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Site-Specific and Devised Theatre in Lebanon

With Sahar Assaf & Zeina Daccache

Nabra Nelson: Salaam alaikum! Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform with 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 out 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: In this episode, we are talking about a type of theatre I love, site-specific theatre. Site-specific performances have the possibility to truly make all the world a stage. To produce site-specific and devised theatre performances in the United States and abroad, artists must engage with the questions of the politics of any space, what community is to inhabit or use it, and who is invited into it. Sahar Assaf, a Lebanese theatremaker and the new artistic director of Golden Thread Productions and Zeina Daccache, an actor, director, and founder of Catharsis: Lebanese Center for Drama Therapy come together to talk about site-specific and device theatre pieces in Lebanon, the rest of the MENA world, and the United States. Before we get begin, let’s introduce our guests.

Marina: Sahar is a Lebanese theatremaker and currently the executive artistic director of Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco, the first theatre company in the US devoted to the Middle East. She’s presented works in Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Belgium, London, Sweden, Poland, Greece, Chicago, and NYC. At the American University of Beirut, where she had the minor program in Theater Arts and was an assistant professor, she co-founded the Theater Initiative with her long-time collaborator, playwright Robert Myers, which was an interdisciplinary group of faculty and artists working to facilitate theatre creation and research locally, regionally, and internationally.

Her directing credits for the Theater Initiative include Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding as a site-specific promenade performance, Shakespeare’s King Lear, which was the first production of a Shakespearean play in Lebanese colloquial Arabic, The Rape and Rituals of Signs and Transformations by Saadallah Wannous, and Watch Your Step: Beirut Heritage Walking Tour, a site-specific devised work on the Lebanese Civil War. Sahar is a strong advocate of documentary theatre. She conceived and directed Meen El Felten an immersive documentary play on sexual assault in Lebanon as part of the Abaad MENA campaign of 2018, and No Demand No Supply, a documentary play about sex trafficking and prostitution. Sahar is a recipient of the Fulbright scholarship and holds an MA in Theatre Studies from Central Washington University and an MA in sociology from the American University of Beirut. She’s an alum of Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab in New York and Directors Lab North in Toronto. And she’s the co-founder and artistic director of Directors Lab Mediterranean.

Nabra: Zeina Daccache, through the organization she founded in 2007, Catharsis: Lebanese Center for Drama Therapy, brought the innovative tools of drama therapy to Lebanon. In 2009, she produced the theatre production, 12 Angry Lebanese, with inmates of Roumieh Prison. This pioneering production, as well as the documentary that emerged from the process received international acclaim and led to the implementation of the reduction of sentences for good behavior. In 2012, she created the play Scheherazade in Baabda with women inmates of Baabda Prison where they shared their personal stories in an attempt to heal their wounds and hold a up a mirror to Lebanese society about the oppression of women. Her second feature documentary Scheherazade’s Diary won ten international awards.

She also produced and directed plays with several disadvantaged population that lobbied for policy change, such as migrant domestic workers in Shebaik Lebaik in 2014 and with residents in psychiatric hospitals From the Bottom of My Brain in 2013, for which she also collaborated with Sahar Assaf. In 2016, she directed the play Johar Up in the Air that conveyed the messages of the mentally ill inmates and those sentenced to life to decision-makers. Moreover, she offered individual therapy at her private practice clinic to increase productivity and communication skills. She teaches drama therapy at several universities in Lebanon and in the region. She is the recipient of many awards given for her distinguished contributions to the field of social initiatives and services.

Marina: Sahar and Zeina, we are so excited to have you both with us. Zeina, as I mentioned to you before, we actually had an episode last season where we talked about your wonderful work. And so, it’s especially exciting to have you to talk about that. And Sahar, it’s been so great to get to meet you. And so, we’re just really excited to have you both in conversation today. Thank you so much. Our first question for you is: in working on location or in communities, what do you find your responsibility to the surrounding community and the land itself to be?

