Drama Therapy: The Work of Zeina Daccache
Nabra Nelson: Salaam alaikum. 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: I’m Nabra.
Marina: And we’re your hosts.
Nabra: This season, we’ll be focusing on twenty-first-century MENA theatre, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the US. 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: Yalla. Grab your tea. The shay is just right. Today, we’re going to be talking about Lebanese drama therapist Zeina Daccache and three pieces that she has done in the Lebanese carceral system, 12 Angry Lebanese, Scheherazade in Baabda, and Johar… Up in the Air.
Marina: First, what is drama therapy? So drama therapy, according to the North American Drama Therapy Association, is the intentional use of drama and/or theatre processes to achieve therapeutic goals. It can provide a place for the participants to tell their stories, set goals, solve problems, express feelings, or achieve catharsis. And these are the points that Daccache has stressed during her time working in the Lebanese carceral system.
Nabra: The therapeutic effects of theatre have been described and documented since Aristotle first outlined his theory of Catharsis, and certainly has been used way before Aristotle. I’m going to just call that the Egyptians, the Nubians, probably used drama therapy way back in the first civilizations. But you know what? That’s just my personal feeling. No background or context for that needed.
Specific drama-based therapeutic approaches based on performance include Moreno’s psychodrama and also Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. Specifically, it was really outlined in his book Rainbow of Desire. And so I do a lot of Theatre of the Oppressed work, and I hadn’t really thought of it as a form of drama therapy before, but in practice it really does function as drama therapy. And although there is a more therapeutic aspect of it that is really described and put into practice in Rainbow of Desire, it’s just not something that was on the forefront of my mind doing Theatre of the Oppressed as a facilitator.
But often actually at the end of Theatre of the Oppressed workshops that I’ve facilitated, participants have come up to me and said, “That’s like group therapy,” and you’re right, it’s like social justice group therapy. It’s also interesting to note about Theatre of the Oppressed and drama therapy is that they really center self-discovery through art. So it doesn’t have kind of the instructional or coaching qualities that are associated with traditional psychotherapy. Well, we’ll talk more about Theatre of the Oppressed in future episodes, one on forum theatre in Palestine that y’all can look forward to. But back to drama therapy.
Marina: There’s drama therapy in the United States. Obviously, some of the most notable drama therapists include Rhodessa Jones, who is the director of the award-winning Medea Project, which was theatre for incarcerated women, and the HIV Circle as well.
Marina: And Kamran Afary who uses narradrama in all of his work. Before learning about him, I hadn’t heard of narradrama, but the name makes sense. Narradrama combines the concepts of narrative therapy and drama therapy and the creative arts. So, it borrows from psychology, sociology, anthropology, experimental theatre, and many forms of expressive arts in order to help a person become aware of internalized narratives.
Nabra: We often hear of Shakespeare being used in this kind of work in the United States. Two examples of this are Jonathan Shailor’s work—he founded the Shakespeare Prison Project in Wisconsin. There’s also Shakespeare Behind Bars, which is in its twenty-fifth year, and that offers theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to incarcerated and post-incarcerated communities, allowing them to kind of develop life skills that will ensure their successful integration back into society.
There are tons of examples of Shakespeare. One that I worked with is Shakespeare for veterans in Wisconsin, that I’d love to shout out. Feast of Crispian is a great organization that uses Shakespeare actually in Seattle now as well, which is where I am.
A side note, the language that we’re using here is what the practitioners that we’re talking about are using, but we recognize that there is a lot of conversation about the best language to use when talking about the prison system and the people who interact with it. The terminology that Zeina Daccache and Catharsis tends to use is “inmate actor,” so we’ll be using that a lot.
So it’s no doubt that drama therapy has just hugely beneficial outcomes.
Marina: Right. So some quick statistics. In a survey that was done through the Theatre In Prisons Project, almost all of the incarcerated individuals who responded reported reduced tension in the correctional institutions, including improved interpersonal and communication skills, enhanced self-confidence, and an expansion in the options that those who were incarcerated felt were available to them, both inside and then after their release. At Sing Sing, in New York, almost 60 percent of participants in the Rehabilitation Through The Arts Program, went on to earn a degree beyond the GED while incarcerated and were more likely to engage in college programs overall.
Nabra: Also in New York in the Skills Through Drama Program, over 70 percent of participants were regularly employed and had not been charged with a second offense at the end of their seven-month study, while the national recidivism rate is around 85 percent for the year following release for most of those occurring within the first four months.
