Creative Approaches to Coexistence and Reconciliation: Iranian, Israeli, and American Playwrights' Collaboration Residency

September 6-9, 2005

Shapiro Campus Center & Spingold Theater Center, Brandeis University

"From the time I remember people asked me 'What are you:
Moslem or Christian, Iranian or American?'
I am human, why is that not enough?

-Torange Yeghiazarian, from Abaga (The Future)

Iranian and Israeli artists joined the Brandeis community for a rich week of lectures, presentations, and discussions about their work in Middle Eastern theater and their burgeoning collaboration with each other. The artists explored their personal narratives, their relationship to the political situation from which they emerge, and ways to use their creative work to initiate dialogue and challenge stereotypes. Through reflection on their own successes and struggles, they invited students, community members, faculty, and staff to delve into their own conceptions of the Middle East, representation, conflict, and reconciliation.

The three artists began their residency by talking about how they came to theater as a medium for expression – not just artistic but political as well. Not one of them began in theater: Motti studied math, Torange the sciences, and Mahmood studied religion. All three talked about the need to question their place, their heritage, and the history of their home. This quest brought them to the stage as they explored their own identities and grappled with complex social and political situations. They explored the idea that the theater is a reflection of current circumstances; the actors in life must also be given light on the stage.

The artists explained how they use theater to confront difficult issues. For Torange, growing up in Tehran from a mixed Iranian/Armenian family and moving as an immigrant to suburban Massachusetts has given her much of the creative fuel she has used in her own work. Motti has used writing to explore the Other and give light to controversial issues surrounding Israel/Palestine. Mahmood was forced to leave Iran a second time after his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. These challenges have fortuitously brought them together to explore how their narratives coincide and differ. They have opened the doors to reconciliation by finding a medium that allows nuance, diverse perspectives, and creativity to guide them through this process.

During the week at Brandeis, the artists had a chance to brainstorm how their collaboration can be part of the ongoing cultural and academic offerings of the University. Their mission to create a joint original full-length piece in the next two years has given rise to the possible links between Middle Eastern Studies, Theater, Coexistence and other fields. Their willingness to break down personal, ethnic, and political boundaries through art initiated tough and fruitful dialogue within the Brandeis community.

Comments from Faculty and Staff involved in the residency:

"My interaction with the visiting artists was a revelation. It demonstrated to me how much we have in common across nations as creative people, theatre artists, and responsible world citizens. I was fascinated and inspired to hear about their sometimes dangerous and always daring work -- as well as the imagination, honesty, and courage that motivate them.

"In the U.S., theatre is often perceived as entertainment and its merits are judged by critical reviews or ticket sales. Torange, Motti, and Mahmood shared a different way of imagining drama. They are fully committed to making art while embracing the social, political, and cultural impact of the work without creative compromise. Their residency engaged not only the internal Brandeis community, but playwrights and audiences from the Greater Boston region who came to understand this meaningful linkage and to appreciate Brandeis as a home to such exploration and conversation."

-Scott Edmiston, Dean of Arts and Sciences

"The theater residency was quite valuable for my class, 'Reading, Writing, and Teaching Across Cultures' (Comparative Literature 165). I'll try to tell you why.

"The session my class attended was one of the first courses of the semester. I was happy to start out by exposing students to the kinds of connections I want them to make between our class readings and discussions and the wider world -- in and out of Brandeis. I was particularly grateful that the panel spoke about the use 'use' of theater. I'm so tired of having to defend the teaching and studying of literature! It was clear to me after hearing these people speak that they are using drama as a means of acting directly upon social and political problems. The phrase that stood out most for me was: 'Education is what remains when you've forgotten everything else you learned.' My students resonated to this idea, too, and we discussed it at length in our class. In fact, one of their assignments for the next class was, by coincidence, to define what they think 'education' is."

-Jane Hale, Faculty, Romance and Comparative Literature


Participating Artists:

  • Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, a native of Iran, now an associate professor of creative arts and producer of theatre at Siena College. He is a poet, theatre director, filmmaker and the artistic director of Mahak International Artists, Inc.

  • Motti Lerner, an Israeli playwright and screenwriter. He writes for major theater and TV channels in Israel and teaches political playwriting at Tel Aviv University.

  • Torange Yeghiazarian, an Iranian writer, director and actor of Armenian heritage now living in the United States. She is director of Golden Thread Productions, dedicated to theater that explores Middle Eastern culture and identity as represented throughout the globe.

Public Events:

September 6

Reflections on Collaborating Across Cultures
1:40 – 3:00 pm, Shapiro Multi-Purpose Room

An open workshop/conversation with Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, Motti Lerner, Torange Yeghiazarian and students in Prof. Jane Hale's "Reading, Writing, and Teaching Across Cultures" course (COML 165A)

Readings:

  • Mahmood Karimi-Hakak's article "Exiled to Freedom"
  • Motti Lerner's play "Coming Home" and article "Healing, Culture, and Conflict: The Role of Israeli Theatre in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict"


Close Encounters of a Cultural Kind: Contemporary Political Theater in Iran, Israel and the United States
8 pm, Shapiro Multi-Purpose Room

  • Mahmood Karimi-Hakak screened his film Dream Interrupted, which tells the story of his censored attempt to produce A Midsummer's Night Dream in Iran.

  • Motti Lerner reported on Opposing Sides, a controversial playwriting collaboration among five Palestinians and five Israelis, produced in Germany.

  • Torange Yeghiazarian presented a brief video excerpt about her company's experience performing Karima's City, a play about an Egyptian woman in Cairo, at the Cairo International Festival, September 2004.

This event also featured a discussion on the role of contemporary political theater in Iran, Israel and the United States today. How does censorship – whether by the government or by writers themselves – affect political theater in the three societies? What are the obstacles to political activism in the United States today?

September 8

Tazieh
3:30 – 5:00pm, Shapiro Multi-Purpose Room

The Brandeis community participated in a presentation and discussion on Tazieh, an Iranian performance tradition of passion plays, with Torange Yeghiazarian.


September 9

Casting for Culture
10am-12pm, Spingold 218

A workshop/conversation with Torange Yeghiazarian and students in Prof. Adrianne Krstansky's "From Word to Image: Creating the Theatrical Essay" course (USEM 47A), including readings of several short scripts.


Theatre Without Borders is an informal group of individual artists around the world who are interested in supporting international theater exchange. TWB advocates for theater artists who see themselves as members of a global community, as well as citizens of their respective nations and cultures.

TWB's programs at Brandeis this September lead up to the launching of the new Intercultural Residency Series from MusicUnitesUS. The series begins with a visit from the Yuval Ron Ensemble October 19-22, 2005, which will share music from the mystical traditions of the Middle East.

IRS links the creative arts with academic inquiry in explorations of
culture, history and tradition. IRC at Brandeis University will host, for a few days each semester, a musical ensemble whose ethos is embedded in a particular social, cultural and/or political setting.


Academic Director:
Cynthia Cohen, director of coexistence research and international collaborations for the Slifka Program in Intercommunal Coexistence

Supporters:
Cosponsored by the Intercultural Center at Brandeis University. The Slifka Program in Intercommunal Coexistence thanks the Holiday Inn in Newton for supporting the TWB residency by providing lodging for the three theater artists.