Zeina Daccache: Tub, yalla, I’ll start. So when working in a community, Marina, first of all, when I work within a community, whether it’s inmates inside prisons, refugees, you name it, I don’t know, migrant domestic workers, the main responsibility is to be listening well to their needs because whichever work I’m doing, whether it’s the drama therapy work or the play to be produced later on has to properly reflect what they want to convey in this theatre play. And definitely as a therapist, you’re there listening to their needs, to their…whatever, sufferance, happiness, good moments, bad moments, the needs, making meaning, and things like that.

And that’s what I think is the main responsibility, especially, when I reach the theatre production is like, “Am I true to what they wanted to convey? Is this play true to what they want to say? Is even the sonography similar to what they want to convey? Is the dramaturgy, the text I’ve had them devise, the songs we’ve worked together?” I think this is the main thing.

Marina: Thank you. That’s such a wonderful way to start that conversation. As you are working with people to make sure that if you’re really honoring their words and what they’re bringing to the table has that gotten difficult in situations where you’re working with either organizations or structures that might put different pressures on you to sort of shape the story?

Zeina: Most of the productions, theatre productions or films produced that I have directed, were produced by the NGO founded in 2007, Catharsis. So, Catharsis: Lebanese Center for Drama Therapy would be implementing such projects, et cetera, et cetera. However, interesting when you ask this, I remember once there is another NGO who calls us and says, “Would you collaborate on producing a theatre play, definitely, as a result of drama therapy sessions that we would implement as Catharsis with them?” And it was for certain populations, it was migrant domestic workers also. And I said, “Yeah, why not?” Then they said, “But the text, we want this text.” And I said, “Which text?” And [they] said, “Oh, we found this play, and we want like this.” I said, “I’m sorry. I don’t work this way. The way I do work is to help these people convey their messages. And they need to do the text, and they need to approve it.”

And I said, “Does the migrant domestic worker approve the text? You want them to do?” They said, “No, we didn’t take their opinion.” And I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this. Would you first ask them their opinion and see if they want to?” And they were really… very sure about it. They don’t want to take anyone’s opinion. This is how they see it. And I said, “No.”

Marina: It’s so great. You have the working structure that really is honoring the people that you’re choosing to work with and essentially saying no to other styles that aren’t allowing such a humane community-centered approach, which is really beautiful.

Zeina: Because, Marina, one thing that is bad—I mean, it’s so great to see, especially in Lebanon—there’s so many NGOs at the moment. And since ever because the government is oblivious, they are not here. They care less about whatever is happening in Lebanon. So, our government is not here. And all the NGOs come to replace the government in a way to take their role, to do things. And there are so many NGOs receiving fundings, doing things, and there are some who reach a certain point where it’s like, “Let’s do things. We have money. Let’s do it.” It’s not about doing, guys, and it’s not about any text, especially if you’re going to do therapy and theatre. There’s so much ethics in it. It’s not just, “Oh, we did the play. They had fun. And let them be...” I mean, that’s my personal view. So that was really... It disturbed me back then when they said, “It’s either this is text, or we lose the funding.” And I said, “Who cares about your funding, guys? It’s not about the funding. It’s about these people, what they want to say. You’re offering them a platform.”

Nabra: I love that. Sahar, do you want to jump in?

Sahar Assaf: Yeah, sure. I think this is a very good question. And my approach to it is that actually to begin with the kind of work I do, unlike Zeina, it’s not driven usually by the community. So for Zeina, for instance, she’s working with migrant workers or the inmates, and the play is really based on their needs. In my case, I go to a location because it serves the play and the story that I’m trying to tell. To give an example, we did part of the theatre initiative at AUB, we did Blood Wedding [by] Garcia Lorca, right? Which is a well-known classical play. And I decided to stage the play in the village of Hammana in Mount Lebanon. And to use actually the villagers’ houses and the local church and the local old cinema house and some streets in a part of the village.

So, the location was selected based on what the story needed, which is a remote area. So, in that case, I’m going to the community with a play, with a story. So that kind of conversation is interesting because what I aim to do is to be super clear with the people. So, I’m using the villagers’ houses. They have to know what the play is about. They have access to the play if they’d like to read. They will know exactly how people will be coming into their houses, how long they’re going to be staying. We limit— It affects every aspect of the process. For instance, in a normal situation, I would use maybe, I don’t know, say five hours to rehearse that scene. If I’m using a villagers’ houses, I don’t have that. So, I have maybe like half an hour to test things out and then rehearse somewhere else, and then... And also, one more thing I would say is to stay open. This at least have been my approach.

