Damascus Theatre Lab
Articles, Essays, Volume 3

Damascus Theater Laboratory

Damascus Theater Laboratory
By Waseem Al Sharqy
Translated by Meriem Harbi
Arab StagesVolume 2, Number 1 (Fall 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

A Long Theater’s Journey Into Night

“There will come a time when everybody will know why, for what purpose, there is all this suffering, and there will be no more mysteries. But now we must live … we must work, just work!”

With these words, the last of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, actress Nawar Youssef ends the Damascus Theater Laboratory production, entitled It Happened Tomorrow, in the midst of actress Amal Omran’s sobs, and the tears of some of the audience that filled the abandoned roasting house in the old city of Damascus. Director Oussama Ghanam used the venue as an alternative space to perform his play, comprised of texts from Franz Xaver Kroetz, Dario Fo, Franca Rame, and Mark Ravenhill.

It was the fall of 2010, and the audience came out of this unusual play suffocating and euphoric, touched by the sensibility it instilled in them. Now, however, our sensibility has irremediably changed. It Happened Tomorrow was the first show produced by the Damascus Theater Laboratory, founded by Oussama Ghanam in the fall of 2010. But the story of the laboratory dates back to a slightly earlier time, to 2008 precisely, when Oussama Ghanam worked as the theatre curator for “Damascus, Arab Capital of Culture.” Thanks to his personal efforts, and to favorable conditions, he brought to Damascus showcases of some of the best of the world stage and international artists such as Peter Brook, Johan Simons, Arpad Schilling, Josef Nadj, Neville Tranter and several others. All of these were presented for the first time in the Syrian capital. In that exceptional year, a burgeoning sensibility was forming, particularly among a young enthusiastic group of students and graduates of the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus. Ghanam, through his work as a professor at the Institute, in addition to his role as a curator of an event that ran over the course of a year in the city of Damascus, and through his artistic practice as a dramaturg on Sławomir Mrożek’s well-received Emigrants, managed to shape the spirit that would preside over the creation of the Damascus Theater Laboratory a few months later. It began with the performance of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Ghanam worked with a talented actor, Mohammed al- Rashi to present a monodrama that offered to the Syrian audience a relatively new artistic sensibility. The production split the audience in two: strong enthusiasts, touched by its sensitivity, and restless skeptics, dissatisfied by the use of literary Arabic instead of Syrian dialect, as it was the case in the Emigrants.

Damascus Theatre Lab

Amal Omran, Nawar Youssef, It’s Happened Tomorrow, 2010

Fall of 2010

In addition to Beckett’s powerful, inflexible, and at times, almost impenetrable text, It Happened Tomorrow was presented in the fall of 2010. This was completely new material to the Syrian audience. At the time, the Laboratory worked on Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Request Concert as base for a solid dramaturgic structure. The show started with a scene from Shopping and Fucking by Mark Ravenhill, a text that was (and still is) new to the Damascus theatre audiences.This scene from Ravenhill’s piece was meant as a depiction of one the facets of the brutality of the nascent neoliberalism in Syria. In the job interview scene, the young actress Nawar Youssef faced Mohammed al-Rashi, the employer oozing male aggressiveness, with a tinge of sensory ineptitude, who forced her to take off her shirt at the end of the scene while performing a scene from Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Ravenhill’s scene served as a prologue for the rest of the texts in the show. The director-dramaturg also selected two of the political monologues by Dario Fo, and his lifelong companion Franca Rame. Both texts tell yet another chapter of the violation of women’s humanity, politically and socially. The main element in the performance was the play Request Concert (Wunschkonzert) that was transposed accurately and sensitively to fit the Syrian context.This made the audience sitting in the old roasting house feel that they were violating the privacy of a woman in her forties, as she settled into her home after a long, exhausting day’s work. The silent suicide then seemed like the perfect ending. Everyone felt that day that It Happened Tomorrow pushed the barriers of fearlessness in Syrian theater, and took it to a new place, be it in the intensity of the physical interpretation by both actresses, the boldness of the language used, or, more importantly, the political stance. However, a few months later, the norms changed. Uprisings broke out in the Arab world, and the Syrian people joined the ranks of the revolutionary peoples.