Programs conducted by the Actor’s Gang Prison Project, an outreach arm of actor Tim Robbins, the Actor’s Gang Theatre Group resulted in an 89 percent decrease in disciplinary incidents for those who participated.
These numbers are important because they are reported to show that participating in these programs has positive effects on the people who participated in them. It’s clear demonstration of the work that drama therapy does. And one of the very, very many critiques of the carceral system is that once people are incarcerated, there are little to no opportunities for self-improvement.
Marina: All right, so moving onto our main focus today, who is Zeina Daccache. Daccache is a famous comedian from the TV show Basmat al Watan who found herself bored with her life in the arts. If you get a chance to check out any of her work, I highly recommend it. She’s a great actress and she’s very funny. But she was not thrilled with continuing to do that work anymore.
She has a TED Talk that’s available on YouTube, and I recommend checking that out too. But in it, she says, “I was tired of doing art for the sake of it. I wanted to give a voice to those who had something to say.” She had been working with addicts as a trained therapist since 2002, and then she became really convinced of the power of the performing arts when she volunteered with Armando Punzo in Italy’s Volterra Prison.
In 2008, she started Lebanon’s first drama therapy program, Catharsis. Catharsis was the first NGO of its kind in the Middle East. As most of you know, we’ve already talked about Aristotle, but “catharsis” is a word that is attributed to him, he derived it from a Greek word meaning to cleanse or to purge, especially emotions or feelings. He believed that theatre, especially tragedy, was a place where this happened, and this was a great thing.
Daccache was responding to her own desire to create change, and that’s why she created Catharsis, but she was also responding to the pretty dire situation in the Lebanese prison system. Prisons in Lebanon were overcrowded and sentencings were very slow. She felt like the general public also didn’t know much about life there because people typically only heard about life inside when there were riots occurring. Daccache talks about how, in 2006, she had thought that people inside prisons probably have a lot to say to the outside world and perhaps riots were the only tool they had. So why not try theatre?
Nabra: I love that. And really the lengths she went to actually bring drama therapy to prisons in Lebanon are just astounding. I couldn’t imagine doing that, especially where I’m from in Egypt. I can’t imagine just going back and... Of course, prisons said no over and over and over again. So I really recommend that TED Talk, especially.
Daccache was really confident that a performance done by prisoners in front of society at large and not just created for an ethereal educated or elite audience could challenge the status quo in them, in the society, and ultimately in the policies used against those who were imprisoned. She really believed in that and had a passion in that, and that’s what fueled her. She had seen how art could be used as a means of self-advocating, so she decided to help them figure out a way to channel what was happening in the carceral system into art, to communicate their message to their families, to the Lebanese people, and especially to decision-makers.
She acknowledges that theatre is a luxury in Lebanon’s difficult and often unpredictable political situation. And it’s something that’s true in the US too. We consider theatre a luxury, especially with the commodification of theatre, like Broadway and other commercial theatres. People can get stuck in the idea that theatre is for people with means, with money, and that it’s to be viewed as entertainment instead of participated in.
Even though she had to fight against the stigma that theatre was just for the educated and people who could afford such a luxury, she had experienced that through it people could construct identities that they had never imagined for themselves.
When she decided to do carceral work, she knew that there would be plenty of red tape to cut through in order to actually set foot in jail. As I said, it took a lot to get there, but this passion and this certainty that she had in the power of this really fueled her. The government had just been at war and couldn’t imagine prioritizing drama, but Zeina persisted and persisted and persisted, and one year later her request was amazingly approved.
Marina: She began her work in Roumieh, which is Lebanon’s most infamous high-security men’s prison. And this prison was notorious for all the wrong reasons. So first, the prison population isn’t segregated by crime so there is known to be a kind of exchange of skill sets that happen between prisoners. So, if you went in for one crime and then you shared a room with nine other people, often people taught others how to be more effective at committing certain kinds of crimes.
There are also no school systems in the prisons, and there were no new skills that you could learn while you were there too, because there were no other programs. So there was a lot of boredom, which led to a lot of other things that weren’t great. Additionally, the conditions were not good. So, four thousand men were sharing a building that was meant for a thousand people, and there was often not enough water or supplies for everyone.
They couldn’t work or earn money. And, again, in addition to not having activities like drama therapy, there were almost no activities at all. On top of all of that, there was no incentive for good behavior. So there had been a law created in the year 2000 that allowed prisoners to apply for a sentence reduction because of good behavior. However, that law hadn’t yet been applied. So, life was the same for them as though it didn’t exist, so no matter how good you were, your life wasn’t going to change.
