Abstract: This article considers the changing state of Iranian theatre in the last decade. It claims that the current character of theatre has been transformed from a state sponsored monopoly to a privatized competitive environment with many players. The paper examines how private theatres, departments, venues and festivals have evolved in recent years. It also examines the role of criticism, media and press, along with the commoditization of theatre and the taste of new audiences.
Keywords: theatre subsidies, government, private venues, new audiences, festival
Theatre in Iran is essentially managed by the Department of the Performing Arts. In fact, the government itself has been in charge of policy making, planning and, even, the financial management of theatre in Iran for the last 40 years. Thus, in the last four decades, the quality of drama has been directly affected by government funding and policy. Whenever there has been satisfactory planning, budgeting and support by the government, the positive effect has been felt very quickly. At the same time, however, the government policy has had a very strong influence over the policies and conduct of theatre companies and artists in general. Another consequence of the predominance of the government in the theatre landscape has been that private sector initiatives in live drama have been short-lived, due to insufficient financial resources; in Iran, it is almost impossible for the theatre to sustain itself without subsidy.
Whilst the situation described above is accurate, it should be said that the government’s role in the theatre ecology has been moderated somewhat (in appearance, at least) in recent years. In the late 2000s, there was a move to start creating more private/independent companies within the Iranian theatre. The biggest barrier to this process was the lack of sufficient theatre halls. Consequently, particular emphasis was placed upon establishing venues.
However, the movement towards privatization and independence from government support was too fast. The implications of the changes were not properly taken into account. With limited permission by the government, small theatre venues were founded in several cities, and direct government subsidies to theatre groups have gradually declined. Consequently, the current amount of subsidies only covers a tiny fraction of production costs. An unforeseen consequence of this has been that a notable group within Iran’s theatre community (especially senior artists and groups which were accustomed to government subsidy) have withdrawn from theatre making. These artists have been replaced by young newcomers to the theatre scene.
In the last 10 years, we have seen a notable growth of small and large theatre venues in the big cities of Iran. Theatre companies have found appropriate performance space for their productions. However, the significant decline in government support has forced companies to try to cover expenses through box office takings alone. Some public subsidies are still available but only to around 50 percent of performances (a situation which encourages backdoor connections and networking with administrative offices).
In this sense, we can talk of two distinct eras of Iranian theatre in the last 40 years:
- Before 2010: total dependence on government budget and subsidies
- Since 2010: availability of subsidies is limited. Around 50 percent of performances rely on their own revenue
As mentioned above, the reduction in government subsidies has happened concurrently with a flourishing of performance venues. Before 2010, there had been around 15 venues in Tehran (with an average of 15 productions being staged per day). Now, there are about 55 theatres in Tehran, accommodating nearly 100 distinct productions per day (in most venues, more than one play goes on stage each day).
In Mashhad, the second biggest city in Iran, theatre is also prospering remarkably. Between 2010 and 2019, theatre has grown from 10 venues, with about five plays per day, to 18 theatres hosting, on average, 15 plays per day. Theatrical production in Iran is mainly limited to Tehran and Mashhad. Besides these two big cities, one can also name Shiraz, Isfahan, Bushehr, Yasuj, Kerman and Kermanshah as the cities which account for most of the remaining theatre in Iran. Significantly, about 95 percent of theatre productions are only presented in a single venue, for 15 to 30 days, with no opportunity for any extension or a revival after that period. Only five percent of productions can be presented in more than one theatre venue and run for more than 30 days.
Between 2005 and 2010, there was a boom in the teaching of Theatre Studies in Iranian universities, with theatre departments in universities all around the country expanding and flourishing. Around 30 theatre departments were established during that time period. However, 10 of them have subsequently closed, eight face imminent closure and only 12 departments are still active (eight of which are located in Tehran). The hasty and reckless development and expansion of theatre departments (especially in the fields of directing and acting) has led to a sudden burst of theatre graduates, who outnumber the available professional positions in most cities. Some of those graduates have migrated to Tehran and most of them have ended up in jobs which are not related to the theatre.
Nonetheless, the large theatre audiences and significant number of trained theatre professionals in numerous Iranian cities have improved the potential for theatrical production. That said, within all 32 provinces and the 100 largest cities in Iran, there are people craving theatrical jobs.
Aside from Tehran, Mashhad and a small number of other cities, resources (including funds, venues and, even, audiences) are scarce. While many trained theatre professionals have to seek work out with theatre, Iran has eight international, 36 domestic and around 120 provincial festivals which are held annually, and in which about 80 percent of staff are theatre lovers or graduates with no experience in professional theatre activity.
Theatre festivals held by various institutions and organizations are often competitive and costly. The most prominent theatre festivals in Iran include: Fadjr International Theatre Festival, International Ritual-Traditional Theatre Festival, Tehran International Puppet Theatre Festival, the International Theatre Festival for Children and Youth, and Marivan Street Theatre Festival. Each presents at least 100 plays.
The large number of theatre festivals in Iran has inclined most artists to prioritise festivals rather than produce for public performance. In other words, most theatre works are produced only to be played at festivals. We can note three main reasons for this exceptional leaning toward festivals:
- Lack of required conditions and facilities for public performance in several cities (except Tehran and Mashhad)
- Obtaining prestige and profile by winning trophies and prizes
- Earning money (participants in festivals are normally paid a little amount as production costs)
Therefore, the preference for festivals over public performance has led theatre companies to adjust themselves to the requirements of largely low-quality festivals. These festivals do not have “real” audiences, as those attending performances are mostly producers and creators of other shows in those same festivals. Moreover, the role of critics in festivals has diminished notably over the last decade, which, in turn, has further lowered the quality of the work presented at the festivals. Perhaps the only optimistic note is that festivals do, at least, enable theatre practitioners to meet each other and create possibilities for collaboration and for making theatre which they might not have otherwise. It should be noted that the most prominent and professional theatre festivals in Iran are staged by the Department of the Performing Arts, which is a governmental body.