So, when I’m in a community, I’m open to whatever [is] happening around me. So, to give you another example, there was one scene in Blood Wedding; we’re in a villager house, and the audiences are in with actors. And the scene is happening. And then there’s supposed to be like a knock on the door. And other group of actors should be coming in as the mother of the groom, she’s coming into the bride’s house. And in one time we had audiences in and knock on the door and then the owner of the house forgot that is part of the show. And she actually decided to just go and open the door and we play with that, right? So, it’s just staying open and respecting their space, respecting their belongings, and being clear with them. It’s quite different, but I feel, in other ways, it is also similar.

Nabra: Thank you for also kind of pointing out some of the ways in which you both do kind of site-specific work in two different manners of approaching it. Of course, both of you do so much work. And today, we’re really kind of focusing on site-specific and devised theatre that you work on. And I’d love to hear more about how you find site-specific theatre changing the place that it takes place in. Kind of either actively changing the space, I think, in some situations you actually physically change those spaces in some way, or kind of changing the spirit of the space or adding to the creative placemaking of that space. Can you comment on how you think about the space itself as you’re working in site-specific theatre and the changes that you are making to it either literally or in kind of a greater sense of what you’re bringing with that art?

Sahar: Yeah. I think when I’m working in site-specific. So, as I said, I pick a location based on what the story needs, and how it serves the story. So, there’s a lot of research that goes into picking that space, right? And then one thing I also always try to remember is that the space itself becomes a character in the story in this kind of work, in site-specific. So, I’ll give another example. In 2019, I was commissioned to do a play, a documentary play by a Lebanese non-governmental organization called Abaad. They were doing a campaign on sexual assault in Lebanon. It was a national campaign, and one aspect of the campaign was the play. And they wanted like a big scale kind of show, they wanted so many people to see the show and they wanted interactive play and whatnot. And then I was given the material, which is like 2-hour interviews with 7 survivors.

Obviously, they had permission to give me the audios and all of this. So, I was listening to the interviews, which was the only kind of resource that I’m supposed to use. These are seven interviews with women. I’m hearing their voices. I will use that as part of a documentary/interactive kind of show. When I listened to the interviews, I noticed that 5 out of the 7 women are actually have been assaulted or raped by someone, either a family member or someone that’s very close to home, so a neighbor. And I was like, “This play needs to happen in a home.” Right? The location needs to be somewhere that looks extremely safe, but in fact, it’s really not. So, I ended up choosing and that took some negotiations with the NGO and the company they were working with because, again, just to say like, “I want an interactive show,” sometimes it’s not applicable. It’s not right. So, I ended up actually creating a performance.

Zeina: It’s scary also.

Sahar: It’s scary.

Zeina: It makes people scared.

Sahar: Of course, of course. So, what I actually did is I took a performance space in Beirut, which is actually a house. It’s called Zico House. That is like a three-story building, old house. And I ended up using rooms in that house to create some sort of promenade/museum kind of performance. So, I located the stories, the seven stories I had, I had different [interpretations] to them. And I put each story in a room. And then the kind of the interactive aspect of the show became like a map. So, the audience would come in, it’s silent. We don’t say anything. There are no opening curtain speeches or whatnot. We give them a map. They know exactly what is happening in each room.

The scenes are happening on loop so that they come in and out as they wish. And then the map also has a disclaimer about the intensity of the show, or like, whatnot. But I intended to do this because I knew that people might not be able to take it. And I wanted to also respect the audiences coming to see those stories and give them the chance to decide how much they want to take in, right? So many people, with the map in hand, they would go into a room and then decide to leave, leave the performance. That’s it. Enough for them. And many people decided to come in and in again. So, in that case, I feel like it’s important to remember that the location itself is a character in the play, right? It’s not [arbitrarily] chosen. It's not like, “Oh, it’s a beautiful location. Let’s do a play here.” It has to say something to the story that you’re trying to tell and also to the style and the format of the show.

