Since she was a teenager Annet Henneman has been involved in theatre, and it was theatre that took her away from her native Holland to Poland, Germany and finally Italy where she was to settle for a while, acting, working, learning. Here Annet spent much time with theatre practitioners training her body and mind to bring the essence of what she was attempting to portray to the stage with as little artifice and contrivance as possible. Annet’s eclectic work often led her to working closely with those of the city or town she was living in; teaching, performing and directing in a variety of places including schools and prisons. When Annet set up Teatro di Nascosto or ‘Hidden Theatre’ her work was to spring from the local to the global.
Teatro di Nascosto practise theatre reportage, focusing on personal stories of those unable to speak out themselves. Although Annet’s work contains the love and celebration of family and country, the joy and dancing and music of beloved cultures, her productions often look at human rights abuses; the injustice, cruelty and oppression in the world. Annet’s actors aim to bring their audience close up against a reality that is too often avoided. Annet attempts to convey the fear and grief to her audience and them to, just for a moment, ‘live and see how it could be your lover, your fiancé, your mother, your daughter who is in this prison, or could die in that war or could be on a boat and is not knowing if they will make it alive to Europe.’
The drama of Teatro di Nascosto does not lie in the same vein as the established form of theatre of the West. It has not been sanded down but keeps its rough edges and raw intimacy, breaking down the fourth wall in the theatre that separates and protects audience from performer. Some of the practices and techniques of Annet’s work derive from the ideas of the theatre practitioner Jerzy Grotowski whom she worked with in Italy in his Theatre of Sources. Grotowski’s theatre is strenuous and exhausting, actors joining not to supplement their theatrical toolbox but to give everything to the company, baring themselves naked to the theatre. They are to, his Statement of Principles reads, discard half measures for the sake or revealing and opening up, emerging from themselves as opposed to closing up. There is no distortion through the camera lens or disguise in the costume wardrobe. Grotowski’s actors aim for the raw truth and strive relentlessly to capture it.
Through her work in theatre Annet was never far from the raw truth, often working with those side-lined in society, or those, for whatever reason, whose voices were stifled. Annet trained as a drama teacher at the Academy of Expression and Communication in Holland and later worked as a theatre therapist for two years at the psychiatry centre, Dercksen Centrum, also in Holland. Outside of this she continued as a freelance drama teacher working with young offenders and maladjusted children in cultural centres and primary schools. In 1987 she co-founded the cultural association ‘Carte Blanche’ in Italy with Armando Punzo whose work with the prisoners of high-security prisons still continues with the ‘Compagnia della Fortezza’ which takes theatre into prisons, schools and theatres inside and outside of Italy.
It was in 1997 when she was running her own theatre group that Annet noticed things around her changing; at least, she noticed her relation to them had altered. Her perception of the world had shifted and she found herself waking up in the morning in tears. A friend of hers was dying of bone cancer; there had been a huge earthquake in Guatemala; boatloads of Kurds were arriving in Italy after fleeing oppression in Turkey … these things rose up in front of Annet and her current project shrunk into insignificance and triviality.
She was certain that she had to go and discover the stories of these people and then tell them to others; to give them a voice. She wanted to inform people of the atrocities across the globe that are so often shrugged off when squeezed between the latest ‘-gate’ and the FA Cup. She wanted to walk towards these people and listen to them, bringing what she found back to her stage, a pulsing alternative to the television and newspapers. In essence, Annet wanted to make what she now calls ‘theatre reportage’.
Annet announced her idea to her theatre group, telling them she was to go and meet the Kurds landing on the beach and ask them why they were coming to Italy; then she wanted to go to Turkey, and find out why they were leaving. She asked them to come along with her. One of the actors asked where they would sleep.
‘I don’t know, the beach.’ Annet replied.
But what would they do there?
‘I don’t know. We go and then we see!’
And so they did.
Annet went to that beach and spoke to the Kurdish refugees from Turkey. After that, as she said she would, she went to Turkey and, travelling sometimes hidden in a car, met with various Kurdistan organisations including teachers unions and the People’s Democracy Party, HADEP. All the time under the watch of the police and state authorities, she went to meet and spend time with some of the refugees from the villages that had been razed by the Turkish military.
Since then she hasn’t stopped; travelling to Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Kurdistan and India; following the people to the tears, the cries, the laughs; down crumbling streets and into smoky rooms Annet feels the dust and debris, hears the explosions and sees the pain.
‘I can’t stand injustice,’ she says, ‘and that is from when I was very little. The more I see and the more I know, the less I can stand it.’ Annet goes to listen to the stories of oppression and torment to return home to an audience; bringing that world, to ours.
The request of an Iranian in the summer of 2010 led to Annet’s production ‘Iran: Forgotten Stories’.
Specifically, the project was to look at the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections in Iran. Teatro di Nascosto spent time with various Iranians who had been involved, listening to their memories of the time and working towards an exploration of these stories to be performed at SOAS University on the 23rd of July 2011.
