Traditional art reinvented
Dance is over a thousand years old; shadow theatre is almost as ancient. Cinema has existed for 120 years. Who would have thought that the three combined could produce a sophisticated and innovative new genre? The brainchild of San Francisco-based shadow master Larry Reed and film director Hamid Rahmanian, “Feathers of Fire – A Persian Epic” tells a story of harmony, peace and the director’s home country Iran with fast cuts, intense colours and sharp contours – all blended to create an extraordinary cinematic experience.
“Feathers of Fire – A Persian Epic” is a prime example of transdisciplinary performance, the anti-genre that is trending like no other. But the difference with Hamid Rahmanian’s version is that it employs traditional folk art. That is not just novel but also gives the viewer a sense of rising above the trends and genres. Other theatre directors and choreographers have put cameras on stage and had large monitors or screens positioned behind, to allow audiences to watch additional filmed sequences, or a making-of on the floor. Or both, simultaneously. And even though the camera throws light on the stage’s blind spots and reveals the slightest details or subtexts of the performances, there is always an awareness of attending a stage performance.
Rahmanian’s production, in contrast, offers a completely different, unique experience. We are sitting in a theatre, but it has been converted into a cinema with an 8 x 4 m-large, tightly stretched screen. Which is in front of the stage, not at the back. The performance is neither theatre nor film but shadow theatre. And it is presented live, in keeping with the tradition of the genre. In other words, performers behind the screen interact with paper-cut figures, video projections and dancers in an artistic synthesis of precision-adjusted cinematic scenes. The main characters in the story appear only as silhouettes but with gestures and articulation as fluid as actors. It is probably the first shadow-cinema-dance-theatre production in the world. In colour.
Iranian tradition with finesse
Rahmanian came up with the idea, he says, because he wanted to convey a positive image of his home country. He is an émigré from Iran. After graduating in Graphic Design in Tehran, he relocated to the United States, where he became a film director and visual artist. He studied computer animation, was hired by the Disney Feature Animation Company and later set up his own production company, Fictionville Studio. His films have been shown at the Venice, Toronto and Sundance festivals. In 2008 he won the OSZE Human Rights Award for “The Glass House”.
It is twenty years ago now that he moved to the United States, where the political stand-off and sabre-rattling between Washington and Tehran has had a strong impact on public opinion. Rahmanian created his most lavish production to date to send out a different signal. It was important to him to spotlight the poetry, creativity and artistic tradition of Persian culture while providing the kind of immersive experience to enthuse today’s audience. He wanted to breathe life into tradition.
The book of kings
The solution he came up with was to recreate an episode of the Schahmaneh, the Persian “book of kings”. In terms of cultural importance as well as length, this epic chronicle of rulers, written by Abū ‘l-Qāsim Firdausī (940-1020), is comparable with the Mahabharata, Homer’s Odyssey, or the Old Testament. It, too, is full of accounts of wars and battles. But that was precisely the image of Iran that Rahmanian wanted to counterbalance. So, he chose a chapter that tells the love story between Rudabeh, the daughter of the governor of Kabul, and Zaul, the young son of a knight at the Persian court. To western audiences, the story of conflicting power interests, parental love and a star-crossed couple struggling against family feuds is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. And there are echoes of The Jungle Book and Oedipus Rex, as Zaul is abandoned as a baby and raised by a magic bird before being returned to his parents. Here, however, the story ends in harmony, with marriage and peace.
The stage sets and sceneries alternate between palaces and mountains, lakesides and street scenes, marquees and public squares, walls and forests, day and night. And as seamless as these changes are, they mark sudden, strong contrasts. To realize his vision, Rahmanian enlisted the help of a high-calibre specialist in contemporary shadow theatre: Larry Reed, an American who learned the traditional art form of Wayang Kulit on Bali.
With his company ShadowLight, Reed has been developing innovative productions fusing stage art, projections and shadow figures since 1995. So, combining projections and live performances is not necessarily new. But “Feathers of Fire – A Persian Epic” puts it on the big screen – with lightning-fast, seamless cuts, intense colours and a precision of contours that is hard to achieve in this format – and turns it into an extraordinary cinematic experience.
To enable such sharp cuts to be made, Rahmanian had the idea to alternate between two projectors. Exactly 1163 settings and hundreds of changeovers are saved in a computer that coordinates the projections and sound using QLab software. Of the total number of settings, some 700 regulate the sound, says Mohammend Talani, who controls the projections live during the performance – because even with all that programmed information, someone needs to be there to ensure fast responses to the performers’ movements.
Taut as an eardrum
To ensure smooth changes from one projector to the other, the lenses are fitted with shutters that flip up or down at a pulse signal. As there is not one central projector here, but one half-right and one half-left, the videos are also adjusted to asymmetrical projection angles. Coloured lines on the floor mark the projector positions. The distance to the screen is considerably further than in conventional shadow theatre and it was not easy to find projectors that could produce clear images and allow keystoning at the same time. Rahmanian opted for Canon’s REALiS WUX400ST (4000 Lumen, contrast ratio 2000:1).