With living conditions so abysmal and most people not knowing if they would ever see the world outside again, Roumieh was a dark place. After all, if the outside world doesn’t care about you, why should you care about you? So it’s hard to imagine the circumstances that most people were living in and many people had been enduring... Right now we’ve been enduring quarantine and stay-at-home orders, and I think a lot of people are realizing how hard life can be when you have to stay in one location. And for most people, that’s a comfortable home. So hopefully that’s helping people realize how inhumane the carceral system really is.
In the months following the frustrating bureaucratic red tape, she then was allowed in and held auditions with hundreds of inmates. She eventually cast forty-five inmates to star in an adaptation of the 1950s play, which was from the US, 12 Angry Men, which they then called 12 Angry Lebanese. The play had more than twelve people and not all were Lebanese: there were people that were Lebanese, Nigerians, Syrians, Egyptians, and Palestinians, but they chose the play because of the subject matter.
If you don’t know it, the play is by Reginald Rose, and it has twelve jury members who must decide whether to sentence to death an eighteen-year-old accused of killing his father. While the majority of the group dismissed the accused as guilty, one man believes he’s innocent and he works to convince the other jurors of this.
Some people were excited about this experience. They were excited to do something in Roumieh, and others were skeptical. Catharsis wasn’t the first NGO to come into their building, and some of the incarcerated saw people like Daccache as just selling hope, but not really going to be able to stick with it and not really caring if they actually made change.
Nabra: Something that got people more onboard was Daccache and the actors focused on the one detail that was very important to them. And you’ll notice this is a theme or an undercurrent in all the work that Daccache has done in the Lebanese justice system. Here, the focus was on a law that would allow prisoners to apply for reduced sentences. Daccache and the actors added monologues, songs, and dance routines that shared intimate details of their lives before and during their incarceration.
One of the participants, a Bangladeshi prisoner named Hussein, had a monologue where he described the racism that he faced in Lebanese society and how that racism also manifested itself behind bars. Youssef, another performer, said acting had been a turning point in his life. Before his experience in 12 Angry Lebanese, he described himself as isolated and someone who didn’t interact with other inmates at all, and after the play, everything changed.
Something that helped was that the play was surprisingly well received. Many of Lebanon’s top government officials, military, and security officials came to Roumieh to watch it. Some of them seeing the prison for the first time. Again, surprising but necessary. Just the act of getting them in the door was really a huge deal; after all, for better or for worse, people tend to be more affected by witnessing things or places in person.
Family members of the actors also came to see it, which of course was an experience that deeply affected both the audience and the actors.
Marina: Obviously we weren’t there, but you can actually experience some of this for yourself in a mediated way, of course, because a year later a documentary detailing the experiences of the process toured Lebanon and international film festivals. It also won a lot of awards.
I’m still waiting to find one with English subtitles or for my Arabic to improve exponentially, but I have witnessed the events in Arabic and it’s a very moving piece. So Daccache reported that every night she would get messages from people who felt deeply moved by the film. Many of those messages commented on seeing the prisoners as people for the first time and how getting a chance to see inside Roumieh was important for the people who watched it because they really had no idea what life was like there before that.
On the subject, Daccache said:
The kind of documentary I make gives a marginalized population the chance to get their message a lot further than the prison walls. This film can travel, whereas they can’t. The plays and films I do hold messages that come straight from those people to society as a whole. Policymakers in Lebanon are invited to the plays we direct inside prison, then to the film premiers. They start seeing the individual inmates as a partner for change and not simply as an angry person. I believe the best advocacy comes from the person in question. Filming, theatre—they’re just the tools that assist these people to advocate for their rights.
As we talked about in our representation podcast, seeing other people as humans is truly the bare minimum that we can hope for, but it’s a start and an important start, as you can hear here. And it worked.
The play had also been credited with helping to bring forth legislation to reduce sentences for good behavior. Inmates from Roumieh who were released in the years after the play was first performed were then invited to share their stories in schools and at events. And then, two months after the staging of the play, Lebanon’s Justice Ministry began to acknowledge Law 463 of the Penal Code, and for the first time they began approving reduced sentences, which is huge. That was the goal. The mood inside Roumieh was shifting in large part because of 12 Angry Lebanese.
Nabra: Daccache has done two other projects in the Lebanese carceral system. The next one after 12 Angry Lebanese was in Baabda, which is a women’s prison where they created a piece called Scheherazade in Baabda, the dealing with women’s rights and domestic violence.
She really recognized the need for stability and permanence as far as making it beneficial to all of those, both in Roumieh and Baabda, so she continued that work and expanded it to other locations.