Through the workshops’ gates

In early 2011, the Laboratory started offering research workshops for theater specialists who were graduates of one the five departments of the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus. The first workshop was a return to Samuel Beckett. After breaking down Krapp’s Last Tape, the Laboratory proceeded to examine some of Beckett’s problematic texts. This type of theatrical research was, at the time, a completely new practice for the Syrian academic and theatrical worlds. The theoretical and practical research, using all media (collective reading, watching recordings of a great variety of Becket’s productions, intensive discussions) was followed by practical experimentation within the timeframe of the workshop (90 hours). These activities were not aimed at creating an artistic product to be shown, as per the typical methods normally used in Syrian theatre. Rather, their objective was pure experimentation and a mutual theoretical test between specialists, some lacking what the others possessed.The laboratory has offered a number of such workshops over the past years, as war was raging on the outside and issues were mounting at the individual, social and political levels. On the surface, the specialized theatrical research against the backdrop of conflict, seemed a luxury, disconnected from reality. But for those who attended these workshops, it was a transformative experience. Over eight workshops were organized. They mainly took up controversial and complex works of playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Heiner Müller, Sarah Kane, Anton Chekhov, and Tennessee Williams. Some of the workshops tackled important concepts like dramaturgy and translating for theatre, and provided a practical answer, on more than one level, to allegations of extravagance in artistic research.

Damascus Theatre Lab

Mohamed Alarashi, Krapp’s Last Tape, 2009

On one level, these workshops provided the enthusiastic new graduates with a healthy dose of knowledge to fill a gap that four years in the Theater Institute couldn’t close, in particular in the Acting, Dance, and Scenography departments, where the teachings still rely (almost solely) on practice at the expense of theory. The graduates of the Theater Studies department found answers to their questions regarding the practical aspects of theater. It encouraged them to view the theatrical experience not only through the prism of analysis and critique, but also through creativity and production. On the second level, the interactive space created by the workshops led to new theatrical experiments, starting with two shows entitled Beckett’s Dramaturgy, following the first workshop centered upon the Irish writer. The two performances were produced in the absence of the traditional director, and led to positive discussions in the Syrian theater spheres. In addition, as a number of independent productions were presented in the following years (works by Sarraute, Sartre, Pinter and young Syrian playwright Wael Kaddour with a physical theatre adaptation of Patrick Susskind’s the Pigeon), the Laboratory played a significant role in introducing the artists to each other during the workshops, and provided them with knowledge and support during the creative process.

 The Homecoming

Perhaps the most difficult test for the Damascus Theater Laboratory was at the beginning of 2013, when it became clear that the human and artistic dimensions of the workshops were no longer sufficient in the face of the collapsing artistic scene in Damascus. And yet, there was no option but carrying on despite all the external setbacks. Oussama Ghanam decided to produce Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming.  The Homecoming was challenging because of the specificity of Pinter’s text, and the higher number of actors required in comparison with the previous productions. Finding six good actors able to convey the words of Pinter to the Damascene public was not an easy task, especially considering the lack of traditions of commitment in the Syrian theatrical milieu.  The Laboratory transposed Pinter’s text from London in the sixties to Damascus at the end of the first decade of the century, on the eve of the Syrian uprising. The prodigal son, Teddy (Issam in the Syrian version), returns to his family in Damascus, after ten years in Dubai, to find that very little has changed. A masculine and tense atmosphere has been prevailing in the family home since his mother’s death. He finds himself immersed in what has become a swamp.  His older brother, who is a pimp, tries to seduce his wife with the blessing of their elderly father. His younger brother, who in the Syrian version is an actor instead of a boxer, shows him nothing but indifference. In the end, Issam returns to where he came from, whereas Ruth (Meriem in the Syrian version) decides to stay in Damascus in the males’ house with all its corruption.It is as if she had opted for the sincerity and the truthfulness of this filth instead of leading a sheltered and artificial existence, a life of opulence and stability. This cruel image is the Laboratory’s vision of Damascus. A harsh and dirty place, yet real and honest. It goes without saying that all the textual equivalences for The Homecoming in the Syrian version required time and space to be explained. To begin with, there was no pre-established model for transposing the language of the text to a Syrian narrative, unlike what is observed in some dramaturgical attempts in imperfect contemporary Syrian productions. After nearly six months of exhausting artistic research, the Laboratory presented The Homecoming in an alternative venue once again, this time in the basement of a hotel in downtown Damascus. The show was performed over a ten night period to an audience that did not exceed sixty people each night (due to space constraints). The result of six months of research and rehearsals reached a total of 600 people at best. Indeed, the Laboratory was unable to present the play for a second engagement because of the difficulty of the situation in Syria, and the travel of some of actors outside Syria. But there was a great and positive reaction of the press and the small audience that attended it. The Homecoming offered a vivid example of the relationship between the independent Syrian theater and its audience in the recent years.

