“The Show Must Go On” Iranian Online Festival Created to Show the Resilience of Festivals

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Apr 02, 2020
by Soila Kenya
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“The Show Must Go On” Iranian Online Festival Created to Show the Resilience of Festivals

The coronavirus lockdown did not stop Sepehr Sharifzadeh from doing what he does best: bringing people together to celebrate the arts. Sepehr Sharifzadeh speaking during Atelier for Young Festival and Cultural Managers in Shanghai.

For Sepehr Sharifzadeh, the shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic hit hard.

“My first passion in life is festivals; the whole fun of having festivals, gathering people, having the collective energy,” he said in an interview with Salzburg Global.

He was set to hold a festival in the historic Iranian city of Yazd, a UNESCO World Heritage Site at the beginning of March. He had been preparing for it for six months.

“We just got the permissions in February. I talked with many people to bring them to Yazd; six international groups… Two days before the festival was meant to start, they told us that due to the outbreak we cannot have the festival. We need to postpone it or cancel it,” lamented Sharifzadeh.

Sharifzadeh, whose first name means sky, is a theatre agent, producer and festival organizer. With an academic background in creative writing and puppet theater, at the age of 24, he co-founded the first Iranian international theater agency, Nowrouze Honar, the main goal of which is to facilitate the cultural exchange between Iran and the world through performances.

He was due to share his experiences at the now-postponed program What Future for Festivals? The program will now take place in October and Sharifzadeh will have yet more experience to share when he finally comes to Salzburg: how to continue a festival when you cannot physically bring people together.

He describes the devastation he felt after hearing news of the cancelation of the festival he had been organizing. After informing the performers of the cancelation, he was unable to answer emails for two days afterward.

“But then I got myself together,” he narrates. “Iranian people are very flexible and we’ve had enough of these kinds of situations to learn from. So this outbreak is only like another thing for us, you know. At least during the last year, unfortunately, we’ve had enough of death in different cities in Iran. We’ve had enough of people having troubles.”

It is this resilience in the face of adversity that got him out of his low mood to get together with two colleagues and co-create the Re-connect Online Performance Festival to be broadcast on Instagram Live. Along with Nima Dehghani, a San Francisco-based transdisciplinary artist who's the Founder and Artistic Director of Ctrl+Z Theater Group and Fariborz Karimi, Artistic Director of Theatricultural Residency and Co-founder of Bohemi Theater Group, Tehran, the three designed this festival in order to bring artists from all around the world together for solidarity against the recent pandemic panic.

“The whole concept of festivals is changing. And I was like, ‘No, this is keeping up your spirits,’ so the show must go on no matter what,” said Sharifzadeh.

For further diversity in content, his colleagues Meera Krishna from Prakriti Foundation, India, Liu Xiaoyi of Emergency Stairs, Singapore and Erica McCalman of the Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM), Australia are helping to curate shows from their regions.

They held the pilot edition of the festival March 25-30, with performances ranging from puppet theatre, acting and singing. Additionally, there were discussion panels held about a range of topics from the challenges of working on the “presence” from a distance to whether “digital theatre” can be considered as “immersive performance”. The main festival is being held April 5-12.

Panelists included Azadeh Ganjeh, playwright and theater director and assistant professor in the faculty of performing art and music at the University of Tehran, and Omid Hashemi, member of Rekhneh Collective, and pedagogical director of the Ecole International d'Acteur Createur, among others.

Sharifzadeh was able to draw performers and panelists together in this short amount of time to the point where the festival’s Instagram account has already gained over 1,800 followers.

More than just a way to bring joy to people in order to cope with the pandemic, Sharifzadeh is also greatly concerned for the mental health of the artists, and sees it as a way for them to network, and connect with one another.

Sharifzadeh says he looks forward to his time in Salzburg even more now. “I look forward to meeting people who have the same passion as me about the festivals. The program topic, ‘What Future for Festivals?’ is more relevant than ever because we came across a very specific situation in the world that we could actually divide the history into pre-corona and post-corona time,” he reveals.

In the meantime, he is dedicating his full time to the Re-connect Festival, whose page discloses their hope for the future: “Maybe if this festival was repeated in the following years, we would say to all that in February 2020, when the theaters were closed when the people were stuck at their homes when it was the Corona years, a group of artists came together through the internet and the festival started. We hope that all together, with joining forces we could take a step in the interests of society, the arts, and the human connections.”