Kevin Dyer on 'The Girl Who Lives Under the Piano' (a play with hope from Iranian and UK artists)

When you write a play, you don’t tell the whole story. You have to take the audience to the hottest part of the story - and show the stuff that both leads to that moment and also spins off from it. Finding the hottest moment is, for me, the key.

My first trip to Tehran, Iran, was as a guest of the Fadjr Festival, a showpiece of theatre in central Tehran. I saw some stunning theatre that would change the way I made theatre forever. It was a couple of years ago, a time of political unrest and demonstrations. And, as happens in most countries in the midst of this kind of change, the artists feel things very acutely. I was there at a hot time when feelings were running high. Looking back, even though the Iranian culture is Persian, not Arab, it was as though we were seeing the very beginnings of the ‘Arab Spring’.

I went to Iran as part of the ‘Contemporary Myths’ project (funded by a UK organization called Visiting Arts). We were examining how we use old stories to tell the stories of today, and how we write new myths. I didn’t know at that time that my trip would lead to a play; I was working on ‘Minotaur’ for the Kennedy Center – and my head was full with that. Interestingly, I seeded the idea of Theseus and the Minotaur in our workshops in Tehran, and it became a pertinent metaphor as we worked together ‘on the floor’ – Iranians and British - for the lives we were all living. Iran and the west are so so different – and yet exactly the same.

I also went to Iran with the belief that we ordinary people can build bridges where all of our governments have so clearly failed.    

Since that visit, Iran – its people, its spirit, its art, its culture - has been in my head for thousands and thousands of hours. The place has got its claws in me.

I now know a million things about Iran … but they seem to add to up to nothing. I feel like one of Kafka’s characters, unable to piece it all together. I read Kafka when I was about 17. I liked it, enjoyed it… but I didn’t get it. It was only when I was in Tehran that I finally did. Being there was like being in the castle and the trial at the same time.

And that wasn’t just a foreigner thing. An Iranian woman who had been in Britain and then returned home emailed me: “It is mad here. Crazy. I have been away for 10 days but now I have to learn all the rules all over again. When I go out the door it is not the same as it was a fortnight ago. I have to dress differently, walk differently and think differently.”

What fascinates me about travel is that when looking at another country I see my own all the more sharply. It’s like going to watch a play – by looking at the characters in the space, I understand myself more.

Some months after being in Tehran, with Visiting Arts and Farnham Maltings providing the funds, I worked in a rehearsal room for a week with an Iranian actress. We decided not to make a play about Iran, not to make a play about Britain, just make a play that might build a bridge from that place to this place. Not a soft liberal bridge though, but one made of blood and gristle and sinew. Nor did we want to make a play for people who were political or for those Iranian literati who now live in London, but a play for everyone – everyone from the age of 8 up.

We worked in a bare space. It had just a grand piano in it – for no reason except the caretaker probably didn’t have anywhere else to put it. But the great three legged thing in the middle of the room became a metaphor and symbol.

We started making a story about a girl who lived under a piano, a piano that nobody could remember how to play.

We worked outside the rehearsal room too; we created myths in a white tent inside a white room; we made fast, dynamic, funny, exhilarating theatre in the forest under the spreading branches of a tree.

At the end of that first week we shared our work, and people were curious, interested, urging us to go further.

So in May this year an international company worked together for a week to develop the idea. It is a collaboration between Farnham Maltings, Action Transport Theatre, The Sherman Theatre, Visiting Arts and Don Quixote Theatre, Tehran.

Working as writer and director, I led an Iranian/UK team of actors, Musical Director, dramaturg, and another writer - devising a piece of visual theatre with a strong narrative. We hardly talked about Iran or the UK or politics or anything that would appear in the papers. (It’s like a novelist who does all their research, then has a six month sabbatical before coming back to the laptop – the aim being to let the source material sink down deep inside oneself.) We got the characters on their feet and watched them go. It’s now a play about a child at the heart of a family.

I am a writer who works from visual images – storyboarding a play and then writing the speech on top. I identify all the pictures of a story like an interlocking chain. I also work hard on the inner, driving character ‘wants’ - in both large abstract terms and tiny object-related, specific terms. I ask the whole company to visually (and emotionally) create all the stages of each character’s arc. I need to know what the characters want every step of the play and what those wants make them do.

The Girl Who Lives Under the Piano is far from finished, but we know it is a piece with very few words that could be performed anywhere in the world in any language, a piece that is about the universal feelings that are in all of us.

The piece we are making is a mythic fable, yet also a modern urban thriller.  At the heart of it is the piano, an immense, huge, overshadowing thing.

To give you some idea of its world, let me say: the girl’s father works in an office. Photos arrive on his desk in batches of seven tied together with brown string. He unties the string and identifies the faces, writing their names and addresses on the back. Then he passes them on. That’s his job. But he doesn’t know why he does it.

One day he turns over a photo and sees the face of his daughter. His hands shake. He hides the photo in his pocket, pretends he’s ill, and goes home early.

That night he is troubled, cannot sleep. He gets up, takes the photo out of his jacket pocket. He knows that tomorrow he should take the picture back to the office, put it back in the system. But he also fears what this will mean for his daughter, who is sleeping under the piano.

So he takes out a Polaroid camera, takes his own photo.  In the morning he goes back to work, puts his own photo in the bundle, and  sends it on to the next office.

In The Girl Who Lives Under the Piano a man  - inspired by his daughter - finds a freedom for himself… even if that freedom might lead to his imprisonment.

Our collaborative company has an ambition to make a play that goes back to Iran, but one of the Iranian theatre makers told me: ‘Do not make a play with a happy ending or no-one in Iran will believe it. We don’t do hope.’ That was shocking to me. Really shocking. In British theatre for young people it has become almost a maxim that all plays have to have hope. Are Iranian and UK theatre so fundamentally opposed in our delivery of optimism? Or, is optimism for them showing the harsh realities without simple solutions?

Our Iranian dramaturg found the final image of our play: the father is at work, waiting. The girl and her mother push the piano, out of the house, and away down the street, and on and on and on.

Of course, this might change; the play and the project are at early stages. There are still many things to find. But what we do know is that The Girl Who Lives Under the Piano is an honest attempt to make an international play about becoming free, about the joy of finding out who we really are, a page-turner about getting the most out of our short time here. I also know Iran is an amazing, rich beautiful, complicated, creative country like no other. It is vibrant and joyous. It is an instrument that plays a beautiful tune - even if a lot of people have never heard it play and can’t quite reach the keys.

(photos by Santi Posada and Sabrina Smith-Noble)

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