In a 2015 scientific paper on the Anthropocene—the name for our current, human-impacted geological era—geologists Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin explored the various proposals for the epoch’s official beginning: the Agricultural Revolution of many thousands of years ago, for instance, or the Industrial Revolution of only a few hundred, or the Atomic Age. Rather than focusing on the scientific and technological achievements of Western society, though, Lewis and Maslin believe that the Anthropocene has been most marked by a huge atmospheric drop in carbon dioxide in the early 1600s, known as the Orbis Spike. The cause of this decrease? The millions of slain peoples of the Americas no longer breathing out CO2.
This uneasy revelation is one of many that unfolds in Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, a multimedia theatre experience that played this year’s Sundance Film Festival, as well as the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, in the comfort of each viewer’s home. Created by Kirsty Housley (she/her) and Javaad Alipoor (he/him) of the Manchester-based Javaad Alipoor Company, and based on a piece they performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019, Rich Kids tackled a common problem of at-home theatre and film screenings—the urge to look at your phone—and invited us to revel in it, telling us exactly when to scroll through the show’s Instagram feed, when to browse through specific hashtags, and when to turn our attention back to the YouTube presentation.
“When you’re working in live theatre, people quite often think about those things as add-ons,” Housley says of the intersecting digital elements. “They find it hard to get their heads around the fact that it’s not a gimmick.” The team isn’t sure if they would have adapted the piece to its current form if not for the coronavirus shutdown, though they knew they weren’t done experimenting when their show’s planned U.K. tour was canceled in 2020. The piece’s overarching questions, about the history we remember and the history we discard, still kept them up at night, especially as British theatres scrambled to upload recordings of past productions for at-home audiences.
Though Rich Kids is a work of political theatre that grapples with the concept of human history, it tells this story not with a focus on epochal figures but through the lens of the real-life travails of an unlucky Iranian couple. Mohammad Hossein Rabbani-Shirazi was the son of a prominent, wealthy family, and Parivash Akbarzadeh the more middle-class woman with whom he cheated on his fiancée. The two went on international trips together, showing off their money and status on Instagram; in April 2015, they crashed their Porsche in the middle of Tehran. Alipoor says the Iranian government tried to erase all proof of the couple’s relationship from the internet; at least outside Iran, this effort was not successful.
To contend with the weight of what we bury and what we unearth, Rich Kids cited the birth and death of the Aztec Empire, the rise of Iranian nationalism, and the ramifications of nuclear testing on the peoples of the Marshall Islands. At first, Rabbani-Shirazi and Akbarzadeh appeared to be somewhat random vehicles for the show’s themes: Yes, these two took advantage of their city’s wealth gap, but they didn’t create it; they explored cities built on the exploitation of workers, but they didn’t build them; they flaunted their ability to break Iran’s laws against unmarried fraternization, but they were just kids who wanted to be together. Still, by focusing on the couple, Rich Kids was able to achieve what many pieces of political theatre struggle with: conveying a sense of confidence that the audience is smart enough to apply a character’s struggles and successes to a bigger picture.
“It feels like we’re living through a time when history is getting faster and faster, and things are changing quicker and quicker, and at the same time, we seem more haunted by the past than ever before,” Alipoor says. “And I think this show is fundamentally about that feeling, and about how you articulate that.” But, he adds in a tone of mocking elitism, “If I tell you that and then I go, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, Brexit, blah blah blah, boomers’—then you know that. A way of making it feel fresh is to go, ‘Look at these crazy 18-year-olds doing it.’”
Alipoor and Housley used Instagram as a means to that end, designing a feed that accompanied their YouTube animations and intermittently went live on both at the same time. The dialogue of Alipoor and actor Peyvand Sadeghian was also spelled out in the photo captions, making the piece more accessible to a variety of audiences. The use of Instagram didn’t feel like a novelty but a tool, like any other design element; Housley says she thinks of it as another actor. As we traced the narrative of human development from transoceanic trade to bazaar to mall, Instagram became the mirror through which we could see our own consumption.
“I don’t think anyone would like to define themselves as a consumer,” Housley says. “But it’s ingrained in our identities.” Instagram became the “cognitive capture” of our material connections, as audience members explored the hashtag “#mallwave,” a collection of vaporwave-style images of malls from the 1990s.
This is in line with a trend of romanticizing a past that isn’t very far away; the page @90sanxiety boasts 1.6 million followers, with other ’90s-aesthetic blogs garnering hundreds of thousands of fans. Rather than making a piece of theatre to look at how the U.K. got to Brexit, or how the U.S. got to Trump, by simply asking, How did we get here?, Alipoor and Housley’s piece kept scrolling back, as far as Instagram would let them, to ask, How did we not get here sooner?
Rich Kids didn’t present a definitive answer, but instead dabbled in different philosophies to posit Rabbani-Shirazi and Akbarzadeh as parts of a whole. Just as Alipoor and Housley read the work of geologists who advocate for multiple official beginnings of the Anthropocene, they also explored different beginnings to Rabbani-Shirazi and Akbarzadeh’s story, from Britons ransacking Persia to teens going on a shopping spree at the mall. At the end, in a move that made the piece feel even more theatrical in nature, the show’s Instagram feed disappeared, archived for Alipoor and Housley’s eyes only.
“I’m such a theatre person, I’m still slightly freaked out when things actually exist forever,” Housley admits. Alipoor adds that the decision is more than just artistic. “It makes a nice point about the ephemeral nature of theatre, but really, we land that point to just finish telling the story about how history works,” he says. “It’s about the politics of what gets remembered and what gets archived.”
Amelia Merrill (she/her) is an editorial assistant at American Theatre.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!