VOL. 7, NO. 4 JUNE 2010 $5.00
Vol. 7, No.4 JUNE 2010
Canada’s Theatre of War
Editorial by Edward Little
Seeing like a child sees
Groping through Darkness, Stumbling into Light? Reflections on Night, a collaborative creation by Human Cargo
“Loss, change, and the troubling persistence of memory”
Dispatch A View from the Field
Philippe Ducros takes us with him on his haunting journey into occupied Palestine through his play L’AFFICHE.
Arianna Bardesono describes the cross(multi)cultural experience of directing Rahul Varma’s Truth and Treason at Montreal’s Monument National.
Michelle Dellamora looks at Human Cargo’s theatrical exploration of Canada’s northern communities.
Rob Ormsby talks with Guillermo Verdecchia about questions of nontraditional casting and directing Rice Boy at Stratford.
Jennifer Capraru, artistic director of Rwanda’s Isôko Theatre, responds to Lisa Ndejuru.
Robert Winslow revisits the last fifty years of Edmonton’s vibrant amateur theatre scene in his review of Hot Thespian Action! Ten Premiere Plays from Walterdale Playhouse.
Public notice b y P h i l i pp e D u c r o s Khali : Il y a si peu de différence entre attente et attentat Sometimes, without realizing it, the road you take in life changes you totally. My path led me here to Palestine, to the core of the occupation. It’s my choice, that’s certain. But what makes someone take the road? What brings someone to a place like Palestine, instead of a playa in Mexico? What makes us take the plane and dive into the midst of sorrow, what brings someone to rip away the very fabric of hope, of trust? It would be easy to give pre-wrapped answers, to talk of social responsibility, or of a desire for justice, compassion, and humanity. Of course, it would be true. It is true. But isn’t there something else that drives us here? An encounter with oneself that is deeper? More extreme? An encounter with all the faces of our own soul, from the monster to the angel, with all our possible destinies. That too would be true. And if it is ourselves that we meet on those roads, it is because the people that we come across, those who carry on their everyday lives in those lands under those regimes, slowly become us. This is because they are us. They are me. So I took the plane. I followed the rotation of the earth, knowing that coming back would be riding upstream. I had been to Beirut, to the Palestinian camps in Lebanon; I had crossed the border to Damascus. I still have friends there. I had travelled before. But nothing can prepare you for the violence of a militarized occupation. Nothing we read about, nothing we watch on a screen, nothing we imagine. My words became hard, my fists clenched. Unwillingly. Once you are there, in front of the roaring oppression of the well-oiled grind that is occupation, it becomes hypocritical to claim neutrality. When one faces oppression, neutrality falls automatically into the oppressor’s camp. Not denouncing it, accepts it. But even though oppression is obvious, in spite of the wide span of the horror, nobody speaks up. Silence is the rule. We have to break the silence. We have to speak of the inevitable violence that comes with occupation. We have to tell of the ignominy of the settlements, of the planned despair.
We have to speak up.
© Federico Ciminari, 2009 Étienne Pilon, Justin Laramée (Jewish Worshippers)
L’AFFICHE (The public notice, or The poster) is a play about the occupation of Palestine. About its all-encompassing impact on the Palestinians— as well as on the Israelis. It shows the unbearable violence that makes day-to-day life impossible. Voice is given to those whom we so seldom hear— everyday people. The play focuses especially on the different processes of martyrisation, the recuperation of intimate tragedies, the death of a beloved, by the public and political spheres as a means of battle. And on the consequences of this recuperation on dreams and on hope. Martyrisation is a powerful weapon used in both camps. We performed in December 2009 at Théâtre Espace Libre in Montreal. We will do a second run in the same theatre in the fall of 2011. We plan on touring.
RÉSUMÉ Bilal Islam dit Le Barbier : C’est toi qui les imprimes, ces affiches, Abou Salem. Puisse ton fils ne pas t’entendre.
