In Conversation with Sepehr Sharifzadeh

Sepehr is a creative producer, curator, and festival researcher.
Born, living and locked down in Tehran, Iran.

‘I really do hope all of these discussions of change that we’ve been involved in during the past 6 months would become real, that we really want to change and for us to remember that the past life was just a reality that we’ve been living and that reality now ceased to exist. This is another reality.’

I met Sepehr when I was in Tehran for the first time for Fadjr Festival in 2016.  He came up to meet me with a friendly smile in his face saying ‘Hello, friend, how are you doing?’ in Turkish.

Sepehr entered the Tehran theater scene as a writer, puppeteer, clown and mime at an early age and contributed to many creative endavours. He was 24 when he established Iran’s first international theater agency. Since then, he’s worked nationally and internationally for various festivals and organizations as creative producer, curator and coordinator. He is probably the most active person I know during the pandemic period, both intellectually and practically. He is a big source of inspiration for me with his dilingence and ability to keep his sincere smile on and hopes up.

This email correspondence took place between Fatih Gençkal and Sepehr Sharifzadeh from May 6 to September 3, 2020.

From: Fatih Genckal
Sepehr Sharifzadeh
Sent: Wednesday, 6 May 2020 13:31

Dear Sepehr,
I want to start an interview experiment. I will ask you one question everyday and you will have 24 hours to respond to it. Then I will ask the next question based on your answers or my curiosities. You can also ask me questions in your answers and interview me in a way. It will be like a conversation.
If you answer quickly, I can ask the next question right away, so we don’t have to wait 24 hours. It can turn into texting each other too. Or not.
Please feel free to write as you are speaking.  Follow the spark the question starts in you.
So here is the first question:
What do you see happening with you and around you since the beginning of home confinement?

Sepehr Sharifzadeh 7 May 2020 10:44
Hi Fatih,
I hope you are safe and doing well,
sorry for the late answer. What’s happening to me is I feel like I’m in university again and having more time to learn, experience and reflect, but this time I’m in university with my current experience, so in a way, it’s like going back to the past with a time machine, and then stop the time as it has all around the world. So I’m trying to use it to my advantage and develop my knowledge and helps others develop as well and reflecting on the current situation.
I hope this would answer your first question 🙂
stay safe, Sepehr

Fatih Genckal 7 May 2020 15:13
What kind of things, issues, themes are you most interested to learn/read/listen to/watch? And since we have this time machine analogy, how it this going to change the future? =)

Sepehr Sharifzadeh 8 May 2020 22:22
Hey sorry for the late reply, I was in 5 meetings yesterday and then we had an earthquake later at night which kept my mind quite busy until now that I remembered I haven’t replied to you. The issues are mainly regarding solidarity and how to be together while being away and how to keep this solidarity after everything settled down. I’m reading different articles about this situation and also a book on theater and festivals by Keren Zaiontz. So as I mentioned earlier, I’m trying to self-develop myself regarding my passion “festivals” and also help the ones around me (my friends, family & colleagues) Regarding this Dr.Who-style time machine analogy that’s changing the concept of time & space, I don’t know what it will change in the future but I really hope at least in our field of work, it leaves a trace to research and reflect more by festival directors, curators as well as artists and audiences.
Stay safe, let’s hope we won’t have an earthquake tonight!

Fatih Gençkal 9 May 2020 13:46
I hope you are safe after the earthquake. I just checked and it looks like the magnitude was 5.1. Was there a lot of panic? In Istanbul, people usually freak out after earthquakes and rush out of buildings. Which might be tough during Corona. In İzmir, where I live, people seem to be more used to it as we frequently have small earthquakes. I almost enjoy them now!
There is a lot of questions and attempts on building solidarity here in Turkey as well and I think it’s really good. My only worry is how to sustain these efforts. You recently realized the Reconnect Festival. How did it come about and how was the experience for you and for the participants and audiences in this time? Does it give you some ideas to move forward in this sense?

Sepehr Sharifzadeh 11 May 2020 17:25
it’s the same here as Istanbul, not so many earthquakes in Tehran so people just go out sometimes die on the way going out! (sounds like a joke but it has really happened)Regarding your question, I’m also still in the process of researching and taking notes for myself not to forget these days, I guess it’s what we should do, we are a forgetful species, so let’s not forget what these days look like. I’m watching webinars from the African solidarity in theater till opening Disney-world in China. Gaining more knowledge along with raising awareness is really important. Regarding Re-connnect, it was really good, the audience loved it, we got many messages asking us about the next series of the festival (edition). We are thinking of the future of the festival and also developing the vision we had first when establishing the festival. Now we’ve got more ideas regarding 1. audiences, 2. curation in the time of crisis and thinking to incorporate them for our next editions.

Fatih Gençkal 12 May 2020 17:24
Can you mention some of the ideas that came out through the festival experience or things that you realized concerning audience and curation in time of crisis? And I am curious about your ideas on the idea of forgetting/remembering. There seems to be a massive amount of content during the pandemic of ideas, podcasts, archives, journals etc. I also start to get the feeling that we are becoming a little overwhelmed with input and it will be hard to make use of all this. I myself have become very hesitant to put out something in this environment. People already have a lot on their plate. Well, it is maybe a general issue with sorting and using information in the digital age. What do you think about this?

