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Buffer Fringe Performing Arts Festival

Nabra Nelson: Salam Aleykum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, theatre from across the region.

Marina J. Bergenstock: I’m Marina.

Nabra: And I’m Nabra.

Marina: And we’re your hosts.

Nabra: Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea, or in Arabic, shay.

Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you’ll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra: In our second season, we highlight US MENA theatremakers with an impact nationally and internationally. This season outlines the state of MENA theatre today through the lens of multigenerational and multidisciplinary artists.

Marina: Yalla, grab your tea, the shay is just right.

Nabra: Today we’re bringing you a special episode outside of your usual season to talk to Lebanese actor, theatremaker, and peacebuilder Raffi Feghali, who is curating one of the days of the Buffer Fringe Festival. Buffer Fringe is an annual festival with a mission for peacebuilding and social justice, organized by Home for Cooperation and situated in the buffer zone in Cyprus. Buffer Fringe runs October seventh, eighth, and ninth 2022 for three days of international interdisciplinary experimental fringe performance under the theme of Pockets (beyond).

Marina: One of the Fringe’s goals this year is to start a provoking dialogue as they continue to build a bridge between the Buffer Fringe Festival and Cyprus and the Middle East. One of the Fringe organizers, Ellada, suggested that we speak to Raffi because his approach and curation are a reflection of the complexity of identities in the area as they approach performance through experimentation and the politics of space.

A really important element of the Buffer Fringe Festival is that it takes place in both North and South Nicosia as well as in the buffer zone, in the space between the two sides. This means that they’re in a constant process of negotiation of identity and conflict transformation through the performing arts.

Nabra: So let’s learn a little bit more about our guest. Raffi Feghali is a performer, peacebuilder, and trainer based in Beirut, Lebanon. As a performer, he’s acted in hundreds of performances all over Lebanon, the Arab world, Europe, and the USA. Raffi is an improviser who contributed to the creation of a modest improv scene in Beirut through performances and training, as well as through the creation of an improvisational theatre-based organization that he left as a fully functioning entity after eight years to pursue an independent touring career.

Marina: As a peacebuilding consultant, practitioner, and trainer, Feghali has worked on projects in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Türkiye in his fifteen-year career. He’s an avid practitioner of Theatre of the Oppressed, Playback Theatre, and other related formats, some of which were of his own development. Raffi uses project-based and experiential learning, and as such, has a holistic approach to learning. For him, learning doesn’t only happen at the cognitive level of the human’s existence, but through all of their aspects of existence. For the last five years, he’s been bringing his multidisciplinary skillset to the corporate world by offering training and coaching on various soft skills using improvisational theatre and storytelling through his company, Perform. We are so excited to have you with us today. Thank you for being here.

Raffi Feghali: Of course. I’m so happy to be here actually. I haven’t heard about this podcast before, and then when I heard about it, I was like, “Wow, it’s exactly the podcast that I should be listening to.” So thank you very much for inviting me and for giving me the chance to know this podcast.

Nabra: Oh, thank you so much.

Marina: We appreciate you being here. And also, we have to note that we did not get a chance to send kunafa and shay to Beirut, to Raffi, so we owe him some the next time we are all together, inshallah soon.

Nabra: Yeah, we’ll have to deliver it.

Raffi: I think that’s also important to say that we have the best kunafa and shay here, so of course.

Nabra: Oh my gosh, those are fighting words, Raffi. Of course, Egyptian kunafa and shay is the best kunafa and shay.

Marina: Oh my gosh, la’ [no]!

Raffi: I stand by what I say, and let the war begin.

Nabra: The war shall begin. All right. It started today. Let it be known that this is when the kunafa and shay war began.

Marina: Nabra and I always have this fight though, so I’m glad you’re on this page with me. Before we get too much into the festival, can you tell us more about yourself? I watched a really interesting video of yours about your work in improv and would love to hear just more in general about your artistic work.

Raffi: Yes, and this is one of the most difficult questions for me, and I think when you hear me blab about it, you will discover why. So basically, I’m in the world of performance, and I do many things in that world. Most recently, I’ve been extremely attracted by the world of storytelling. So whatever I do in my work, it’s usually has storytelling at the heart of it. So for example, I do a lot of improv, and my improv is really storytelling based, more than comedy based. Of course, improv is always funny, but I think improv is funny because it is seen at many layers, and one of those layers is actually funny, but one can focus on the story and that’s exactly how I approach my improv.