THE PLAY Ismaïl : Des martyrs encore? Je ne veux pas. Je veux peindre des paysages, des paysages à perte de vue… Ou toi.
In Palestine, when somebody dies as a direct cause of the occupation, some faction appropriates this death. They make a poster, a public notice with the picture of the martyr, and hang it on the walls. The walls of this country are completely covered by them.
Abou Salem prints those posters. One day, he ends up printing the poster of his only son, Salem, shot down by the Israeli soldiers who roam every night in the refugee camps. The play follows the different destinies on both sides of the bullet. Oum Salem, mother of the martyr, can’t find any answers other than hate, and her unbearable suffering mutates into destruction. The family fragments like a cluster bomb. On the other side, Itzhak, the soldier responsible for Salem’s death, drowns in the very violence of his deeds. Does he have the luxury to doubt? Shahida, Salem’s sister, desperately tries to dream with her lover Ismaïl— in spite of the checkpoints, the targeted killings, the resistance, the sun, and the concrete. They dream of tenderness in the midst of steel. As the present is too hard to cope with, they dream of a future. They desire to escape—through art (he is a painter), through love, through the outer world. Then the story explodes, like life itself over there. The lion’s share goes to fear and to the vultures nourished by it. It lines up the survivors, their backs against the “separation wall.” Eight meters high, the wall…
P u b lic notice / b y P h i l i p p e D u c r o s
THE SLIDE SHOW Abou Salem : Tombez, les bombes, chantez les mitrailleuses ! Nous sommes éternels parce que nous savons danser ! 2004. I am invited to go on a writing journey in Aleppo, Syria, organized by the French association Écritures Vagabondes, directed at the time by Monique Blin. It had been a while since I wanted to write about what I used to call the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as if we talked about the SinoTibetan conflict, not the occupation of Tibet.) I fly to Lebanon two weeks before the workshop to see Mirza, a Lebanese friend I met in India. She acts as a translator for me in the Palestinian camps. I want to have a taste of how the refugees outside Palestine live. We rarely hear the fact that around two out of every five refugees on earth are Palestinian1, or that in Jabalya, a camp in Gaza, you find the highest density of population in the world: up to 104, 000 people on 1.4 square kilometres. Two weeks later, I cross the border to Damascus for the workshop. I visit the camps there too, to get a glimpse of the geopolitical situation of the region. It is my first encounter with the public notices. Everywhere. Faces looking at me. Most of them men, but kids too, women—Shahids. Martyrs. Death on the walls, 2-D, losing pigmentation, turning blue under the sun. Cheap and powerful propaganda or last commemoration of a fallen beloved one? The play had started writing itself. This trip was the first of six I took to the Middle East to write and work on the stage production of L’AFFICHE. Three of those trips were in occupied Palestine.
PORTABLE GROUND ZEROS Khali : La neige, c’est le passage des anges… Tu crois qu’ils peuvent tuer les anges aussi ? L’AFFICHE is a hard play. It reflects the insomnia I had coming back. Some call it in-yourface theatre, I call it humanity. People are dying under repression, and our governments endorse it. I have seen the violence, people put their stories into my care, to show to the world. It made this play a very personal, very emotional journey. To tackle such a delicate topic, I had to be strategic. First, I tried to give a voice to those who don’t have one. The anonymous. Then I tried to be
empirical: what is the impact of this occupation on both sides of the wall? Most Israelis have a better understanding of what is going on in New York than in Ramallah. But there is the military service. Mandatory. Three years for men, two for women. They don’t do push-ups in a caserne. They are on the front line of a machine of oppression needed by the occupation, surrounded by enemies feasting on the resentment this occupation gives rise to. The entire youth is sacrificed to this machine, to the megaphones of propaganda and the brainwashing of the drill. Itzhak kills Salem while on duty. In posttraumatic stress, he tries to understand, goes to see the Rabbi, but the words of religion are too abstract. He even goes back to meet Salem’s mother. Nothing helps him. Nightmares haunt his days and nights. Salem’s martyr poster is everywhere. Itzhak is traumatized, but at