Tales From the O'Neill: Iran, Puppetry and The O'Neill

By Sophia Saifi
June 17, 2013

In 1987, during the war between Iran and Iraq, Marjan Poorgholamhossein was first introduced to the power of puppets.



While outside the war raged, she was a child in Isfahan watching a televised puppet show about the story of a farmer and an abnormally large potato. As the farmer entreated his friends to help him pull the giant vegetable out from the ground, the roar of bombings outside the studio threatened to silence the TV.

This clash of innocence and violence could have marred Poorgholamhossein's childhood memories, but she said all she remembers is "the sound of the overhead planes became louder and louder, the puppets simply continued singing," while the puppeteers raised their voices, almost yelling out the songs.

The young Poorgholamhossein realized they were doing this to protect their young audience, attempting to create a bubble of security through the language of shadow puppetry. It was at that moment that she decided that she wanted to be a puppeteer when she grew up.

Poorgholamhossein is currently a participant at The O'Neill Theater Center's National Puppetry Conference. This is the first year the O'Neill has been accredited by the Union Internationale de la Marionnette (UNIMA) to award scholarships to international puppeteers to partake in the prestigious conference in Waterford, CT.

“We strive to bring ethnic balance and diversity to the conference, that's one of our goals,” Pam Arciero, artistic director of the conference, said. During her tenure, Arciero has worked to bring in participants from a wide range of backgrounds.

Iran has a rich and long history of puppetry that dates back to antiquity, and productions can be elaborate and stunning. Poorgholamhossein shared tales of Behrouz Gharibpur, one of the greatest Iranian puppet theater directors who uses marionettes to tell stories. He has performed in Iran, using Persian opera to narrate Shakespeare as well as the poems of famed Sufi philosopher Rumi. Gharibpur has also staged epics such as the story of Ashura, a great tragedy in the shite tradition of Islam. Watched by children and adults alike, Gharibpur's creations have been accompanied by the prestigious Tehran Philharmonic Orchestra.

After the war ended in 1989, Poorgholamhossein put all her energies into finding a place to learn puppetry. She ended up at Tehran University where she is currently working towards an MA in the medium. The first company she joined was called The Full Moon Show where she worked on a project called Cats of Grey City, a tale of two cats living in a city deserted by war who stumble across a human baby. Tehran is the hub of puppetry in Iran, which is an art form dominated by females, according to Poorgholamhossein, who said 80 percent of Iranian puppeteers are women.

At the O'Neill, Poorgholamhossein is currently working on a project about a little boy in Iran who was blinded by a land mine explosion. In a twist of surreal wonder, he replaces his eyes with glowworms, which then transform into butterflies.

"It's like living in Disneyland, it is a dream come true," Poorgholamhossein said, who described being at the O'Neill as "a once in a lifetime opportunity."

The arts in Iran operate under the shadow of strong government control where every script has to be reviewed before permission for any further production is given. During a Q&A session, Poorgholamhossein was asked — considering the strict control of public space in Iran — how she planned to implement all she had learned at the O'Neill after her return. Winking, she replied, "there are always a lot of basements and parking lots!"

Her response is a testament to the fact that where there is art and beauty, there is always an audience.

Participants at the National Puppetry Conference will be performing to the public on Friday and Saturday, June 14-15.

For tickets phone (860) 443-1238 or visit theoneill.org.

The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center was founded in 1964 and is based in Waterford, CT. Programs at the Center include the Puppetry Conference, Playwrights Conference, Critics Institute, Music Theater Conference and the National Theater Institute. The Monte Cristo Cottage, O'Neill's childhood home, is also owned and operated by the group.