‘Suicide is a perfect theme for theatre…’ / an interview with director Payam Laryan

The Parallel Prowls (wednesday 29th) Theater Bellvue (17:30) by Tarbiat Modares University, fourth year, Tehran, Iran

INTERVIEW by SIMONE VAN SAARLOOS

Recently, an Iranian refugee lit himself on fire on the Dam square in Amsterdam. His death was put off as a personal act, not as a political one and his martyr act hardly stirred up any debate. The Parallel Prowls, a play by students from Tehran, Iran is about suicide. Director Payam Laryan stresses that suicide is, obviously, not just an Iranian problem nor always a political act. ‘It doesn’t matter where in the world you live. When you read in the newspaper about a person committing suicide, it affects you emotionally. Therefore, suicide as a theme for theatre is perfect, because that’s what we have in common worldwide: the emotions we experience when we hear of suicide.’

But Laryan didn’t choose suicide as his main theme for The Parallel Prowls because it is a perfect theme; his personal experiences moved him to direct this play. Producer Camelia Ghazali, who helps with translation from Persian to English, seems surprised: ‘I did not know this.’

Laryan explains that the three characters in the play are inspired on his own friends. ‘The story is real.’ One of the actors, Sadegh Bahari, has joined our conversation on the terrace of the Compagnietheater. He confirms that the play is based on personal experiences. ‘That’s why we’ve gotten together.’ Bahari has had two friends whom committed suicide. ‘I’ve thought of it myself at times’. They giggle. Not because it is funny, but because talking about it in person is different than showing it on stage. The dark and handsome actor underlines that these depressed feelings have absolutely ‘nothing to do with social or political matters. It is a personal struggle.’

Janus-faced

Though they do not use the word (probably because of its Christian connotation), what they want to show is that people are Janus-faced. They are two sided: ‘On the outside they’re happy, but when alone, many people feel depressed.’ In Iran, but probably everywhere in the world, those dark feelings are kept quiet. ‘Iranian culture is very happy.’ But Iran also has the highest suicide rates in the world – especially amongst women.

Laryan believes things are changing nowadays. ‘We’ve had a good culture, an old history of traditional images and art, but it is different now.’ He is positively spirited: ‘The art scene, theatre, it is all building up. People tell us we have lost our culture, but we haven’t. The word will always be alive.’

The word, as a primal part of our daily life, is what Laryan uses in The Parallel Prowls to convey the personal experiences of the actors. ‘Life is full of speech. We speak when we are in love, when we are angry.’ Language will always remain. Briefly said that’s his message: ‘We will die, but the word lives on.’

Free mind

Does the government restrict Iranian artist in their work? ‘Government can’t change your mind, not even in Iran.’ Therefore, he wouldn’t agree suicide is a political taboo. ‘It’s more a social taboo.’ That’s what Laryan and his actors do, laying bare those aspects of life that are not talked about too openly nor seen too easily in daily life. Iranian artist are specialized in subtlety speaking about such topics: ‘They know how to express their ideas.’ There is a difference with western theatre: ‘We may not have modern facilities like you, but we learned to use our mind. We learned to use our imagination.’ 

Underground rehearsals

‘Can we now talk about the play please?’ Laryan has had enough about political questions, he is at the ITs Festival to share his art. Sure, suicide has a political connotation, but for him and his actors, the personal experience is what really matters. He calls this way of working ‘psychodrama’ , ‘documentary and experimental theatre’. He partially picked the actors on their private quests and they went through heavy rehearsals together. Like in the play, they literally went underground to undergo tough emotions in order to improve the play.

Speech – ‘the word’­ – may be important and indispensable, what he really demands from his actors, is that they perceive what they perform. ‘The actors should not show a certain emotion or behaviour, they must feel it.’ Therefore, it helps that Bahari has been confronted with suicide in his life. He feels the need to understand what two of his friends did. Playing The Parallel Prowls is emotionally difficult, it is hard work, but it helps and is therefore almost therapeutic for the actor and director. ‘When you get upset, you cry and then you’re calm.’ Theatre works like that for them. ‘It’s calming.’

What art is

Though Laryan wants the public to recognize the feelings of distress that they don’t enact on stage, but truelly experience – he does not want to convey the calming, almost therapeutic effect the play has on himself and the actors, to be felt amongst the viewers. ‘Art isn’t art when you forget about it right away. Art encourages thought. And of all art, theatre is the most perfect form to encourage discussion.

Laryan and Ghazali take a sip of their beer. They light another cigaret. Dark clouds announce lightening and rain, we might have to seek shelter inside the Compagnietheater. On top of that we are almost hit by some birds’ poo coming from the roof of the former old church.

But we remain unharmed. The art sector in The Netherlands however, does not. Does the government in Iran support the arts? ‘There is a special department that pays some theatre. We don’t get any money. As an Iranian director I have to say this: cutting budgets will mean that the cultural arts of Holland will be ruined. Holland will lose its history, because a country’s fundamentals are found in art.’ In Iran, he explains, directors and actors without money persevere. They rehearse in their homes, in parcs. Anywhere. Without budget, the theatre goes down, but it will never die.’

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