the checkpoints, he has power. His arrogance grows. He slowly turns his violence against his wife Sarah, the easiest prey. This relay of violence is part of an entrenchment process highly present in the play; it is true to the machinery of oppression. The second impact on Israeli society is terror. When someone blows himself up in a market surrounded by civilians, fear spreads through the news like a sandstorm, and citizens are terrorized. Suicide bombings don’t happen anymore in Israel, but they used to. Now the government uses the terror as propaganda, it increases the terror, using it to legitimize their worst oppression. But what defines terrorism? Itzhak sees the terrified children pissing in their pants as the occupying soldiers search the camps every night. Meanwhile, his wife, Sarah, an intern at the morgue, has to deal with an Israeli mother who lost her daughter while on duty. Facing the growing brutality of her lover and the stress of the casualties, she fears. She goes to the Rabbi. And she listens. On the Palestinians’ side, terror is everywhere. Every slight detail of life is oppressed by the occupation. This became more and more one of the dramaturgical through lines of the play, to show the different ways that the siege of occupation becomes constant, omnipresent, and infiltrates the very gates of the soul. Through the hundreds of checkpoints inside the West Bank. Through the wall—its height, its length, its concrete violence. Through the omnipresence and the arrogance of the settlements. Through every day’s humiliations. Salem’s killing crushes his mother. She turns to Shahida, her own daughter, crushing her, perpetuating the pain. In the opening scene, she breastfeeds her hatred to Shahida. The handover starts. More and more besieged,
Everywhere. Faces looking at me. Most of them men, but kids too, womenâ€”Shahids.
In the public notices, the intimate tragedyâ€”the loss of a sonâ€”becomes public. The loss is recuperated by the political, the propaganda. Death is cannibalized.
P u b lic notice / b y P h i l i p p e D u c r o s
Shahida turns against the only one who cares for her—her lover Ismaïl. The whirlwind continues to spin, as Ismaïl joins in the relay and brutalizes a Canadian journalist, who is there to document the martyr’s public notice.
© Federico Ciminari, 2009 / Denis Gravereaux as Abou Salem
Another example of the entrenchment is this very path that leads Ismaïl to turn against the journalist. Ismaïl’s brother is imprisoned at the beginning of the play. Then his father disappears. Those lost slowly devour his mother’s mind. Ismaïl tries to flee Palestine. He needs a permit. The Israeli soldier that hands them out asks him to become an informer. He refuses. His hunger grows. Hunger for bread, but even more for hope, for a future to give to Shahida. He craves for work. But the checkpoints are closed to men from twenty to forty, and under occupation, work is almost always on the other side of the barrier. Islamic fundamentalists then try to enroll him, but he refuses. The threat gets bigger. Pressure grows, unbearable. Where to seek a future? How to hope? Desperate for the money that will lead to freedom, he ends up building the “wall,” in silence and shame, placing the last stone of his entrenchment himself. When she learns of it, Shahida spits in his face, crushing their remaining hope. This leads to the completion of her own entrenchment. Scared of being pregnant in a world where there is no pity but stones for unmarried mothers, she seeks solutions, answers. She goes to God, then to the journalist, and then to Bilal, the Islamic barber. And like Sarah, she listens. The handover is completed. And it is the women of the show who suffer the hardest fate, because under religious radicalism, they live another occupation: patriarchy.
STAGING THE BRUTAL REALITY Abou Salem : Les oiseaux, allez chanter ailleurs. Ici, il n’y a que les bruits des bottes et des fusils. La chanson des hommes. Often I was asked how we from Quebec could talk about a topic “that doesn’t concern us.” How can we as artists talk about the “others”? Our countries have the right to bomb those “others,” to place embargos that lead to starvation, to invade in the name of democracy, but we as artists should shut up? This for me is a clear proof of the disengagement of the artists from their society. It does concern us. And who is the “other” anyway? How can we draw a line between “us” and “them”? Where does our comfort end, and where does hunger start? We as citizens of the United Nations have a responsibility to think about these topics. Democracy should not just be a question of polls.