Though many people in Britain will have some recollection of the 2009 elections in Iran and the protests that followed, with the rapid rise of instant news from a global and increasingly laymen media, a culture of world narratives that sink from our conscience as they fall off the news reel has evolved as ensuing developments are left unrecorded. Repercussions and solutions are neglected and the perception of the world becomes warped as minds begin to process the beginnings of the next crisis without regard to any resolution to its predecessor. This is true for stories such as the Expenses Scandal and ‘Hackgate’ as well as events such as the Arab Spring and the 2011 famine in Somalia.
In addition to this, people talk of ‘disaster fatigue’ where a comfortable public tires of hearing of the next crisis; when one story simply morphs into the next. Our skins harden and one more tragedy is just one more article for tomorrow’s waste paper bin. One more explosion, one more picture …
‘I saw how difficult it is for people - and myself before I started to travel - to feel and know what is happening to people so far away from us,’ Annet says. ‘Now if you see it on the television and they tell you that last week in Baghdad eighty people died because there were bombs, we don’t’ feel anything, it’s so distanced.’ In such a climate the work of Teatro di Nascosto is that much more challenging and that much more important.
The theatre group doesn’t claim to have the solutions to these issues and is not out to simply shock anaesthetised living-rooms. They do not work with a political agenda and are not a call to arms. Their primary objective is to make us acknowledge what is continuing to happen in these countries; to give comfort to those undergoing oppression and abuse that people in other countries are listening to what is happening; to tell the stories that are not being told, but are being re-enacted every day; to ensure that we remain aware and conscious.
To the Iranians that the actors meet, to those who have undergone torture and abuse and lived in a continuous state of fear and apprehension, the knowledge that there are others far away hearing their story is a comfort. That is all and that is everything.
I was to accompany the group for the week leading up to ‘Iran: Forgotten Stories’, July 2011, helping them promote the performance and in doing so discover what exactly they do and see how they prepare for it. Having never met Annet before but having heard much of her work, I travelled across London to join them with unexpected and - most-likely - discernible apprehension. I had been informed that Annet loved people coming to her rehearsals as long as they complied with her one condition – there is to be no observation, only participation. With this stipulation and Grotowski’s Statement of Principles buzzing around my head my heart began to thump as I arrived.
I received a warm welcome from Annet and her team who were dressed in their own clothes; bright and loose and slightly Middle Eastern looking and so apart from the buzzing lap tops and piles of paper and books I could have looked as if I was entering a session of Yoga or Chi-gong. They were collected in a small and underground room at the London School of Economics which served as both their headquarters and rehearsal space.
Despite the research I had done on the group before arriving and their smiling faces I still felt wholly vulnerable to the theatre that I was entering into and nervous that I would make a fool of myself and in doing so insult the integrity of the work being done. But I was there now, so with these thoughts in mind I took off my shoes and joined the circle.
The presidential elections in Iran, June 2009, were at the time described in the UK by The Daily Telegraph as being ‘unusually open by Iranian standards though highly acrimonious.’ There were three candidates running against the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an ultra-conservative who had been elected in 2005. The son of a blacksmith, Ahmadinejad presented himself as a humble man of the people vowing to stand up to the West. He had strong support from not only the rural population and working classes but also the state police, army and media. From the start it was apparent that he would be hard to beat.
Ahmadinejad’s most popular opponent was Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Iran’s Prime Minister from 1981 – 89 and a presidential advisor from 1989 – 2005. Mousavi, whose support primarily came from the upper and middle classes, adopted the campaign slogan ‘Together for Change’ and appeared to present to the world a chance that Iran would change direction on the world stage. He supported releasing the state’s control of the media and opening up constructive dialogue with the United States of America, pledging to combat the extremist image of Iran abroad. Mousavi adopted for his campaign the traditional Iranian colour green. This was to later become synonymous in Iran with the struggle for social freedom and change; the so called ‘Green Movement’.
The other two candidates were Mohsen Rezai, a self-proclaimed critic of Ahmadinejad and former leader of the Revolutionary Guards; and Medhi Karroubi, who had come 3rd in the presidential elections of 2005 and afterwards accused them of being riddled with corruption.
On the 13th of June it was announced that Ahmadinejad had won the election by almost two thirds of the national vote; Mousavi received just over one third. These results were doubted in the West by the United States and the EU but were met without objection from China, Russia, India and Brazil.
Mousavi, joined by Rezai and Karroubi, labelled the outcome a ‘charade’ and rejected the results. With many Iranians feeling the same way, the country was to see its biggest civil unrest since the 1979 Revolution. Though the demonstrations began peacefully, clashes eventually broke out between the police and protesters which were to escalate. As the latter smashed windows, tore down signs and lit fires outside Ministry buildings in Tehran, the state police fought with batons, pepper spray, tear gas and at times, firearms. On the third day of the protests a pro-Ahmadinejad march formed shouting ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to Israel.’