An even greater challenge was building the screen. This needed to be eight metres wide and four metres high, and of extremely high quality to do the performance justice. As the projection comes from behind, material was required that was both very fine and very firm. “It cost us a lot of money and had to be stretched as taut as an eardrum to make sure not even the tiniest fold appears,” explained the director. This marks a crucial difference from traditional forms of shadow theatre, where the screen can act as an independent element. Wooden frames corresponding to the shape of the screen are set up around both projectors, which seem superfluous at first glance. But they prove their worth at several points during the performance, serving as mounts for silhouettes. “And they conceal the puppeteers’ hands on the lower edge,” reveals Rahmanian.
The puppeteers controlling the two-dimensional figures are, of course, just as important as the performers embodying the main characters. Horses and all sorts of other animals, monsters, human figures and buildings are all brought onto the scene on sticks, like in traditional shadow theatre. Rahmanian and his team spent years painstakingly creating some 160 shadow figures and dozens of masks. The larger figures have cut-outs filled with different coloured transparent paper, lending the figures bright costumes. After and even during the performance, they are carefully sorted into folders to ensure that nothing is mislaid, and the performance runs smoothly. While one projector is running, the figures are set up ready for the next scene in front of the other’s wooden frame. The puppeteers often crawl along the floor, figures in hand, to get to their entry points. Sometimes they lie there on their backs while holding the paper-cuts in front of the projector lens. That doesn’t happen in traditional shadow theatre.
In fact, it’s harder for the puppeteers to maintain an overview than for the main characters performing upright and close to the screen. That’s why it’s up to the latter to provide the fine-tuning between the three-dimensional performances and the two-dimensional shadow play, which all takes place against a background of 130 animated films played at a breathless pace, to boot. “Everything, absolutely everything depends on the rhythm,” stresses Rahmanian. The sound is another factor in the performance requiring great precision: As it is pre-recorded, the performers’ gestures must be bang-on. The music by the composers Loga Ramin Torkian and Azam Ali was performed on traditional Iranian and Turkish instruments.
But how do the performers manage to convincingly play figures in profile, as shadow-theatre demands, and still maintain an overview of the entire scene, especially as they themselves are close to the screen while the puppeteers are close to the lenses? The answer is: ingenious three-dimensional masks. They cast images in profile on to the screen while the performers look at the monitors sideways or even frontally. In this way, they can embody their characters and watch their performance at the same time.
And there is another level of trickery behind this. The characters’ faces appear larger on the screen than the actors’, or dancers’, natural faces, with symmetrical noses, mouths and eyes artificially exposed and emphasized. The cleverly designed dual masks allow the figures’ profiles to turn from one side to the other swiftly and smoothly, as is typical for shadow theatre. The performers’ arm and leg movements are similarly stylized. Performance like this requires training and concentration. What is doesn’t need is gender authenticity. Only the female characters’ voices must be performed by women, and kings or knights spoken by men.
But the physical performances are a different matter. Only one of the six performers is male. Lovestruck Zaul, the governor of Kabul and the king of Persia are all played by women. That is possible, of course, because the costumed figures cast entirely asexual silhouettes on to the screen so long as they maintain diagonal or frontal positions. Still, can the predominance of women in this production be explained by the greater suitability of female physiques or flexibility? Although that might be an advantage when it comes to wriggling under a picture frame, Rahmanian insists it is entirely coincidence in this case.
In contrast to the silhouettes’ abstraction when it comes to gender, some of the costumes are strikingly – and apparently unnecessarily – elaborate, with brightly coloured feathers and other realistic elements, which appear only as black surfaces on the screen. Their purpose is to help the performers get into character. And for the character of the baby abandoned by his parents a doll is used, the only physical, three-dimensional object in the performance. “I wanted them to feel its weight,” explains Rahmanian.
When the show is over, and the performers have finally revealed themselves and received their applause, the director invites some of audience backstage. Or he explains how the performance is done and shows a scene again on the screen while the image of a camera appears in one corner, filming a making-of backstage. But unlike in institutional European theatre, the simultaneity is not a post-modern, deconstructive device here. It is a supplement to a folk theatre that enchants its audience purely via the emotions. The revelation at the end is an added extra.
The official world premiere of “Feathers of Fire – A Persian Epic” took place in 2016 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. It has since played some 120 times, mostly in the United States, but also in Shanghai, Krakow, Toronto, Taiwan and most recently in Paris. For the planned 2020 tour, Rahmanian needs to train new performers: “One of the performers is getting married, the other is having a baby etc.” Or perhaps they want to be in the spotlight proper again and not ‘just’ appear as silhouettes. Nonetheless, “Feathers of Fire” is a thrilling adventure, for both performers and viewers, of any age.
About the author:
Thomas Hahn is a freelance journalist based in Paris, and a regular BTR contributor on issues including multimedia, stage design, acoustics and stage engineering.
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