Lebanese dramatist Rabih Mroue returns to Tokyo International Arts Festival this year with the world premiere of his new play, “How Nancy Wished that Everything was an April Fool’s Joke,” three years after making his TIF debut. It is a work that reflects the fluid situation of Lebanese society after 2006’s summer of turmoil.
Mroue is one of the outstanding artists in the Middle East. Fortunately, he is also one its most “portable,” since his experimental, individualistic plays of social commentary normally use few actors along with recorded images.
What is your background?
I was born in Beirut in 1967, and brought up there and studied drama at the Lebanon University. After I graduated, I started my theater career as an actor, but I realized I didn’t want to work with other directors, so I started to direct as well as act in my own plays at the same time. The civil war started in 1975, so war has been the normal situation for my whole life since I was a small child. War is not a special state for me, it’s like a daily condition.
How big is Lebanon’s theater scene?
We have all kinds of theater in Lebanon, from avant-garde to big, Broadway-type commercial theaters. However, recently the theater scene’s been shrinking. There are several reasons: the rise of new technology, and also the [fact that] dramatists are still largely old-fashioned and haven’t adapted to what’s going on with people’s lives. For example, we even don’t have a theater company system, so whatever happens is down to individuals. So, if I want to make a play, I personally contact experienced theater staff and friends I want to work with, then afterward everyone moves on to someone else’s project.
As a result, we don’t have a company mentality, and we are not supported financially at all, so all theater people are self-employed individuals and most have to have other jobs, doing theater as side work.
So conditions are tough?
Yes, they have a strong determination to do theater. When I make a play, the actors have to commit their time for six, eight or 10 months, on top of their full-time job. They make a huge physical effort in many ways. I am not complaining about our current situation, but this is why I am now trying to find a new strategy for doing theater in Lebanon, like Iranian cinema, where people have broken new ground to produce their own films, I would like to find the best way to produce theater in my country, which fits in our society.
What do you think about what’s happened in Beirut?
Many people make nostalgic comments about the 1960s, like it was a peak time in Beirut — but I don’t believe that. Why did the war start in 1975? Because there was something wrong before, so how can we say the ’60s was a perfect, beautiful period?
How is it presenting your work abroad?
When I started to travel abroad and did my plays, I always asked myself if they were interested in me as a Middle Eastern artist from Lebanon or purely interested in me as an artist, as the Middle East was a hot issue in those days. Unless they were primarily interested in my art work and appreciated me as an artist, I wouldn’t work with them. I always debate with the theater-makers abroad about my work, but it has nothing to do with politics. Hence I am presenting my work to explain complex matters using theater, using several theatrical layers to ask about, say, a political matter.
You have said your plays should be universal, so that everyone can enjoy them.
People who come to see my plays should know about Lebanon and something about the things I try to raise questions about, otherwise they can’t enjoy my work.
I’d love to do theater for all, but it’s impossible. When I do theater, I think of very specific people and I know to whom I am addressing my pieces, otherwise it would be abstract theater. The main spectator of my play is myself, though my ideal spectators also exist in my head, but they are virtual.
I always criticize my work and attack myself to raise questions and provoke myself. It’s important. I have to shake my thoughts and stereotypical ideas sometimes. As such, I have to ask quite naive questions, like “what is theater?” for example. Then, you can discover so many things from such fundamental questions.
How can art work in the real world when that world, as in your country, is virtually in a state of war?
Art, theater can just raise questions. It won’t provide a concrete solution or answer, so I don’t want to tell people any specific opinion of mine. I raise questions through my work.
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