Saturday, October 24, 2020

Ashtar Theatre: self-love and resistance through performance

By Maria Correia - August 13, 2018
Section: [Main News] [Culture] [IN PICTURES] [Features]
Tags: [culture]

The Ashtar theatre is well hidden in the centre of Al Bireh. Once you enter, you are greeted with a colourful tapestry of old theatre posters. As you walk the corridors, you hear the faint laughter and chatter of young theatre actors who are having their break between scene rehearsals. The vibe is happy, positive, and full of promise. 

The Ashtar theatre group is currently rehearsing for their most recent production, Peer Gynt, a play originally written by Henrik Ibsen in 1876.
The director of the production, Émile Saba is himself an ex-Ashtar student. He started in the institute when he was 10-years-old and was taken aback by the mere existence of a performance artist scene in Palestine. “I was surprised there was something like this in Ramallah, I didn’t even know it existed!,” Saba exclaimed to Palestine Monitor.
Ashtar is the first theatre training, non-profit organisation for Palestinian youth. Established in 1991, the theatre aims to promote creativity and commitment to change through a combination of training, programs, services and performance.
Saba left the institute after high school. After doing his BA in english and business, he returned to theatre. There was no higher education for acting in Palestine at the time so he returned as an actor but always felt the need to explore the field professionally.
“I felt like I needed proper training and went to the USA and got my MFA in stage acting in UConn (University of Connecticut).” He has since graduated and continued working as an actor and director in the Palestinian theatre scene.
"Theatre has taught me self-expression and how to use every tool at my disposal” - Zabaneh, 18. Photo: Myriam Purtscher. 
Theatre scene in and from Palestine
Saba felt the theatre scene in Palestine is good, considering there is a theatre in almost every city. However the issue of funding plays is an obstacle for production at times. “The are not as many professional shows because of the funding that focuses on concentrated subjects, so you don’t have as much of a space for apolitical productions,” Saba explained.
“Productions that are for entertainment or for artistic pleasure aren’t funded as much. Palestinian theatre is only viewed to be political or social without caring so much about the artistic nature of it.” Ashtar theatre tries to put these social issues in a more theatrical and artistic setting, to combine the funding body’s demand for addressing political issues while still creating art on the terms of the production team.
As movement in general is limited and controlled for Palestinians, touring internationally for a theatre group is no different. Although travelling to a another country is not the issue, merely getting a permit to go to the Jerusalem visa office can sometimes halt the trip for West Bank actors. Saba also addressed the lack of funding for touring being a significant obstacle. “The theatres here lack the money to send a play abroad without needing external funding. This limits our collaboration.”
The impact of performance art
Speaking to the cast, it became apparent that the theatre has played a huge part in the lives of the young actors. Isleen Atlallah, a young 16-year-old said she has been doing theatre for five years. In Peer Gynt, she plays Peer’s mother.
Atallah made it clear that theatre would always remain a part of her life. “It’s as essential to me as water!,” she laughed. Atallah plans to go abroad for her studies, but she is planning on taking her passion for theatre with her wherever she ends up. “It’s made me confident, brought me friendships and positively affected my social life. It’s taught me so many life skills.”
Jana Falah, another actor in the production, told Palestine Monitor she has been doing theatre for two years. Falah is 15-years-old.  When asked about the significance of theatre she said; “it’s changed my life, for the better. It’s developed my personality and helped me a lot. It’s made me who I am today.” She continued: “I wish there was more theatre here. The theatre is like my home.”
Ashtar and other spaces for creative expression have become a safe space for many young Palestinians. Among them is Ameer Zabaneh, an 18-year-old who plays Peer in the production. When asked how theatre has affected his life he replied; “it’s affected every aspect of my life. Aside from being able to express myself, I’ve gained tools and methods that I can use in everyday life. It’s also a beautiful way to address any topic you want to a live audience.”
For Zabaneh it is important to be a part of the theatre movement and its development in Palestine, even if he’s planning on living abroad for a while to learn about new theatre techniques and methods: “I will definitely come back and work on this scene here. I want to work on breaking out from the standard we are used to.”
"Theatre is definitely political, even when its not directly addressing a political topic” - Zabaneh. Photo: Myriam Purtscher.
The politics of theatre under occupation
Creative expression is often linked with political resistance. Zabaneh emphasized the political nature of theatre, even in a non-political production. “Even if its not directly addressing a political issue, growing the art scene and the culture of this country at a time when the community has so much else to focus on, is a political tool. And by growing it we are increasing our stand. It’s our way of fighting the occupation.”
In the planning phase of the production of Peer Gynt, the actors and directors collectively reflected on the topics they wanted to highlight in their performance. Zabaneh appreciated this especially. “There were a lot of topics we wanted to do. We didn’t want to shy away from the things this society normally would shy away from.”
Saba stressed the importance of a space like this for young Palestinians. “It’s an outlet and escape. It gives you a safe space to be and feel yourself without shame, and have genuine love.”
“It boosts your confidence and self-love, as you find yourself able to create and make something. The hard work and the affirmation that comes with it, is what drives us forward and motivates us to continue!,” Saba continued.
On the August 9, Israel bombed the Said Al-Mishal Cultural Centre in Gaza. The centre was a place for entertainment, culture and support, and the second largest theatre in Gaza. As Israel continues to crack down on the creative expression of Palestinian art and identity, the creative expression of young Palestinians becomes increasingly important and politicised.
Seeing how well-rounded and driven the young people of the production were, it resonated hope for a generation that is allowing culture and art to maintain a space in their lives. Seeing how keen the young actors are to break away from the fixed mould they have been given, to push further in their performance and art, we can expect an increase in the promising combination of creativity and resistance from young Palestinians.

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