BEIRUT: Lebanese artists Joanna Andraos and Wissam Kotait are in the midst of the biggest project of their careers.
After graduating with a degree in dramatic arts at Paris’ National Theater of Chaillot, Andraos worked as a photographer and acted in several plays such as Lina Abiad’s “Ecoute la Respiration des Memoires,” or “Listen to the Breathing of the Memories.” For his part, Kotait is a psychologist and art therapist who had a theater troupe for one year.
The team recently decided to collaborate in adapting Chadian author Koulsy Lamko’s theater play “Tout Bas ... Si Bas,” or “Low ... So Low,” for Lebanese audiences. The play revolves around the stories of three principal characters: a father who doesn’t want to come down from his tree; a grandmother who has been exiled from her village for witchcraft; and a young girl responsible for spreading a rumor.
Lamko’s challenging play was composed with a Chadian audience in mind, but the work takes up many themes that reverberate in contemporary Lebanese society.
It is these facets of the work that Andraos and Kotait want to bring to the stage of Dawar al-SHAMS, where it will open next week. The performance will see Andraos and Kotait joined on stage by Daniel Balabane, Caroline Hatem, Dana Mikhail, Samar Baldo, Jean-Elie Eid and Karim Monsef.
Andraos and Kotait talked to The Daily Star about their adaptation.
Q: Why did you choose to adapt “Tout Bas ... Si Bas”?
W.K.: When I read the text, I was working with a lot with migrant workers. There were many questions on identity, work [permits] and integration. The text deals with a lot of subjects. And when I read it, I said to myself that it deeply dealt with Lebanon, it was very poetic. When I moved back to Lebanon two years ago, I saw Joanna and we decided to go head first into this project.
Q: What is Lamko’s play about?
J.A.: It is a play that is built around a myth, which is the birth of a nonexistent child. A young girl announces this myth and [it is] reported, re-edited in different ways, by different communities, by political, religious authorities and by the media.
It echoes what is happening in Lebanon, without rearranging what is happening. We let Lamko’s [French-language] text speak for itself ... Lamko is ... a theater and literature teacher. He was exiled from his country and his play was never [staged] there.
There are eight characters and we have a big team. We created this team step by step: someone for [set design, Nadim Deaibes], for sound [Jawad Nawfal], for lighting [Kobayashi Issa] and a technical director [Marc Khoury].
Q: Where is it set?
J.A.: It takes place in a shantytown. Even Lamko – when he wrote the play – may have thought it happened in Chad. But it is not necessary to determine [the] location [of] the play.
W.K.: But the play has a tragic side and a universal perspective, which makes it [possible to set it in any] context. But it has to be in unfortunate conditions to find the same characters, relations, that same quest for hope and that same abyss.
Q: The play centers on the tale of a child who is born but who doesn’t exist. Does he represent an authority figure? Or a lost hope?
W.K.: This child represents hope, the birth of a messiah who comes to save a whole country. This lie will give the young girl hope [that the] father [will] come down from his tree, to make him more humane, to bond with him. It is with this lie that she creates hope and dreams.
J.A.: And this lie will have unexpected consequences.
Q: There is also this reporter. What is his role in the play?
J.A.: His role is to amplify the young girl’s words. [Relative to] the father, this reporter is an idealist, a revolutionary man. This father can be his alter ego but in a more emotionless manner.
Q: Is the writing supplemented by stage effects: music, sound effects or video projections?
W.K.: There is no specific soundtrack. The whole play takes place in one day, from one sunrise to another. Everything takes place at that time, outdoors, where the young girl lives, where the father is perched on his tree. The lighting and sound effects are [meant] to plunge the spectator in the setting, [to] be engulfed within the play. There is no intermission.
Q: In an interview he gave in the Czech Republic, the playwright said his work reflected the multiple African groups that – instead of bringing the people together – were distancing them. Do you think that the Lebanese audience will appreciate the parallel you are trying to make between the Chadian and Lebanese situation?
W.K.: They will be surprised! And surprised poetically as well, directly or indirectly. The sound and lighting systems, the [set design] are made in a way for the spectator to feel involved in the setting.
J.A.: The spectator will not be in an elliptical experience. We are embracing him/her in it. I think he/she will understand. There is also a lot of humor in the play.
Q: Do you hope for a certain awakening from the audience?
J.A.: As an artist, maybe we are doing it subconsciously. But if a war cannot create an awakening, how can art do so? It would be idealistic to think that way.
W.K.: It is not our objective.
Q: What is your objective?
W.K.: It is to express silences, things untold, to represent something collective through this play, to communicate with people. This is why we decided for this play, this choice, and this location [Dawar al-SHAMS.]
J.A.: Many plays [that were criticized] were played in this theater. I think we will be able to please, disturb and engender things. But to transform.
W.K.: Maybe [we will transform things] for an instant.
“Tout Bas ... Si Bas” will be up at Dawar al-SHAMS from Dec. 13-16 and 27-28. For more information, please call 01-381-290.