Zeina: I fully not just agree with Sahar, but if the location is not a character of what this show wants to convey or want to say, whatever, then there would be something missing. I’m even perhaps more Catholic about it. How would you say that? So, let’s say if I want to do a play with inmates, it has to be somewhere in their space. If I’m doing a play with the refugees, I would not [say], “Let’s take them to the opera house and let them act.” No, they don’t live in the opera house. They don’t live not even in a cartier… How do you say it? In a street nearby. They live much further than that.

Myself, it’s not just the location. You’d go to the sceneography you’re put in. For example, in the prison, the male prison in Lebanon, Roumieh, where we’ve done two shows already. To reach the space where there is the show, you have to walk a lot inside these buildings. Not that you don’t go inside, but you walk between the buildings. So, you’re seeing the whole buildings, you’re walking, walking. So, it’s as if the show starts, even before, you’re being searched by all these policemen. And this is part of entering a prison. And then once they reach the space because we had a space in each building. —One building got burned, so we moved to another building. But the first show was in a different building. —So, inside this building, you have to walk inside, then you reach the space. And my first decision for this play, 12 Angry Lebanese, I put them as the Colosseum in Italy where they used to throw the lions, and there is this man fighting there. I can’t remember the film, but it’s the same.

So, people would sit in a colosseum setting and the actors are in the middle. So, it brings more this effect. So, you want to see inmates? This is what you’re coming to see. So now see these actors, these lions, these people, you have to lock up. It was a choice I made in the beginning. Then in the other play Scheherazade’s Diary, same. It’s a smaller building. It’s the women’s prison and Sahar also was part of this show with the preparation for it. And my decision there was let’s do it differently. Let’s do the whole contrary. They are surrounding the spectators because these women [were] their strength and they decided to dance flamenco. So, we were entrapped in this force, in this energy, these women wanted to convey. Their voices, their loud voices, their hormones, their arts, they are totally different from these men.

You see what’s the energy and also adapt, not just the space, the whole scenography for it. Voila. And there are some shows where you don’t have the choice. For example, to bring people somewhere and you might just go and rent the classical theatre and do it there.

Nabra: And to go a step deeper, of course, the space—you’ve both talked about how the space is giving so much to the production, that it’s a character in itself. It’s integral really to the storytelling in so many ways. Is there a reciprocal relationship? Do you see yourself giving back to the space in some way, improving it or adding to it? How do you see the other side of it, what you’re giving back in that relationship?

Sahar: I can try and answer that question. I think it’s a lovely question. And I can use the example of a site-specific work that I did back in 2014, about the civil war in Lebanon. Really the drive for that show was trying to remember the civil war because as you probably know, like in Lebanon, we never really had a proper reconciliation process. And we feel like in many ways the civil war is continuing even today; it supposedly ended in 1990. So, I wanted to do a show about that. And I started collecting material. There was some aspect of the show that was written but many other pieces in that show were based on real narratives of people who lived the war. And I wanted a personal humanitarian approach to it. I did not want to have any political statement per se, in the show, because I knew that I wanted just to have it passed by censorship office without problems. It was part of my work at the university. And I was working with students, and I had very limited kind of timeframe for the show.

So, I wanted to make it as doable, but also because I’m very much interested in personal testimony. So anyway, I did the show in an area called Khandaq al-Ghamiq in Lebanon, which is five-minute walking distance to downtown Beirut. That show, as I said, 2014, even then, there’s an entire block in that area that’s completely abandoned since the war. It used to be a demarcation line between east and west Beirut. So, there’s an entire block that completely is abandoned. The traces of the war you see it on the facade of the buildings. Whereas you walk five minutes down to downtown Beirut, and it’s like you’re in Italy or Spain or whatnot. So completely renovated in a fake atmosphere that really doesn’t look like Lebanon, but that’s a different story.