The government was to later announce thirty protester fatalities though opposition supporters calculated the number to be twice as high. Thousands were arrested and since then stories have emerged of many being put under torture and forced to sign false confessions to be traitors to the state.
On the one year anniversary of the election, Mousavi made a statement against the regime demanding that ‘a fair trial of those who committed the election fraud, tortured and killed protesters, must be held.’ He called on the political prisoners of June 2009 to be released and the end of police involvement in politics. He asked his supporters not to take to the streets so as to avoid bloodshed, and by and large there was little conflict.
The regime had warned the public that and protesters would be charged as criminals if they protested or held contact with foreign media.
Iranians who have met with Teatro di Nascosto in the preparations for ‘Iran: Forgotten Stories’ project describe Iran to be a country of phone tapping and spying, secret police and night time abductions. They say that this state of surveillance reaches beyond Iran to the United States and Europe, where Iranian nationals are watched and followed as they study and travel abroad. Some have been detained on arrival in Tehran due to acrimonious pictures on Facebook or the people they have socialised with when abroad.
Annet has been to Iran a couple of times creating performances and actions centred around Iranian women. In a ‘period of hope’, Annet was asked by a friend of hers who was a journalist to tell the stories of the people of the 'Green Movement.’ Since making this request, this friend was never to make contact again, whether by choice or not. In making ‘Iran: Forgotten Stories’ Annet and her team were in contact with a number of Iranians, listening to their stories and building up relationships in the process. In many cases it is highly dangerous for these Iranians themselves and their families back home for them to be associated with Teatro di Nascosto. Yet there have still been some who have worked with the group and are likely to continue doing so in the future. Some of the Iranians approached will decline involvement to the extent of refusing to attend the performances, despite expressing support for the work being done. Fear of government spies tracking their movements is widespread; the fear of their passport being taken by the government when they return to Iran, or for reprisals on their family that are still there. Annet is also aware that some of the Iranians pledging their support for Teatro di Nascosto are affiliated with the regime themselves.
Annet had five young actors working with her on ‘Iran: Forgotten Stories’ each of whom had become involved with Teatro di Nascosto in a different way. Valentina for instance, an Italian, had found out about Annet and her work when studying Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She travelled to Sardinia to work with Annet on a performance there and to gather research for her thesis on theatre reportage and social anthropology. Valentina’s boyfriend Pascal, half-English, half-French, had always held an interest in theatre and joined Teatro di Nascosto through her. Pascal’s first performance with Annet was part of the ‘Still Human Still Here’ campaign in London, organised by STAR and Amnesty International. This performance took the shape of a twenty minute improvisation on homeless immigrants in Britain, after which the group spent the night in sleeping bags on the ground outside St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden.
Like Pascal, Arabella’s first performance with the group was the improvisation on the homeless. A graduate from Oxford University, Arabella first heard of Teatro di Nascosto when employed in a café there. A colleague of Arabella’s had previously worked with the group teaching English to some of the refugees involved. She described it to Arabella as the most daring and effective social/political theatre she had ever seen. Intrigued, Arabella got in touch with Annet and has been working with her ever since. Valeriy, a Ukrainian student at London School of Economics heard about the group through the Drama Society there. ‘Iran: Forgotten Stories’ was his second project with the group, having also been involved in ‘Still Human Still Here’. There was also Guendalina, a friend of Annet’s from Volterra, for whom ‘Iran: Forgotten Stories’ was to be her first production with Teatro di Nascosto.
But I didn’t know any of this when I first arrived and there was no time for comprehensive introductions as I joined the circle of this merry band of thespians; shoes and jumpers began to fly off in all directions and the group prepared to warm up. Shoes off I hastened to empty my pockets and make my stance and expression appear as keen and prepared as possible; I didn’t want any hesitation to be misconstrued as reluctance. Led by Annet we began to warm up, beginning by slightly extending our necks working up to attempting to straddle the floor and I began to feel a little ridiculous in my corduroys and stiff shirt.
Warm-up smoothly slipped into rehearsal as Annet softly announced, ‘Now, dance,’ and clicked the music into life with a few taps of the computer. ‘You use the actions and movements we have just made, and make them into a dance!’ she told us as she began dancing on the spot with grace. Following her example, the six of us began extending our own arms, legs and necks as we had done before, now in rhythm and flow with the music.
This is an essential and integral part of the success of Teatro di Nascosto’s work. The group strive towards accuracy and honesty in each of their productions so to attain the greatest integrity possible. The audience has to feel assured that what they are seeing is close to the truth and the actors have to feel as immersed in that truth as possible if they hope to succeed in making the audience feel. This means that the technical side of their performances has to be mastered before they can hope to portray the emotional. Annet describes the actors’ bodies and voices as their tools by which to display their stories with as much force and truth as possible, and it is in exploring and training these that they begin.
