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Meet Maya Zbib, the Lebanese theatremaker sending a message on World Theatre Day

Maya Zbib’s Zoukak collective conducting drama therapy sessions in Beirut Maya Zbib’s Zoukak collective conducting drama therapy sessions in Beirut. Photo: Zoukak
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Lebanese theatremaker Maya Zbib tells Nick Awde she’s determined to stay and workin her troubled homeland despite offers from Europe and that she’ll use her message on World Theatre Day to counter the view that the art form should be constantly defending itself

Lebanese director, performer and writer Maya Zbib is one of five theatremakers selected to deliver this year’s World Theatre Day Message for the International Theatre Institute.

“Coming from the Middle East, I could speak of the difficulties artists face in making work. But I am part of a generation of theatremakers who feel privileged that the walls we need to destroy have always been visible ones.

“This has led us to push collaboration and innovation to its limits; making theatre in basements, on rooftops, in living rooms, in alleyways, and on the streets, building our audiences as we go, in cities, villages and refugee camps.

Maya Zbib
Maya Zbib

“We’ve had the advantage to have to construct everything from scratch in our contexts, and to conceive ways to evade censorship, crossing red lines and defying taboos. Today these walls are facing all theatremakers of the world, as funding has never been scarcer and political correctness is the new censor.”

These are just a few of the thoughts that Zbib has written into her message, which will be delivered on March 27 and has been held globally by the ITI at Unesco in Paris since its creation in 1961.

Zbib – a founding member of Beirut’s Zoukak collective – and the other authors will have their observations linking theatre to society translated into more than 50 different languages and read out at events held across the globe designed to celebrate and raise the profile of the performing arts.

“When reading the previous World Theatre Day Messages and thinking about what to say about theatre,” says Zbib, “you feel that you have to defend it, that theatre has to defend itself – and this is frustrating. Theatre has a place and it’s needed, and we shouldn’t be starting questions like this anymore. I believe that people can change through theatre – I’ve certainly changed – and it’s something concrete.”

Much of that empowerment in Zbib’s message comes from her decision to stay and work in her often troubled homeland, despite the fact that she and her peers at Zoukak clearly have open invitations to take up bases in London, Paris and Berlin. But it is her work’s international connections that are crucial to her success at home. “You cannot only be local when you’re doing theatre in Lebanon because you need that international connection to go on,” she says.

Zbib in Chicago in discussion with her mentor, US director Peter Sellars
Zbib in Chicago in discussion with her mentor, US director Peter Sellars. Photo: Rolex/Charles Osgood

Destination London

Coming to the UK to do an MA in performance making in 2007, she says, helped her make those links. “London in particular is so multicultural and the programme at Goldsmiths had a lot of international students. Doing theatre in Lebanon implies a kind of connection to the world, but it takes a lot to make a profession in Lebanon because there isn’t support from the government for structures. This means there aren’t a lot of shows happening here and not a lot of people can share their expertise. So you always want to look outside to try to develop your techniques and to invite people.”

That’s been the blueprint since 2006 when, along with a group of fellow Lebanese theatremakers, she founded Zoukak, a company whose collaborative ethic has taken its work across the world, garnering awards and acclaim but also cementing a well-earned reputation for innovative, relevant work.

Zbib first studied theatre at the Lebanese University, the country’s national institute of arts. “There isn’t a very fixed curriculum. In my journey it was mostly physical and absurdist theatre, a movement that happened when a lot of the people doing theatre moved away from politics after the last war here and went into addressing the absurdity of living. So Zoukak, as a collective that came from that university, reacted to that and we started doing more text-based theatre.”


World Performance Week

This is a new collaboration between the international performing arts organisations that celebrate their World Days between March 20-27 each year: 

March 20 World Day of Theatre for Children and Young People

March 21 World Puppetry Day

March 21 World Poetry Day

March 22 World Mime Day

March 27 World Theatre Day

Other major dates in the calendar are:

February 8 World Opera Day

April 21 World Circus Day (organised by Federation Mondiale du Cirque)

April 29 International Dance Day (organised by ITI)

July 11 World Fringe Day (started by Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017)

November – Love Theatre Day in November (virtual celebration #LoveTheatreDay on Twitter

A good example is 2012’s Silk Thread, a project with women subjected to domestic violence – a lot of the country’s marriage laws are related to religion and the government is reluctant to step in, even when faced with a series of murders of women by their husbands. “We gathered their -stories and then we did a promenade performance around gender dynamics that appear to be fairytales and local myths, turning that on itself as we expose actual stories of violence and rape.”

A scene from Silk Thread
A scene from Silk Thread

Zbib and Zoukak usually work in Arabic (with surtitles) unless commissioned or doing a residency outside – their residency with He Who Saw Everything at Battersea Arts Centre, part of the 2015 London International Festival of Theatre, was in English. “That was based on the epic of Gilgamesh. We like to use local stories from region and our history, making a parallel between actual events. So in fact we were talking about migration and how there’s this desire to go to the West.”

The British Council has been something of a constant in Zbib’s trajectory ever since she applied for a scholarship to visit London. “We have been able to invite artists from the UK almost every year because the British Council supports that.”

Networking opportunity

In 2009, that connection saw her selected for a personal development programme to create networks with peers from different countries. It also promoted ways of creating programmes to allow practitioners to develop their international cultural management skills. “That was something I needed to do to co-lead the company. My selection really helped with international connections and our management ability,” she says.

Drama therapy has also turned out to be a significant portal for making international connections for Zoukak. “Our programme started out of necessity in 2006 because there was war with Israel, and then we continued afterwards because there were different wars and emergencies. In response we developed specific drama therapy tools that are funded usually by international NGOs, and this is what has allowed us to continue to be professional theatremakers.”

