From left, Shahnaz Sharifi, Fatemeh Fakhri, Davood Mashayekhi and Faramarz Talakoub performed in Washington and other cities.
The performers are deaf or hearing-impaired members of the Mehr-Ayeen troupe from Tehran. And in performances adapted from the Persian epic The Shahnameh, they brought a piece of their cultural heritage to American stages.
Troupe director Fatemeh Fakhri said she had been planning the trip for three years since learning about QuestFest, a two-week international festival for visual theater: dance, mime, gesture, sign language, puppetry and other types of movement that don't depend primarily on spoken words to convey meaning. The festival was staged at Gallaudet University in Washington, the top U.S. school for deaf students.
Fakhri is more than the Iranian troupe's director; she also manages a program for disabled people for the Iranian government agency that administers programs for the disabled. And the theater group does more than entertain; it teaches acting and other stage crafts to people with a variety of disabilities. "The goal, of course, is to train people with disabilities ... to become independent in their own way," she said.
"It's very difficult for people with disabilities to find employment, and this is one way for people with disabilities to gain jobs," Fakhri said.
Dancers with the Mehr-Ayeen troupe perform the story of Simorgh and Zaal from The Shahnameh
Only four of the troupe's 10 members were able to make the trip, and their travel plans were delayed, so they missed most of QuestFest, which ended March 14. They were able to stick to the rest of their scheduled appearances, in Boston, Massachusetts; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Baltimore, Maryland.
"The fact that they had to go through so much to be here tells me something about the heart of this company," said Tim McCarty, president and artistic director of Quest, the nonprofit group that puts on QuestFest.
With six performers missing, Mehr-Ayeen could perform only part of its piece, but Fakhri said it remained significant. It is the tale of Zaal, an albino whose father rejects and banishes him when he is a baby. He is rescued and raised by the Simorgh, a large and wise bird, and later restored to his father. Fakhri said she chose to stage this story from the vast Shahnameh as an episode set in motion by disability and rejection. "There are hidden disabilities in the poems, and then there is a piece to make the invisible visible again," she said.
The Iranian troupe includes deaf or hard-of-hearing performers from many walks of life: a clerk in the disabilities office, a worker in a pizza shop, a computer instructor, an art professor, a musician, a puppeteer, a translator and students. It has toured elsewhere, including in central and eastern Europe. Though communication can be a bit of a challenge off the stage - this interview with Fakhri and performers Davood Mashayekhi, Faramarz Talakoub and Shahnaz Sharifi involved English, American Sign Language, Persian Sign Language and Persian - the group's onstage works, like those of other troupes in visual theater, are equally understandable to audiences in any country.
Fakhri said her agency is staging its own international festival for disabled performers for the fourth year in August, encompassing clowns and mimes as well as Shakespeare's plays and art therapy.
McCarty, the Quest director, accompanied the troupe on the rest of its tour and said, "It went magnificently," giving the Iranians the chance to perform and to see new strategies other groups have devised for being inclusive in their performances so deaf members of the audience can follow them.
"They met some very important people, some really good contacts. They got to see different performances," he said.
The group saw an open-captioned performance of The Lion King onstage in Boston - the full dialogue was projected on a screen to the side of the stage - performed and answered more than an hour of questions from audience members in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, taught a workshop and learned hip-hop dance moves from a Japanese troupe. "That's the beauty of visual theater," McCarty said. "You're just basically jamming off each other, trying out movement."
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