As with the dancing, knowing the words and their meaning of each Iranian song is integral to its subsequent power on the stage. ‘I have to know what the songs are about,’ Annet says. ‘I choose them for precise reasons; I have to learn them very well. It takes me sometimes half a year before I know the text and melody of a song well enough to stand in front of the audience and not only to give my speaking and singing but a song also filled up with the emotions. But first I’m learning it technically. I have to remember it.’
Thus the strenuous technical and intellectual aspect to their drama is fundamental grounding to each production. The Persian dancing was very much part of the rehearsal and not the warm-up, as much the Arabic or Farsi they practised weren’t only loosening the vocal cords, or an attempt to simply mimic. Instead it is an attempt to reflect, and if possible, reproduce, the rhythms and melody of a culture.
‘Slow,’ Annet called out into the rehearsal after a few full minutes of dancing. We slowed our dancing as Annet softly called ‘slower … slower …’ and continued until we were each barely moving, our figures falling into statue, before we were called to ‘slowly … slowly …’ sink to the ground.
There was no more music and Annet came to join us. We had formed another circle on the floor. She turned to Valentina and said, ‘Valentina, tell us about 'N's story.’ We all looked towards Valentina as she spoke as if we were sitting around a campfire sharing memories, or listening to a story at the end of the day at school.
Valentina began by telling us about when ‘N’ was little in Iran. How Ramadan was her favourite time of the year, the time she looks forward to most. She told us how she would set her alarm in the morning earlier than the rest of her family, on the first night, so she could creep down and see the Suhoor - the meal before dawn - being prepared. She told us how she would wrap her dressing gown tight around her as she stepped outside into the cold morning and hopped down the path to the outer building where all the family would later come together to eat. Whenever Valentina stopped Annet would urge her to tell us more, to give us more details: What did you hear? What did you see? What did you feel?
So Valentina went on. She said how she would peek through the window into the darkness and attempt to catch a glimpse of the food inside. She told us how she remembers the exact feeling that the little cool pebbles made on her feet as she scuttled over them; the sounds of the insects and the trees on those dark mornings. Valentina said how she remembered that as she was so eager to get there before her family, once she was there, she was equally as keen that they would hurry and join her in the excitement and celebrate the beginning of the festival. She remembered one year in particular when her and her family had been living in the north of Iran, in a holiday house that they had usually only used in the summer, but had been forced up there due to the war with Iraq. She had loved it there, she chuckled, though her sister had hated it as she had to attend an overcrowded school, struggling to learn in a class of eighty children.
When Valentina stopped now Annet did not ask for more but turned and nodded to Valeriy, who was to tell the next story. He told about a father, whose children would always remember habitually nursing the wounds on his back when he returned home from yet another demonstration against the regime. Growing up through those experiences it is perhaps not surprising, Valeriy said, that he and his brothers were out protesting against the regime in 2006.
One evening, after getting home safely, Valeriy’s grandmother was to open the door to a group of men asking for him; they were secret police out of uniform. His grandmother, unaware of their true intent directed the men up to her grandson’s bedroom. When he saw the men coming down the corridor he guessed who they were and rushed to lock the door, hoping to climb out the window and escape through his neighbours’ garden but the men crashed through the door before he had time to lock it.
He was taken to an underground secret prison where he was handcuffed and told to stand on a tile of about a foot squared. He was told that he couldn’t step off the tile as they began to beat him with their fists. He remembered with a laugh how at first he had tried to protect his face with his hands which meant that one guard’s fist crashed into the hard metal of the handcuffs and not his face. Of course this infuriated the guards inciting them to take out batons and hit him with those instead. They beat him for hours. The next day he was taken to an above ground prison where he was given food and permitted to smoke. Here he stayed for a few days before being released.
Along with one of his brothers he is now in England attempting to secure a long-term visa. He can no longer return to Iran, fearing fatal consequences for himself and his family, and even in England has to be careful about what he does and who he speaks to. Back in Iran, as he cannot be with them, they will always place a photo of him at his usual seat around the dining table on special occasions.
His story drew to a close and when he had finished no one said anything for a few moments until the girl next to me took a loud breath in and said, ‘I was never part of the protest. I was aware of it, of course, everyone was, but I was never part of it. All I had done was vote for Mousavi – and that vote wasn’t even counted.’ She wasn’t looking at us but up at the corner of the room breathing loudly and keeping her eyes fixed on the same point; she tilted her head up a little as she carried on speaking.
‘I was returning from university when I was grabbed by two men and thrown in the back of a van. In here
there were several other women. They looked at me but said nothing. Some of them were crying or looked as if they had just stopped crying. But they didn’t say anything to me. There was one guard in there with us. A boy, just a boy a few years younger than me. I remember he came up in the van and began putting his hands everywhere; waist, stomach, legs, breasts. His upper lip was moist with sweat and the bristles of his moustache coarse. We were taken to a kind of warehouse. Here the guards presented us with papers to sign. I saw the seal of the regime at the top corner. We were forced to sign these documents professing that we had demonstrated against Ahmadinejad, that we were enemies of the state, that we were terrorists. I didn’t even have a pair of nail clippers in my bag – just pens and a few books. We were blindfolded and separated. I remember the boy who had groped me in the van put me in his line. Taken to a cell, they grabbed my hair and shaved it all off, all the time their hands all over me.