Damascus Theatre Lab

Oussama Ghanam (Director), The Homecoming, 2013

Investing in an Uncertain Future

The Laboratory work, both in its workshops and during the performances, is a cultural and educational investment offered to a group of young people who are still passionate about the independent cultural work in Syria, outside the umbrella of State’s theatrical institutions that dominate the theatrical scene. These institutions are corrupt and obsolete, and their repertoire is disconnected from reality, or at least from young people’s goals and aspirations. Naturally, one cannot overlook the sensorial and high artistic experience provided by the work of the Laboratory to audiences, plentiful or sparse, that have managed to attend its performances in the past years. Both in Syria and abroad, where the productions were shown a few times, they were met with success Despite the fundamental value that a theatrical work must embrace, the Damascus Theater Laboratory indisputably added value to the future investment in the emerging youth. For this age group, theatre and independent cultural work remain a way of life, a space to live one’s intimacy, as opposed to the loneliness and alienation that mainstream formats generate.

Who We Are

The Laboratory’s artistic director is Oussama Ghanam (born in 1975), assisted by Dima Abaza (born in 1982) in charge of translation and administration, and formerly, actor Mohammed Al Rashi. The laboratory is also collaborating with other artists on some projects. The core team might be joined by actors, assistants or trainees, depending on the needs, but the backbone of the laboratory is currently limited to Oussama Ghanam and Dima Abaza. This situation might serve as a starting point of a discussion about challenges facing the Syrian Theatre scene. The absence of traditions of independent artistic work in Syria make the definitions, the descriptions, and the identity references of any theatrical or cultural entity seem ambiguous and non-specific. The main criticism addressed toward the Laboratory’s work revolves around the central role played by the artistic director and his direct and non-participatory supervision of all projects and activities, and around his academic and artistic management of the content of training workshops. Some see it as incompatible with the values of sharing and of collective production that the Laboratory calls for. But is it possible to apply such ideas? This very issue might be the missing link in the training workshops up to this day. Despite the importance of the Laboratory’s contribution to dramaturgy analysis through the workshop, the transfer of its experience and methods through theatrical production in accordance with the framework of artistic research seems urgent, particularly in view of the poverty of the independent theatrical scene in Syria, and the daily migration of the young graduates of the High Institute of Dramatic Arts .

Back to the Beginning

“There will come a time when everybody will know why, for what purpose, there is all this suffering, and there will be no more mysteries. But now we must live … we must work, just work!”

This sentence from Chekhov is a poetic expression of the Damascus Theater Laboratory’s work, and of the dozens of young men and women quietly working in Syria today to enrich their personal dreams and fulfill the collective aspirations on where and how they wish to live. The poetic quality of the sentence and its magic did not end in 2011, and they are unlikely to end today. The attempts to work and live accompany the Damascus Theater Laboratory on this journey, and all its friends everywhere, with the hope that they will all reach their destination after an arduous passage through this long lasting night.


Waseem Al Sharqy graduated from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus, and has worked as a dramaturg for several independent Syrian plays. He also works as a freelance journalist.


Logo_Publications

Arab Stages
Volume 2, Number 1 (Fall 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor-in-Chief: Marvin Carlson

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Hazem Azmy, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Katherine Hennessey, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editor: Meir A. Farjoun

Assistant Managing Editor: Nina Angela Mercer

Table of Content
Essays

  • The 2015 Egyptian National Theatre Festival by Dalia Basiouny
  • Damascus Theater Laboratory by Waseem Al Sharqy
  • The Birth of Modern Iraqi Theatre: Church Drama in Mosul in the Late Nineteenth Century by Amir Al-Azraki and James Al-Shamma
  • Theatre as an Optimistic Political Act: Lebanese Theatre Artist Sahar Assaf by Michael Malek Najjar
  • A Feminist Tuberculosis Melodrama: Melek by Painted Bird Theatre by Emre Erdem
  • Much Ado About “Theatre and Censorship Conference” by Dalia Basiouny
  • Mass Media Muslims: A Three Lens Theory of Representation by Jamil Khoury

Announcements

  • Issam Mahfouz’ The Dictator presented in New York by Marvin Carlson
  • An 1868 Egyptian Helen of Troy play published by Marvin Carlson
  • Nahda: Five Visions of an Arab Awakening
  • Malumat: Resources for Research, Writing/Publishing, Teaching, & Performing Arts compiled by Kate C. Wilson

Book Reviews

  • Muslim Rap, Halal Soaps, and Revolutionary Theatre by Karin van Nieuwkerk, ed. – A book review by Marvin Carlson
  • Arab American Drama, Film and Performance: A Critical Study, 1908 to the Present – A book review by George Potter
  • Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora – A book review by Michael Malek Najjar

Short Plays

  • Out of Control by Wael Qadour
  • The Village of Tishreen by Muhammad al-Maghut

www.arabstages.org
arabstages@gc.cuny.edu

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

 

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