Peter Sellars and Maya Zbib

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 6)

Peter Sellars’ courageous determination to make theatre and opera relevant to today has earned him the reputation of enfant terrible of the contemporary stage. His uncanny ability to awaken Western audiences from their complacency, combined with his humility and generosity of spirit, made him the ideal mentor for a young dramatist from a country whose citizens are all too aware of the vicissitudes of fortune.

Peter Sellars and Maya Zbib

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 6)

June 2010

An interview with Maya Zbib before the beginning of her mentoring year with Peter Sellars.

Have you had a mentor before?
I have never been exposed to a real mentor. My advisor on the British Council’s Cultural Leadership International Programme guided me on cultural management and leadership issues, on how to organize myself as an artist. While this helped me personally, it did not directly impact on my art. I recognize that I still need a lot of work to perfect my skills and, therefore, really look forward to my close collaboration with Peter Sellars. This one-to-one relationship will be very different from any interaction I have had before.

What do you hope to gain from the mentorship?
Other than taking the time to reflect on my work and career more deeply, my main goal is to broaden my perspective on theatre-making. Who better is there to help me with this than Peter Sellars? I have never directed a big group or a big project and I expect that my time with Mr Sellars will give me the confidence to move forward and learn new things that I can apply in my work.

Do you envision passing on the knowledge you gain to others?
I definitely intend to convey what I learn to my students at the [the Lebanese University’s] Institute of Fine Arts. We have a very open teaching system where teachers have the freedom to bring in their new experiences into the classroom. Similarly, I will also transmit the knowledge I gain to the members of my theatre company [Zoukak Theatre Company and Cultural Association] and to those attending the many workshops that I frequent, locally and internationally.
Mr Sellars has generously agreed to meet with students and theatre practitioners when he visits Beirut later in the year, so they will also benefit directly from his insights.

You are quoted as saying that you are inspired by Mr Sellars’ advocacy of theatre as a “force for change”. Can you explain that further?
The idea of theatre as a “force for change” is a theory that I closely identify with. When I met Mr Sellars, he discussed his various projects, including a topical new play that he is planning, and how he incorporates societal issues into his theatrical pieces. His goal is to produce theatre that is both artistically and socially relevant, and I strongly support that notion. Theatre must be engaging to all audiences and speak to everyone, not just to a cultivated elite.

What is it like being an aspiring woman director in Lebanon?
There is a great deal of scepticism about women directors in the Middle East, where there is a socially imbedded notion that directors are men. Admittedly, this may be the situation the world over. Lebanon is a relatively small and complex society, so it is not easy to give an overview about the state of women directors without the risk of generalizing, but I am pleased to say that people here have been very supportive to me and to other women directors.

What are your current plans for directing others and how will your mentor help you move forward with this?
Most of my experience to date has been directing my own solo work, but I look forward to directing others. A couple of projects are currently in the planning stage. We are an extremely collaborative group at Zoukak and are constantly experimenting with methodologies and sharing roles. This winter I will start developing, with the group, a new production that I will direct later next year. Peter Sellars intends to come to Beirut and I expect to benefit from his presence and the insights I gain during this mentorship. I anticipate that, while Mr Sellars will be providing some practical tips on directing, our focus will be more on discussing ideas and concepts.

Do you anticipate that the focus of your work will change following the mentoring year?
I am sure that working with Peter Sellars over the next year will influence my work and spur me on to new things. For example, I would like to learn more about opera. I don’t dare think that I would ever direct an opera, but I am interested in operatic staging techniques, the way that performers address the audience. Also, I would like to discuss classical pieces. Mr Sellars’ direction of these works intrigues me, especially his ability to keep the classics deeply connected to the present, highlighting their timeless relevance and creating direct connections with contemporary life through the treatment of the text.

Can you explain the rationale for staging your productionThe Music Boxin people’s homes?
The concept of a magic box as a vessel for story-telling is common in Lebanon and in the region. I borrowed that idea forThe Music Box, which takes place in various people’s houses and uses boxes as props to represent memories, secrets and personal spaces. Typically, about 30 people visit a home to attend an intimate performance where music, movement and personal stories reveal the emotional relationship that binds women to their homes. My responsibility as a theatre-maker is to engage the audience and I think I accomplished this withThe Music Box. For me every theatrical event is a ceremony, a single precious encounter where stories are shared.