As mentioned above, since 2010, theatre makers in Iran have had to work far more independently of the state than in the preceding three decades. Theatre groups have to come to an agreement with one of the private (or few public) venues before they initiate production and practice. In order to have their productions staged, they need to rent a private hall for 15 to 30 days. Then, when the production is ready for public performance, the Council for Supervision and Evaluation, a governmental body related to the Department of the Performing Arts, watches the play and decides whether to approve it or not.
The box office revenues of staged productions are mostly insufficient to cover production costs. Roughly speaking, only around 10 to 15 percent of theatre productions are financially successful, with about 50 percent barely covering their production costs (with little to nothing left for the artists), and the remaining 35 per cent (mostly work by young artists and newcomers) failing to cover even their rent and production costs.
In Iran, theatre directors are usually responsible for the management and financings of their productions. Only a few productions have an investor or sponsor, as the high economic risk of theatrical activity has led many producers to lose interest in working in the field. Consequently, only 10 percent of plays in any given year have producers. The rest are performed under the director’s financial management or, even, without any serious initial money.
The changing situation regarding the financing of theatres in Iran has led to the dominance of private venues. This has cultivated a new class of audience. Up until 2010, the general public was barely part of the theatre audience. Most of the audience was comprised of theatre activists, students and people from the professional classes, who were serious followers of theatre. However, in the last 10 years, we have observed the emergence of a new type of public audience, who do not have a deep knowledge of theatre and whose interest in watching theatre is largely affected by advertising, both direct and indirect. For this type of audience, watching theatre is analogous to participating in a(ny) social event, or even a place to gather.
Moreover, as theatre venues now have cafes, galleries, or even stores within them, they are considered as hangouts, or, alternatively, as luxury cultural centers by their audiences; to the point that the new breed of theatregoer barely cares about what dramas are being staged. In view of this new situation, one might expect the context and quality of plays to have no importance for the new audience. However, the opposite is true. In fact, the tastes of the new public audience very much determine the output of the private theatres.
The primary purpose of the producer and investor is to make money. Consequently, based on the preferences of the new public audience, we see on the stages of the private sector a range of famous people (including superstars, TV and cinema actors, even athletes and comedians). Theatre productions have been transformed into commodities and theatre itself has been converted into an institution for maximizing profit. It has done this by adjusting itself to the taste of its audience. For instance, there is now a preference for stage comedies, which are continually abandoning any sense of quality and losing even the most basic requirements of theatricality. Here, we see a textbook example of the rules of the marketplace dominating the artistic sphere of the theatre. In the interest of profit, artistic work is turned into a commodity and the audience member is transformed into a mere consumer. As such, the artistic vision of theatre loses its spirit and originality, while, at the same time, we observe dissatisfaction and disappointment among most professional drama artists, skilled players and, especially, younger theatre graduates.
The decline of the print media in Iran, as in the rest of the world, has its effects in all areas of society and culture. The problem is particularly acute for theatre criticism. Newspapers tend only to report on what is being staged in theatres and festivals. The newspaper theatre review has become a thing of the past. Theatre magazines also have dire problems; in Iran, only the monthly Namayesh and the quarterly magazine Theatre have been released frequently over the last two decades. Theatre reviews are only presented in professional journals and on websites that are read mostly by professionals in the field. Thus, there is no place for theatre reviews in the press, radio or TV shows. There are very few people interested in writing theatre reviews due to the desperate shortage of remuneration for critics.
The consequence of the decline in, and marginalization of, theatre criticism is that the few remaining professional critics now have smaller readerships and less cultural impact. The prevalence of internet ticket selling websites, web forums and the ease of making comments on social media has turned everybody into a pseudo-critic. The boundary between the professional theatre review and the everyday commentary of the general spectator has been eliminated. Alas, the contents of online ticket selling platforms, web forums and social media are the most convenient reference points for the public audience. It is these online resources, rather than professional reviews, which shape their decision-making and choices.
There is a similar issue in publishing, with very few publishers choosing to publish books about theatre. Consequently, the available books on theatre theory and history are too old and rarely republished. It is also next to impossible to find new and updated translated books about theatre; which is a significant problem considering the growing number of theatre students in recent years. The only area in which one can find sufficient printed materials is in translated plays, which is due to the need for more original plays to be staged.
Aside from such shortages and difficulties facing theatre in Iran, there is one notable point about the great potential of theatre in the country. Many people (including students, graduates and young artists) are interested in and devoted to theatrical work. They are mostly interested in the production of modern drama, although their productions are diverse.
Indeed, the attempts to find new talents and better distribution of facilities and amenities can further cultivate the field. Theatre in Iran is in the middle of a reform. It has developed many new venues, and it is willing to experience modern artistic style and genres. Despite its shortcomings, this theatre keeps going and becoming more independent. It only needs to be directed to the right track.
*Mehdi Nasiri (born 1980, Iran) has a BA in Dramatic Literature from the National Academy of Science of Armenia. He is Executive Editor of the theatre magazine Namayesh and Executive Manager of the quarterly magazine Theater in Tehran. He was considered one of the best theatre critics in Iran in three consecutive years: 2007, 2008 and 2009. He also teaches theatre at the Aazad University. He is Head of the National Association of Theater Critics of Iran.
**Pegah Samadzadeh (born 1984, Iran) is a freelance translator and scholar in the fields of theatre and literature. She studied dramatic literature. She has been working for Namayeshand Sahneh magazines since 2016. She is a member of ITCRJ (Iranian Theatre Critics, Reporters and Journalists).