I took the audiences in buses from the university to the location, and then at the location, they were received by two guides. And the guides would take them on a fake architectural tour in the area. And as they’re doing this architectural tour, they’re looking at broken—as a destroyed church, for instance, but the guide is narrating something else. The guide is telling them about the beauty of the church and how it looked basically before the war, say 1965. And then something would happen along the route. Right?

So, they will go into buildings. They will go into also local community members. There was a stop at a house where we would meet a couple, older couple, and they would tell us their love story and then what they did during the war and whatnot. So, I feel like part of that work, if I want to think of it in terms of what we gave that space, today, I look back and I feel like we have it captured as a record on film because we actually filmed the performance. Because there’s a big chance the essence of that space is going to be completely destroyed.

The Beirut Digital District is moving into the area. They’re renovating stuff. It’s part of historic Beirut that if we lose, like we lost downtown, it’s only going to live in our memories. And I feel like that performance, bringing the audiences there, having them experienced on foot the location. One aspect of what we gave back is that it’s a tangible recorded memory of that space. But also, the Khandaq al-Ghamiq in Beirut is an area that’s, to just put it simply, people feel like it’s dangerous to go there because you never know what’s going to happen to you. And taking the audiences there and having them walk with the guides in the area and meeting people from the area, actually going into their houses, right, having coffee with them, it was part of the performance. I feel that’s something that’s very important. And then I just also give another example towards the end of that scene, the audiences are taken into an empty construction site, and they’re left alone to go back to their buses.

Even that we had them experience in this show. So, I feel that’s how you break stereotypes. That’s how theatre can help you break stereotypes physically on foot, right? So, they could experience that, “Yeah, I can come here and it’s actually lovely.” It’s actually, they’re different in many ways; they’re similar in many ways like everywhere really. And also remembering the civil war and what was happening at that line and how people survived. So, I feel that things I could say that the play, I wish, I’m hoping, right, had given back to that space.

Zeina: And myself, I’m not sure how to answer the question. Ma barif, Sahar. Keef? How do I give back to the location?

Sahar: I mean, Zeina, I can speak as an audience member who came to see Scheherazade in the prison, or even before because Scheherazade, as you said, I was involved in the early phase of the project with you as a creator. But I remember when I first went to see 12 Angry Lebanese in Roumieh Prison. I mean, I have never imagined that I would set foot in the prison. I mean, I would hear stories about how the prison looked like or whatnot, but to actually go, there was so much... I can’t even describe the feeling like anticipation may be about what is it going to be like to just be inside that prison, notorious prison, right, with all these “criminals” (between [quotation marks]), and then having to go in there and sit in the aud... I was crying in that show for many reasons, but one main reason because it puts in your face how judgmental we can be as a society, right?

It was so powerful, Zeina. One of the best shows in my life as an audience member to experience really. Just the fact that bringing the audiences inside a location, that’s supposedly, “Oh, we have nothing to do with it,” and then putting you in there, having you listen to the stories, and then realizing that we have everything to do with these people being here. Everyone is responsible. So, I think that’s how you’re giving to the space.

Zeina: If I may add, yanni, kaman, by also keeping the audience after the show for this Q&A you’re obliged, I mean, in a way we don’t oblige no one, but from the beginning that we’re going to lock the doors once the show is done unless you really want to leave, you can leave. If not, you are locked in this space to stay there for further discussion, for reactions, and this was meant mainly for the decision-makers because they are also invited, the governmental figures, everyone, and these ministers, blah, blah, blah. So, they have to say. They have to have a word. They have to comment, and they need to listen further to these people, to these persons.

Marina: Your work, both of your work is putting people in different places where they might never have been, as Sahar was saying, and might feel like they have nothing to do with, but really helping them see the work and the people in the place in a whole new light. And, Zeina, when Nabra and I watched... We watched pieces of all of the… at least three of your works in prisons. And I mean, we had very emotional responses too. So, the videotaping that you’ve both done of the work is also something that reaches audiences in new ways and take sort of the site beyond that specific location to us, which I’m so grateful for. Continuing on, I think in sort of the same vein that we’ve been talking about where a lot of the work that you’ve been doing is both subversive and political in different ways in the MENA world. And I mean, I think in all theatre worlds, there are barriers to putting on theatrical work, and site-specific work can be a way to overcome or subvert those barriers in different way. Can you talk about when and why you’ve chosen to do some of the specific pieces that you’ve done? And I know you’ve also done a piece together or several, actually, it seems. And so maybe that’s something that we can bring up here too.

