The National Centre for Culture and Arts (NCCA) traveled to Sweden to perform the play “Intersection” at the Halmstad International Street Theatre Festival on the 23rd of July 2015. Now that the event is over, we have the chance to assess the impact of the performances and the main challenges that were faced throughout this experience.
This week we had the opportunity to speak with Ibrahim El Ali, who mentored NCCA’s work as they transformed a regional act into an international performance. Indeed, before the performances in Sweden (sponsored by the Culture Foundation of the Swedish Postcode Lottery) “Intersection” was developed for Jordanian audiences with over 15 performances around Jordan planned, particularly in the northern region of the country, where there is a higher number of Syrian refugee camps. But performing in Jordan and performing in a European Festival is not the same thing.
According to Ibrahim, “one of the biggest challenges was adapting the classical theatre-like production into a street theatre act acceptable by European audiences”. In the Middle East -Ibrahim explains- the public is more used to long monologues and the acts usually involve complex and extended dialogues. In order to attract audiences in Sweden, the company had to adapt and employ different tools and techniques. Initially, the acts had to be shorter, so that people would stay for the entire show. In street theatre direct communication is crucial when engaging with the crowd, so the company switched to a more visual approach, used more music and interacted more with the spectators. This was particularly challenging because “while you adapt the performance for a particular audience it is important that you still represent the same content and transmit the same message”. Having a more interactive and visual show also helped break the language barrier. The NCCA’s performances are in Arabic, and despite having a significant Arabic-speaking turnout, the rest of the spectators had to be allured as well. Spreading cheat sheets, which had the dialogues translated to English and Swedish also helped.
Assembling and adapting the performance was not easy, it took constant communication between Ibrahim, based in Sweden, and the company in Jordan. When the NCCA was selected to join the Halmstad Festival in February, it took weekly Skype calls to prepare and muster the production. In May, Ibrahim travelled to Jordan for 17 days, where he assessed the progress and helped structure the upcoming agenda. For Ibrahim “the ideal structure is to have a good process that with good artists will generate good content”. Despite the company being a mix of amateur and professional actors, Ibrahim asserts that he had “complete trust in them” because he believed that “they all discovered how art could be used as a tool to empower them within their communities”.
When D-day arrived, the performances were an absolute success, mainly because of the connection achieved between the artists and the audience. Using art to illustrate the hopes and pains of Syrian refugees had already had a strong impact among the Middle Eastern spectators, particularly while performing in the refugee camps. But for Ibrahim the most significant aspect was the connection achieved between the Swedish and Syrian audiences. Today, there is an on-going debate in Sweden regarding the increase of Syrian immigration in the country. It has been a continuous struggle for Syrian refugees to explain their situation, explain how a lack of choice is what brought them there. This predicament has made them subjects of accusations and in some cases mistreatment. Having Swedish spectators see the acts, engage with the artists’ -while they portrayed the daily Syrian struggle- and consequently clap and cheer at the end of each scene created a bond, which helps understand their problems better, and therefore improve communication. For Ibrahim “this was a great opportunity to build bridges between the Swedish people and the Syrian refugees”.
Ibrahim El Ali has worked with refugees for several years, including organizations like Handicap international and World Refugee children. Before being involved with the DDD project he worked for organizations that aimed to find jobs for refugees and introduced them to the community. Yet, his experience working with NCCA has been more rewarding because: “it gives you a closer look, and at the same time a clearer view of the whole situation”.