Reshaping the world

Print edition : October 19, 2012

When women theatre makers gathered at the ninth edition of the Women Playwrights International Conference in Stockholm, there was much to chew and digest, to question and resist.

A LARGER-THAN-LIFE Bjorn Borg sports his famously expressionless look, while the King and Queen of Sweden display the waxwork gaze of elderly royals. August Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman focus forever on the darkest nights of the soul.

You escape through the green channel of the wholly sanitised, somewhat lonesome Arlanda airport.

In Sweden, centennial celebrations are on for Strindberg (1849-1912). A lavish, year-long, multi-pronged festival stages his plays as never before. Meanwhile, the national theatre Dramaten holds an Ingmar Bergman festival, paying tribute to another Swedish theatre and film legend, whose Fanny and Alexander continues to pack halls.

Your destination is the gracious 123-year-old Sodra Teatern, or Southern Theatre, in the Bohemian region of Stockholms waterscape. (This city of 14 islands floats on hundreds of lakes.) One of the directors informs you that the area is called Mosebacke, a name associated first with flour mills. Eventually, it became the haunt of writers and intellectuals. Pointing to the adjoining terrace, now an open air cafe overlooking the blue waters, he asks, Do you know that Strindberg described this very terrace in his novel The Red Room?

On the terrace, below the cloudless August sky, a bust of the writer stands beside the bar. His gaze takes in women of every age and description, crowding the wooden tables, sipping wine or sparkling water, digging their forks into pasta and potato salad. What an endless flurry of tongues! You expect Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish, but you also hear Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, French, Creole, Arabic, Farsinot to miss Australian, Nigerian, Canadian and Indian English. And is it Pashto from the veil-cocooned Afghan girls? Marathi in that corner over there? That is Jyoti Mhapsekar, the theatre activist, a determined saree among dull trousers and dark skirts.

The 300-odd women gathered here all have one thing in common. They are theatre makers. Most are playwrights.

Woman playwright? Hmmm... Rara avis? Would you be able to use all your fingers if you counted the names you know of women who wrote plays? Could you get beyond one hand if you had to list women playwrights in your own country? Does this mean that women prefer to be novelists and poets? Do they prefer to act rather than write for the stage?

Nidal Al Achkar, founder and executive director of Al Madina Theatre, Beirut; Lana Nasser of Jordan, winner of the Etel Adnan Award 2011; Valentina Abu Oqsa of Palestine, winner of the Etel Adnan Award 2012; Birgitta Englin, CEO of Riksteatern, Stockholm; and Mona Knio, theatre maker from Lebanon.-OSKAR ZANDER

The ninth edition of the triennial Women Playwrights International Conference (WPIC, August 15-20), held in Stockholm, is no place for such banal questions. Not when the air is electric with the energy of women theatre makers representing 51 countries from Jamaica to Jordan, Indonesia to Iceland, Australia to Algieria, Norway to Nigeriawriting in many languages, a range of themes and forms.

WPIC 2012 was hosted by Riksteatern, Swedens democratic national touring theatre company. Lebanons Al Madina Theatre, Beirut, and Palestines Al Harah Theatre, Bethlehem, made striking co-organisers. No surprise then that the theme of the conference was The Democratic Stage.

Lene Therese Teigen, president of the WPIC, summed up the goal: All over the world, we women must be able to express ourselves politically, artistically and we must be able to be heard. No easy task even though long-held concepts have undergone a sea change. Despite the acceleration of global awareness in a web-based world, minds attuned to diverse cultures and differing realities hold their own ideas about what a woman is or what womanhood means. Therese Teigen holds that even as feminist/gender studies and queer theory continue to challenge old beliefs, we ask insistently: Are women and men the same or different? What is gender anyway? The only hope for better understanding is more reflection through personal interactions and exchanges with people from across the globe.

Such personal contact was assured from the initial wine-flowing reception hosted by Stockholm City at the magnificent City Hall, the chandelier-strung venue for its famous Nobel Prize banquet.

Through the five days, delegates were immersed in interactive cross-cultural experiences. There was much to chew and digest, to question and resist. Or, as Therese Teigen put it, to react, change, update, expand, grow.

The conference spotlighted issues concerning women, human rights, the irreversible damage done to life and art by repressive regimes, the environment destroyed by greed. The biggest revelations came from the Arab world, whose shifting facets became the focus of debate and performance.

Sodra Teatern, where the conference was held, describes itself as Swedens foremost international theatre for music, theatre and debate. The first keynote speaker, Nidal al Achkar, the grand lady of Lebanese theatre, spoke of her struggles in founding and maintaining the now-famous Al Madina Theatre in Beirut: To be a woman in the Arab world is problematic. To be a theatre person in the Arab world is questionable. To be both is asking for trouble.