I realized that improv not only does it make theatre way more accessible, but also the skills in improv I found make us better humans in general.

Because stories are my recent fascination, I also work in storytelling shows. So my shows are based on my own stories, stories from my life, autobiographical, but I make them into thematic longer shows. So I also work in that. I direct theatre also sometimes. I make sound design and music for performances, and I work in peacebuilding. And I also think the heart of that work is a story. I think peacebuilding and my recent approach to it has a lot to do with the narratives, the narratives of conflict and how those narratives shape the conflict, whether propel it forward or hinder it or however they affect certain conflicts.

So as a peacebuilder, I also approach it from narratives perspective, whether it is at the level of analysis, analyzing conflicts, or intervening in conflicts, or whatever else we can do with them. I think that’s what I do. I think I didn’t forget anything, or I put it in a way that is understandable.

Nabra: Yes, you did.

Marina: You do a lot.

Raffi: I do a lot. I know. And yeah, I’m trying to do less, but it’s not easy.

Marina: Well, and so we’ve had some fabulous Lebanese artists on the podcast like Sahar Assaf, Zeina Daccache. We’ve talked about Hanane Hajj Ali’s play Jogging, but hearing about improv is really a first for us on Kunafa and Shay. Can you tell us why improv in Lebanon?

Raffi: So, I got to be introduced to improv for the first time in a festival in Amsterdam in 2009. So, we were invited to this festival, even though we weren’t doing improv the way people know improv, we were doing it in a very weird, different way. And because of that, I was introduced to improv through seeing performances in the festival, taking part of workshops. And I realized that we don’t have it in that form, we don’t have it in the form that improv is known internationally. And I thought this is something that has to come to Lebanon. And I made it my mission from 2009 until 2017 to actually bring improv trainers to Lebanon to train us, for me to travel and get more and more trained in improv and come back and spread it. And I started an organization, a theatre group, and I used it in order to bring improv here because when I met improv for the first time and coming from the background of theatre and peacebuilding and all of that, I realized that improv… not only does it make theatre way more accessible, but also the skills in improv I found make us better humans in general.

I felt that everyone should at least go to improv classes once in their lifetime, or maybe keep going to classes their whole life, even if they don’t want to be performers. And this is why... as a matter of fact, especially if they don’t want to be performers, because the skills that you get from that are really life skills. They make you better at your work, they make you better in your being as a human. It just makes you a better-rounded person when it comes to life skills and social skills. So from that perspective, I thought Lebanon can use improv.

Now there is a small scene because of that movement that we started in 2009, and I think there are a few groups that are doing improv now instead of just one. We were the only one for a long time. Now there are a few groups. Sometimes there are even monthly shows when the season is better, when there is theatre movement. You can find maybe two or three shows per week. Many workshops are happening even within groups that don’t do shows. So I feel that it’s spreading little by little. So yeah, this is I think why it was important for us to bring improv here.

Nabra: Definitely. Thank you for that.

Marina: Yeah. And you mentioned peacebuilding, and I’d love... Because I think that really does get us into talking about the festival and your peace work, but I would love to know what does peacebuilding look like for you now? And I’m sure that’s evolved over the years as well.

Raffi: Exactly. It definitely evolved. It started as a pure just peacebuilding practice the way it is practiced by peacebuilding practitioners. But soon enough, it didn’t take me maybe six months before I realized that what I’m doing in the theatre world... I had a day job as a peacebuilder in an organization, and I was doing my theatre and music work after that job. And six months into that, I realized that I was doing the same thing, my day wasn’t changing much between the morning and the afternoon. I felt they are so similar. And theatre were always talking about what is the conflict? How do we deal with it? Which characters are in conflict? And we are analyzing that all the time. And in my morning, I was talking about conflict from a different perspective, maybe from a more scientific perspective. So then my approach to conflict became that peacebuilding is a science and an art. It’s both.

And I started bringing theatre as much as I can into peacebuilding and the concepts of peacebuilding as much as I can to feed my theatre practice. They were feeding each other. And soon enough, all my peacebuilding work became channeled towards just being done through the arts. Later on, my technical peacebuilding skills developed, I started looking at peacebuilding from a more strategic perspective. I developed certain skills and learned certain tools that make me look at peacebuilding as this development initiative that can be strategic, that can be measured. The science of it became more clear in my head. And the more the science became clear, the more the arts became clear as well because I was from that school where it’s an art and a science.

