Features » Performing Arts

Helena Waldmann, born in 1962, is a freelance director and choreographer. She has worked with Heiner Müller, George Tabori, Gerhard Bohner, among others. Last year she became the first female director from the West to be invited to work in Iran. Here she talks about her collaboration with the Iranian actresses, and what goes one behind closed doors.


"Please God, come back from holiday"

An interview with Helena Waldmann on "Letters from Tentland"

Frankfurter Rundschau: A German director who works in Iran – that's so unusual that I have to ask: how much previous knowledge did you have when you went?

Helena Waldmann: None. This is how I came to Iran: we wanted to send the MS Studnitz, that's a big culture ship that's anchored in Rostock, to the Orient. We developed concepts, I had some ideas for performances. During the Theatertreffen in Berlin last year, I met the Director of the Dramatic Arts Centre in Tehran, and I told him what I was planning to do on this ship and asked if he could imagine it coming to Iran, to the coastal cities. He seemed to like the concept. Then I was invited to give a workshop in Tehran. I wondered: how do the people live? How is the theatre? What is culture in that country? I read books but I needed more help so I went to Tehran. It's a country behind walls, behind veils; reading the papers from start to finish doesn't help much.

So you did the workshop.

We discovered that we could work well together and we didn't want to just leave it at that.

How did the Iranians come to your workshop? Did they have to apply?

The director of the Dramatic Arts Centre said: these are the best ones. I thought: Oh no. (laughs) That was of course a personal decision of his, other Iranian actors are just as good. After the parliamentary elections, the director was replaced. The new bosses knew nothing of the whole story.

How did the Iranian artists respond to your way of working?

In Iran, nobody uses a performative approach. It's true there are two young directors who work differently, but most plays are based strongly on texts, have almost no movement, are basically bodyless. Someone sits at a table and talks, talks, talks. Theatre plays a major role in this country, it's a mouthpiece that can be used to express opinions in a subtle way, a bit reminiscent of how it was in the GDR.

But presumably there's also a censor. How does that work?

Normally it works so: if someone wants to stage a play, they send in their text. That wasn't possible with Tentland because there was no text. For Iranian directors, it's enough to say, for example: I'm taking Shakespeare, Hamlet. And if the censors find that Shakespeare's Hamlet is a good play, they'll approve it. We staged the play in Germany, so the censors saw it for the first time one day before the premiere. In my case, there were two censors. They had a look at it and took certain things out, for instance a dance that's projected on a tent – actually it's just a shadow dance, very gentle, one sees no skin, nothing. But we could only project it as a still image. If there's no movement, it's allowed. And we had to take the solo voice of a woman out, female solos are prohibited. The next day, it was more intense; there were nine censors. The top cheeses. Two hours before the premiere, they wanted to see the whole play, and we had to answer many questions – such as whether we would have staged it that way in other countries. The internationality was very important to them.

Something special about the play is that, at the end, women from the audience are invited to come on the stage.

Yes, and the censors couldn't know what we were doing, because the censors are all men. So they wanted us to can it. But luckily, my assistant,who is a very famous actor in Iran, prevented them by having an outburst – crying and screaming, really! And she said they couldn't tell me to take that part out.

When did you have the idea for the tents for "Letters from Tentland"?

Actually the first time I was in Tehran. I was surprised by how many tents there were on the side of the street. There was at the time a campaign against mice; people sat in front of the tents and gave out information on how to drive a mouse out of a house. There's a tent in the city for every single situation. But I didn't dare to constantly use tents during the workshop and only decided to do it at the last moment – the actors thought I was nuts. But it worked. On the one hand, one felt the extreme handicap, one had to develop a particular way of acting with the tent; on the other hand it was very funny. The tents are clumsy, like Barbapapa. We laughed till we cried, in both senses; we also played a death scene, something very serious, and it worked.

How was working with the actors?

I was not interested in going there and teaching them something, I wanted an exchange. The women were asked to write "letters" – hence "Letters from Tentland". And the first letter that they wrote was addressed to God. You'd have to wait a long time for that in Germany. They wrote: "Please God, come back from holiday". The sentence is in the play, because it's a very nice way of expressing abandonment and fear. The women could be very honest, the doors were closed behind us. We were on our own and could improvise a lot.

Was there trust from the very beginning?

At the beginning there was a lot of competition between the actors, because there's an incredible amount of aggression in Tehran, like on the streets: the smallest space will be used, even if it doesn't help. It might be that they get somewhere a bit faster. But in the course of time, the group came together. A very important theme was prejudice. They said to me: you're not at all the way "they" are. And I asked: how are "they"? Then one actress said: harsh, super strict, totally precise, not funny at all. And of course I brought a bunch of prejudices with me to Iran: the women are suppressed, they have to submit to these clothing rules .... And they said: The veil is not our main problem, there are much worse ones. You notice that it's not easy to live in this country – at the same time, the women are incredibly happy. They just live in two worlds: internal and external. And as soon as they leave the external one, they show an incredible joy of life – and they do as they wish. In Iran, there's everything – you just don't see it all.


Complete dates of the tour of "Letters from Tentland" are to be found here.

The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on October 12, 2005.

Sylvia Staude is a literature and arts critic.

Translation: nb - let's talk european