Through Scheherazade in Baabda, participants revealed their stories, kind of holding up a mirror to female repression and ultimately to contemporary Lebanon as a whole. Nine of the twenty-five women who joined the drama therapy sessions in Baabda had killed their husbands as there was no law to protect them from domestic violence. Some had been forced to marry at the age of twelve or fourteen. Six were there for adultery, which is regarded as a crime in Lebanon. And interesting to note that although the law applies both for women and men, no man has ever been incarcerated for committing adultery.
Marina: All of the women, who all play Scheherazade, tell true stories about how all these women ended up there. So many of them share stories about the violence that they have suffered, which caused them to commit acts of violence in return, for which they’re now being punished. And their sharing of stories allows them to strike back in a theatrical way, since the country itself hasn’t criminalized the abuse that was done against them. By sharing their experiences, the performers reclaim their rights to themselves. They take back their bodies from foreign possession imposed upon them by their abusers.
The fictional Scheherazade, on whom this play is based, spent 1001 nights telling stories to save her own life and the lives of the many virgins condemned to death by King Shahryar. In this version, the women exclaim, “There is no Shahryar here.” Each woman, rather than telling a story in order to survive, shares her story of survival.
The documentary film that comes from this experience is called Scheherazade’s Diary and, similar to 12 Angry Lebanese, it played a key role in the widespread civil society campaign for a bill protecting women and children from domestic violence, which was eventually passed by parliament in April of 2014. The play also lobbied actively against a law which prohibited migrant domestic workers from having romantic relationships on Lebanese territory. In an act supported by decision-makers from the Ministry of Justice, who attended the play, the discriminatory law was abolished in 2015.
Nabra: So incredible. Her work is so amazing. The last project we’ll talk about today is Johar… Up in the Air, back in Roumieh prison in Lebanon. Johar aims to push the government to reform a law dating back to 1943, which stipulates that someone who the state recognizes as having a mental illness who then also commits a crime must be detained in the prison psychiatric unit “until cured.” Obviously, there is a problem with the idea of holding someone with a mental illness until cured.
Of Lebanon’s twenty-three jails, only Roumieh is equipped with a facility where people with mental illnesses are held, known as the blue building. They technically call the blue building a psychiatric unit, but there are no doctors inside, no nurses, no medicine. For most, their mental illness can only be managed, not cured, of course. So this results in, in practice, a life sentence.
Daccache notes that there was a case of two men who’d been there for thirty-seven years, totally forgotten. One of them is sixty-four and the other sixty-eight or sixty-nine years old. They were diagnosed with schizophrenia and then later Alzheimer’s, which made their cases particularly difficult.
Marina: When it came to staging Johar, since the mentally ill patients could not represent their own stories onstage, Daccache said she chose to involve another group of inmates who also had no future prospects, those who faced a life sentence. While representing their own play on onstage, the thirty-eight actors involved also gave voice to the inmates in the blue building.
After initially deriding these inmates as crazy, they hear a story that elicits the sympathy, that of a blue building inmate who develops a deep devotion to his donkey, Johar, the man’s only friend in a village that shunned him. Husain Jafar, one of the actors in Johar, believes that all inmates deserve a second chance. Fernando, another actor, said, “The play gave us hope to see our right to a second chance recognized. Everyone needs psychological rehabilitation and the play is offering us the chance to come to terms with ourselves and what we did.”
To this, Daccache added that one of the benefits of drama therapy is what these participants did. They forgot their problems for a while and carried the weight of someone else. It’s a way to help yourself face your demons. If you also watch the video of this piece, which is, I think it’s called The Blue Inmates, when you look at it, they have a screen where they have some video footage with people from the blue building, and sometimes it’s the person from the blue building, and then the person who’s playing them on stage. And the footage is really moving because we see this desire for the people who are serving life sentences to first of all have their own struggle recognized, but also to help someone else that’s in this building.
Nabra: There’s also just a lot of very purposeful community engagement and audience invites in Daccache’s work that I’m especially interested in, especially in my line of work. In 2016, she said:
We always invite ministers, judges, lawyers, and members of parliament, and journalists who spread the message, and decision-makers to reflect on a situation. The others who come are curious people, but we are not going to stop at this audience. Through a documentary, we are going to tour Lebanese schools, universities, clubs, and events to spread awareness of the issue. Sometimes people who see a play open NGOs to help on the ground. Others offer yoga classes, for example, or donate money for a cause. It has a real effect on society.
That, I believe, is what all theatre should do. These purposeful invites are so important and that follow-up and the way that theatre inspires others to make positive change is crucial, especially in this drama therapy work in prison systems. She’s really purposeful about who she’s bringing into the room and how they’re going to change those laws that they’re focusing on in these productions.