For me the real question is not “Can we?” but “How do we?” How do we write about the people who are actually mourning as we speak of them? How can we be respectful of their pain and sorrow? We are not journalists. Art can go to the heart of the topic, revealing the humanity that lies behind the statistics and the treaties. I told the team that what we were doing was not a documentary, even though the play is extremely documented. It was not a manifesto, even though we have things to say, even though we wanted to scream that the occupation must end. It was a work of art. We are artists.
We started with a workshop presented at Le Carrefour international de théâtre de Québec last June. I wanted to bring the urgency one has to have to survive in occupied zones. I proposed to stage the whole show in thirty hours, with a minimum of set, props, projections, lights, and music. In order to achieve this goal, we had to go to the core of the subject. We were not to do theatre that was clean, magical. This way, we staged the heart of the production, got to the essential, and always kept, in a very raw approach, the topic ahead of our egos. We never lost this urgency.
In the play, two painters meet each other, Ismaïl, the Palestinian, and Samuel, the Israeli soldier. At the end, the soldier invites the Palestinian to an art gallery in Tel-Aviv. This kind of humanity carries redemption and is art’s answer to propaganda. It made me set the show not in a overcrowded camp, but in one of those modern art galleries built in the same material as war zones— concrete, economical, surgical (like PS1 in New York). As if the show was a painting made by Ismaïl. The audience enters the theatre into that gallery. They wander onto the set and see an exhibition of photographs from my trips, hung on slaughterhouses hooks. They represent facets of the occupation, documenting the show. But they are taken from an artistic point of view and are juxtaposed to poetic texts giving in to the subconscious of the violence. A mixture of art and information. The actors remove the pictures as the audience is sitting down, breaking the border between the stage and the public. Tires are put in the places of the artwork, transforming the pictures into abstraction. Those tires become the paintings for the rest of the show. And the further we go, the dirtier this clean gallery becomes—not to hide, but to underline the fact that we are artists and that the topic is bigger than us. Then actress Sylvie De Morais steps in front of the audience, right on a big X taped on the stage—similar to a target or to those Xs we see in advertisement casting. She
P u b lic notice / b y P h i l i p p e D u c r o s
puts on a veil, becoming Shahida in front of us. As she does so, we arrive in Palestine. We are actors performing, we don’t pretend to be Palestinians; we are not living the occupation, but are artists interpreting the occupation.
The public theft of the private, the intimate
The major axis of the text is this print worker. In the public notices, the intimate tragedy—the loss of a son—becomes public. The loss is recuperated by the political, the propaganda. Death is cannibalized. Through this process, we see the indoctrination of pain and despair. The phenomenon is present everywhere over there. Things become two dimensional. The separation wall is not a wall, it is history coming back; the Wailing Wall becomes a justification; olive trees become the symbol of an uprooted land. This road to sacralization is relevant. When you put a spell on things, it is like kids spitting on a piece of cake, making it theirs. By making things sacred, you make them untouchable. On stage, we used this principle to change the meanings of objects, giving them senses that served our own purposes. For example, the soldiers carried megaphones instead of M-16s and used them as weapons. We could use the aggressiveness of these instruments, their volume, but then we underlined that propaganda is a weapon.