What is your next major project?
I am currently collaborating with my colleagues at Zoukak to create a new production ofHamletmachine[a postmodernist drama by Heiner Müller based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet], which we will present in September. And I am developing ideas for a play to direct in 2011 under the guidance of Mr Sellars. Also, in line with my interest in the classics, I have been thinking about usingMedea[an ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides] as the basis of a new work.

Kisangani, Congo

Early in the mentoring year, Sellars invited Zbib to visit the Congo with him. There, he introduced her to Faustin Linyekula, a Congolese dancer and choreographer whom he has supported and collaborated with for many years.

Unlike Zbib and her group, Linyekula’s dance troupe, Studios Kabako, based in Kinshasa and Kisangani, wrestles with violence openly and deliberately. The dancers physicalize the violence, they put it to music, they purge their anger and deep pain through the rigour of their bodies. Memory and the suppression of memory are central to all of Linyekula’s works. In these dancers, singers and musicians, Zbib recognized the charred landscape of her own country – like Lebanon, the Congo still laid bare the wounds of brutal civil war:

“Visiting the Congo, I sensed that the memory of pain and bloodshed stays in the bone marrow of a city, it seeps through the wood of the coffee table and the smell of the river. It takes an outsider to bring them to the surface for you again.

Maya Zbib

Observing Zbib, Sellars noted immediately how much you can learn about someone’s character when they are placed in demanding conditions. She embraced the Kabako group, forming a kinship with them borne out of comparable pain. With “her own determination and genuine appetite for life”, Sellars said, “Maya plunged right in to their activity and started giving acting/movement classes with no hesitation.”

Extracted from an article written by Avery Willis Hoffman, for Mentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2010/2011 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Peter Sellars and Maya Zbib

A year of mentoring

First steps with the mentor (Chapter 3 of 6)

October 2010

Both Lebanese protégée Maya Zbib and her mentor, American theatre and opera director Peter Sellars, believe that theatre must be a force for change rather than entertainment confined to the stage. Their mentoring year began with a trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in support of a project by Faustin Linyekula, an artist facing up to the political and social changes in his country. Zbib was interviewed by Avery Willis about her visit to the DRC with her mentor and about the creative process.

What were your first impressions of Peter Sellars?
I was very impressed by his strong and particular character. He made me feel at ease during our first meeting and I felt I could be myself around him. He has a warm and generous personality that is very surprising, in a positive way, of course. After our first meeting, I was content and just really happy to have met this person. I thought: “Even if he does not choose me, I am lucky enough having had the chance to speak to him and listen to him talk about his work.”

What happened when you travelled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with him?
It was a very intense experience. The Congo River with its darkness and deep serenity outside the house where I was staying was overwhelming! Things happen so slowly there, but everything is intense, meaningful and colourful.
Meeting some of Peter’s collaborators made me think about the meaning of art and how it can empower people, and made the struggle we face here in Lebanon very trivial.

How did you know Faustin Linyekula?
I had met Faustin seven years ago in Beirut during a short workshop he was giving and I was impressed by his work. During my first meeting with Peter, he said he was going to visit Faustin and, when he found out I knew him, he invited me to come along.

What did the collaboration consist of?
I did not collaborate with Faustin, but I gave a five-hour workshop to 17 dancers and actors, some of whom had worked with him. The workshop was around combining movement and text, taking elements from both dance and theatre – that was an amazing experience that I will never forget. Witnessing the energy and power of these artists on stage made me feel the urgency of doing theatre there and in difficult places in general.

How would you describe Linyekula?
He is a very strong and determined artist working in a very difficult place. Watching him deal with his surrounding social and political difficulties was very inspiring for me.

Why did you decide to become a theatre artist?
Since I was a child I always knew I wanted to be an artist. I used to sing, draw, paint, dance and write poetry. I chose theatre simply because I could do all kinds of art with this medium.

What motivates you to create?
Making art is a way to continuously question myself and what surrounds me in a practical and collective manner instead of falling into self-pity and lamenting the inconsequential course of events in a country that does not learn from its own history.

