced the female student with a veiled student who had volunteered to act. Then the male student was replaced with a female student, who was however still cast as a man. Eventually, Aghebati altered the scenario and made the relationship between a lesbian couple as opposed the heterosexual one it had been. Aghebati finally changed the location from the private space of the home to a public food court
Homa Hajarian and Mohammad Aghebati
Photo Credit: Stephen Barber
Months later, during an October visit to Washington D.C., he explained his reasoning for the exercise. He stated: “I wanted to show your class to the best of my ability how the theories you had learned in your course would be practically and dramatically shown in a theatrical setting.” Students in the Gender and Body class had been learning about the ways gender roles, norms, perceptions, and relations have changed historically in twentieth century-Iran. Aghebati’s exercise presented them with an embodied experience of spatial aspect of gender dynamics and relations
An Iranian theatre director who splits his time between the U.S. and Iran, Aghebati and his visit to the Persian Studies class affected students greatly. However, there was a language barrier between the students and him. Although this posed a problem sometimes, he stated: “My English isn’t very good, but the most exciting part of it was that you all had some previous experience with Farsi and with Iranian culture, so for me it really wasn’t starting from scratch.”
The language barrier between Aghebati as a Farsi speaker and most Americans as English speakers has, however, not prevented him from producing theatre in the US. To overcome this barrier in his plays, he has implemented the use of supertitles, translated or transcribed dialogue projected usually above the stage.
Aghebati has used many historically European plays as the basis for his productions. For instance, in 2013, he staged an experimental/minimalist 30-minute version of Hamlet at New York’s Under the Radar Festival. A one man-show enacted by the acclaimed Iran-based actor, Afshin Hashemi, the play was reviewed by Charles Isherwood of New York Times.
The trailer of Hamlet, Prince of Grief contains scenes from the play.
When asked about his use of European plays, he stated: “Art is an international venue for creativity. We are all connected through art. A play produced in Iran can have as great of an impact here in the US as it did there. Many international artists think globally, and I’m not peculiar in the sense that I use ‘Western’ material. Artists use works from various parts of the world, as a base and then adapt it to their liking. So we don’t really start from zero but alter an already established work.”
Aghebati is enthusiastic about creating works for children. He cites his adolescent daughter as his main influence, stating: “I have always been interested in children’s theatre. I think it can have a great influence because the experience of art is important for children, and it should be provided to them.”
Currently, Aghebati is working on an adaptation of a famous Iranian children’s story, Samad Behrangi’s The Little Black Fish, to be staged in New York.