For this writer from India, West Asia lost its monochromatic uniformity and threw up colours, textures and, yes, disunities, beyond the obvious Shia-Sunni divide. It also became clear just why a few years ago the attempt to create an Arab theatre ended in a fiascothe Syrians could not go to Iraq, the Algerians did not want to perform in Morocco. Another burning question was, how do artistes deal with censorship and repression, the ingrained blindness of the state? Nidals play on the Palestinian issue was stopped midway, and the actors were ushered out of the hall with rifles. We went to a nearby cafe and continued on the sidewalk. Of course, pretty soon, we were reunited with the security folk. We tried telling them that the arms we bore were words and the only combat was conversation.... No, it didnt work with the authorities, she chuckled.

Nidal ended by asking, can Beirut afford not to play the role it did in the past? What better place than theatre to nourish freedom, sensitivity, understanding? What can feed the fire of curiosity more? We keep that fire and hope alive, cupping our hands around it to feel the warmth.

At coffee break, Lina Abyad, whose play Algerian Miniatures was part of the conference readings, continued the theme by contrasting present-day bigotry with Beiruts 19th-century renaissance. Arts were nurtured. No subject was taboo. Artiste refugees from other Arab nations were welcomed with open arms. Married to a Christian herself, Lina Abyad notes how a mixed population of Christians and Muslims had made Lebanon more open-minded than some other Arab nations. But now we have a dominant Muslim Brotherhood to widen chasms. Things have never been the same after the 1970s war.

Lana Nasser crafted a cutting-edge production based on her own script, using her body like a superbly tuned instrument in satirising the socio-political hypocrisies of the Arab world.-BOHUMIL KOSTOHRYZ

Self-effacing Mona Knio (Lebanese American University) displayed daring when she opted for lighting designnot passive dimmer board booth work, but sneaking into the catwalktransgressing gender roles.

Mona Knio outlined ground realities: Except for shadow puppetry in Egypt, Arab theatre has no ancient tradition to fall back on. Colonisation brought in this Western art form, initially as a pastime for the wealthy and the Westernised. But under oppressive regimes, theatre became a physical and emotional refuge. During the civil war we continued to rehearse and stage plays, though we lacked electricity, food, water, she recalled.

Women from every Arab nation present, as also those from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and South Africa, agreed: Theatre safeguarded our sanity, made us survive through chaos, offer resistance to the unmaking of our world.

There are few drama schools in the Arab world. The state has no cultural vision or policy beyond censorship. Private sponsors come with political agendas. But despite tight competition for available funding, foreign donors and collaborative ventures have expanded horizons, forging links between people north and south of the Mediterranean. Arab theatre and actors now make a mark in European festivals. Foreign curators have become interested in exchanging residencies.

The greatest challenge still remains insoluble: how to liberate theatre from state control?

Egyptian journalist-activist-dramatist Sondos Shabayaks nonchalance belies her commitment. Her Tahrir Monologues are personal histories of blood, tears and laughter, challenging the state and the media. No funding or support, but 20 shows at schools, bookshops, even metro stations, empowered us.

From a performance of "Autumn Dance" by Shabnam Tolouei, exiled Iranian actor, director and scriptwriter.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In retelling, Sondos Shabayak discovered that the impact of the revolution on women was different from its impact on men. She found the media coverage lopsided, focussing on gang rape and prison, not on the woman standing like a rock upfront, sniffing massive amounts of teargas but still relentlessly tweeting. Sondos Shabayak plans to augment her work with a book documenting the histories she has collected. The revolution was like opium, it got us high, gave us hope.

Many women sadly admitted disillusionment with the Arab Spring. Freedom and gender equality seem distant dreams.

Gender activism was seen as part of the wider human struggle against injustice and repression. Many plays and speeches suggested that as oppressors men had as much to lose as women, in their own countries and in neighbouring nations. Marina Barham decided to call her theatre in Beit Jala, Bethlehem, Al Hara, or Neighbour-hood. The names sound like melodies, but the place is pounded by gunfire. How do you convince people living through 70 years of shelling that what they need is a theatre for children and youth?

But Marinas group decided to extract support in the neighbourhoodthe ministry had no ears anyway. We went to shops and asked for cement, wood, bricks, plumbing, electric wires. As we women carried all the heavy stuff, reluctantly donated, the men watched us from windows and cars, wondering what madness was afoot, she laughs.

Foreign aid, when it came, made things easier. But the uphill task was to build an audience in a community that had no time for theatre.

As sympathy and support grew, Al Harah found itself working with psychologists in schools, helping traumatised children find identities, bond with others, realise their potential.

Today, Al Harah stages plays and conducts workshops and training programmes all over Palestine. The goal is to use theatre to develop young minds, make them respect other cultures, to be members of a civil society that emphasises human rights and pluralism.

