On the importance of gritty theater

Sellars grazes through his audience at the French Institute, Saturday.

BEIRUT: Though the stage was set with two chairs and a platter of strawberries, Peter Sellars’ lecture at the French Institute Saturday did not make use of either.

The renowned theater director prefers a peripatetic approach to lecture – grazing, microphone in hand, among the audience members scattered around the auditorium. Sellars is possessed of a highly performative persona – he wore a floral shirt and vans, accessorized with an array of beads, topped with what appeared to be gravity-defying hair – complemented by the fiery delivery that has become his signature.

The discussion focused on artistic practice but his introductory remarks were political, launching into a subject that he admitted was not easy to broach at home in the United States: the experience of Gulf War army veterans.

“In my country,” he said, “we are constantly hearing the voices of money. That is not democracy. And anything that does not have money behind it, you will not hear it.”

A true democracy, he continued, requires that the voices of those who do not or cannot speak, are heard. “No one is safe,” he warned in sermon-like tones, “until we find a way to convince people who are not saying anything to speak again.”

Theater practitioners have a very particular duty in creating the spaces, often dissident, where voices that do not toe the official line can be heard. That responsibility, Sellars stated, requires an outlook that is both rigorous and humanitarian.

“You have to listen very deeply to what someone is saying to you,” he said, “and what someone is not saying to you.”

Sellars’ lecture is part of Zoukak Sidewalks, the theater company’s program of events for this year. Each month, a contemporary theater practitioner will be invited for a residency at Zoukak’s studio and share their creative processes – through workshops, showing works in progress and performing pieces of finished work.

The range of guests includes text-based theater companies, theater writers, multimedia dramaturges, performance artists, makers of physical theater, choreographers and stage directors from France, Germany, Australia, the U.S., Greece, Spain and the United Kingdom.

The lineup includes such luminaries as Nathalie Garaud, Olivier Saccomano, Michael Walling and Toni Cots.

Zoukak Sidewalks’ next event will be a workshop and lecture by U.S.-raised, classical Indian dancer Rozina Shiraz Gilani, who will situate her form historically and instruct participants in the base components of Bharatanatyam – an Indian dance form that embodies theater, poetry, music and mythology.

“These are people who have interesting itineraries in the performance-making world and who have itineraries that are similar to ours,” said Zoukak’s Maya Zbib, “so they are multidisciplinary artists and are politically engaged.

“The idea was not to bring huge companies or huge productions [to Beirut],” she continued, “but artists who have interesting research methods and practice their art in a way that relates to their own history, because that is the way artists work here.”

Sellars’ contribution to Sidewalks was to contextualize political engagement in the theater world, to lay out a theory of what performance should set out to accomplish in these globalized and increasingly digitized days. He has set the bar quite high.

There was a time when three major cities, London, Paris and New York, were considered the be-all-and-end-all of the theater world.

No longer, said Sellars, who is known for updating classical works, most notably Mozart’s operas, with contemporary cultural and political references, to the pleasure of some and the indignation of most.

“Today, the center of the world is everywhere and no one can understand the whole,” he declared. “We are in a place that is permanently open.”

The open and bustling nature of the contemporary world, Sellars opined, means theater needs to adapt. His vision is one of community-based, small-scale theater tasked with telling difficult stories.

“We are living in a time,” the director said, “where theater is no longer about a nice production, of a nice play, for nice people.”

In Sellars’ world, theater is doing its job when a gang member and a head of a corporation can make a piece of art together, and abscond from their rigid social identities and adopt more fluid ones.

After his Saturday talk, Sellars told The Daily Star that the modern artist should lead a double life: making a living with another profession and making art in his or her spare time.

His vision is no mere fantasy, he stressed, citing the community-based project he directed in Chicago. When he learned that 60 percent of the homeless population in the U.S. is made up of war veterans, he made it a point to find them and speak with them about their troubles.

After two months of interviews he discovered that they were unable to meaningfully participate in society because of combat trauma, because of which “some part of them has been ruined and no longer functions.”

These interviews became the basis for an opera that was produced in Chicago in March 2011, where Sellars adapted Handel’s “Hercules” to reflect the modern experience of U.S. soldiers.

“We are in a period where we have to reimagine theater completely. ... The theater is the most powerful thing right now because it is not virtual. [Theater-goers] are in one room and have decided as human beings to share a space. That is incredibly powerful.”

Zoukak Sidewalks continues on April 19 with a lecture at 7 p.m. by Indian dancer Rozina Shiraz Gilani at Zoukak Studio. For more information visit

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 16, 2013, on page 16.




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