Once a theatrically rich nation where performance art flourished, Lebanon today is floundering – and it’s not Lebanon alone. “We have competition,” says Monnot Theater’s Ziad Halwani, and he doesn’t mean other theaters. “When the play starts and you look down from the control room you can see audience members on their phones, playing, chatting – this is our competition. People get more enjoyment from their phones than the effort exerted on stage. Previously it was the television, then it shifted to movies, but now it’s even more readily accessible. It’s a worldwide problem,” he explains. He says the situation is a reflection of a decreasing interest in culture. People question, why go to the theater? So productions have to be worth watching. Halwani says he warns young directors about this, saying, “That’s why productions should be really good.”
Lebanon was once home to 20 theaters and ciné-theaters, an impressive number for its size. The theater scene was at a peak in golden era Beirut, but with the civil war came a gradual decline that has continued post-conflict into the 1990s, 2000s and today. Only a few theaters in Beirut still operate. Monnot Theater is one of the most active; over 40 plays were staged during their 2014 to 2015 season, and it’s fully booked until the end of 2017, which Halwani admits is “really weird in a country that works at the last minute.”
Some years have been even busier, with up to 60 productions, but he admits they are lucky. “I don’t think we, as a theater, are representative of the whole scene in Lebanon. We are one of the few still working,” he says, lamenting theaters that have shut down over the years.
Staged in Monnot, Betty Taoutel’s “Masrah Al Jarima” talks about exactly that. Taoutel is sad to see the theater scene deteriorating but her message in the play is one of hope. By just staging the play, and focusing on this theme, she highlights the situation. She explains that by making the play highly entertaining, she gives people more incentive to watch. Indeed her plays are among the most popular in the country.
Most of the productions at Monnot are Lebanese but they also stage performances from France, Egypt, Canada and other countries – which total almost 10 percent of their shows. Large-scale commercial plays like “Venus” by Jacques Maroun ran for 48 weeks – a record for the theater. Meanwhile other plays only have 3-4 showings. The types of plays that run are worrying, according to Halwani. In the past the theater had many more smaller and student productions, which are the performances that take the most artistic risk. “We lost a lot of the smaller productions and that means there’s a problem,” he warns. If fewer of the younger artistic generation are staging plays now, this is a problem that will only show up in the long term, endangering the future of theater. There’s some relief in that Madina Theater hosts a special open-platform event for mostly student films every summer: Mishkal Festival. University theaters are also quite active, many hosting regular major productions on campus and at some of the active venues.
Side by side in Hamra, the related Madina Theater and Metro al Madina are also very busy with a wide variety of multidisciplinary activities. This year, one of Madina Theater’s most successful plays was “Butsan El Karaz”, an adaptation of Anton Tchekhov’s “Cherry Orchard”, but the majority of their performances are small and don’t run for more than a few shows. Next door at Metro al Madina, various performances run every day. Since the theater’s launch in 2012, its program has become more diverse. Their record-breaking Egyptian-style cabaret Hishik Bishik has been running twice to three times a week since 2013, drawing in an astonishing 120 people nightly according to the theater’s production manager Sarah Nohra. The show even traveled to Belgium and Alexandria. In 2016 they plan to launch another cabaret-style show called Bar Farouk, which premiered at the 2015 Beiteddine Festival.
Other active members of the country’s theater community include Hamra’s Babel Theater, the Dawwar Shams (Sunflower theater) in Tayyouneh, the relatively new Theater Gemmayze, the Der Melkonian theater in Burj Hammoud (which mostly focusses on Armenian productions) and a newcomer south of Beirut: the Istanbuli Theater (previously the Al-Hamra Theater) in Tyr, which has been active in trying to revive the city’s once-great theater culture.
The theaters are trying hard, many of them employing only a handful of industrious staff members. But all this effort is met with what Halwani calls “a restaurant audience that consumes theater as if they were at a restaurant, standing up, speaking and answering phones.” This lack of respect stemming from disinterest can be remedied by engaging the public in more culture. Halwani says the government needs to get involved and propose a strategy. “It should be approached more seriously by the Ministry of Culture. This is their job,” he says, adding, “there are many things to improve. Censorship is another problem. It’s a shame to tell an artist they have to send their text to be censored by the General Security, which is actually a military authority. You shouldn’t have boundaries in fields of creation. What’s the use of censorship?” he asks.
Despite it all, he says the theater is doing well and remains optimistic. “I think there’s always hope, there will always be a place for theater,” he asserts, adding, “It might shrink but it will survive because it’s human expression, and as long as we are human, theater will stay.”