WPIC included highlights from the Nordic Playwrights Association; a six-language reading from a workshop with young women playwrights from Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Russia; revisiting Swedens near forgotten, once well-known, women playwrights of the 1880s; Stemt, a work-in-progress for 2013, the centenary of the right to vote for women in Norway. Swedens doyenne Susan Osten showed video clips of her experiment with theatre for infants. Viewers stared in disbelief at babies on parents laps watching actors, their faces registering total absorption and responsive emotions. We are theatre lovers from the moment we are born, Susan Osten smiled.

Gender and transgender issues were represented. Site-specific theatre and street theatre, networking and writing workshops were held. Throughout, questions of female representation on a male-dominated stage were inevitable. How does the male gaze vary from the female? How do women see women in politics, the arts, protest campaigns? The speakersSouth Africas Fatima Dike, Irans Sanaz Bayan, and Indonesias Kerensa Dewantorobrought in the perspectives from regions where the struggle continues.

Injustice was a leitmotif, with prison as metaphor, about women black and jailed in the play tellingly titled And I and Silence, set in a United States prison in the 1950s; in Faiza Mardzoekis sharing of her chilling experience in uncovering information about the forgotten Gerwani women (arrested, tortured and sexually abused) of the Left-progressive Indonesian womens movement,1965-79. Mallika Sarabhai spoke grippingly of her work as an artiste against communal violence and prejudice, while Jyoti Mhapsekar, president of the Mumbai-based Stree Mukti Sanghatana, outlined her efforts to create awareness of womens rights in Maharashtra through theatre, using music and dance with subversive effect.

Every evening had performanceswritten, directed and acted by women theatre makers. The most striking performance undoubtedly was The Red Suitcase, winner of the Etel Adnan Award in 2011, given by Al Madina and Riksteatern in recognition of the excellence in women playwrights of the Arab countries. Lana Nasser from Jordan crafted a cutting-edge production based on her own script, using her body like a superbly tuned instrument in satirising the socio-political hypocrisies of the Arab world.

The most unpredictable performance was Afghan Voices, consisting of theatrical vignettessisters returning to Kabul to find parents dead, a young mothers love of singing forbidden by her father. Actresses used Chaplinesque mime to satirise and humanise their world.

Many performances were set in the gritty present. Palestinian Valentina Abu Oqsa, the winner of the Ethel Adnan Award for 2012, explained the bullet scar on her arm, How can I write about the struggle on the street from inside the house? I went out.

Interrogation room and jail were repeated motifs, political reportage the starting point, and stark socio-political-economic reality the unambiguous backdrop. Shabnam Tolouei, exiled Iranian actor-director now in France, played all three roles in her monodrama Autumn Dance with lan, but with a depth of emotion. Quilting together the experiences of three young women incarcerated at Irans Evin prison, Shabnam sketched images malefic and grotesque alongside moments of exquisite beauty and innocence.

After the last toast was drunk, and promises were made to meet three years down the road in Cape Town, South Africa, what did the participants carry home with them? Ritva Siikala of Finland writes: The world the young theatre women are facing is depressing: The first five years of my life I lived under bombing; now I am working with the risk of being arrested. My parents could dream. Now nobody dreams anymore. [Hearing such stories] my respect for this fighting force of women grew. I must do something, too, in this fight.

Says Jonina Leosdottir of Iceland: I returned home with more knowledge of the world and a curiosity to learn more. An exceptional opportunity to make contact with like-minded people I would never have met otherwise.

Tara Goldstein (Canada) mused: I learn the importance of bearing witness to what happens in the world. Challenging, but strengthening. Ava-Gael Gardiner from the Caribbean enthused, Watertight timing, varied subjects, high-quality theatre facilities, excellent organisation. True. Mireille Bergenstrom, project organiser, knew every participant by name.

On the very last day, I was amazed to get a committed audience for the rehearsed reading of my play Nights End. I wondered what my take on a tribal woman, an artiste, and a tiger cub, all on the brink of extermination, could mean to playwrights from Australia, Jordan and Canada, a translator from Italy, actors from South Africa, directors in Norway. I need not have worried. Young actors Cecilie Lundsholt and Andreas T Olsson spoke the lines with passion and fury, grief and love. The women seated in front of me were rapt. Silent. We were no longer strangers.

Courage was the conferences themecourage to act, to imagine, to aspire, and to create. I knew after this experience of communion that to all my fellow women playwrights, these lines from the Nigerian Niyi Osundare would signal their lives here and now.

I sing of the beauty of Athens without its slaves Of a world free... of an arbitrary past Of earth... without blind curtains or iron walls... and prisons of hate and fear... I sing of a world reshaped.

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