Catharsis has worked with two members of parliament, MPs—which I didn’t know what that acronym meant, so we’ll use it, but remember, members of parliament—as well as team of local and international lawyers, to draw up two amendments to Lebanon’s penal code. One would abolish the provision that prisoners suffering from mental illnesses be locked up “until cured,” while the second draft laws seeks to aid prisoners with life sentences and those on death row.
Marina: Although these inmates are supposed to be able to apply for release after twenty to thirty-five years, in order to do so, these people with life sentences, they have to secure a pardon from the victim’s family or pay indemnities that can total more than $20,000 in the US. Conditions that are effectively impossible to fulfill, especially if you’ve been in prison for any length of time. Daccache has pointed out in the video, The Blue Inmates, that she has lived outside and she can’t pay that amount, so how could people who’ve been living in a prison system who aren’t making any money, whose families often don’t have money and are even giving some to people inside? It’s just an impossible task.
Daccache has pointed out that other countries don’t have these laws in the same way, and so in those other countries, often people can get out of prison and then work with a local court system to pay the families these indemnities that are owed, but it makes it a doable task because the person can then get a job outside of the carceral system.
Two draft laws calling for a fair legislation for mentally ill inmates and inmates sentenced to life were prepared by Catharsis and then have been submitted to the Lebanese parliament in 2016, after they were signed by seven MPs from different political parties in collaboration with the EU. While that was submitted in 2016, I haven’t been able to find any news articles saying if this was passed or not, so that’s something that hopefully we’ll be able to update you on at some point in the future.
Nabra: Catharsis has continued this work. They’ve made so much change. They’ve worked in collaboration with members of the Lebanese parliament and foreign judges to draft new legislative proposals, which are currently in the process of being submitted to parliament for discussion. Ghassan Moukheiber a member of parliament who has participated in the drafting process, told Al-Jazeera, “The awareness campaign launched by Catharsis and its ability to come up with concrete political recommendations are a good recipe for success. Reform is easier when it is focused on single codes.”
Marina: Yes, and I love that quote and I’m going to come back to it in one second. Something else that I think is worth noting is that while this new... There was another ask in The Blue Inmates and it was if the blue building could be separated by gender, so to have one floor for men and one floor for women, so that people in Baabda, these women who are incarcerated, because they don’t have their own psychiatric unit there, if you have a mental illness and you’re a woman, you’re just kept with everyone else, and there is, of course, no medication or anything there, and so at the end of The Blue Inmates, there’s an ask from one of the incarcerated folks to say, “Hey, can we make the blue building coed, so that women from Baabda could also come here and perhaps have more of a chance of treatment and at least maybe have attention brought to their specific needs.”
I thought the focus on real specifics here is so great, and that’s something that really interests me in Zeina Daccache’s work, because sometimes when... I think all the time about what reform is needed in the systems that I see in the United States, and it can feel overwhelming as someone who wants to create change, because it feels like, how do you overhaul a whole system? But really focusing on specific codes and how those things can change, and then inviting people in to see the systems that are broken, has really proved to be effective in these three pieces that we’ve told you about today, so that’s something that I really enjoy and appreciate about the work.
I also, just selfishly, am excited that there’s documentary footage that is taken, because then it helps enable people outside of Lebanon to also see what’s happening and to perhaps use those ideas in their own work in their own countries.
Nabra: Just every aspect of Zeina Daccache’s work with Catharsis is community engaged in the best way, in the way that I hope to implement community engagement in US theatres through my work. I mean, all of the specific codes in the systems that she’s trying to change come from those actor inmates themselves. It’s fully informed by engaging them in the process of creating this art, their families are invited and engaged, general community audience members are invited, who, as you said, the curious people who want to come see this and who also might create their own positive change through, as she said, donations, starting their own NGOs. I’d be so interested if she has examples of specific people who have done that, I’m sure there are plenty, and also, really crucially, legislators and decision-makers.
Instead of somebody reporting to them that this is an issue or them reading about this, they’re there, they’re hearing directly from the people most effected, and that is what has fueled the seemingly impossible changes that she’s created with these penal codes and these systems that have been in place for so long. And the follow-through on that change is really what is especially inspiring to me. Her work is a direct example for how art can make positive change.
Marina: Thank you so much for having tea with us. This has been another episode of Kunafa and Shay. 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, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes.
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Nabra: We hope you tune in next time. Thanks for joining us on Kunafa and Shay.
Marina and Nabra: Yalla, bye!