A scene from He Who Saw Everything. Photo: Marco Pinarelli
A scene from He Who Saw Everything. Photo: Marco Pinarelli

Encouragingly, this has recently helped Zoukak secure sustainable funding over two years – meaning that for the first time there’s the chance to support its core structure and most of its projects. “We’re able to hire people and so, after 11 years, it really is the first time that we can relax a bit. For eight years we’ve run a small apartment studio, but now we are able to move to a bigger space and open a small theatre, 100 seats. It’s like a dream come true to be able to do that in Lebanon.”

Like the BAC stint, Zoukak is regularly invited to overseas residencies, including last year’s Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah. A particular highlight for Zbib as an individual practitioner was being mentored for a year by US director Peter Sellars as part of the Rolex Mentor Programme.

“Rolex has international scouts who nominate different people they think are suitable for their mentors. So it’s not about the best, it’s really about people who are doing interesting work who can connect with the work the mentor is doing. The programme itself is very well thought out and it means that you are part of a generation of young artists from all over the world.

“The programme is about transmitting knowledge so I just followed Peter in his travels. I went with him to the States, he came a lot to Lebanon and made quite an impact here even though it’s so hard to bring his works here, it’s very expensive. And he has made a really strong connection with the company.

“It gave me an understanding of how Peter can be political in the world and as an artist. It was mind-blowing to see how committed he is. It’s not about activism, but about being an artist connected to the world around you.”

Latest news from the collective at zoukak.org. More details on World Theatre day at world-theatre-day.org

CV: Maya Zbib

Born: 1981, Beirut
Training: BA in theatre, Lebanese University, Institute of Fine Arts, Lebanon (2003), MA in Performance Making, Goldsmiths College, University of London (2007), Postgraduate Diploma in International Cultural Cooperation and Management, University of Barcelona, Spain (2011)
Landmark productions: The Music Box (director/writer/performer), Avignon Festival Off (2008), Hamletmachine (performer), Moare Danza in Girona and Azala (2009), Silk Thread (director/co-writer/performer), Voicing Resistance Festival Ballhaus Theater, Berlin (2012), The Battle Scene (co-dramaturg/co-writer/performer), ITFOK, Kerala (2015), He Who Saw Everything (co-director/co-writer/performer), BAC, as part of LIFT, and Cairo International Festival of Contemporary and Experimental Theatre (2015), The Jokers (co-writer/performer), FAB, Bordeaux (2017)
Achievements/awards: Founding member of Zoukak Theatre Company and Cultural Association, Beirut (2006), Cultural Leadership International Programme Grant from British Council (2009), Selected as the Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative protegee of director Peter Sellars (2010), Selected as the Lebanese delegate at the British Council’s Edinburgh Showcase (2011 and 2013), Residency at Battersea Arts Centre, London, as part of LIFT (2014), Chirac Foundation Award of Culture for Peace; artist in residence with Zoukak at the Sundance Theatre Lab, Utah, US (2017)
Publication: Theatre for Development Manual, co-written with Lamia Abi Azar (2017)

Focus: World Theatre Day

Isabelle Huppert delivers her message on World Theatre Day last year. Photo: Nicolas Sridi
Isabelle Huppert delivers her message on World Theatre Day last year. Photo: Nicolas Sridi

Part of World Performance Week, World Theatre Day takes place across the globe each year on March 27, coordinated by the national centres of the International Theatre Institute with performing arts communities. While the centres put on a main event, there isn’t a fixed agenda and the idea is to encourage as many people as possible in each country to celebrate theatre.

Participants are also encouraged to read out in their own language the latest World Theatre Day Message – an artistic and highly symbolic statement on the importance of the performing arts written by a figure considered to be inspiring in their field in theatre.

Each year’s message is shared online and goes out to all the ITI centres. The list of authors is impressive: the first was Jean Cocteau followed by Arthur Miller. Other English speakers include Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Peter Brook, Ellen Stewart, Wole Soyinka, Edward Albee, Judi Dench, John Malkovich, Brett Bailey and, last year, Isabelle Huppert.

Usually there’s just one author per year, but for 2018 – ITI’s 70th-anniversary year – five have been commissioned for 2018 to represent the five Unesco regions: performer-director Maya Zbib for the Arab states, performer-director Ram Gopal Bajaj (India) for Asia and the Pacific, writer Sabina Berman (Mexico) for the Americas, performer-writer Werewere Liking (Ivory Coast) for Africa, and our very own Simon McBurney of Complicite for Europe.

The main World Theatre Day celebrations at Unesco in Paris gathers all five authors who will read out their messages on stage. The programme is supervised by artistic director Daniel Bausch of ITI Switzerland and includes video extracts from works by the authors alongside live performances.

With its headquarters in Shanghai, ITI is the world’s largest performing arts organisation spread across 95 countries. It works with cooperating member organisations such as the Professional Association of Canadian Theatre, Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art and its Short+Sweet Theatre, and India’s National School of Drama.

Sister international organisations that are partners include the European Federation of Professional Circus Schools (Fedec), the  International Music Council and the World Mime Organisation.

In the UK, ITI receives an added boost during World Performance Week with the launch of its new UK centre in Morecambe at the Alhambra Theatre – where Olivier filmed his screen version of John Osborne’s The Entertainer. The event took place on March 21 in the presence of ITI director general Tobias Biancone.

A World Theatre Day gala of free events takes place at the theatre on March 27 and includes stage readings for the first ITI 10 Minute Play Competition – with this year’s theme of Brexit. The World Theatre Day Messages will also be read out.

UK ITI is hosted by Morecambe Fringes, founded in 2017 to create new opportunities for the performing arts year round in one of the country’s most deprived areas.

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