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Iranian-German mimes chart stormy seas

Iranian mimes meet German actors on a Dresden stage. They share a passion for theater and a will to collaborate. Is it enough to surmount the barriers: language, culture and censorship?

The small rehearsal room at the Societätstheater in Dresden is full of clothes, masks, puppets and Persian instruments. A group of Iranian and German actors are warming up, getting rid of their burdens and excess baggage.

Elham, Massoumeh and Solmaz, the three Iranian women in the group, are carrying quite a bit of baggage - literally; they just arrived from Tehran the night before. It's the first day of rehearsal all together. The rest of the ensemble, four young men, came to Germany a month earlier to work on this co-production with the German theater group "Freaks und Fremde."

Heiki Ikkola of Freaks und Fremde initiated the project on the heels of a visit to Iran, where he put on a puppetry workshop. He and his translator there, Shahab Anousha, got on so well that they decided to collaborate on a play with the Iranian mime ensemble, Paradata. It began with a workshop in Tehran and months later continued in Dresden, where the play was to premier.

Reza Keshawarz wearing a cape and holding a sword onstage

Reza and the rest of the group developed their characters through improvisation


Due to restrictions and censorship in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Paradata, like most artistic groups in the country's vast cultural scene, developed largely underground. Reza Keshawarz founded the ensemble around 10 years ago.

"I had worked with various international mime artists who had come to Iran. I learned a lot from them and started to give mime classes myself at film schools, universities and private institutions. So over the years, I was able to attract more and more people to mime theater," Reza says."Some of the group members who are here now are actually my former students."

Mime theater is not very common in Iran, on the one hand, because of its focus on body motion, which makes it especially hard to get permission for public performances. On the other hand, modern Iran audiences consider mime to be old-fashioned and apolitical.

As a result, Paradata has only rarely been able to perform rarely in public, "but with a lot of restrictions, especially because we are three women working with our bodies," says the group's youngest member, 23-year-old Massoumeh. "We build up a lot of energy, but have no way to release it."

That makes it particularly important to the players to have the chance to perform in Germany.

Massoumeh peeks from behind the curtains

Massoumeh is hopeful that the group will be able to perform in Iran as well

The play's dramatic composition is based on the encounter between the Iranians and the Germans using their personal experiences and perceptions of each other as well as issues that dominate their lives: freedom, democracy and self-determination. The actors developed their characters mostly through improvisation.

The Germans contributed their own contradictory senses of Iran. "One is the image we get from the media: the ayatollah regime, restricted social life," says Heiki. "But there's also a pleasant image from the 19th century," he said, referring to the Romantic era, when Germans began to appreciate Persian poems.

Goethe, for example, was fascinated by Persian literature. His collection of lyrical poems, "West-Eastern Divan," which was inspired by the Persian poet Hafez, is a sort of dialog and stimulating exchange between Orient and Occident.

In this same spirit, the German and Iranian actors created their play and called it "West-Eastern Divan Reloaded."

Ingrained self-censorship

As they planned to perform in Iran as well, they were very cautious when they were creating the scenes here in Germany, says Shahab. "Over the years, we've gotten used to [censorship] and we generally know what we can show - and what not," he says. "It's not that there is a specific scene that we know we can't show in Iran, but there are small things that we may have to change."

The Siamese twins scene is one of them. There two of the performers, a man and a woman, are stuck in one pair of trousers and have to figure out how to move in concert, without falling over. "We would have to have that performed by two men," Shahab explains.

The crew of 'West-Eastern Divan Reloaded' talk onstage

Rehearsal talks take place in three languages

On the German side, Heiki has the feeling the Iranians' self-censorship has a great effect on the creative process, even here in Germany. "Sometimes I have the feeling when they improvise, there's no political relevance, because they're not used to it since they cut that out from their work in Iran," he says.

But the Iranian actors, born and raised with restrictions in cultural and public life, can not separate it from their work, Shahabsays. "There is always this kind of internal censorship inside us. I don't know how, but it's there." he says. "But we always find a creative way to go beyond it."

Paper trail

While the final performance will focus on bodily motion and include almost no speech at all, rehearsals require a lot of discussion - in German, Persian and English - as well as negotiating very different working styles.

"The Germans' work is very structured," says Reza, pointing to their apparent need to plan and write down everything. "But we are more the types to just throw ourselves into the scene and see what happens; sometimes we might just get into a rhythm, follow it for hours and see what comes out of it."

Yet their passion for theater and bodily motion give them common ground.

Heiki Ikkola holding up a skull

Heiki can't help but see his role as a captain trying to steer the course

"Although we sometimes have diverse understandings of what theater is, somehow these conflicts contribute to creating something new," Shahabsays. "No matter what, something magical happens on stage."

And it does this time too. After 12 hours of rehearsal - much of it filled with discussion - the first scene has taken shape: a wide sea, possibly in Iran. A ship's crew is heading off on a new adventure, with crew members speaking different languages, coming from different worlds and expressing different ideas as to where this journey should take them.

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