So from that perspective, right now I look at peacebuilding as an equal science and art. I work a lot in analyzing conflict scientifically. I do conflict analysis consultancies in certain conflict areas. Recently, I was working in Yemen and now in Iraq, and I work a lot in Lebanon and Syria. And so in conflict areas, I do the typical, let’s say, conflict analysis using some scientific tools. But at the same time, in those strategies that we see, I’m always looking on where the arts can be strategically implemented. And then when there are certain interventions, the arts are always feeding those interventions, whether by making those interventions more accessible to most people or by bringing theories from the world of theatre and art and applying them in peacebuilding. For example, a big approach to peacebuilding now is: how do different conflicting parties see the conflict, their narrative towards the conflict? And there is nowhere better than theatre to discuss narratives or to work with narratives or to play with narratives. And bringing this idea of play into peacebuilding and narratives and how we can shape them and reshape them to work with conflict is now my biggest interest in peacebuilding.

Nabra: Oh, there’s so much that you said that I absolutely love. Thank you for explaining that. And of course, the Buffer Fringe Festival is the perfect example of exactly what you’re talking about. So just to begin, a lot of folks, I’m sure, do not know about the conflict in Cyprus and why there’s a buffer zone. So can you just briefly explain that and what the buffer zone is?

Raffi: So Cyprus is actually a divided island. There is a buffer zone in between the northern part of Cyprus, which is Turkish in terms of culture, identity, et cetera. It is an autonomous state. It’s called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. And then there is the southern part, which is the Greek part. And this has been going on since the seventies, and it is a conflict between both parties. This is why it was important that the UN comes in and creates this buffer zone in between the north and the south. And this is where the Fringe comes in. It is a festival that takes place or that comes with the concept of being a theatre festival in the buffer zone, but at the same time, we try to do shows in the southern and northern part as well as the buffer, in order to break these boundaries between the northern and southern part, to make the distance closer.

The buffer zone is not that big, but it becomes bigger with time, not in geographical size, but in the impact it has on people. It makes the distance between them bigger. And then a festival like the Buffer Fringe tries to undo that, tries to bring people closer together, make this distance that the buffer is creating shorter among people by making shows, for example, in the northern part or the southern part of the same festival, where maybe people would cross the buffer zone to watch shows in the other side or even the buffer zone itself.

Nabra: And so the festival itself takes place in this building or organization called the Home of Cooperation that’s right in the buffer zone. So what is the significance of that organization? We were learning a little bit about it and it’s so exciting what it does. And also in that question, who can go to the buffer zone? Can both sides of Cyprus go to that location? Are there issues with crossing that space? What is it like there? Because I think the only really... a close, I guess, approximation that folks might be thinking of is the DMZ, between North and South Korea, which is really kind of a no-go zone. And from what I understand the buffer zone is not like that. There are organizations there. There’s this beautiful nonprofit, the Home of Cooperation. So what is it like there and what is this building that you’re in and the significance of that organization?

Raffi: So the buffer zone is unlike Korea, it’s not a no zone. Anyone can go to the buffer zone. Anyone can cross from one part to the other. It’s just an inconvenience, to be honest. Of course, there are certain cases, certain policies about certain documents that if you don’t have, you cannot cross and things like that, and certain differences in rights, whether you are crossing from the Turkish side to the Greek side and what you’re allowed to do on each side. But mostly, the buffer zone is accessible for everyone.

And the Home for Cooperation is actually, as you said, this building. Because in the buffer zone usually there are UN personnel, but also there are certain organizations, certain international organizations. And the Home for Cooperation is a local organization, one of the few local organizations that are in the buffer zone. And it is a building that houses multiple organizations working in between maybe both sides or on projects that include both sides or anything like that... I mean different kinds of organizations doing different kinds of work. So it’s a house for different kinds of work. It also has a very beautiful cafe for people to hang out and socialize. And it’s also the offices of the Home for Cooperation itself. So it’s not just a building, but also the projects that are undertaken by the Home for Cooperation, the Buffer Fringe being one of those initiatives.

Nabra: So then talking about the festival itself, how do you curate the works in the festival? How do you decide what’s going to be a part of that, and what is your overall artistic vision for the festival?

