What it is like to improvise as an Iranian expat
“You seem to have a wall up. You are very hard to read. You don’t express your thoughts clearly”
My name is Tanine and I’m an Iranian woman currently living and improvising in Amsterdam.
The quotes above are some of the comments I would get from my stage partners. They were all news to me and made me start reflecting to find out why people around me see me in a very different way from how I see myself.
We all know that one of the improviser's golden abilities is to connect with his/her scene partner and live in their world and imagination. To see what they see and feel what they feel. So how was I supposed to do that when even I myself didn't know who I was and what I was projecting? How was I putting a wall up? Why were people unable to understand me when in my head, I seemed very clear?
All this introspection and hours of therapy eventually led back to my home, Iran. But before I continue it’s important to remember its historical context.
After the 1979 revolution that toppled the King, an Islamic totalitarian regime came to power, using the Quran and Sharia as the foundation of its legal system. Anything that challenged this system was either the “devil” itself or malign influences from the West seeking to manipulate our people and encourage them to rise against the regime. Or as they would put it in Iranian propaganda media “to take you away from the path of righteousness and put you on a crooked one”. This left little room for open discussions and uncertainty. Things were either right or wrong. Ideas were either evil or holy! The regime’s way or no way at all. The highway to exile was the other option for those who could. Things remain the same today.
As a result, many topics such as religion, politics or sexual orientation are off-limits on stage. There is no celebration of western culture either. If you want to talk about it you better be critical. There are also no public displays of affection. That means no kissing, hugging, putting your arm around someone, or even holding hands of a scene partner of the opposite sex.
How does any art format fit in there? It doesn't really fit. As every script, every literature, any piece of music, radio show, visual art exhibition, etc. needs to be carefully reviewed by the authorities before being shown to the public. They need to be edited and aligned with the “ideals of the Islamic republic of Iran”. As an artist you need to submit your creation to organisation after organisation for review before having permission to legally perform, publish or exhibit. By the time it comes out of all that editing, it often looks very different from the original work.
But why was all this still affecting me? Now as a European resident, I could say and publish anything I wanted. I could speak my mind out. Why did I still have a wall? Why was I censoring myself?
So I had to dig deeper and that’s where I found the core of the issue which is the implications caused by the limitations mentioned above. Specifically the double life they push us to live. Let me illustrate this through an example.
There are no bars in Iran as drinking alcohol is illegal. For the ones who indulge, most Iranians enjoy their drinks in their home or private parties. That means there will be no talk of alcohol on the stage. You see we live a double life in a way, behaving differently inside and outside the house. Indoors we drink, we hug, we speak politics. When we step outside, we close up. Especially us, the first generation after the Iranian revolution, who were actively trained by our parents to do that. My dad used to remind me almost every day before going to school, “don't say that we have wine at home, Tanine”.
There was the wall around me that everyone could see and I couldn’t. I was not easy to read because I was trained in that. I had a wall because it was actually dangerous for me and for my family not to have one. And since I have been taught all this from birth by the example my parents had set, it had become second nature to me. I didn't even know I was doing it anymore. And when people said “be yourself” and I was thinking “I am myself”. I was not lying. Not being direct and frank, not being myself at all times was my second nature now.
That solved the mystery of the wall but not the issue I had of making myself understood on stage. My offers were too unclear and complicated. My partners simply didn’t know what my character wanted even though for me things were clear.
Digging deeper I realised that my cultural background was playing another part in this. Because of the situation in Iran we had learned a trick in order to figure out how to communicate with like-minded people. We had been trained to express ourselves in a discreet way, with symbols, innuendos, and abstract scenes. That’s what we do on the stage as well. We don't stop talking about religion, politics, sexuality but we have our own way of doing it.
It’s all about reading between the lines. We are not trained to speak our minds transparently or put our thoughts in words understandable to everyone. We are trained to filter our thoughts and hide the dangerous ones under layers of abstraction. This allows people of similar minds to understand us, but also enables us a form of plausible deniability if we are to be challenged by those who disagree, share less liberal values, and think differently. To those, we can easily say: you understood wrong.
It is worth mentioning that in Iran, we love our symbolic language. The Persian language has a big capacity for it. Symbolism is embedded in our classical literature. We constantly speak with expressions. So what this limitation did to us as artists was not all negative. It has made us thrive in other ways. Navigating these restrictions has become an art form in itself. To constantly look and find creative ways to express our thoughts and views without being caught.
That’s why I didn’t know I was not being understood. That’s why in my head I was being very clear. Because I was using the clearest language I was trained to use: symbolism to the extent of obscurity.
There you have it. A struggle between staying truthful to my background and my culture, and fitting in, improvising, and learning from others. To keep going back and forth between improvising in a western way, in order to be understood and going all the way Iranian and confusing the hell out of everyone until hopefully I find the perfect balance!