Wolf and the Owl
Poetry, Lyrics, Translations
and Musings by Alex Etchart

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

By on Tuesday 4th September, 2012

 After 6 months training across Europe to give voice to people living in conflict, occupation and exile, Teatro di Nascosto – Hidden Theatre goes to the Ashtar Youth Theatre Festival in Ramallah, Palestine. After 10 days of workshops, over 50 actors and 5 directors from across Europe and the Middle-East collaborate on a new performance entitled ‘A Step Into Tomorrow’. But once it’s over we go back to our day to day lives and a sad reality remains…

Feeling People’s Stories
I first experienced Theatre Reportage two years ago. Eight people in khaki rags ran into the middle of a protest for asylum seekers in Covent Garden and screamed at us “What are you doing? The soldiers are coming, run with us!” They had us all running desperately on the spot. We soon became disoriented, shaken and out of breath. Whatever this was, it wasn’t just theatre. Something was happening: we had stopped passively spectating and started feeling, not just in our heads but all over our bodies.

​ The performers went on to initiate us in a refugee school, based on real accounts, where we learnt how to smuggle into Europe without dying and claim asylum without being deported. No matter our prejudgements or political standing on asylum, for that moment we lived it, not true suffering itself, but at least a part of someone’s life. This brought about a more personal, physical appreciation of others’ plight.

​The next performance I saw was at SOAS about the green wave in Iran. Here, amidst the re-enactment on stage of brutal treatment of prisoners we heard individuals’ stories. Real human accounts, often word for word. They told not only of the soldiers at the door, but of waking before the children in the morning and putting the kettle on beforehand, of fundamental human experiences everyone can relate to. Suddenly these “poor oppressed” people became tangible women and men, your annoying aunt or your friend from math class. The only difference was that, where they lived, at any moment a solider could march through your door, shoot your brother in front of you, throw you in a van and leave you in dark cell for months. And their spirits were in the room with us, desperate to have their voices heard — for us to bear witness to their suffering.

​ Next thing I know I’m organising the venue for the director’s one-woman- show where she tells stories of her various friends in Kurdistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. She shows their photos and sings their folk songs in their respective languages. This sharing of joy and laughter as well as tears was more intimate and then I knew I wanted to learn to do this. I approached Annet Henneman and she invited me to try out the rehearsals the following month.

Training in Theatre Reportage
​It started with two days of rehearsals in January 2012. It was intense work, as much psychological introspection as physical work on the body as a tool for expression. Can you imagine my surprise when I found out the group were starting a 6 month rehearsal cycle which would culminate in participating in a Theatre Festival in Palestine in July? I was thrilled that I could combine three things close to my heart: storytelling, activism and the Palestinian struggle.

​ We met up for one week in each month. Because the actors came from across Europe we met in three different countries to minimise the impact on people’s work and studies. Those able to funded flights and a greater share of the communal expenses, and the less solvent like myself found other means of travel such as hitchhiking.

​ It required commitment, both in terms of time and in terms of dedication to immersing oneself fully in the work. But three months in, after many theatre exercises and bordering-on-traumatic role-plays, we found ourselves sharing songs, food and sleeping space in Annet’s rehearsal space in Volterra, Italy. It was then we found ourselves sitting amongst friends. I realised this was the key ingredient, if we are telling stories of our own friends, about someone and not just something we care about, the quiver in one’s voice cannot lie to the listener.

The Auction
​After 6 months of work we collated some of the experiences that had emerged in rehearsals into a show which became ‘The Auction’ – Voices of the Voiceless from Palestine and Iran. It was an anarchic collection of immersive stories, interactive experiences and moments of parody threaded together by the auctioning items’ alluding to the commodification of peoples suffering. In hindsight this was particularly relevant given the talk of inactive corrupt NGOs in Palestine and foreign aid that ultimately fuels the occupation. We performed a preview in London before our feature at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin in Palestine.

​The work was not ready for the preview performance until the very day we performed. Not for lack of preparation but because of the organic, immediate nature of theatre reportage. It was more important to be up to date on the status of the Palestinian hunger strikers than to be aesthetically well rehearsed. On the day of the performance we had hired a small space hidden behind a car mechanics in Hackney. When preparing the space we thought no one would find the place. Little did we know it would become packed beyond expectation.

​We started by giving each audience member an envelope in which to write a message for the Palestinians at the youth festival. Then we threw them into an hour and half performance in which the audience heard horrific stories of Iranian protests being crushed, laughed at clown soldiers training to tickle, were interrogated and cross-questioned under torchlight, bid for soap made by someone’s grandmother being evicted from her home, sang along to “Where have all the flowers gone?”, witnessed torture re-enacted on stage and finally took to the stage to dance to Iranian club music at a secret party in someone’s basement.

What was fascinating for us was the difference between the reactions in the UK and in Palestine. In London people were often in awe at the extent of the human rights abuses that go on undocumented and, more importantly, they were touched by the vivid portrayal of our friends in their everyday lives. A rewarding number mentioned that it was inspiring to witness these things coming to life on stage rather than to read them as cold statistics in a news report, and that they would find ways to take (more) action in their everyday lives.