What drives you to create a specific piece of theatre?
The subject I want to put forward. So I always start with the text, either a text that speaks to me or texts that I write. When I write, I always start with the personal hope to touch upon more universal issues in my work.

What is your dream project?
I would like to create a large-scale, site-specific project with many artists working with various media and engaging different communities confronting their differences using theatrical dialectics, instead of the common languages of political parties which seems to lead to absurdity and continuous conflict.

What do you hope to achieve with your theatre art?
I hope to bring more people to the theatre in Lebanon and to create a movement where going to the theatre becomes a need. And try to give back to theatre its political and artistic aspects, those that consumerism and the corrupt political environment have sadly managed to dissolve.

What is your biggest challenge in theatre-making?
Funding... in Lebanon there is no support whatsoever from the government for theatre. It is regarded as a trivial profession.

Peter Sellars and Maya Zbib

A year of mentoring

Theatre to change the world (Chapter 4 of 6)

“I always feel that I’m present to learn, and I’m there because I’m interested. And step one of being a director is to not know, and to ask the questions that everybody else is dying to ask...”

Peter Sellars

For director and Rolex mentor Peter Sellars, art is not just a medium for beauty or entertainment, but a means of enacting change – political, social and moral. Sellars insists that a director is simply a guide for the performers, asking questions and pushing the boundaries of creative exploration.

Maya Zbib is just embarking on her theatre career in Beirut, the Lebanese capital. Like Sellars, she is open, eager to learn, eager to see past the impediments thrown at her. But Zbib’s immediate environment is vastly different from Sellars’. She co-founded Zoukak, a six-member theatre collective that creates new works and conducts drama therapy workshops in refugee camps in areas in Southern Lebanon torn apart by the protracted Israeli-Lebanon wars. Her theatre collective struggles daily to maintain an open rehearsal space where ideas flow freely, without censorship. As children of war (born during the Civil War that lasted from 1975 to 1990), the members of the collective hesitate to take on the violence that surrounds them or the fragility of Lebanon’s peace.

When the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative connected these two unique individuals, no one could predict the outcome. Since a final project is not required at the conclusion of the year, Sellars and Zbib were able to continually mould and remould their relationship – depending very much on where they encountered each other in the world.

Peter Sellars and Maya Zbib

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 6)

Maya Zbib Talks about her year as a Rolex protégée

Why did you apply to be a protégée for the Rolex Arts Initiative?
When I was told I was nominated to take part in the Rolex Arts Initiative, I felt that it was a great honour that I had been chosen. And, although I did not have a clear idea of what this might actually turn out to be and in what way it would nourish my work, I was intrigued to get to know the work of Peter Sellars, an undeniably exceptional artist and person. So there was no hesitation: I had to apply! You can’t say: “No” to such moments of recognition that come your way with the potential of opening new doors and paving new paths – it’s karma, as Peter would put it.

How would you describe your relationship with Peter Sellars?
I sincerely love him. How can anyone not? I regard him as a friend and a spiritual/activist/artistic mentor all at once. I respect him a lot. I can be reticent around him sometimes, as I am still learning how to deal with him in the various aspects of his life that I have encountered so far. I try to listen in order not to be in his way when he’s working and not to affect his focus, but sometimes we just have fun and enjoy nice food, good music and lovely company. I appreciate how generous he was in letting me into his life and introducing me to his family, close friends and fellow great artists.

How have your impressions of Peter Sellars changed over the course of the mentorship?
When I first met Peter, I was overwhelmed by his presence and the breadth of his knowledge and wit, and how the ideas framing his work were ever-present in all his conversations. I was a bit worried about not being able to keep up with him. Now I am less worried in general, thanks to him. And, since I have come to know Peter more closely, I understand how all aspects of his life as an artist and as a person converge to make what he is and what he does. I realize how this great focus that he has, in every moment, comes from his sincere determination and the integrity of his work; the work he does reflects the way he chooses to lead his life and vice versa. It’s a whole process of being and doing, not two separate things.

In what ways has your mentor surprised you?
What surprises me about Peter is how simple and complex he can be. He has the spark of a genius and the humility of a simple man. The way he deals with every single person he meets, in the most personal and generous manner, bringing little rays of light and empowerment into their lives, fascinates me. The sincerity in his approach is also very surprising.

