Interview with Vahid of The Counter Institute by Tonia Stavrinou
Originally published in Greek language in Filileftheros newspaper in Cyprus
© The Counter Institute 2019 – Courtesy of Filileftheros newspaper

– Vahid, could you explain the content of the Pre-Expressivity and Scenic Presence workshop and how it influences and benefits the participants?

The training method that I will be introducing in this workshop is the result of a long journey in theater,  entered on a fundamental question of the craftsmanship: what does make a performer alive, believable and fascinating on stage? There is a technical foundation for the craft of performer that is common in all genres,
traditions and cultures. In an organized and repeatable performance situation this technical foundation is the key to the art of performer. Allow me to unpack this: being alive means to be able to render organic presence in an artificially constructed performative situation; believable means to act and react spontaneously and truthfully to oneself, to other performers and to spectators; to be fascinating means to be focused, uncluttered, unhesitant and structured in a way that a clear stream of information—at a sensorial level—is established between performer and spectator which reveals the intention of the performer (in Peter Brook words, “making the invisible, visible”).
Pre-expressivity and Scenic Presence is the introductory workshop to the work of The Counter Institute. The workshop is designed to introduce and communicate the technical foundation of performer’s work through a set of exercises, which are fixed in their principles but flexible in practice to suit the needs of each participant. The exercises are designed to help participants to embody the technique viscerally and practically, not intellectually or theoretically. Of course to embody the technique requires long term practice. This workshop will merely be a glimpse at a way of working that might inspire and encourage participants to pursue a certain path for their own training.

– What do you want people to gain from your workshops? Practical tools? Inspiration?

What the participants will experience in this workshop is my own unique way of working with performers. This unique way of working however is deeply rooted in the experience of others. In one sense this way of working is a dialogue with our professional ancestors. Reformers of the theater in the 20 th century were in my view
concerned mainly with two things: craftsmanship and ethics. Each in their own particular way explored the question “what makes a performer alive, believable and fascinating on stage?” and came up with their own unique answers and solutions. But this question was not asked in vacuum, nor was it an abstract game of
intellectual curiosity. The problematic of craftsmanship in the works of Stanislavski, Meyerhold, Craig, Grotowski, Boal, Barba etc. were formulated and explored in various manners based on their biographical circumstances and the specific sociopolitical and cultural context of their environments. Their relation with their environment constituted the basis of their ethics and thus colored their approach to the craft. They all searched for meaningfulness and purpose in theater of a kind that is transgressive and transformative.

Learning the craftsmanship is the groundwork for learning disciplines and principles that empower us to search for a meaningful life in arts. This workshop focuses on the craftsmanship and maintains a connection to a tradition that believes in theater as a path to freedom. In the first instance, the participants learn the technique in this workshop. But my hope is that this experience will also plant the seed of curiosity in them to want to explore the transgressive and transformative aspects of theater.

– You are an Iranian living in Europe and traveling around the world. Which identity do you feel is more familiar? Do you think the question of identity has a different meaning and power on people today?

I am actually a European citizen living in Europe, you know?! I am Iranian by birth and European by  aturalization; a Danish citizen based in London and Copenhagen who lives on the road. I first obtained an EU passport three months before Brexit referendum. I still have the keys to my parents’ house in Iran; but that house doesn’t exist anymore. My company is registered in Denmark, but it works anywhere else. Shall I continue? There is no one single aspect of all this that I incontestably embrace or categorically deny. These are all aspects of what constitutes my “identity” including the paradoxes they retain. And I feel my feelings
about it are rather irrelevant. Most of it is out of my control.

The concept of citizenship and its relation to identity and nationality has preoccupied me ever since I became an “immigrant”. It has too influenced my work tremendously. I have realized that a big part of our identity as individuals is decided and imposed upon us by the beast of society. We might be oblivion of this fact or wish it were otherwise, but it doesn’t make much difference anyway. At the same time we live in a phase of history where “realization of individual potentials” and “reinventing ones identity” has come to be considered as rights, an imperative and it’s celebrated as the pinnacle of civilizational achievement.

When I talk about the environment and the ethics of my work I am among other things referring to the fractured nature of the identities (and its paradoxes) that I am being made conscious of by the environment on the one hand and my reaction to it as a human being and as an artist on the other. It is exactly this reaction that
shapes my way of working and makes it different from others, because of specificities of my circumstances. In other words I am searching for my own “unique” answers by reformulating a common question within a tradition i.e. theater. It is like tracing the footsteps of those who came before you and leaving behind your own traces on the same path.

– Under what circumstances did you leave Iran? Was your passage to Europe easy? Was the art world open and accepting?

I started working as a theater director in the 1990s. At that time the Iranian performing arts scene was very closed and international contacts were extremely limited. I grew up reading about the important personalities in theater. I always wanted to, but never had the chance to see their work first hand. After all, most of them were dead long time ago! On my list of the great reformers of theater there were only three still alive at the time: Eugenio Barba, Peter Brook and Richard Schechner. I wrote to all of them and Eugenio was the first to reply. A few weeks later I left Tehran for Holstebro to study with Odin Teatret. I have always been concerned with the craftsmanship of the performer from the very outset of my vocation, but my encounter with Odin Teatret gave my quest a new depth and focus as well as providing me with articulated means of thinking and talking about craftsmanship through the lens of Theater Anthropology. I spent a few years to study different schools of training. My encounter with Augusto Boal was another pivotal moment that left a huge mark on what I do today.
Was the art world open and accepting? Yes and no. I made countless contacts and often received warm welcome. But one thing I soon realized was that the “art world” was oversaturated with everything. Although it is not easy, but it is not impossible either to inter the acceptable realm of artistic possibilities. You just need
to have a good nose for what is fashionable and marketable, albeit at times anti-fashion and anti-market posturing might be the most fashionable and marketable commodity! The difficulty arises when one wants to do things differently and define a certain unfamiliar domain that is not already recognized by cultural policy or the politics of culture. While acknowledging the individual freedom that we enjoy in most parts of Europe, the fact remains that this freedom is only guaranteed within a very specific paradigm. Challenge the dominant paradigm and you’d learn a different side of what might be complacently taken for openness and tolerance. And
then there is of course the huge burden of financing works of art in hyper-capitalist, neoliberal European system, which sets the tone for the cultural policy. So it’s a challenge always.

– Do you think performing arts have a different role and mission today?
In my opinion performing arts per se have no role or mission as such. It is the intention of the artist vis-à-vis the reality of the context that determines what performing arts stand for. This reciprocal relationship between artists and contexts is not static; it evolves constantly; so do the role and significance of the arts. What
counts is to strive to be truthful in ones own circumstances and try to do that which is meaningful and relevant. And of course one has to master the craft first.