Zeina: My story, it started in 2006, when we were all locked up in a way. We were all prisoners during the July war with Israel. So, there was the war between Lebanon and Israel. It was 2006 and life stopped. And it was a huge trauma for all Lebanese. A lot of deaths, a lot of losses with no real deep meaning, and everything in a [month]. And Sahar also remembers, well, it was, you might sleep, wake up on more deaths, on more tragedy that we cannot get out also from the country. We cannot save others because all the roads were blown away. I remember that from my house, even to the supermarket, I couldn’t reach it anymore because the bridge was bombarded. And definitely everyone had this trip back then.

And my own trip was… So, I’m Lebanese; I can’t even help another Lebanese because I can’t even reach him. I’m locked. I’m in [these pajamas] for a month. I feel helpless. And it all led me to 1999 when I went and worked inside a prison. I was still a student at the university, and I went as an intern to Italy to just assist a theatre director called Armando Punzo, who does theatre inside prisons.

And I don’t know why. It was in my unconscious mind. I never really remembered it again. It wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t something I was working on, but I was like—I don’t know why—I said, “Oh, my God, prisoners, what would prisoners be feeling at this moment?” Because I felt I’m a prisoner myself, oppressed and everything. And I said, “Oh, I’m here sitting in my pajama. I feel I’m a prisoner myself. If I am feeling I’m a prisoner myself, how would these inmates who are inside these prisons...?”

So definitely they were the last on the agenda in a country dealing with war, et cetera, et cetera. And I said, “Okay, as soon as this war is over, I’m going to do theatre inside these prisons.” It came—I can’t explain it further. It came while I was in the same pajama for 30 days. And as soon as the war was over, craziest thing, that I go to the decisionmakers. And I say, “I know you’re busy dealing with many things in this country, but how about doing theatre inside prisons?” And I was receiving definitely a no.

And they called me, “You’re crazy. Do you see where the country is heading? Do you see what we...?” I said, “Yes. And it’s because I saw this, and I felt with these inmates much more than ever. I want to go inside and do therapy.” And voila, it took a year and a half to build this whole thing receiving no’s again and again and again and again. And if you tell me what was my motivation back then? I can’t tell you because now if you tell me do it again, I’d say, “I’d be crazy to do what I’ve done in 2007 and 2008.” Voila. And it’s only when I went inside and discovered what they want to say and the whole oppression around prisons in Lebanon, that I understood the deeper meaning of these visits that I was doing. I never knew anything about our penal code. It was a total discovery. I never knew that we had no reduction of sentences for good behavior. I didn’t know before putting food there that it was so overcrowded, and you see it in your eyes, that it was so overcrowded. And you just keep on discovering.

And for me, I mean, this is Lebanon. You want to know Lebanon go inside its prisons. And voila. I said, “If we can start doing something there, perhaps we can start changing the penal code.” And this is what happened later on. We had the reduction of sentences after 12 Angry Lebanese. Then, Scheherazade in Baabda helped a lot in having the law for protection from domestic violence that wasn’t presented by Catharsis at all. It was presented by another NGO called KAFA. And many NGOs were working on it, but we made sure to have every single decisionmaker come to prison and watch this play and sign this draft flow, and it happened in 2014.

And voila, this is how... But you tell me like, “Zeina, you had this project. You had this. Why did you choose to do the site-specific work back then?” I had no idea where it’s going to lead me. I didn’t know even that inmates in Lebanon are not allowed to go out and perform inside a theatre. I was so naive. I said, “Oh, let’s do theatre inside and maybe we’ll take them in a bus to theatre Al Madina,” and people would come and watch them in this, just like in Italy, because in Italy they go out and they perform outside.

It all came on the ground. And I loved it. I mean, after the first project that was 12 Angry Lebanese, I said, “Oh, my God, it has to be very site-specific. It has all the other place I would do…would be… not the copy-paste of what happened but should be in a similar format because the first format was… It just worked for them, for us, for the audience, for the decisionmakers. So, wow! Voila.