Raffi: So this year the festival did something new that is extremely interesting, which is they had a curator or a group of curators for each day. So it’s three days. One day is happening in the south, one day is happening in the buffer zone, and one day is happening in the north. And for each of those days there’s the different curator. And I am curating the first day that takes place in the north. And it’s extremely interesting for me on many levels. The first thing is the north is the Turkish part of Cyprus. And for me, it is a personal act of activism, so to speak, in the sense that my mother is a second generation genocide survivor, Armenian genocide survivor, which was conducted mostly by the Turks. So being... the grandchild of a genocide survivor, it’s very important for me to be working there as a start.

The other important thing is the location that we found in which the first day is happening is also extremely interesting. It is this bookshop that has a garden in the back, but also after the garden, they have a few big stores that are open to each other. So it’s an open space that looks like a hangar. And when we saw the location, I was like, “Wow, this is amazing. This can be a great space for multiple performances, each taking place in a different part of these locations.”

And the location itself for me became part of the performance. So the whole day kind of was planned as a performance in itself as, let’s say, kind of a site-specific performance in which a show starts next to the books because the setup of the books is also extremely beautiful. They have these shelves going from the floor all the way to the ceiling, and it’s a very high ceiling. And you have these bridges on which you climb in order to reach books that are high. And so with the backdrop of a wall of books where the first performance starts, then we go into a proper studio like rooms for the other performance, then we go to the hangar for a couple of the performances. So I envisioned the place itself as part of the story that I wanted to tell. And the shows are also different acts or different parts of that story, even though each one itself is also a story, of course. This would be the first day of the Buffer Fringe.

Marina: That’s incredible. Nabra and I were looking—the theme is Pockets, this year, which this hangar sounds like its own special pocket—but the way that the Fringe seems to be defining pockets is “Pockets of curiosity and imagination.” And I love the way that you’re speaking about the site. The site itself is sort of performing in this pocket and this really curious and exciting way.

Raffi: Exactly, exactly. Actually, the whole bookshop... the whole Rüstem bookshop is a pocket, if you think about it, and within it, there are different pockets because the area where the books are is very different than where the other performance is going to happen, which is in studio rooms upstairs that they have. And then they have a certain garden that you go through where people can hang out in between shows, that’s also... it has the hangar on one side and the entrance to the bookshop on the other side, but it’s a garden. So it’s like this little pocket of a garden in itself that is hugged by the hangar and by the bookshop. And then you have the hangar as well kind of hugging this whole space in a very beautiful way. So the space in itself is a pocket. Other than the theme of course, the themes of the performances, each in its own way has its own pockety theme, so to speak.

I thought of the space as a location for a site-specific performance, and then the shows just happened to be exactly what I needed for that site-specific performance that I was designing.

Nabra: Can you talk more about that? Maybe give a couple examples of how pockets is a theme for the art itself. Yeah, I’ve never heard that before, so it would be great to get an idea of what that might look like.

Raffi: Yeah, so it’s exactly in the strength of how this term can be seen differently, that the festival, I think did a great job with this theme because the pockets can be seen in so many different ways. They can be seen as this small space in which I hide something. At the same time, they can be seen as this space from which I can get something out and get introduced to it or introduce someone who wasn’t seen it before, introduce that person to what I have in my pocket, whether thematically or metaphorically. And the performances are doing that. So the Friday, the day that I’m creating, starts with a storytelling performance, starts with a telling of Ulysses in a musical way, but also you have someone just telling the story. It looks like a reading of a story. It’s the rawest part of how we perform the reading, the actual written word, before we take it anywhere else, and accompanied with music. So that in itself feels like they have a story in their pocket that they want to tell us, and they are reading it and they are performing it with music. So we get introduced to a certain... layer of what we mean with pockets.

And then we move on and we go upstairs to two rooms. We have three rooms, and these three rooms are all used for a single performance. And that performance is a video installation with a performer talking about their identity as queer Arabs living in Europe. So now we are taking the pocket to a different layer, to a different meaning. So this person maybe found a pocket... I mean, this is my analysis. I would let Ahmad talk about his show, but the way I see it, or the way it makes sense in my day is maybe this person was in a certain pocket when he was in the Arab world, if he ever lived there long enough. And then he found a different kind of way to exist in his new home, in that new pocket. And even if that is not his story, if people are getting that out of the story, for me, it’s a good layer of looking at pockets as well.

