BEIRUT: Theater-makers from Lebanon, Syria, Morocco and Tunisia will gather at Tayyouneh’s Sunflower Cultural Space (aka Dawar al-Shams) this week for the first edition of “Agora 1,” a platform for theater dialogue and a laboratory for experimentation. Theater performances and open forums have been scheduled with the aim of supporting young Arab dramaturges who undertake, as organizers put it, “a syncretic process of experimentation, critical thinking and creativity.”
Agora is a nonprofit association focusing on the development of culture and arts. “It considers that each citizen has the right to move, express and discuss freely in public spaces,” Agora’s organizers say. “The total absence of a cultural policy in Lebanon, and in most Arab countries, is a big concern in everything we are doing,” said Hanan Hajj-Ali, veteran thespian and Dawar al-Shams co-founder.
The events scheduled for Agora are meant to pinpoint “what are the problems, the differences and the perspectives” of these young theater-makers.
All the works scheduled for the event are quite different from one another. The participating troupes all share common “practice, concepts and orientations,” Hajj-Ali added, as well as notions of “how and why they relate to society.”
Agora begins Thursday evening with “Lucena/Obedience Training,” a new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “Emperor and Galilean,” by Beirut’s Zoukak Theater Company. Founded in 2006, the troupe’s stated goal is to seek continuity in theater practice, as a means to position themselves “against marginalized systems.”
Hajj-Ali explained how Zoukak had been chosen in a competition to work on Ibsen’s writing.
“This text is hardly known,” Hajj-Ali said. “Ibsen talks about the different layers in the relationship among power and society, religion and politics. There is theater within theater,” taking up the power the autocratic stage director “has on the actors.”
With their play “Hadda,” Morocco’s DABATEATR theater troupe investigates the notion of a “theatrical laboratory” in slightly different terms. DABATEATR mingles pedagogy and dramaturgy, focusing on issues of public space, Agora’s organizers say, using “educational tools to reach those who face multiple barriers, hindering their social and professional integration.”
At the center of this poetic and adventurous one-woman show is the eponymous musician, Hadda (Jamila El Haouni), a tortured woman telling her life story. This theater-concert places Haouni at the center of a stage, while a mingling of animations and other videos and music are projected around her.
Hajj-Ali said that when she saw this play for the first time, she was very impressed by Haouni’s talent.
Damascus Theater Lab will present Oussama Ghanam’s “It Happened Tomorrow.” Created in 2010, this play assembles three acts of three different plays: “Requested Concert” by Franz Xavier Krotz, Dario Fo, Franca Rame’s “Monologues” and an episode from the English play “Shopping and Fucking.” Although Ghanam has written more recent plays, Hajj-Ali explained, this one was by far the “more interesting in terms of experimentation.”
The idea of laboratories is fairly common nowadays. Laboratoire d’Art’s Cabriolet Film Festival, for example, offers a yearly screening program of short film meant to open audiences’ minds to different views of cinema. A similar objective is evident in Agora 1. It hopes to promote discussions of the objectives and novelties of experimental theater, emphasizing the importance of diversity of opinion and provoking onlookers to consider new perspectives.
One of Agora’s driving principles is freedom of expression, and an open forum will draw the curtain on the debut edition of the event. Members of the contributing troupes will discuss their latest productions and shares their experiences trying to create independent theater in their respective countries.
The Tunisian Theater Lab spokesperson Moez Mrabet will be on hand to introduce the staging of the troupe’s new work “Striptease.” Hajj-Ali promises that several other special (and secret) guests have been chosen to grace Agora’s final forum, to add depth and further layers of experimentation to the discussion.
In addition to allowing thespians to share their work with the Beirut public, the closing forum is will provide a space for lab participants to address fundamental questions about theater practice and the public – such as how laboratories like Agora can keep developing despite lack of national cultural policies, and how progressive thespians can bridge the gap between theory and practice.
“Agora 1” will run at Dawar al-Shams from Jan. 16-19. For more information, please call 01-381-290.