‘Left alone, not after long I heard the clacking of a man’s boots walking towards the cell. He came inside and shouted at me, ‘You were demonstrating weren’t you? You want to bring down the government?’
‘I told him I wasn’t at the demonstration, that I was just a student. For this I received a kick in the stomach. I remember the shock of the blow more than anything else. I found myself on the floor as the pain spread up to my chest and down to my groin. I gasped empty air writhing on my back – unsure what had happened. I could taste blood in my mouth.
‘The next thing I remember was the guard shouting again. ‘Get up. Get up now, faster!’ I staggered up.
‘’You are not student! From now on, do not say you are a student. Only speak when I say something to you.’
‘He didn’t say anything for a while. Just stood there. There was the click of a lighter and the smell of smoke drifted over to me.
‘He came closer, ‘Why were you at the demonstration?’ I said nothing, it was of no use. Then suddenly I screamed, feeling a searing pain on my hand. I felt the burn of the cigarette go right to my bone. I heard him light another. ‘Why were you at the demonstration? he asked again. He didn’t wait for a reply as I felt the burn of a second cigarette on my cheek. He kept doing this, marking my body all over with his cigarettes.’
The girl went silent. When she began again, she spoke slower, her words falling from her mouth heavy. ‘I was curled up on the floor. He rolled me over on to my back and sat on my legs. He lent forward and his sticky breath on my face. He stayed in that position for a while, until I felt his tongue on my cheek and let out a little cry. He got up and I heard him open up his trousers. He pulled mine down as I writhed to get away. He held me down and when it began I just lay paralysed on the floor. When it was over he finished off by urinating on me. I remember the acidic smell still.
‘Another guard came in. ‘You have a boyfriend?’ He asked. I didn’t. I stayed silent. ‘You have a boyfriend – when you came in here we see you must have a boyfriend. Or what? What are you a prostitute? How many men have you slept with? What whore-house have you come from?’ And this went on.
‘I had never been with a man but he kept calling me a whore, again and over again. It was to happen so much that I got infected. My uterus began to smell and had little bumps on it. It was never treated.’
The girl as she continued to stare at the ceiling. Her eyes had teared and her cheeks were red. Her whole body was rigid and her hands clasped themselves in tight balls on her knees, as her body contracted. Occasionally she raised a brittle hand to brush back a stray hair in a jerking jarring movement, knocking her fingers against her face and bumping back down to her knees. Apart from this she was fixed in that posture as if she had been sat like that since that day she left the prison up until the moment she sat before us now.
‘After about three days I was taken to a detention centre. I wasn’t there long. They got in touch with my father and told him what I was accused of, and what I had admitted to. And he came to pick me up and drove me home.’ She stopped now and didn’t speak again. After only a few moments the shouting began.
‘Get up. Get up now, faster!’ The two boys were on their feet and shouting at us. We begin to stumble up but one of the girls is taking too long. I see her grabbed by the arm by one of them and thrown towards the wall.
‘Up!’ they continue to shout over and over. ‘Get up and stand against the wall!’ We do as we are told and stand next to the girl who was too slow. There are five of us there but then one of us has been grabbed and is out in front with the two guards. ‘Stay there!’ One of them shouts.
The woman is kneeling down in front of us and the second guard is leaning down and pushing his face up to hers. She stares at the floor her arms hanging straight down and her white hands trembling.
‘Tell me why you were at the demonstration?’ the guard asks her. There is no response.
‘Tell me why you were at the demonstration!’ he screams at her.
There is still no answer from the woman but her lips have begun to move up and down forming silent words.
‘What are you saying?’
Her mute response continues.
‘Why were you at the demonstration?’ he asks again as she continues to mumble.
‘Get up,’ the second guard says to her and pulls her up by the arm. She stumbles up; her eyes still down on the ground and her lips moving faster over her murmuring.
‘Run.’ One of them says. ‘Run to that wall.’
She begins a slow jog to the wall, feet scuffling along the floor.
She moves faster and now her mutterings can just be heard.
‘Faster.’ And her stiff body stumbles faster back and forth across the room, her breath is laboured and the ‘motherfuckers’ coming broken and stilted. But she is still not going faster enough, not fast at all. One of the guards makes to chase her and her body breaks forward towards the wall and back and again and towards the wall and back – and this goes on, her breathing becomes heavier and raspier and her face turns red as we watch.
‘-motherfucker… motherfucker ... motherfucker … motherfucker …’ has mostly sunk underneath the noise of the breathing and panting as the woman runs back and forward.
‘Stop.’ She stops.
The woman obeys each command.
‘Get up. Faster!’