Facing those posters of martyrs, there is art, but there is documentary too. Our access to the wars our countries are engaged in (without us knowing, most of the time) is through the TV screen. We aimed to deconstruct this screen, showing the actors and their images projected on the wall in parallel, creating the effect of a closeup and the distortion of visual feedbacks. In a scene one third of the way through the play, we reproduced the process of testimony that journalists present for our six o’clock news. Oum Salem and Abou Salem give over their thoughts and their pain to the camera. We know the violence carried out by Oum Salem, we can form an opinion based on the effect of the close-up of her face. We relate this then to those images we often see on TV, to people explaining the reality from afar. But onstage, we know intimately who is talking. At the same time her husband, Abou Salem, reveals to the camera the dichotomy between her words and the harsh truth, attacking image manipulators who pretend women like her are proud of the death of their children. By creating a character driven to destruction by despair, I wanted to answer those who state these things coldly. Abou Salem explains that pride can become the only escape from insanity under such pain, questioning
the process of testimonies we know as they are happening. In the journalist’s final moments, he films both Shahida and Ismaïl. We see him looking for an artistic picture, as if in an art video, using the image feedbacks as he films both the protagonist and its projected image, multiplying it, showing the redundancy of those images and the futility of them at the same time. Both Shahida and Ismaïl are panicking by now, but he keeps on filming. Rough images, flirting with voyeurism, overexposing our relation with the media.
TO EXIST IS TO RESIST Abou Salem : Il n’y a qu’un Dieu et sa terre est un mouroir. Maintenant va. Je dois préparer la prochaine affiche. Theatre, as the art of the living, through the specificity of its face-to-face, human performance, can bring us closer to the humanity behind monsters and machines. The fact that real humans are in front of us, carried by the flow of the proposed inner conflicts, of the poetic drama, brings alive the experience of living under the wrath of occupation. This is why violence is stronger in theatre than on screen. Afterwards, audience members feel they know some of the characters intimately. Statistics have names. Coming back from occupied Palestine, I know the people living in the jaw of the occupation. Once I can see them as humans, I care. Theatre can do that too. And theatre gives us the liberty to make links in human behavior. As Michel Mongeau changes from the recruiting Islamic barber to the indoctrinating Rabbi on stage, he underlines the similarities between radicalisms. Theatre can transform tires into paintings, which we can then use to create checkpoints, or throw for the intifadas. We threw apples that exploded on the concrete wall as symbols of the aggressiveness of the pressurized siege—echoing the mainstream media symbol of Palestinians throwing stones at tanks. Our good old Canadian apples exposed the violence, becoming their revolt while the sirens screamed and the photocopier’s light swept the ceilings. These apples/stones reveal the futility of those revolts, as the commandant bites into one and devours it while talking about the occupied land to Ismaïl, who is begging for a permit. A watermelon explodes at the next checkpoint, escalating the nightmare, as we feel our own rib cages break with the bleeding red pulp. Panic grows. Megaphones become guns, weapons of propaganda, raising the tension and the decibels. Every scene is pushed by the one coming from behind it, the actors kicking the action forward, nobody breathing right anymore, we run. We want to survive, to live. People are dying as we perform.
At the end, the lights go out on stage and we see them—the real Palestinians projected on the concrete wall. Our empathy for the characters transfers to the real faces projected. We have become them for a few hours. The same faces we saw in the six-o’clock news now suddenly have names. And the actors give the stage back to the harsh reality.
When one faces oppression, neutrality falls automatically into the oppressor's camp.
© Federico Ciminari, 2009 / Isabelle Vincent as Oum Salem
NOTE Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, 2003. BADIL Resource Center for the Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights. www.badil.org
P h i l i ppe D u c ro s writes, directs, performs, takes pictures, and hopes. He went to Lebanon and Syria in 2004 with the French organization Écritures Vagabondes. His travel diary, La rupture du jeûne, was published by Éditions Lansman in 2006, and so was L’AFFICHE in 2009. He has been to Palestine three times, including in 2009 as Gaza was savagely bombarded by Israel. L’AFFICHE was recently nominated for the Grand Prix de la Dramaturgie in France. HE IS THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF HÔTELMOTEL AND WAS RECENTLY APPOINTED ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF THÉÂTRE ESPACE LIBRE.
A preview/excerpt from Volume 7, Issue 4. For a backorder/PDF of this issue, visit www.alttheatre.ca/issues.