When Javaad Alipoor was looking for a city to base his theatre company telling international stories and exploring and celebrating today’s globalised world, he settled on Manchester.
Now the Javaad Alipoor Company is premiering its latest show at the city’s arts hub HOME this autumn - the final part of a trilogy looking at issues of politics, identity and technology.
In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World Javaad, who founded the company in Bradford, is telling the fascinating story of an Iranian musical megastar who ended up living an anonymous life in Germany as a refugee.
He spoke to ManchesterWorld about diversity in culture and putting on artistic work which reflects the experience of cities where people from many different backgrounds and ethnicities live side by side.
How was the Javaad Alipoor Company founded?
Javaad took a somewhat unusual route into the world of culture, as he was a youth and community worker who then started out in theatre aged 27 when he took part in a project run by the Asian Theatre School.
It was a project that would go on to launch several careers in the arts, including that of Javaad, who set up his own company to do community theatre in Bradford.
A few years later he decided he wanted to move the company to somewhere that would fit well with the international ethos of his work and quickly decided Manchester was the right place.
He said; “People often talk about political theatre wanting to write state-of-the-nation plays. For me, it has always been more interesting to write state-of-the-world plays.
“Manchester perceives itself as an international city and wants to be connected to the world. It’s also the most interesting space in the north of England to do interesting, compelling,entertaining but also experimental and radical theatre thanks to the likes of HOME and the Manchester International Festival.
“For those reasons it made sense for my company to be based here and for my wife and I to live here.”
What is the company’s latest play and the trilogy it is in?
The production tells the fascinating story of Fereydoun Farrokhzad, an Iranian pop star of the 1970s whose popularity in the Middle East could be compared to someone like Tom Jones in the West.
However, after the revolution he was forced into exile and, in a far cry from his days of stardom, found himself living in Germany as a refugee in a flat above a greengrocer’s.
Eventually he returned to the stage, performing two sold-out nights at the Royal Albert Hall in London, but just a few months later he was found brutally murdered in a case the German police never managed to solve.
This is the third and final part of a trilogy of plays produced over the last few years. The first part, The Believers Are But Brothers, looked at the role of social media in radicalising people to causes such as Islamic State and far-right politics, before the second, Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, looked at the lives of the young children of the Iranian elite.
Javaad explained the connections between the three works but stressed that each is an individual production.
He said: “This trilogy is all about identity, politics and technology. Each one is about a big internet phenomenon that shapes how we see the world.
“I thought it said something interesting that if I wanted to find out about the life of this incredible figure I was going to do an internet deep dive. The other part of it is a fun take-off of murder mysteries and podcasts.
“The first part of the trilogy looked at masculinity and online radicalisation and the role of instant messaging, looking at all these guys full of resentment getting very angry about the world.
“The second part looked at Instagram and how we present ourselves on picture-driven social media. It was about how the kids of the guys running these countries that say they are anti-Western and anti-imperalist party and spend daddys money in exactly the same way the kids of western elites do. It was also about the gap between rich and poor and climate change.
“People ask me if they need to have seen the other two parts to get the new one, and they absolutely don’t. Each one is a stand-alone thing, although I hope that one day we can play them all together.
“The new one is a show that will obviously appeal to people of Iranian heritage, and there are thousands of them in Manchester now, but I don’t want to just reflect my own community.”
How does Javaad see the work his company does?
Javaad, who now lives in Levenshulme, says his upbringing in a mixed-heritage house where three languages (English, Persian and Turkish) were spoken, coupled with his experience of life in modern cities, has greatly influenced his approach to producing work which explores global issues and subjects.
He also spoke of the importance of more people from ethnic minority backgrounds being given the opportunities to tell as wide a range of stories as possible and of continuing to press for change at the top levels of institutions which are nowhere near as diverse as the people and communities they serve.
He said: “I think the sense of diversity you get in a big city is such an important part of what the modern world is like. There’s a gym round the corner from me where I train at and there are young women in hijab working out next to old white Irish guys. It’s that sort of environment, people are just living like that.
“The places where our work resonates tend to feel like Manchester in a way. We spent two months in Sydney and were based in Parramatta. Apart from the sharp difference in the weather and the lovely seaside it was in some ways like Manchester: young, vibrant, confident, ethnically diverse.
“It’s about places where people are able to create themselves and are easy with otherpeople being different. There can be an idea in theatre that if you’re Asian or Black British or Middle Eastern your work should be limited to explaining something about your experience as a minority.
“I think the best art is that which is conscious of its own artifice. Sometimes when you talk about diversity and come from a minority background there’s an idea you have to tell something which is true, rather than something which is playful, fun, meta or daft.
“In Manchester, though, there is stuff which needs addressing. There’s still a lack of representation, not just in the arts and culture but in senior positions in the private sector or in the NHS.
“The further up the hierarchy you go the less it looks like what’s around in the city. If I look out of my window in Levenshulme that doesn’t look like a room of cultural leaders in the city.”