Sepehr Sharifzadeh 15 May 2020 20:05
The ideas mainly are about different ways of documentation what’s happening now and also what has happened in the past and we forgot about it or for some reason tend to forget it. regarding the overwhelming amount of data during these days, I actually believe it’s a good amount. it brings people together, we always had this amount of data exchange but in analog form and during festivals in the year and then all these discussions and conversations were evaporating in thin air until the next festival that we all meet. But now, we are all meeting at least 2-3 times a week during different panels that we take part in. we are aware of each other’s moods and days more than ever. we care about the personal/friendly relationship rather than the capitalistic business relationship that we always had. In a way, I think we are taking distance from the business and getting closer to orientalism (more personal/ more intimate/ more friendly/ neighbors being closer to each other – something that you and I have experience in our countries more than Westerners) so this is all why I think the amount of events/festivals/performances/ discussions is actually not much but enough comparing to the situation.
I apologize soooo much for the late answer,

Fatih Gençkal 16 May 2020 15:08
I see your point. The documentation efforts are particularly valuable, I feel, especially in this part of the world with limited content and conversations on performing arts online. I hope these efforts continue and flourish. They are also valuable for establishing our scenes in the eyes of public in a stronger way, expanding audiences and contributing to the ongoing public debates. Do you think that this period is helping the performing arts scene in İran in particular in the ways you and I mention? Also in terms of solidarity?

Sepehr Sharifzadeh 20 May 2020 18:00
This is the same here with resources and as well the lack of good knowledge of English amongst many artists here. Also, something to be considered as a threat these days is the accessibility of applying for international funds due to the banking embargo on Iran.I’m trying to send the news that I’m reading online to my colleagues and friends to keep them in the loop of news regarding theater and art from around the world. As for your question, I do think this period could be useful for the people to pause and to think and to reflect accordingly, in terms of solidarity, it does help as other sad events that we’ve had till now. Generally saying Iranian have a very high level of collective spirit during pandemics, catastrophe and etc… so even now, you’d find artists and art organizations working with sewing masks or face shield for the medical teams. One of them is an NGO I work with (House of Puppet), they are producing face shield for less-resourced cities in Iran with the help of Puppeteers in Tehran.
There have been many online activities since we established Re-connect and people are getting more and more friendly with establishing online events. something that not necessarily could be good for the future. (despite the fact that I was involved with one of them – this is another discussion about the content they are trying to provide rather than the act.)

Fatih Gençkal 23 May 2020 00:10
The puppeteers are making medical masks? Is it part of an official campaign or a voluntary effort? Tell me more about it.

Sepehr Sharifzadeh 23 May 2020 22:32
there’s this NGO that I work as a volunteer since 6 years ago (besides working in my agency) it’s called “House of Puppet”, we organized 3 editions of the Tehran Mobarak Puppet Festival. now since the beginning of corona my colleagues began a campaign to make face shields.

Fatih Gençkal 25 May 2020 13:01
How is the pandemic being handled in Iran so far? Where is the country concerning the lockdown and other attempts/limitations to control the pandemic?

Sepehr Sharifzadeh 29 May 2020 09:32
It’s so far ok, seems to be under control for the moment, we have some cities marked as white zones which are more or less more open than red cities like Tehran. It’s the capital so it’s gonna take some time. as for Cinema and Theater, they haven’t decided yet, but I guess even if they decide to open, hypothetically anywhere, do you think people would go? I guess people will as they have done the same about the Cafe and etc, or at least that’s my guess. as we talked before, we are doomed to forgetfulness, and well we love socializing, so as soon as they open the Theater, there’d be loads of people going there as they have about Cafes.

Fatih Gençkal 31 May 2020 16:56
Maybe. I have a growing sense that this could be. I wouldn’t think it a few weeks ago but things are happening quite fast and things that we felt was impossible yesterday can happen tomorrow. I don’t know how I feel about this. I think generally people want to go back to ‘normal’, also from an economic point of view: they want their businesses back. The problem is that the discussion between health and economy is rarely free and equal, anywhere in the world. The governments monopolize the information and they make the decisions. We are as properly informed as they are responsible and open. And still I don’t know how much we are really involved. There are of course other power structures involved, too. Here, today is the last day of quarantine. From tomorrow on, people will go back to work, most places will be open again. Not theaters and bars and restaurants where they sell alcohol. The theaters, I know, have been in contact for over 2 months with the Ministry of Culture for support during this time. Nothing but small tax postponements for a few months and a little raise in the little ministry support for projects next year, which is already impossible to get for many. It looks like we’re on our own. I think that somehow we have on our shoulders the inescapable responsibility to build a better environment for our work to survive. Unfortunately=) Especially in our countries but almost anywhere in the world. This is somehow a struggle about structures. What do you think?

27 Jun 2020 12:54
Hello dear, I haven’t heard from you. How are you doing? I see you’ve been quite active online recently. What have you been up to? What’s new since we last corresponded?