‘Run.’ Not once does she look at the guards but the mutterings gain confidence again as her lips move over the words once more.
‘Now stop. Sit down.’ One of the guards goes up to her face, his pale against hers bloodshot. ‘Why were you at the demonstration!’
‘Motherfucker!’ She screams back followed by a dart of spit. He wipes his face and spits back in her face.
He grabs her wrists and begins slapping her with it.
‘Slap yourself.’ He commands her. ‘Slap yourself, harder, faster.’ I can hear one of the girls next to me quietly crying as another puts a tentative step forward towards the woman. One hand is slightly raised and her eyes are wide and fixed on her as she sits on the ground, legs sprawled, slapping herself in the face. I don’t move even to turn my head or adjust my gaze.
The woman is dragged on to her feet again.
‘Sing!’ she is commanded. Her mumblings become a tuneless string of loud ‘motherfuckers’.
‘A nursery rhyme. Sing a nursery rhyme!’ And she sings a nursery rhyme as they tell her to do star jumps on the spot and to smile while doing it.
She is left there and their faces turn to us. We are now with her doing star jumps on the spot, all five of us, are singing and smiling and jumping. Our legs and arms are springing to the walls of the room as the guards watch us, unsmiling.
We are now running back and forth, like she was. Running to the end of the room and then turning and running back to the other hand. Back and forth between the walls. We keep running until my breath becomes haggard and mouth begins to dry up. There is pain in my legs and in my shoulders and a stitch begins to form just under my heart. There is screaming around me as I run back and forth.
I am being told to stop and am in a corner with one of the guards. He spits into my face. He is asking me something but I ignore him as I try to regain my breath. I want to double up or sit down but he is in my face and saying something again.
‘Why were you at the demonstration?’ I begin something unintelligible to even myself.
‘Why were you at the demonstration?’ I don’t know what to answer him so mutter, ‘I wasn’t there, I didn’t go …'
‘Look at me!’ and I look at him. ‘Who were you with?’
‘No-one. I wasn’t with anyone, I wasn’t there …’
‘Was she there with you?’ He points behind him but I don’t see who he’s pointing at and so simply shake my head. The stitch in my chest has got worse since I stopped running and I began to sink to the floor but he drags me up.
‘What about if I go over and see your sister? What do you say then?’
I don’t answer this, thinking about my sister.
‘Would you like me to go and see your sister?’ I think of my sister and I think of the guard and try to answer the question but only manage, again, ‘I wasn’t with anyone, I wasn’t there.’
He picks up my hand and begins to slap me with it.
‘Slap yourself.’ I do this; it’s unnatural and I feel like a fool. My cheek is hot and quickly starts to sting.
‘Faster. Faster!’ It then begins to go numb. The guard watches me do this and I carry on answering. At one moment I point at someone and at one moment I stop slapping myself and he spits in my face again.
And then in another moment, music is blasting out through the speakers: ‘Now slow …. slow…!’
My cheek is burning and my ears are watering with the pain. My arm aches too as well as my legs and feet. I drop to the floor breathless as I see a scene of the others rising and moving gracefully, stretching and swaying and tiptoeing across the floor. Their arms, and legs and necks are extending out to each far window and door of the room. In my corner I stumble up to join them. I see Valeriy next to me, eyes focused on some indefinite point in the distance, his fingers no longer around my wrist but spinning in slow-motion in the air. Thoughts of my sister and the guards and that damn demonstration ebb and fade as I hear the music and with them extend my arms upwards and out.
Iran has been an Islamic State since the Safavid dynasty beginning at the start of the 16th Century. However when Reza Khan took over the country in 1925, the Western-looking Shah began to push back longstanding Muslim social conventions. Traditional Islamic clothing was banned and the separation of the sexes ended, these policies being implemented by force. In 1935 dozens were killed when the Shah brutally putdown a riot of traditional Shi’ites. All opposition was crushed and other political parties were banned. Due to his support of the Axis Alliance in WWII he lost the support of many in the West and Anglo-Russian occupation led to his removal in 1941. His son, Reza Pahlavi, later took his place.
Shah Pahlavi was abhorred by much of the country as he began to follow in his father’s footsteps. In 1963 he launched his ‘White Revolution’, a radical reform and modernisation (what was seen as simply ‘Westernisation’ to many) of the land, social and economic structure. The oil boom in the 1970s failed to bring prosperity to much of the country but instead drastically widened the gap between the rich and the poor. It soon became clear to many that the states wealth was becoming increasingly synonymous with that of the Shah.
Vocal activists against the Shah’s reign such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were exiled from the country. Khomeini continued criticising the Shah from abroad and after the 1979 Revolution, when the Shah fled to the USA, he returned to Iran with a hero’s welcome. After a referendum, the Government of National Unity was created with Khomeini elected as Supreme Leader in December of that year. This government, it was announced, was to be based on Sharia Law. It was proclaimed as ‘God’s Government’, therefore any opposition to it would be an opposition to Islam and to God.
