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UC San Diego Professor’s Theater Piece Broadcast In Iran

Above: Gordafarid, performing storyteller Ferdowsi in the production of The Scarlet Stone.

Aired 2/11/16 on KPBS News.

BBC Persian will broadcast a dramatic work by a UC San Diego professor to more than 14 million people worldwide.

A portrait of UC San Diego professor Shahrokh Yadegari, whose multi-media theater work will be broadcast in Iran for the first time.

When UC San Diego professor Shahrokh Yadegari started working on "The Scarlet Stone" five years ago, he hoped one day the people of Iran would see it. Now that wish is coming true.

BBC Persian will broadcast a recording of the modern dance and theater piece this weekend, and again in March for the Persian New Year. It will broadcast to more than 14 million worldwide in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

"Honestly, I could not be more excited," said the professor of sound design. "What I’m hoping it will actually do is spark conversation, especially with what is happening with Iran right now. It’s a time of introspection and exchange between people who actually care about Iran."

Yadegari grew up in Iran but left in 1979.

UCSD faculty and alumni worked with Yadegari on the project, which combines an ancient text and performance tradition with work of a more contemporary poet.

Yadegari began with a 1,000-year-old epic poem called "The Shahnnameh," which tells the story of an ancient Persian myth about a father and son who meet on a battlefield without recognizing each other. The poem is important in Iranian history because the poet known as Ferdowsi wrote the 60,000 verse work at the time of the Arab invasion, when the Persian language had almost gone extinct.

"In writing this work, he preserved the Persian language and the Persian culture," Yadegari said.

But Iranian audiences will recognize more than this well-known myth when they tune in this weekend. Yadegari incorporated the work of a more contemporary poet who meant a lot to him. At 17, before leaving the country, Yadegari was consuming the work of Siavash Kasrai, whose revolutionary-fueled poetry was used in a number of political rallies and songs of the time.

Yadegari has combined the work of these two formative poets with a modernized version of traditional Persian storytelling. The performance tradition involves a storyteller explaining the story embedded in a painting. The storyteller would stand in front of a painting and act out the elements of the story while reciting poetry to the audience.

"We’ve taken the same historic tradition and we’ve made the painting into interactive projections," Yadegari said. The story in "The Scarlet Stone" is still acted out, theatrically or through modern dance and with poetry, but the backdrop changes, sometimes according to the voice level of the performer. “We bring modern technology to serve the older form,” Yadegari said. "It’s an evolution of the tradition, not a remaking of it."

"Many people tell me it looks very modern, but it also looks very Persian," Yadegari said. "It connects to the old Persian arts."

"The Scarlet Stone" was first performed at UCSD in 2015, and then in Los Angeles and Toronto. The BBC Persian broadcast is a recording. San Diegans can view the work by watching the online stream live at 7 p.m. on Friday and at 3 p.m. on Saturday.

Yadegari hopes the layers of history and politics in the work will inspire dialogue among factions in Iran and contribute to progress.

"The past 30 years have been very difficult given Iranian's economic situation," Yadegari said. "The lifting of the sanctions is an excellent step toward ameliorating the relationship between Iran and the rest of the world."

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