Farindokht Zahedi’s memory is a rough place, strewn with rubble and the leftovers of conflicts. One of the minefields of the past belongs to the Iraq-Iran war when she was 26 and a new teacher of drama at Teheran University. “Whatever plays I asked the students to read or talk about, they would have some kind of interpretation of death and hopelessness,” she says.
Zahedi, 61, with the expressive body language that comes from a lifetime in theatre, was one of the visiting faculties at the Asia-Pacific Bureau Meet of Drama Schools at the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi last month. The air was electric with excitement as students and faculty members from different countries exchanged notes about new languages of theatre — and Zahedi stood out as the teacher who kept theatre alive during war.
When her colleagues fled Teheran as bombs reduced landmarks to debris and aeroplanes flew low, Zahedi took students into war shelters and continued her drama lessons. “There is something terrible that happens to you when you have a war. Doing theatre is like holding on to life,” she says.
While recalling “those days”, Zahedi’s sentences roll into one gust — as if she must finish what she wants to say before a bomb goes off. “I was dying, I was killing myself to get them rid of all that feeling. I was trying so hard to make sure that the essence of life was untouched while we were alive but, every time I would go through the plays and dig the layers and get them to see how beautiful life was and how we were obliged as people to live our lives and be happy and, with our happiness, help others feel that they have to live and struggle, the students would again go back to their ideas of death and hopelessness,” she says.
The war ended after eight years and today, says Zahedi, the country has a rich theatre culture where one can watch productions drawn from ancient Persian styles to modern forms. It is a matter of pride for the teacher that many of the contemporary leading lights have been her students or worked with her, from award-winning playwright and TedX speaker Naghmeh Samini to Mohammad Yaghoubi, winner of the National Theatre Critics Society Award for Outstanding Play. Zahedi’s present preoccupation is to put Iranian theatre on the international stage — which makes her a proponent of a kind of avant-garde plays in which actors use body movements to transcend language barriers. Her play, The Dream of Summer, takes place in a graveyard with props limited to two benches, two gravestones and three candles. A musician unspools a slow rhythm for the actors to enunciate their carefully honed movements. “The play is abstract and without a story because it is meant to inject a feeling of philosophical introspection into the audience’s blood, and get them back to their own dreams and see what they wanted from their own life,” says Zahedi.
The affinity for abstraction and symbolism that is seen in Zahedi’s plays can be traced to Iran’s cultural roots in Persian antiquity. The country has seven major languages, with Farsi being the official one. The poetics of Hafez, Rumi, Nizami Ganjavi, Saadi Shirazi, Ferdowsi, and Omar Khayyam, among others, inspire playwrights and directors to cloak their meanings in layers of metaphors. Zahedi’s frequently-staged play, The Dialogue, is about three women and is a story of treachery that is open to multiple interpretations. “We don’t write and perform our politics openly, we go with symbolism, emblems, signs and such things,” says the theatre veteran.
Her first lessons in experimental theatre came from attending the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts, an international summer festival that was held for 11 years when the Shahs ruled Iran. Before the Islamic revolution put an end to it, the festival had hosted Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook and Andrei Serban, among other genre-defying, even iconoclastic, theatre stalwarts. “I have studied theatre arts for four years and then put in three more years at UCLA and then five years in University of Oslo. I think the experience at Shiraz Festival had more effect on me than all my studies because I could see, feel and touch the moment the actors would create,” says Zahedi, who authored the book, Henrik Ibsen and Iranian Modern Drama as part of her doctoral studies.
Back in Iran, she will continue creating a new generation of theatre makers — which has won her the title of Mother of Theatre in Iran. “Why not sister? I can be the sister of theatre,” she says. Or a friend.