Nearly twenty years after the revolution, Iran appeared to the world to be heading in a moderate direction under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami who was relatively liberal. Khatami appeared to believe in freedom of expression, tolerance, a civil society, building constructive and diplomatic relationships with Western countries and other Asian states and a free market which allowed room for foreign investment. Khatami however did not turn Iran into a more liberal state. In 1999, the closure of the reformist newspaper ‘Salam’ led to student protests in Tehran. A year later 16 more newspapers were banned. It was in 2002, under Khatami’s presidency, that President George W Bush of the United States was to label Iran part of the ‘axis of evil’, alongside Iraq and North Korea. In 2005 Iran elected the conservative Ahmadinejad as president.
Due to its nuclear programme and controversial positions on world affairs, under Ahmadinejad’s Iran is certainly not returning to the role of America’s lap dog. Instead Iran is striding through the world stage causing increasing concern and anxiety for its fellow players. For many Iran is just Ahmadinejad, plutonium, funded terrorism ... Not to many is it simply the people. But it is rarely simple.
I only rehearsed with Teatro di Nascosto that one day, though I popped in to see the group a couple of times after that to help with their research and promotions before that weekend’s performance. On the tube journey back from that rehearsal however, and after that still, I thought about it all. I thought about the questioning I was put under and my response, in particular when he brought up my supposed sister. I do have a sister and would like to think that I would endure a lot of pain and hardship before I allowed her to be raped. During the rehearsal, in response to the rape taunts, I had pointed at one of the other girls to direct attention away from me and I wondered later whether that was something the actors often did; betray another for their self-preservation. Surely there must at least consider it, each time. I was to learn later on it is not really about playing a role, constructing character or making decisions. It is about feeling a certain way and confronting the prospect of having to make such choices in the first place.
For Annet, who has been to these places and both seen the aftermath and experienced the pain of the violence that haunts these countries, it is very different. I thought of her stubborn ‘motherfuckers’. Is she always resilient and brave or does she sometimes display timidity or quiet despair? Would that make the performance more of less powerful? I asked Annet about the difference between playing a role and acting as a medium, and how much the artifice of theatre and acting sabotages the quest for bare emotional truth.
‘It is a whole mixture. You saw us training – you should be a good actress, my whole body should be ready, my voice, everything; if I don’t train them I cannot be a medium. If I don’t know how to free my emotions you will see a blocked person in front of you who simply tells very harsh stories. If I would be a musician, I would train my fingers my hands, to play the piano, and the moment I give the concert I should forget all the techniques. I should feel all what I have trained, so I know the piece I have to play, but it should be filled up with feelings - that people can be taken by the music. So in the theatre, my body my voice is my instrument. In acting you learn how to open up, everything should be trained.’
As a piece of drama, Annet of course recognises that their performances are full of theatricality in a way that, for instance, a news report is not. ‘It is theatre because we change the rules of the reality of that moment. We say ‘Oh, we are now in a prison in Iran, or in a demonstration in Tehran.’ So we make new rules, a new behaviour that is not our daily behaviour. But because I have been traveling, because I have friends that were in prison or have died or disappeared. Because I went to a funeral – funerals - of people who died in bomb attacks. Because I lived in Baghdad and heard the bombs, because I have slowly a family … of course what I tell becomes a mixture of their story and my experiences.’
Such an answer took me back to Grotowski and what he called the ‘double game of intellect and instinct.’ Annet says, ‘If I would intellectually tell how many refugees there are and what they suffer you don’t get involved emotionally. But if I make you involved in the stories of some individual people and after I tell you ‘there are about 20 000 000 refugees’ – this 20 000 000 suddenly has a feeling. The whole information has a different significance. It should be both the emotional and the intellectual.’ For this reason, at the performance of ‘Iran: Forgotten Stories’ there was a board standing at the entrance to the performance space, displaying a list of the tyrannical punishments inflicted on Iranians for what are to Western citizen menial offences, if offences at all. Teatro di Nascosto allows the intellectual to fuel the instinct, and vice versa.
In the performance, the six of them including Annet told both the stories I had heard in the rehearsal and others I had not heard. They danced, both like they were in Iran and then as if they weren’t. They cried at times, and laughed, played footage and read aloud. They charted patches of the demonstration; they acted, and spoke to us as themselves. It was a patchwork of stories and ideas and emotions and information designed to make the audience sense what had been felt that day and is being felt every day since and many before.
Some Iranians who came to see the production described their own actions as masochistic. A couple of them were in tears as they relived their own experience of the 2009 protests in reflection to what was on stage. Watching Annet and the group brought back the thoughts of the people they knew two years ago and what has happened to them since. People they had studied with, eaten with, danced with, slept with, marched with. One of them said that he felt guilty and like a coward that he was not back there in the protest, smelling the flames and seeing the blood.