Nabra: Yeah, it’s interesting to think about also in some situations site-specific theatre is a necessity. It has to be in that space. It’s not always a choice, which is absolutely important to remember.

Marina: Sahar, do you have anything to add?

Sahar: I mean, my barriers are less interesting than Zeina’s barriers. Just to say it, looking back, I feel in some situations the lack of theatrical or theatre infrastructure at the American University of Beirut, where I was working and producing the majority of my shows, led me in many ways to think site specific, led me to that kind of route. In the story that Zeina shared, I feel there’s some magic there. And I use this word for the lack of finding a better word, but I remember like the play we did in Khandaq al-Ghamiq. Speaking about barriers, I had to take around seven permissions from different offices and entities like the [Directorate General of Antiquities]—because there was a site that we were using that had a note from [Antiquities] on it, the municipality of Beirut, the censorship office, the police depart— So all these. And it, for some reason, again, we were able to achieve all these permissions in less than a month. And looking back, I was like, “How did that happen?” I don’t know. Of course, we had to take permissions from owners of the locations who don’t live there anymore and who I found in really weird, serendipitous, or weird coincidences really.

But in general, I feel like, yes, the lack of infrastructure forced me to think in a way, pushed me to think outside of the box. Again, to give another example in 2015, 2016, the American University of Beirut was celebrating its 150th anniversary. And I wanted to do something on the occasion. And I was like, “What is it that I’m looking for, really, the subject matter of the performance?” And I remembered, and I thought about the workers, the janitors, basically because I felt like we’re celebrating everyone. For women, I did myself a celebration, like a reenactment of speeches by women who [were] early feminists [in the] 1920s or whatnot.

And people were celebrating students and professors and buildings and everything. But I was like, “Okay, where are we celebrating the janitors?” So, I decided to do that. Obviously, I started by interviewing the workers because I don’t have material other than that. So, I knew that the show will be a documentary, will have a documentary process. It will be based on verbatim interviews with the workers, the janitors, but I didn’t know how it’s going to [or] where it’s going to happen.

I was thinking maybe we’ll just put their stories in one of the auditoriums on campus. And then during the process, I was realizing that would be really inappropriate; it won’t feel authentic. And I decided that the performance is going to be a day in the life of the janitors. So, audiences would arrive. We check them in at the location where the janitors check-in. We give them outfits, right? They put on the outfit, and then we give them the tools. And we’re like, “On your way, this is going to be your hour and a half on campus,” and then they go. There’s a scene that happens in a bathroom while the audiences are cleaning bathrooms. You might think it’s crazy, but people play along. It’s lovely how people play along. And as they’re doing that, they are encountering different aspects of the janitor’s life.

So, they’re learning about their dreams. They’re learning about their families, about their aspirations. The performance had a very technical aspect to it. You really were teaching you the job. So, we’re teaching you how to clean a bathroom. We’re teaching you what chemicals to use. But then actually, we’re also telling you that this person here, his dream is to become a singer. This person here writes poetry. This person here has a family. Her husband has cancer. She had to work to like, you know, and so on. So, yes, the barriers do push you to think in site-specific terms. But again, if it doesn’t serve the story, it’s not worth it. So, I feel there’s both of these things in it.

Marina: Wow. I mean, it sounds like such a wonderful piece. And thank you for talking about the barriers, but also just really making sure that each piece is critical of why it’s happening and where it’s happening, and how those things are speaking to each other. You both do so much and are artists in such full senses of the word, but how would you describe yourself as an artist? We definitely didn’t sum up all of your work here today. What are other things that have defined or shaped your creative practice?

Zeina: Marina, at times I’m lost. If I am an artist, if I am a therapist, if I am a policeman, if I am an activist, if I am... Lately, for example, in Lebanon, in the Keserwan area where I live, it’s the region. They wanted me also to run for elections because elections are coming. And I started laughing because I’m not sure anymore. What I started as a theatre… Specifically, I want to do theatre, then came to drama therapy. Then I said, “Okay, yalla, it’s nice to do drama therapy.”

