TYRE, Lebanon — “If a woman were sitting with you and said the things we say on stage, you might get into an argument with her, tell her why she is wrong,” Jana Ismail, a member of the Tiro Association for Arts, told Al-Monitor. “But once on the stage, alone and directly in front of the audience, she is freer to express herself, her views.” Herein lies the power of monodrama, an art form in which a single actor delivers an extended monologue or a dance piece.
Tiro, along with the Lebanese National Theater and others, is a co-sponsor of the Lebanon International Theater Festival of Women Monodrama, which will bring together seven female artists, including from as far away as Mexico, to address issues of motherhood, displacement, and resilience in the face of conflict. The festival, premiering at the Istanbouli Theatre in Tyre on March 8, International Women's Day, runs through March 12.
The Istanbouli Theatre plays a symbolic role in highlighting Tyre’s turbulent past. The city, the capital of South governorate, was devastated during the Lebanese civil war, losing many of its cultural spaces to the conflict. The Istanbouli, called the Cinema Rivoli from 1959 to 1988, stood abandoned for nearly 30 years.
Ismail explained that the theater had become “a mess,” full of “garbage and rats,” before being renovated through the efforts of Tiro and the help of dedicated volunteers who sometimes slept in the building so they could continue cleaning in the morning after a few hours of shut-eye. The effort put into the renovation, Ismail said, reflected the community's appetite for bringing theater back to Tyre. The Istanbouli opened in 2016.
“We thought we should change something in our society. We should have cultural places, and people should be more drawn to theater,” Ismail asserted. “We started asking ourselves what sorts of issues our society needed to address.”
The role of women was one of the topics that emerged from self-reflection. Meanwhile, it also became clear to Ismail that monodrama could be the perfect medium for women, who often lack a platform in both the public and private spheres to express their opinions without suppression or interruption.
“Women in our society, and in general, are suffering,” Ismail said. “Some women who find it difficult to speak up in real life may find it easier to do in a theater. We wanted to give them a free space to do that, without getting into fights with other people.”
In this regard, Ismail may as well have been describing Fatima Diab, a theater student at the Lebanese University who grew up in Tyre, has worked with Tiro in the past and has written “On the Beat,” the monodrama she will perform at the women's festival.
“In Tyre, we need something like this. We need to have a theater,” Diab told Al-Monitor. “My family doesn’t really want me to be an actress, so that is why I came here, to show them I can do this. And it was here that I found love and [another] family.”
“On the Beat” addresses the concerns of the prominent women in Diab's life, and how their voices were often ignored by men. “I respect women in Lebanon and the whole world, and I love my mum and my grandma,” she said. “I was inspired by all the problems I have listened to in my life and wrote about them in the play, choosing the most important problems that we have in Lebanon.”
The issues Diab addresses include the inability of Lebanese women to pass their nationality on to their children because of a 1925 law passed for fear of Lebanon’s sectarian demographics being disrupted. She also takes on child marriage in a country where girls as young as nine can be married off because Lebanon lacks a unitary civil code stipulating a minimum age for marriage.
Diab examines these issues through the character Zomourod, an amalgamation of Lebanese women who expresses her frustrations through words and dance. The only stage prop is an unresponsive, wooden male mannequin.
“I talk to the mannequin, but he does not answer,” Diab explained. “I talk and dance, and he just watches silently. Men in general are like this.”
Diab is new to monodrama, which is itself still rarely performed in Lebanon. She remarked, “It is difficult, … but monodrama for women is the best, because women can say everything they want without any pressure.”
Although monodrama can reduce societal pressure by giving voice to women and their concerns, the art itself can be nerve-racking. Miren Tirupu Goikoetxea, from Basque Country, Spain, can vouch for this. She asserted, “It is hard, and you have all the responsibility, so if it goes well it is great, but if it is goes badly, its [on] you.”
At the monodrama festival, Tirupu Goikoetxea will perform “Manifestu Bat,” a play consisting of three internal monologues by one character's ego, superego and id on the eve of the character’s death. The character’s gender is intentionally left ambiguous, because Tirupu Goikoetxea wants everyone in the audience, regardless of gender, to identify with what is being said.
Some of the other festival performers will focus directly on the gender divide. Manar Zein, an Egyptian will direct her first monodrama, “Meaningless,” performed by Wissam Oussama. It tells the story of a husband and wife whose lack of emotional connection leads to the breakdown of their relationship.
Zein told Al-Monitor that her play was inspired by the situation in Egypt. “It speaks about Egyptian women and what they live through now,” she said. “Monodramas open doors to seeing other people. This is the point of art, and only art can show people what they have in common.”