And then we move on to the hangar where the two performances take place. We have a very beautiful duo dance performance from Italy, and then we are opening the concept of pocket. Now, it’s a dance, it’s an open space, and two people are communicating in a dialogue through their bodies, through their dance. And we finished the night with an electronic music performance, which is for me, very symbolic of a beautiful Friday night. But at the same time, that performance in itself with its projections, with the live music that is being created is also kind of giving us a final and a conclusion to our day and as if we are sitting now outside this pocket. We finally saw these different layers and we now are sitting outside it, and we can decide to go back in if we want or not to also, for me creating this third space experience for the audience going through all of these performances.

Marina: Wow. And so just for people listening too, we are going to link in the HowlRound transcript, the groups that Raffi just mentioned. So I think one of them is Nobody, from Cyprus. Second is A Queer Arab Dichotomy, from Germany. Third is Nostalgia for the Future, from Cyprus. And then fourth is Una Guerra Entre Nostoros from Italy.

Raffi: Actually the third and the fourth are switched. So we see the Italian dance performance by... Sorry, from Spain and not Italy. We see the Encuentro Theatre and Dance Company’s show, Una Guerra Entre Nosotros, the third show. And then the fourth show is by Inal Bilsel from Cyprus, which is the music show.

Marina: Amazing. Thank you. Yeah, just so people can check them out too and see a little bit more about their particular work and highlighting those artists that you just talked so beautifully about.

Nabra: I mean, that’s super exciting. That’s an entire artistic experience in a day. How does then the buffer segment of the festival and the Cyprus segment of the festival differ, I guess, or how are they similar to the Turkish segment? And how do you curate all three of these bits together? I know there are different curators, but how do you work together to create this cohesive festival in three very different locations?

Raffi: So yeah, it’s interesting because when we were choosing the show, the performances, we were choosing them together. So we were there listening to each other’s ideas of how they are going to approach the theme of pockets. And I don’t know if we did this consciously, or we just did it as a reflex, but we kind of have these different interpretations of the word pocket for each day, but at the same time, the fact that you are working with that same concept is a throughline, is a thread that is holding these beads together. It’s like a bead... What do you call it? Not the chain, but some sort of a beads—bracelet, let’s say. And each day is one bead, and then you have this line going through them that’s connecting them, and that is the concept of the pockets. However, each bead is unique. Maybe it’s a different... If we’re looking at keeping with a bracelet example, maybe each bead is a different color or a different stone even. Yeah, I think it’s a totally different, a gem, but they are connected together with that thread that is the Buffer Fringe Festival and it’s theme for this year, how it beautifully falls in place.

So the different curators for the other days approached this theme differently. They chose their shows differently because of their different approach, and this is giving this festival an amazing diversity, an amazing set of different kinds of shows happening over the period of three days. So yeah, I think this is what makes this specific festival really strong, other than the fact that it is happening in a buffer zone and between two regions that are in conflict.

Nabra: And so speaking of, of course, being in this potential controversial space, this politically contentious atmosphere, have you faced controversy around the festival in the past and how have you addressed that or really articulated your mission when there are so many, I’m sure, different ideas of what should be happening or shouldn’t be happening in this space?

Raffi: So to be honest, my only other experience with the festival was in 2019 when I had the performance in the festival. So I performed in the festival as a performer, and this is my second... collaboration with them, where I’m a curator for a whole day. So I know that in the past in other installments of the festival, of course there have been controversy. I don’t know the details of them. But because in both times that I was there, now and the time I performed, I was very much focused on what I was doing there, and I wasn’t met with that controversy. I didn’t experience it firsthand. But all I know about those controversies is what I know from hearing about them more than actually experiencing them or dealing with them or working with them.

Nabra: I mean, that’s good to hear that as a performer, that was not an experience you had, that it’s not this contentious space for the performers, which is exciting. And also just hearing that you performed in this festival, can you talk just briefly about what your performance was?

Raffi: Yeah, this was my first autobiographical monodrama, it was called Peer Gynt of Bourj Hammoud. And I think I did it in 2019, the festival…hard to say... I think it was 2019, yes. It was a personal journey into finding or looking for my identity. I grew up in an Armenian neighborhood of Beirut. And growing up as half Armenian, half Lebanese, the whole idea of what is this mix of identities? What is being Lebanese to start with? What is being Armenian to start? If I was purely Armenian, what does that mean? Armenian in the diaspora. What does it mean if I’m Lebanese? What does it mean when they are together? Are they different? Are they similar? What does that do to my belonging, to my identity? And it was the search.