Then I said, “Okay, why not? Let’s do some laws.” And then you do some laws. You end up staying in the parliament with these decisionmakers, doing other things, drinking coffee, talking about the sun and the weather for them to work and pushing them. And then you lobby for things. How would I describe the myself as an artist? At times I forget that I am an artist. At times, I do remember that I am an artist, especially when I am in the stages of producing the play. And this is the best thing; I love doing it. But then, again, you tell me when you’re drafting laws to change the penal code, I would tell you, “Oh, my God, I love doing this also.” And then you tell me, when a draft law is done, and you have lobbied and, “Oh, my God, How I am happy to do it!” I’m not sure. And at times, I miss one over the other; then, I miss the other over one. And I’m a therapist so I have this clinic, and I do these individual drama therapy sessions. So perhaps to answer your question, all of these things do define and do shape my creative practice. Because if you tell me I’m doing only one of them, I tell you, I might be totally dead of boredom.

I mean, if I was just an artist calling myself, “I’m an artist.” If I was happy with that, I think I would have continued doing this without the whole therapeutic, self-regulatory performances, and the laws, and activism for the country. But also, I’d say if I only what I want to do is draft laws and change laws, let me run for elections, which I’m not going to do now because I want to be an artist too. So perhaps my creative practice comes with a whole luggage of activism and things. And if it wasn’t like this, I don’t think I would call myself an artist perhaps. Perhaps, in a [month] I’d answer differently. I don't know. Sahar, go ahead.

Sahar: I love it, Zeina. This is brilliant. I’m going to use your words because me too, I honestly, I don’t think of myself in terms of like, “I’m an artist.” I do think I’m a theatremaker. Most of the days, I think I’m a theatremaker. What defines and shape my creative process as a theatremaker is actually the part of the history and the journey that I had to embark on to be a theatremaker. I grew up in a conservative society, and my father, bless his soul, wasn’t convinced that acting is a decent and proper career for a [woman]. So, I ended up studying journalism, and I enjoyed a lot the investigative reporting aspect of journalism. And then I was lost for some time to put a long story short. So, I ended up studying sociology as a [master’s] degree. And then I went on and worked in these fields for some time. Before I came back to the study theatre, I was doing theatre all along. Right? But I wanted to become really a professional. I was thinking only a degree would make me a professional because in Lebanon, you get isolated a little bit, at least my feeling in my experience, if you haven’t studied especially at Lebanese University theatre, you would feel a little isolated.

And I was like, “Oh, I need to get myself a degree so that people could take me seriously.” And then I did that. And I feel like there are residues today in my theatre work from both journalism and sociology, which I love. And I’m thankful for my father really to just say, “No, don’t do acting,” because it led me to this really not a straightforward path to becoming a theatremaker. So today, I’m mostly interested in documentary kind of theatre work. Theatre that is based on personal stories and personal histories. It really inspires me. It really drives me. And I feel like... The way I pick stories or subject matters or people to interview is always driven by something that affects me, something that really moves me as a human being, as a woman. So that’s what I can say in response to that question.

Marina: So wonderful. Brilliant answers from brilliant women. Oh, I’m just so grateful to spend this time talking with both of you. Thank you so much for sharing this time and space with us this morning.

Zeina: Thank you! Thank you!

Nabra: You both are so inspirational. Thank you so much. It’s so lovely to finally be in this room with you.

Sahar: Thank you both for having us. And it’s always great to be in the same space with Zeina, I have to say.

Zeina: Sahar, I miss you!

Sahar: I miss you too.

Zeina: Thank you, Nabra. Thank you, Marina.

Sahar: Thank you, Nabra and Marina.

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, 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 commons.

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

Marina and Nabra: Yalla, bye!

Thoughts from the curators

Season 1 of Kunafa and Shay will focus on MENA theatre post-9/11 to today, 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 United States. Theatre artist Nabra Nelson and MENA theatre scholar Marina J. Bergenstock bring their own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

The 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!). Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and, sometimes, to engage with our differences.

Kunafa and Shay

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