Has your way of thinking about making theatre changed since you began your mentoring year?
I would not say it has changed, but new layers have been added to it. Peter has broadened my horizon of what theatre can be through the breadth of his research, from current events to ancient sacred Indian art, for example. On the other hand, Peter reminded me of the joy and pleasure of doing theatre and that it does not have to be a heavy, complicated task. I watched him infuse a positive vibe in the rehearsal room every single day during Hercules. The stress-free atmosphere he created was unprecedented for me. He believes in people and trusts that they will find the right quality he is seeking when the time comes – and they do!

What is the most important piece of advice your mentor has given you?
To never be angry, to look at things in a positive way and see the beauty in people rather than the anger, and that fighting leads to nowhere. I guess he tried to teach me peace. I can’t say that I am managing to practise that fully! One needs a lot of confidence and a great amount of faith in order to muster that forgiving attitude, but I’m working on it as I realize that to be angry is a big waste of time and energy.

What do you plan to do next?
I am currently collaborating with my colleagues at the Zoukak Theatre Company on a new project in Lebanon. It’s a collective writing project that will lead to a performance around social structures that define and shape gender stereotypes as identified through local myths, folk tales and modern legends and I will be leading a series of workshops with several groups of people for this aim. I will also be performingThe Music Box[created by Zbib as a result of dialogues held with a number of women in their homes] at the Fringe of the Avignon Festival. I will have a residency with Zoukak in a village in Mount Lebanon where we will be working on a new project.

Peter Sellars and Maya Zbib

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 6 of 6)

Interview with Peter Sellars

Why did you agree to be a mentor in the Rolex Arts Initiative?
Because of a high level of peer pressure! You don’t say “no” to Bill Forsythe [one of the world’s leading choreographers and a Rolex Mentor in 2002/2003]. To have one’s work be recognized by critics or journalists is wonderful, but it is another thing for fellow artists to choose you and ask you to participate.

Why did you choose Maya Zbib as your protégée?
Maya has a life force, a charm, a magnetism that reads beyond her body of work to date. Her life work is not already complete, her path not already set. I felt it was important to undertake this mentorship with someone who didn’t yet have all the answers. Her talent and circumstances are wide open right now.

Why do you think mentoring is important?
My deepest influences are other artists. I am very deeply influenced by Bill Forsythe and shaped by his work and what it is about. Mentoring is always a two-way situation. It is important that the established artist is challenged anew by another generation. It should be challenging in both directions – emerging and established.

How would you describe your relationship with Maya Zbib during the mentoring year?
For me it was a year of discovery, of moving inside some of the discussions – aesthetic and political – in Maya’s part of the world. A more nuanced view than the standard journalistic view. To see what is at stake, within the political context, is very eye-opening for me. My own judgements were upended by contact and direct exchange and involvement with Maya. She opened a window I never had before. Not that I am any closer to understanding Maya’s work, but my own work is more nuanced as a result. And I’ve made a friend and that’s always a good thing in the world!

What was a most surprising thing you learned from your protégée?
Sometimes you are busy judging someone and you have to pull back for a moment and realize that your judgements don’t take into account the person’s situation or background, how their motives are shaped. I want to be far less judgemental about what people are doing in her part of the world, Maya taught me that.

How do you hope she will develop as an artist?
There are so many choices to be made now by her generation in the Middle East. Maya’s hopes and fears are beside the point, her experience will empower her choices. I don’t want to predict or handicap her options.

You mean she is part of something far bigger than herself?
Because she is working in a part of the world poised for change, on the cusp of transformation, we can’t yet imagine the form her work will take. We can’t imagine the form the Middle East will take in the next decade. But it is very moving to see them embrace a high level of idealism that is informing their movements. In a way, this young generation is confronting what happened to our Western idealism. The work of Maya and her collective will, in the next few decades, become very important for their community, for the whole world.

What is your best advice for Maya and young theatre-makers in general?
My main advice is to have the courage of your convictions – not just to get a grant. I have encouraged her to always go beyond the scope of a grant proposal. The world will be watching her work and the work of her collective – they are now, as a result of her being part of the Rolex Arts Initiative, firmly placed on the global map. This extraordinary programme gives artists like Maya an opportunity to be part of a global community where opposite parts of the world are brought together.