When four protégés come together in a small theatre in Beirut to collaborate on a performance, there is an explosion of creativity and goodwill.
Up an unremarkable alleyway in Beirut, a remarkable group of artists is cooking up a theatre production. With the calls of the gas-seller, drills, car horns, sirens and incessant banging in this restless city providing a living sound track, they are here creating a theatre production in just under one week. From scratch.
With support from the Rolex Arts Initiative, former protégés Antonio García Ángel and Mateo López, both from Colombia, and Lee Serle from Australia, have come to Beirut’s Zoukak Theatre run by another protégée, Maya Zbib, and four other directors.
The theatre may be small, but right now it is big on ideas as nine people sit around a table doing exercises to crystallize a collective artistic production on that ritual of domestic theatre – dinner.
The idea originated at a meeting of protégés at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, South Africa in May 2013. That their next creative encounter is in Beirut is due to Zbib, who is responding to the volatile politics of the Middle East in the best way she knows – through her craft as a theatre-maker. “It is about proposing a different discourse than the predominant one, which puts people and ideas into preset boxes of gender, political affiliation and religious beliefs.”
Founded nine years ago, Zoukak is one of Beirut’s few theatre companies. In the absence of government funding, it is supported by grants from international institutions and NGOs that underwrite its programme of psycho-social interventions in marginalized contexts such as refugee camps or shelters for victims of domestic violence.
Now the protégés are here, all enlivened by the unique opportunity to be creative together in a city that may be besieged by sectarian politics, but is also lifted by a love of food and a determination to live life as if there were no tomorrow. They have six days to make a show. With members of Zoukak and their collaborators, they start their project with a flurry of ideas, each bringing the skills of their discipline to the table. Every day, one of them leads a workshop, exploring all sides of the creative curve – drawing, words, dance, music – as they pull together a coherent theme for their production. Slowly it becomes a show – about making a show.
García Ángel (literature protégé in 2004) leads the workshop on writing. “Making lists is an accelerated way of becoming a poet,” he says, giving the example of Raymond Carver’s Fear and Jorge Luis Borges’s Things, both works that use a list for structure.
This leads to the creation of a daily poem/list, which will ultimately form the basis of the script. Lists of things forgotten, imaginary sounds, what might go inside a box. García Ángel’s literary gift stands out:
I would put other boxes with boxes inside,
and feel myself like an artist;
I would put all my doubts and send the box to China;
I would put my sadness in and set the box on fire;
the things to start again a new life from zero,
in case I gotta escape from mine,
or maybe a new heart and a few memories to make it beat again.
“When you are a writer, you are on a very solitary path; it is you with your text,” says García Ángel. “When you work with other people in this kind of experience, you discover that you are dealing with the same artistic questions. What people are showing you from drawing, music, dance – it feeds your writing,” he says. “I’m learning a lot. The others are passing on knowledge they got from their mentors… This collaborative-horizontal way of working gives you a lot of input. I am so thankful for this kind of experience.”
In his workshop, Mateo López (visual arts protégé in 2012) wanted to illustrate how drawing can be used to generate ideas. He asked everyone to draw a 15-cm ruler by memory and then gave the measurements to make a box. “By cutting and pasting it together, the two-dimensional experience takes on a third dimension. This is an exercise in viewing dimensions in life and art… Drawing a ruler from memory makes us think about what measures us,” he says.
Later, they all draw representations of a meal on a table cloth, drawings that will end up as place mats, finessed by López.
“Beirut has been useful for learning the methodology of collaboration. I can use it for future projects. If I want to include a performance in my work, I need to know how to start; such as making lists, as we have at Zoukak,” he adds.
New York installation
López is currently working on an exhibition for the Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York later this year, his first solo show in the city. “It will include a site-specific installation, a sculpture, animated movies and maybe a performance. Every work I do is different, but it is somehow connected.
Lee Serle (dance protégé in 2010) is at Zoukak for the second time. In June 2014, as part of the Zoukak Sidewalk series for international artists, he was here to give his first performance of a piece on restricted movement. “It is challenging me to apply my skills to a work that is not specifically dance… It has enabled us to connect our experiences with our own personal work and also our involvement with the Rolex Arts Initiative.
“This is an incredibly inspired artistic community and, coming from Australia, it’s incredibly valuable to have experiences in other cultures… My solo choreography is a representation of a collection of experiences, so any kind of travel and other places that is injected into my work in some way whether it is conscious or not.”
Choreographing a group
In Serle’s workshop on movement, he asks everyone to make a list of physical instructions. “The task was to write a list of instructions – physical, emotional, or abstract, allowing us to instantly choreograph the group. Some were achievable and others could not be visibly achieved, such as the idea ‘Hold those thoughts’. But the attempt of the performer to achieve it is what is interesting,” he adds.
It is Wednesday, one day before the production. Suddenly a large table arrives, a prop for the dinner, put together during the day. Now, there are discussions about including the audience in the dinner. It will be real. With three courses.
But for Maya as director, much is still unresolved. “It will have the form when it happens,” she says. “The most important thing for us is the process. And for everyone to understand that we can work together using our different tools.”
It’s 8.30pm. The sixth day. Showtime. The audience files in and sits at small tables laden with kibbeh, tabbouleh, hummus and flat breads. There is singing, eating, laughing. There is toasting with arak, the local tipple. There are poems, and music and dance. The audience and performers are one. It works. Everyone is happy. The show about making a show has come to end.
“What we have done is like an open studio presentation,” says Zbib, “It does not have to have a market value, but it is intensely valuable to us as artists… it has been a luxury to spend six whole days thinking about what art means to us as a group.”