And I used Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt play because Peer Gynt is this character that Henrik Ibsen wrote who goes out on this physical journey, leaves his hometown, goes on a journey, meets many things on his way, but all of this journey leads him back to his village. And I used it as an analogy, as a parallel story to my search growing up and navigating the different concepts of what does it mean to be Lebanese? What does it mean to be Armenian? And doing all of this journey myself, internal journey. So it was like this internal journey being paralleled with this physical journey of Peer Gynt, and these two stories coming together or separating throughout the show.

Nabra: That’s amazing.

Marina: Yeah, I’m like, I should revisit this text.

Raffi: I would like to hear your opinions after you would watch the show as well. I’m not sure, if you’ll still have the same opinion, but let’s see.

Marina: Yes. Well, and so as a curator, just going back to the people that you’ve curated for this day, this really full day of art, what was your process in selecting the groups? How did you choose them? Did you already have pockets in mind? And were you choosing them based on the artist or the group or on the particular piece that you knew that they would bring?

Raffi: Perfect. So I’m going to say things here that I hope stay a secret because I haven’t said these to anyone before.

Marina: All right, well, we are on a podcast. So perfect. Good secrets.

Raffi: Yes, perfect place to say this for the first time. Maybe it’s also easier for me to right now that I get them out of my conscience, I feel better about it. It’s been haunting me ever since we did this choosing. So here are a few things. First of all, I went to the meeting where we were supposed to present our choices, having a shortlist of maybe forty or fifty shows from 270. It wasn’t really a shortlist. It was one of the most difficult tasks in my life.

So, oh, some context, this is the first time that I ever curated anything, not just a performance festival. I can barely curate my own clothes in the morning. So this is the first time, this is time I’m doing anything that is close to curating, so I have no idea how it’s done. So this is why my approach to it was more like, you know what? I’m directing a performance. This is how it happened. This was my easy way out, let’s say.

I started bringing theatre as much as I can into peacebuilding and the concepts of peacebuilding as much as I can to feed my theatre practice.

So what happened was I went with these fifty shows, and it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. I went through the 270 shows, maybe... More than 270, even. I went through them maybe tens of times. And they take a lot of work. These are 270 shows. Some of them sent their full show to watch. So crazy. And I went through them tons of times, and I couldn’t do anything except very, very painfully choose fifty of them. And I went to that meeting, I was like, I couldn’t do anything. I have fifty, I cannot choose less than that. And even before I chose, we were probably over budget. They had to find new budget to get these four shows. So four was already a lot, and I went with fifty.

So, and that meeting, I was staying in Cyprus for a while, going to find the location and all that. And what happened is I chose... Don’t tell anyone, this is the secret part. I chose the location before I chose the shows, and that made things extremely easy for me. So once I had the location, once the location was telling me its own story, it’s as if the show was just said, “Here we are, these are the shows that fit in this place. From the fifty, these are the shows that work with the story that the space is telling. These are the shows that work.” I didn’t have to choose. They actually chose me. All I had to do was choose the space from the options that they presented me with. They showed me a few places and I was like, You know what? I want this space, and if this space works, let me know.” A couple of days later, they come and tell me that space worked, and I was like, “Oh, here are the shows.” I didn’t even choose them. They chose themselves.

I think this is the most beginner curator process ever, but this is all I knew how to do. I chose the space. I thought of the space as a location for a site-specific performance, and then the shows just happened to be exactly what I needed for that site-specific performance that I was designing.

Marina: That’s brilliant. I would say that’s actually maybe an advanced move to really let the space speak and call things into it. That’s really incredible.

Raffi: Yeah. And the choice of the space, because you also asked where the theme came in my process, the choice of the place came because when I looked at it, I couldn’t see anything except pockets. Even if pockets was not the theme, I could look and see pockets in that place because it’s this big place, but at the same time, all the corners are very cozy and small, as if maybe the same proportion of what a pocket would be in your pants or in your shirt. It’s a big space with different pockets. So I felt like, “Wow, it cannot be any more pockets than that.”