​ In Jenin almost half the audience were in tears, grateful that their stories were being told at all. The greatest honour was to hear Palestinians telling us that the stories felt real, accurate and that the theatre work did them justice. We’d only heard our director telling us how this kind of work was emotionally received by the people whose stories she told. In all honesty we had not believed her for fear of perverting peoples suffering with our white western privilege. Only in the moment after the show did I realise the truth and depth of Annet’s words.

Ashtar Youth Theatre Festival
Over 10 days, 60 students, 5 theatre directors, 8 theatres, and over 15 nationalities represented, doing workshops all day every day and working towards one final performance in the Ramallah Cultural Palace here in Falastine (Palestine).

​Perhaps more importantly, we’re all living together, eating together, sharing rooms, doing laundry, singing, dancing, laughing, and crying on each other’s shoulders. Be we from present day Palestine, Jordan, Europe or Colombia, we are sharing what is in common and learning from where we differ. Even the trainee catering staff are as much part of the family as are the managers of the space. Every night we all share songs and stories into the early hours.

On the first day, once we were settled, slept and breakfasted, we participated in demo workshops from the resident theatre director (Iman Aoun, director of the Gaza Monologues) and the four guest theatre directors (Annet Henneman, Fernando Nonez, Lydia Beata and Uta Plate) where they showcased their working style. This included Theatre of the Oppressed forum theatre, contemporary interpretative dance, searching for memories contained in the body and storytelling through Theatre Reportage.​ Over the following week we divide equally into four groups, each under one guest director, developing individual pieces of theatre with the intention of ultimately combining it in a two hour public performance.

​In the meantime we travel together every other day to a different town
or historical site. For the Europeans it is a chance to see famed sites and for
the Falastinians it’s a chance to show off their knowledge and connection to the land. Every one has a story of a family member who used to live here, a friend who was exiled from there and gradually a picture is built up about the human landscape and by extension of the occupation.

​ On day 7 we go to the Ramallah Cultural Centre where we will all perform on the last day. Each group shows off their work while the directors convene to deliberate how to combine it. One group illustrates the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling in a series of scenes directed by each actor in turn while another group dramatises a set of self-contained stories from the actors’ lives. We performers marvel at how far everyone has come, the individuals as actors and the groups as friends.

​ The next two days are a whirlwind of non-stop work and emotion. We develop transitions between scenes where the entire stage gets stormed with snakes and work on an opening and closing dance to symbolise the “step into tomorrow”. Back at the hostel and despite the need for good rest we can’t help staying up later and later into the early hours and relishing the time we have left together.

​On the last day the directors give motivational speeches as camera crews amass in the hall. One thing becomes clear before the performance even begins: whether or not the show goes well, the journey has been an unforgettable experience. The cross-cultural bonding, the learning on all sides and the profound connections made are so much more of “a step into tomorrow” than any piece of theatre could ever be.

​ The performance that followed was the best we could have hoped for and everyone gave their whole to it. It was full of unexpected magic and synchronicity which could only have arisen from a group truly bonded and feeding off each other’s energy. Any technical hitches were compensated for by the actors’ professionalism and by the end everyone was beaming with tears in their eyes. It went out on national and international television and the entire project has been documented extensively by our dedicated team.

Back to Reality
Once the performance was done we came back to the hostel to celebrate with a bittersweet taste in our mouths. We had made such good friends over the week and now we faced the sad truth that we Europeans were going back to our comfortable lives while our Palestinian friends were going back to their constant state of uncertainty. Some joked that it may be the last time we saw them.

We said our goodbyes, took our photos, and made vows to tell their stories and to return, but everyone knew some of the promises would be inevitably empty. The European groups prepared psychologically to cross the border, minimising risks by deleting contentious photographs off our cameras and hiding all theatre festival paraphernalia.

​Me and my French friend are two who have stayed on, visiting friends from the theatre and making new ones up and down the country. Just this week we spent two days in Jenin refugee camp living with a couple of our fellow actors, staying with one of their families. We shared Ramadan dinner and breakfast at the crack of dawn and fasted during the day. We hung out, played with his younger sister and his cheeky nephew Ahmad, shared funny and sad stories and even went to a party and smoked sheesha.

​Sure enough, the evening after we left, we received news that the Palestinian Authority (PA) had raided the house we had stayed in. Two year old Ahmad was inside. Thank god no one was hurt. But they communicated an ultimatum to our friend to hand himself in or be shot. They want to pin the murder of the local mayor on him because they have no suspects and he’s labeled as a ‘local troublemaker’.

We spoke to him on the phone only an hour before he went into hiding. He laughed that it was no big deal, he’s done it before, and that he knows it’s risky but it’s better than spending two years in a cell. We haven’t heard from him since.

​And so life goes on here in Falastine. A harsh reminder that behind every well-rehearsed story lies a real human face, a real beating heart, someone’s brother, daughter, cousin, teacher, student, worker, friend… and this time, our friend.

-Ali Majnoun 

Posted in: Falastin, Musings
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Blog owner, singing/strumming person, word speaker, community arts make-happen-er, eco-baby.

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