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Saturday, 18 November 2017

INTERVIEW: A scream of the battered women: Lebanese director Lina Abyad on But I Love You

Directed by Lina Abyad, the play titled But I Love You was staged within the ongoing Cairo Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theater

Nahed Nasr, Wednesday 28 Sep 2016
Lina Abyad
Lina Abyad, actress and director of But I Love You, in the performance (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
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Wanting to put an end to their sad memories and to the cycle of violence, after years of silence, they finally found their voices in the But I love You (Bass Anna Bahebek) performance directed by the Lebanese artist Lina Abyad.

The play was staged on 24 September within the 23rd Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theater that runs from 20 to 30 September.

Ahram Online met with Lina Abyad to talk about the performance, reasons behind the choice of the play’s topic and theatre realities in Lebanon.

Ahram Online (AO): During the discussion session that followed the performance you said that But I Love You is a part of a long term project which aims at putting an end to the domestic violence against women in Lebanon. Tell us more about the project and how it all began.

Lina Abyad (LA): It started three years ago, following a tragic event that shook Beirut. A Lebanese armed man killed his wife and after investigation, the court declared him innocent.

This incident was like an alarm for us, the artists, that we must do something.

We decided to collect the stories of many abused Lebanese women and present them in the performance. We met many battered women -- their stories had no end… We selected 12 stories which were then told by 23 actors and actresses in a play with a duration of 90 minutes.

After each performance we would hold an open discussion with the audience to give them an opportunity to reflect on what they just saw. More and more women from the audience started relating to the stories presented on the stage, and every night we were going back home with even more stories to tell. We discovered that the physical abuse against women is an increasing phenomenon in Lebanon.

As the stories continued to multiply, we moved from one performance idea to a series of shorter performances, where fewer but different stories are being told each season. I guess we will not end this project until there will be no more stories to tell.

The performance we staged in Cairo had four actresses, representing women from different social groups, ages, and surrounded by different circumstances.

But I Love You
But I Love You, a play from Lebanon directed by Lina Abyad and staged in Cairo within the 23rd Cairo Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theater held between 20 and 30 September 2016. (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

AO: But I Love You is also an ongoing project. Will it ever come to an end?

Our project is going to end when the stories of the victims stop to come in. We want to create an impact on the government, to have more strict laws that do not let a killer free. Now when I walk in the street women stop me to tell the stories of their relatives and friends.

Women are starting to realise the importance of telling their stories and we called for a demonstration in Beirut to advocate for this issue. I wish this project can be also adopted in other Arab countries.

AO: Why did you choose the story telling format for your performance and how did you decide to structure it?

LA: I think story telling is the most suitable form to present the real stories of the victims.

The performance aims at having a small audience so we can develop direct eye contact with the people watching it. After the play, we invite the audience to join an open discussion to see how the play has influenced them.

Also we wanted to keep the performance very simple. There is no music, scenography, special makeup or customs, and very minimal lighting work. We had no budget but even if we had, we would still keep it as simple as it is now.

The four women are in black clothes taken from their closet. They tell stories based on testimonies of real women. 

As for the set, you find pieces of broken plates on the stage, and women try to pick them and arrange them. The plates were the only item we purchased.

AO: The story telling format is becoming very trendy in today’s theatre. Why do you think it is so popular around the world?

LA: Story telling has existed for a few decades already. I think it is triggered by the need to bring the audience back to theatre. 

Another explanation would be fact that in the Arab world, we have very few writers, and only a few of them address everyday life in their works, while the real stories are great source for theatre.

Of course, there are great international dramatic texts written about women but why should I adapt a foreign play about an oppressed woman when I can introduce the same idea from a real woman that comes from a reality closer to us.

But I Love You
But I Love You, a play from Lebanon directed by Lina Abyad and staged in Cairo within the 23rd Cairo Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theater held between 20 and 30 September 2016. (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

AO: But I Love You is produced by Beirut 8.30, a company that you established four years ago. Tell us more about this endeavor.

LA: Beirut 8.30 is an independent theatre company dedicated to expanding the boundaries of theatre in Lebanon by producing new theatre and addressing new audiences. The name Beirut 8.30 refers to the hour when theatre plays begin in Beirut, which is 8.30pm. We wanted all Beirut to watch theater at 8.30.

The first play we produced was The Dictator. It was directed by Essam Ali and won the Sultan Al Qasimi Award.

AO: You are one of the four actresses in But I Love You. Why did you decide to act in the play you direct?

LA: I love directing but it is also great fun for me to act. Usually I do not act in my plays but this time I did not have the money to search for an actress and to train her so I decided to be one of the story tellers in the performance. I enjoyed it very much.

AO: In today’s world, the international audiences do not always prioritise theatre. What is the situation in Lebanon?

LA: I believe it is doing very well. Many directors are active in the scene. I can see also more and more theatrical scholars in Lebanon, or young people who go abroad to study theater.

Regarding the audience, I think the debate of their relation to theatre is very old and it never ends. I remember one day, when studying theatre in France, I was listening to the radio broadcasting a seminar about theatre. In this programme, one of the speakers said what the French theatre was. To me, it was a shock to hear that as I believed that it did not die yet!

Theatre is a very intimate art where people meet real people, listen to them, feel them and talk to them. In the world dominated by internet, people crave direct human contact.

I believe that audiences are coming back to the theatre and they are eager for more of it.

AO: And what is the situation of women specifically in Lebanese theatre?

LA: Theatre in Lebanon is dominated by women.

In fact, Lebanese women love to go to theatre, and if they like a performance, they would then invite their male partners to watch it.

On the level of working in theatre, there are a lot of women as well. Men do not choose theatrical practice because they cannot make enough money to support their families. In Lebanon, we hardly find male actors for our plays.

However, men like to be directors because it is a part of their mentality and the way they like to represent themselves, always as leaders.

But still there are four to five female theatre directors in Lebanon and this is quite a good number compared to the size of the theatre scene and the country’s population in general.

But I Love You
But I Love You, a play from Lebanon directed by Lina Abyad and staged in Cairo within the 23rd Cairo Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theater held between 20 and 30 September 2016. (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

AO: What are the major obstacles that you’ve faced in your theatre journey so far?

LA: The obstacles are not related to being a female director, but they are rather linked to the fact of being a working woman. It is about this struggle to keep the balance between your home and kids and your work.

It needs an understanding partner, like my husband, who is sharing equal time with me in many responsibilities, like taking care of the kids especially during the nights of my performances or rehearsals.

I do not have much of a social life -- I miss the weddings of my best friends and relatives because of the rehearsals!

Also being a female director in a male-dominated society is yet another challenge. It shows especially when I have to ask male workers in the theater to do this or that. But if I talk to people politely, they adopt the same attitude towards me.

AO: Any advice you’d like to give to young and aspiring theatre artists?

LA: What I can share with the young artists is this regular advice: believe in what you do. Passion is not enough to reach your goals. You have to work on your goals no matter the circumstances, be them financial or lack of support.

I was always able to do the plays I like and sometimes I work with a big budget, but some other times there is no money at all yet I still manage to do what I want.

When my daughter told me that she wanted to work in theatre I sent her to France for a theatre course. I wanted her to make sure that theatre is what she wants. After a very short time, she changed her mind. Though she finished her course, she did not continue working in theatre.

So you have to know what you really want to do and work hard.

 

Check the festival's complete programme here

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