Street theatre is transforming the country’s drama scene, with a distinctive Syrian genre emerging.
Photos Fadi al-Hamwi
Young Syrian actors struggling to make it in mainstream public theatres are stepping off the stage in search of alternative spaces to stage their performances.
“There aren’t enough private theatres in Syria and it’s very difficult to get into the public sector,” Osama Halal, a Damascus-based theatre director who attended a recent three-day street theatre workshop organised by the Netherlands Institute for Academic Studies in Damascus (NIASD), said. “So we had to move to the street.”
Halal and a group of fellow students from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus pioneered street theatre in Syria when they formed the drama group Koon some nine years ago.
“I didn’t have street theatre or theatre on location in mind when I started Koon,” Halal said. “I just wanted to do drama, regardless of the genre. When we performed our first street theatre piece Ala Tarikak [On Your Way] in 2001, we didn’t even know what street theatre meant, let alone theatre on location or mime – these genres were unheard of in Syria at the time.”
Training on the job
Street theatre brings a new set of methods and techniques to the process of staging a performance. For most Syrian actors dabbling in the art form, it’s a ‘learn as you go’ experience, because few theatre companies give young actors and directors the leeway to experiment with the genre. Workshops are, however, organised sporadically by the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts and foreign cultural centres.
Finding appropriate rehearsal spaces and obtaining funding is another permanent struggle for young actors. While some obtain small grants from the Ministry of Culture’s Theatre Directorate, the majority seek out the support of private companies.
“I have knocked on the doors of chewing gum and soft drink companies to beg for funding,” Halal said. “So far I have managed. But each time I have a new idea for a play, I get nervous about how I will fund it.”
Syrian law, which states that a permit is needed to host a public gathering, can also act as a further obstacle to staging productions. For Halal and his friends this formed a final and unexpected hurdle to hosting their first performance. After struggling to obtain funding for the group’s premiere of Ala Tarikak, which they planned to stage near Nawfara Café in the Old City of Damascus, the group discovered they could not perform without government permission.
“Without a permit, any policeman could have arrested me,” Halal said.
Willing to run the risk, the group moved the performance to Bab Touma, another area of Damascus’s Old City, where it attracted huge crowds. “It was great – people loved the play and no one arrested us.”
After the success of their first play, the group has continued to perform in Syria and abroad. They have gained a dedicated local following, performing on roofs, in tunnels and in the streets of Damascus. In general, they obtain their permits by working with foreign cultural centres.
“If it weren’t for the cultural centres, we would never have been given permission to present our plays,” Halal said.
A distinctive style
The lack of structured training programmes is seeing a distinctive Syrian form of alternative theatre emerge, one rooted in the rich and complex Arabic language. Annemieke Delis, a Dutch theatre director specialising in street theatre who hosted the NIASD workshop, said the Arab world’s “huge poetry heritage” is reflected in the country’s dramatic style.
“This is reflected in Syrian theatre, where the spoken word is so important that you rarely see silent plays,” she said.
Delis recently directed “112, Murder at the Castle”, an interactive thriller staged at the Damascus Citadel, where the “Syrian theatre writers are really looking for psychology and political intrigue in their plays,” she said. “Given the political situation in the region, it makes sense that they write about big issues. The Netherlands is a wealthy country, so it’s boring to put on theatre performances there because we don’t have big subjects to write about.”
What struck Delis most during her visit to Syria was the enthusiasm displayed by local actors. “I was impressed at the motivation of Syrian actors,” she said. “They were very attentive and willing to learn all through the workshop.”
Such enthusiasm is needed to launch a successful production. “It’s very tough working in theatre in Syria,” Halal said. “I’m young now and I’m ready to fight to get my play on stage, but this determination won’t last long. When I get older I won’t have the energy to pursue my ideas and projects.”
Nevertheless, Halal is certain local street theatre will only grow in popularity. “I know that other young directors will carry on after me, so street theatre will never disappear in Syria. The question is whether it will evolve if theatre directors and actors continue to have such short careers.”
This article was published in Syria Today magazine