Tales From the O'Neill: Iran, Puppetry and The O'Neill

By Sophia Saifi
18 Jun 2013

Marjan Poorghulamhussain
Marjan Poorghulamhussain
Photo by Richard Termine

In 1987, during the war between Iran and Iraq, Marjan Poorgholamhossein was first introduced to the power of puppets.

While outside the war raged, she was a child in Isfahan watching a televised puppet show about the story of a farmer and an abnormally large potato. As the farmer entreated his friends to help him pull the giant vegetable out from the ground, the roar of bombings outside the studio threatened to silence the TV.

This clash of innocence and violence could have marred Poorgholamhossein's childhood memories, but she said all she remembers is "the sound of the overhead planes became louder and louder, the puppets simply continued singing," while the puppeteers raised their voices, almost yelling out the songs.

The young Poorgholamhossein realized they were doing this to protect their young audience, attempting to create a bubble of security through the language of shadow puppetry. It was at that moment that she decided that she wanted to be a puppeteer when she grew up.



Poorgholamhossein is currently a participant at The O'Neill Theater Center's National Puppetry Conference. This is the first year the O'Neill has been accredited by the Union Internationale de la Marionnette (UNIMA) to award scholarships to international puppeteers to partake in the prestigious conference in Waterford, CT.

“We strive to bring ethnic balance and diversity to the conference, that's one of our goals,” Pam Arciero, artistic director of the conference, said. During her tenure, Arciero has worked to bring in participants from a wide range of backgrounds.

Iran has a rich and long history of puppetry that dates back to antiquity, and productions can be elaborate and stunning. Poorgholamhossein shared tales of Behrouz Gharibpur, one of the greatest Iranian puppet theater directors who uses marionettes to tell stories. He has performed in Iran, using Persian opera to narrate Shakespeare as well as the poems of famed Sufi philosopher Rumi. Gharibpur has also staged epics such as the story of Ashura, a great tragedy in the shite tradition of Islam. Watched by children and adults alike, Gharibpur's creations have been accompanied by the prestigious Tehran Philharmonic Orchestra.

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