Lebanon’s European Theatre Festival : when the city is a stage

13-11-2019
Tarek Chemaly

Co-funded by the European Union, Lebanon’s European Theatre Festival fosters cultural exchange between Lebanon and the European Union.With the participation of more than 60 artists and theatre professionals, this event is a channel promoting culture and human rights, especially freedom of expression. To go behind the scenes - pardon the pun - reveals a rich tapestry of characters and artists who came to share their experiences.

The Al Madina Theatre is a rich beehive not exactly for the faint of heart. So many things happening at once, yet, somehow there is order in the chaos. People are going in and out of workshops. Suddenly a music bursts out, but it turns out it is simply someone editing something on a computer, a gang of voices rise - one expects a quarrel - but then they break into a hearty laugh. Side discussions are all over the place. All these people, artists, actors, scenographers and workshop leaders are participating in Lebanon’s European Theatre Festival 2019.

A young cultural initiative being shaped

The second edition of the Festival has offered 16 days of theatre with artists from Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland, Spain, Romania, and Lebanon. Plays, workshops, panels and exhibitions were part of this year's rich festival program that extended from 27 September to 12 October 2019. For this year's edition, the presented plays touched on many global issues including social diversity, identity, and migration. Dramaturgy, scenography, narrative construction, paper puppet making and workshops on creative processes took place throughout the city’s cultural venues. The main aim of the Festival is to bring together European and Lebanese theatre professionals to participate in workshops, to perform plays, to create interactions with their Lebanese counterparts so as to share, contrast and juxtapose their experiences, so they can build connections that would go further in the future.

The organisers: an involved and creative team

For the Festival's organisers, the interest in participation was so high from abroad, this led to nine European Member embassies and cultural institutes coming on board to co-create the  European Theatre. “For them (the artists) , it is a unique experience to be in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, building relations with local professionals. As organisers, our major input was mainly adding interactivity with the audience. We introduced a Q&A session at the end of the shows, so the audience could interact with the artists who were on the stage, sharing and exchanging about their experiences. This really makes the shows come alive and become more approachable and human.

”Now should anyone be wondering how people manage to understand each other despite the lack of a common language within the festival, it seems that “communication is simply 30% verbal. The rest is body language,” says one of the organisers. Indeed, during the dinner organized for all the participants to the festival everyone blended in regardless of language or nationality.

The focus, again according to the organisers, “is to initiate this event, not as a window-shop, but rather as a point of entry, fostering some sort of sustainable development where relations will span years to come and collaborations might happen in the future. Then, we disappear making sure we caused a ripple effect in terms of contacts between countries and cultures.” When it comes to cultures and countries, there are indeed many to pick from.

The festival's workshops

Anne Thuot is theatre director and workshop trainer. Originally  from Belgium, she gave an eight-day workshop in dramaturgy for Lebanese professionals - be they anthropologists, designers or theatre professionals. In Lebanon’s European Theatre Festival she "reinvented" Macbeth associating it to Beirut and to the local participants’ view. “It is really about that war machine, about the ghosts too, and about the fact that Macbeth will never have heirs to his throne. It is a classical text, about power and its implications, about how it translates, be it in Belgium, France, Spain or Lebanon. Already there are questions in Belgium as to what to do with the places named after Leopold II, since it correlates to a colonialist past. In Lebanon, traces of war, the “ghosts” as mentioned in Macbeth, are still here to tell about a story whose end is foretold. Did anyone listen though? But again, with all the participants, we aim to find meeting points, places of convergence, about the story, the experiences and the correlation to the place: Beirut, in this case.” Sara Samplayo, the workshop's co-director with Thuot, added: “It is interesting that the participants - who are aged between 18 and 25 - did not experience the war first-hand, so they are technically the post-war generation. They perhaps might have a fresher outtake on the matters.”

Cultural landmarks

Wahid Sui Mahmoud hails from Denmark but his parents have Palestinian roots. During the festival the organization he is part of, C:NTCT, which creates innovative work on storytelling using real human stories of "everyday" people, held workshops with kids from the Chatila Palestinian camp. At the end of the process the children travelled from the camp to the theatre to share their own stories with the public. The children assembled around a young man with a tank top in the lobby of Al Madina. His name is Ali Abdul Amir Najei, he is originally part Lebanese, and has a gang past in Denmark. He is an active trainer within Mahmoud’s workshop. Back home in Denmark he travels the country telling his story to inspire young people to break the cycle of violence and be agents of change in their communities. Abdul Amir Najei also appeared in the play “True Danes” scheduled within the festival which begs the question, what is it to be young in Denmark today.Mahmoud knows a thing or two about communication clashes. Actually, his first communication efforts started within his own home. His main language was Danish followed by Arabic, while for his parents it was  the other way around. So, misunderstandings arise quickly, “which makes me think that, perhaps, today, we are not taking the time to know the person behind the person. There is such as snap judgement about everything and everyone.”

Mahmoud says that he is also experiencing miscommunication with his own young children. He adds: “They have different landmarks than I do culturally. No Fairouz and no this and that, so I must make extra effort to reach out to them as they do not speak Arabic at all despite me trying to teach them the language. So, it is the predicament I had with my parents in reverse. But change is inevitable. All we must do is find a bridge to cross through it.”He points out to Ali : “Normally, if you tell me about someone with such a questionable past, I would try to minimise contact with said person, but when you learn the story of this man, see what socio-economic class he comes from, what peer pressure he was exposed to that forced him into the gang culture, suddenly the “human” element shines beneath. Same as the girl on stage suffering from mental issues. She was on stage with us, and simply said that with her medications she has no issues at all. Again, a human being appears, a real non-stereotyped story, and the audience interacts and sees themselves with the people on stage.”

 

Improvisation

Borja Luis and Juana Lor are conducting their workshop with material from Brecht. Mid-way through the workshop they agreed that the results are already fabulous. They come from a theatre company in the Basque country in Spain. Luis says how incredible it is that he managed to do an improvisation with someone he does not know anything about, and it came out perfect, all while conducting the first session. “There is this idea that the Lebanese are overexposed, but it is interesting they can go into the character and inhabit its core so quickly and become at one with it. Brecht with his ability to skip naming characters is ideal in that perspective for the participants,” says Lor.

What links all these workshops is how they are able to fuse European outlooks with local experiences, and how the European Union funded festival plays a conduit in initiating this experiment, which aims in the future to foster collaborations between professionals and strengthen the Euro-Lebanese artistic bond.

Passing the lobby before exiting the Al Madina, we must have heard four different languages being spoken, two of them inside the same group, the man who was asleep at the beginning was now euphorically gesticulating to illustrate his joke which sent the girl he was speaking to in stitches. As we emerged to Hamra street, suddenly the whole city looked like an ambulant stage where people seemed to be playing parts - in plays about their own lives in characters as themselves.