When we attend the theatre we usually expect to watch actors act out a script. However, this week in Cairo, when audience members visited theatres they told their own stories and had them acted out for them by Palestinian cultural activists through a process called ‘Playback Theatre’.
The 19 April event was called Martyrs, Prisoners and the Revolution and invited audience members to share their personal experiences of losing friends, imprisonment, and other occurrences during the Egyptian Revolution.
In addition, a theatre workshop along with three other events took place last week in Cairo: one relating to workers’ strikes, one about the role of art in resistance and the last in the Syrian tent in Tahrir Square about the Syrian revolution.
At the Martyrs event at El-Warsha in downtown Cairo on Thursday, the audience was reluctant to participate until event facilitator Faisal Abul–Hega broke down the process into smaller steps by first asking the audience about their feelings on that day.
“It is not easy for Arab audiences to just say how we are feeling,” Abul-Hega told the audience with a small laugh.
After some audience members shared their feelings and the actors created a theatrical sketch out of each of them, more and more people were willing to share their stories on martyrdom and detention.
The skits featured actors Ahmed Roch from Palestine and Michaela Miranda from Portugal but lives in Jenin. In addition, three musicians improvised musical pieces to support the actors.
An audience member described his detention during the2011 constitutional referendum, and the moderator facilitated the discussion to conceptualise the emotion for the actors who were to perform it. Later, other experiences were shared relating to the emotions of contradiction, sorrow, disappointment and hope.
Audience members were then invited to share their experiences from the revolution. In the middle of the segment, musicians from El-Warsha, Mohamed Ismail and Yaser El-Maghrabi, were invited to perform songs relating to the theme.
“Palestinian youth have a great interest in connecting with people who took part in the Arab revolt,” Ben Rivers, Freedom Bus director told Ahram Online after the performance. “They want to see whether their strategies can be adapted to Palestine and also to explore the role of arts in the revolution.”
Rivers has been living in Jenin, Palestine for several months working with Freedom Theatre, an organisation striving to develop a vibrant and creative community working for social change in the northern West Bank through theatre and cinema. They host a multimedia centre offering training for people on using film, photography and writing along with three-year acting programme.
Playback theatre is one of the techniques Freedom Theatre uses, along with many organisations around the world, as a tool for raising awareness, healing traumas, empowering people and community building.
“Sometimes you need to see your experiences acted out to you to help understand it,” Rivers explained. “Playback theatre also helps bring communities closer in situations of oppression and injustice.”
He further commented on the community building aspect of Playback theatre, explaining that when people have traumatic experiences, they often repress them so as not to add sorrow on to others. “Sharing our stories is a human need,” he said.
Freedom Theatre hosted several events in Jenin and other places in the occupied territories. In September, however, they plan to take Playback theatre to a new level through their project ‘Freedom Bus’.
Inspired by the 1960s American Freedom rides; the Freedom Bus is set to take 150 non-Palestinians, along with some West Bank Palestinians, on a tour of 12 communities in the occupied territories.
“Our intention is to raise awareness by bringing people from around the world to see with their own eyes what’s really happening in Palestine,” Rivers said. “Even people from the West Bank are not completely aware of how other communities are living as the West Bank is segregated with walls and checkpoints.”
The September journey will include guided visits through the community by locals to show how people are truly living and the daily struggles they face. In each community they will host Playback theatre performances, in addition to a series of seminars such as the history of popular creative unarmed struggle in Palestine, exploring the different movements currently in place, the role of women and art for resistance.
The rides will feature concerts by contemporary Palestinian rappers and poetry evenings. They also plan an artistic dance event in Hebron, the region where, according to Rivers, Israeli settlers are particularly violent towards Palestinians.
The Freedom Bus rides are endorsed by a number of notable cultural and political activists, philosophers and thinkers such as Noam Chomsky (academic and activist), Mairead Maguire (Nobel Prize Laureate), Jonathan Fox (founder of Playback Theatre) and Omar Barghouti (Founder of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement) among others.
Prior to the September ride, which is the first of its kind, the Freedom Theatre crew is visiting several cities in the region in the same manner as their Cairo visit, such as Alexandria and Amman.
The Freedom Theatre crew, along with all their endorsers, are encouraging people from around the world to play an active role to help win freedom and dignity for the Palestinian people.
“Many believe the third intifada will be a cultural one,” Rivers stated.
For more information on the Freedom Bus mini-rides prior to the September events and to join the September ride, visit their website here.