A few of them recognised aspects of themselves and their own stories and found it difficult to watch it being performed in front of them and in front of complete strangers. Many of them found the performance impressive but were disappointed that more people didn’t attend. ‘Everyone should see this,’ they said.
As noted above, the power of the production relies on the extent to which the audience believes in and invests in it. Some had criticisms, mainly on the grounds of authenticity. Teatro di Nascosto answer that they are retelling stories, not recreating reality, and count on their audience making this distinction, allowing for a margin of error.
But how much of an effect did it have on the rest of the audience? Watching the performance, I was impressed, but I was not as engaged or as affected as I had been in the rehearsal. Indeed, it is for this reason that this article is based around that one rehearsal and not the performance. I would recommend everyone to go to a rehearsal, more than a performance. Or I would urge the group to make their performances yet more inclusive, more direct, and more visceral, as the rehearsal has been for me.
I will never forget the rehearsal. Maybe many of the audience will never forget the performance. How much of a success is that? ‘I don’t think I can change the world,’ Annet says, ‘but I cannot do nothing.’ She believes that where she is now in her life she is at her strongest on the stage and spreading this message through theatre. However this does not mean she works only through theatre. She writes diaries when she goes to countries inflicted with war and poverty, living and working with the locals there, and the diaries are then publicised and circulated. She attempts to involve politicians as much as possible, securing the Charter of Volterra (2008), which looked to improve the treatment of refugees in Europe, signed by 30 politicians from across the continent. She also mentions the possibility of a film, perhaps the most effective way of reaching large amounts of people.
Annet says that many who see the productions of Teatro di Nascosto do want to find out how they can help. When performing ‘Don’t Forget Us’ (a collection of monologues and songs from Baghdad, Kurdistan, Palestine, Iran, Turkey and Argentina, from and about the people she has met, known and loved) to schools in Italy, pupils would come up to her afterwards asking what they could do.
‘I have to give them a little answer for what they can do in their life. Not a big thing - they are going to school or they are students, or they go to university - but I tell them always if they were touched by what they heard or if we teach them something, to tell immediately at home what happened to them, so that the parents can also be involved. And then I speak a little about Amnesty International or even if you see some lonely foreigner sitting somewhere, maybe just say ‘hello’ and what it can mean for someone who is alone and doesn’t speak the language if someone smiles and just says ‘hello’ … so it is the very little things I think I can do.’ It is in remembering and retelling where the success lies.
Sitting down with one of the actresses, Arabella, in a London café, I ask why she is with Teatro di Nascosto? ‘It’s about an awareness,’ she says. ‘It’s about meetings, and people, and human connection. For example, after having been part of ‘Incontri Meetings’, a series of meetings, performances, concerts, conferences, film screenings and exhibitions in October 2011, in which ‘Iran: Forgotten Stories’ was performed again as was ‘Voices of Baghdad’, (Teatro di Nascosto’s recent production telling true stories of the people of Iraq) by four young Iraqi actors beside Annet, Iraq is no longer just a name, or space on the map, or collection of news clips and headlines. Now Iraq is Ali, Mostafa, Foaad and Yasir, the four Iraqi actors who we trained with, lived with. There is a connection built there which leads to a greater feeling, closeness, awareness and appreciation for the country and its people.
‘If Teatro di Nascosto’s productions are able to offer this to our audiences, even just slightly, if they are now just on the way to seeing these places differently, then we have achieved something. These are real places with real people and that often doesn’t come across.’
Annet says a similar thing. ‘I try to make the people live for a moment and hoping - because I cannot tell them to change but hoping - that it will make a little, little seed inside of them a thinking or a feeling that the word ‘refugee’ has a significance or the world ‘oppression’ becomes concrete, like something of your life for a moment. I know it is very important the sharing. Also because in our culture the real sharing, the sharing of real emotions, of pain, of happiness, is very difficult to happen between people. It’s a kind of culture where you are so full of information and there is very little education about sharing life, about sharing emotions, about sharing what you really are. I know that when I do this theatre I make a road to come to this sharing.’
‘It’s a medium of communication,’ Arabella says. ‘It enables understanding; spreading stories in this way is an appeal from one set of people to another for care and for demonstrating (even if only by listening) solidarity, as they struggle to defend their human rights. Theatre reportage works to open a channel of access between different cultures, societies, worlds – Annet working between cultures has a lot to teach the actors – from all over the world – about how to make the stories understandable to the different audiences. It finds the common interests and joys: it’s not only drama, but also the happiness of family, of the home, of parties.’
The road to sharing that Annet mentions is a road of empathy, not necessarily comprehension, and that in itself is a road of hope to those who are in need of it most. As Arabella says ‘a value is given to the lives of the people in difficulty by putting it on stage and by giving it an audience: the knowledge that someone outside my situation is listening, is like a lifeline to a world outside the one of oppression, imprisonment, conflict – of hope, reason to survive.’
Bertie Digby Alexander
For more information on Teatro di Noscoto please visit www.teatrodinascosto.com