And the fifty that I had chosen before... And that process and the process of bringing 270 shows into a short list of fifty... a long list of fifty was also inspired by pockets as I was looking through the themes, through the ideas, through the concepts, through the genre of performance, through the medium. So there were two different pockets happening in parallel in my head, and then they came together after I chose the place. So yeah, this is how the theme guided my process, my very beginner process.

Marina: That’s incredible. I’m sorry for not knowing this, but will there be talkbacks after the pieces? Is there a way for other people to get this experience of hearing the work and then getting to talk about it more, or are those sort of more informal conversations that happen?

Raffi: So far, there’s definitely spaces for informal conversations to happen. I know that in my day, there is the cafe that I’m hoping that people would use in between shows or after the shows to hang out and maybe talk about the performances. And because that bookshop is contained within itself, they don’t have a lot of other options. I’m not manipulating them, but this is how the space is. They don’t have a lot of options except of being in that cafe area. And since we’re there, we might as well talk to each other kind of thing. So it sounds very manipulative, but it really wasn’t planned that way. So there is that space. But I think the curators and the organizers have been in conversation about having more formal spaces for conversation. Nothing is planned yet, but we are still in the talks of probably having maybe more formal setups for having conversations regarding maybe the shows like a talk back or QA or just artists hanging out with the audience who came and watched them and things like that.

Marina: That’s so important. And I don’t think it’s manipulative. You’re using the space to your advantage, like all true theatre artists, right?

Raffi: Yes, yes, yes. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And we don’t want to go in the conversation of where does theatre and manipulation start yet?

Nabra: That’s a conversation for a different episode. Yeah?

Raffi: Exactly. I’d be happy to be on that episode, obviously.

Nabra: We’ll call you.

Marina: So we’ve talked about a lot of different aspects of the festival, including your creation, including just where and how it’s happening. Are there things we haven’t talked about yet that you feel like someone listening to this should know either about the festival, about the work that you and other organizers have done putting it together, or about the pieces themselves?

Raffi: So I think you have prepared really well for this, and your questions covered almost everything. I just want to say that as a performer, I have been to multiple festivals and most festivals, whether they like it or not, they are bringing a community together. They are kind of working on having this community go into a dialogue. And these dialogues are extremely rich because they are facilitated “by performances.” So it’s amazing, you take people into this third space where they can have conversations about heavy things, but then they cannot stay too much intellectual because life is right outside this door. So it also reflects on life.

Raffi: So festivals do that. Especially festivals that go on for days, they do that. But I don’t think they do that as much as the Buffer Fringe specifically because of where it takes place, specifically because of the buffer zone, specifically because it is across conflict line. And the way this festival insights dialogue and the way this festival facilitates dialogue. I think is genius. And I would invite anyone who can attend any edition... Not to say this one. I’m not trying to advertise this specific edition. I’m saying anytime, any October in your life where you can be in Cyprus to check this out. It’s definitely an experience. It’s definitely like walking from one side of Cyprus, through the buffer zone, to get to the other side to watch a show, and it’s an experience. And then walking back and maybe staying in the buffer zone, it’s an experience really, and it’s a very special and unique experience.

Nabra: Well, it’s definitely on my bucket list now.

Raffi: It’s on your buffer.

Nabra: My buffer list. Yes. I love it. Well, thank you so much for joining us on this episode. It’s so exciting to be able to highlight this Fringe Festival. If you’re listening before this festival starts, run, go to Cyprus, fly, run, take a boat. And we wish you the best with the festival and with all of your peacebuilding work, especially in that area across the Middle East, across Lebanon. So this is just so exciting to talk to you. Thank you.

Raffi: Thank you very much for having me on this amazing podcast. I’ve been going through the old episodes that I missed, and I was like, “Wow, all these amazing people that I’ve worked with or that I’ve heard about are here. I have so much to catch up with.” So thank you very much. Really, I feel very proud to be among your list of guests. So thank you very much for inviting me. I’m so honored and happy to be here. And thank you very much for your great work.

Marina: The honor is ours. Thank you. Thank you so much for having tea with us.

This has been another episode of Kunafa. We’re your hosts, Marina and Nabra. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find podcasts.

Nabra: Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com

Marina: Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the comments.

Nabra: We hope you tune in next time. Thank you for joining us on Kunafa and Shay. Yalla, bye.

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