Sepehr Sharifzadeh 28 Jul 2020 17:28
Hi Fatih,
hope you are doing well and safe, I’m sorry for the long pause, I guess I needed some more time to think and reflect. These were some really strange days. 2 couple of friends are divorcing, my aunt passed away of old age, and so on.Generally, I’d try to tell people that “Normal” doesn’t exist, the way we were working was another reality and now it’s another, so it’s like taking the quantum leap and changing the time and space, we can never go back to that reality not being aware of what happened to us in the past 5 months. The people are simply trying to that, not to judge it, but we really need not forget. would we forget it if it was after the World War 1 or 2? they didn’t. It’d be good that we don’t forget as well, to try to adapt, but also build more beautiful things, to care more. Many of the great festivals rose from the ashes of the war, later we had the second wave festival in the late 20th century, and now after 2 decades, I guess we could develop something new and really based on our reality, not the past one. that’s what I’m trying to do and current thinking on. More projects that could reflect the current situation with a blink from the reality we lived before.
we are in the 2nd lockdown now since 2 weeks now.
how are things at home there? hope all is better.

Fatih Gençkal 6 Aug 2020 14:46
My dear Sepehr, I am writing you with a drop of heaviness in my heart over the situation in Beirut. I have been wanting to get away and take some time off things but the escape is only temporary. I always believe that our current reality is an accumulated result of our past, that the things we live now will only have their effects in the future, maybe much after they are forgotten or no longer a vivid memory. So I think that the effects of the pandemic are yet to be seen and am quite worried about the state of affairs, pretty much in the whole world, from the symptoms already apparent. I share your thoughts on not forgetting precisely because of this and yet feel discouraged to see countless occasions of forgetting. In times like this, I remember some quotes from a good teacher and mentor of mine, Anne Bogart, who always speaks with a touch of hope and possibility. I recently came across this quote by her: “I write myself into existence by the stories that I tell about my life. I also write with my posture and with my manner of walking and speaking, and I write with words and with my actions.” We all do that and we actually create our realities like this all the time. Here, no lockdown. On the contrary, things are running wild. They say we might be heading towards a second wave. But I don’t think there will be a second confinement process, the government would choose the economy, which is worsening everyday, over health and will hide information. Well, we can’t really know. How does it feel to be locked down again? Is it different for you then the first? I can’t imagine it happening here right now in the heat of summer. It must actually be worse there. Tell me about it.

Sepehr Sharifzadeh 23 Aug 2020 14:13
I hope you are doing well and safe, I feel like my emailing with is resembling the ancient time messenger birds, yours is always fast and right after that and mine takes some time. so sorry for this inconvenience. The quote you mentioned from Anne Bogart really moved me, this is true and I also think and try to reflect on it. 5 days ago we marked the 6 months of staying home with my mom, so as an answer to you asking about how does it feel to be home again, I was staying home even when the situation was relatively better (in June). As I said earlier I live with my mom and since she’s vulnerable,I prefer not to go out and bring the virus inside, not unless really necessary (shopping or dentist appointment in this case)we have met with some family members from 5 meters distance and in the open air (maybe 4 times during 6 months) but then again it was under serious measures that I asked for. We also had a hot summer this year but I believe it must feel harsher being in a city near the sea. oh oh! 😐 btw, I’ll take part in a panel during the Zürcher Theater Spektakel and would be happy to see you there. also, I’d be happy to have a zoom coffee anytime you like, I’m sure we have a lot to discuss. there are many questions wandering in my mind as I have begun a journey(research) on Festivals which moved online (partly/fully) since the beginning of the pandemic and will write time by time on my Facebook about them. it’s quite a journey, both in Festival discourses, sociology, and anthropology.
looking forward to hearing/meeting you, Stay Safe (I do believe this is more convenient these days than Bests)

Fatih Gençkal 27 Aug 2020 15:27
Thanks for your invitation for the panel. I did register for it but just realized it’s at 6 pm Tehran time, not Turkish or European time. So it’s actually happening in an hour! I think I won’t be able to make it in time. Also I am feeling a bit paralysed in my thought process of what I expect from festivals or arts in the foreseeable future. I admire your diligence in this sense. I would like to finally ask you about your intentions and hopes for the future, on a personal and professional level?

Sepehr Sharifzadeh 3 Sep 2020 11:44
No worries about the last week,yeah, it was a funny coincidence that the link was fixed on Tehran time and a couple of other friends in Europe thought the same as you. They will upload the videos later on the website. As for the future, I really do hope all of these discussions of change that we’ve been involved in during the past 6 months would become real, that we really want to change and for us to remember that the past life was just a reality that we’ve been living and that reality now is ceased to exist. This is another reality. Personally I’ve had an inner journey about my manners, way of life, and way of working even and I’m trying to let go of my work habits from the past. Like what Arundhati Roy said at the beginning of the pandemic: It’s a portal and I’d surely love to go through it lighter. I’m intending to work more on building sustainable networks and relationships as well as continuing research I began these days on Festivals during Covid-19.

Conversations is produced by A Corner in the World, 2020
It is realized with the support of The Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

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