An ensemble of stage actors from Lebanon have come together to express solidarity with Beirut’s theater community after it was rocked, along with the rest of the city, in the deadly explosion on August 4.
The explosion at the port last year caused significant damage to the city, with over 200 people confirmed dead. Survivors from the explosion continue to endure a psychological toll, while protests continue against a government-led investigation into the cause of the blast.
Last November, the stage group held an online and charitable theater play called “Whispers” (or ‘Hamasat’ in Arabic), telling the narrative of actors rehearsing for a play on the day of the explosion.
In the play, the actors finished rehearsing at 6:00 pm, making their way to the Mar Mikhael neighborhood, where they hear the sound of a fire erupting at the port. A suspenseful blackout occurs and the audience quietly knows what happens next.
The idea started with the Lebanese actor and producer Agatha Ezzedine, who, although is based in London, was devastated and felt the need to do something when Beirut was torn apart in a matter of seconds. The city’s artistic landscape endured a massive blow that day, with museums, galleries, and theater venues in close proximity to the port gutted.
“All the theaters got destroyed in some shape or form. It’s so sad because originally they never get help as it is from the government,” she said.
While some might view the arts as non-essential, Ezzedine, as a cultural worker, nevertheless emphasizes its importance in the long run.
“When you’re in a crisis of that scale, naturally the first things you want to maintain are keeping a roof above people’s head, keeping the hospitals and small businesses going. The first thing that gets cut out is culture because it’s not a necessity for life. But it was important to still think that we need to maintain our culture because I believe culture is a big part of a country’s identity,” she states.
As director of the fundraising NGO ‘Impact Lebanon’, Ezzedine decided to also contact theater producer Josyane Boulos and theater director, Professor Lina Abiad shortly after the explosion. In a time when the country is on its knees due to the coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented financial crisis, and a negligent government, the trio’s aim was to raise funds to restore the impacted venues and support fellow theater professionals.
Among those damaged, most are located in the areas of Achrafieh, Mar Mikhael, and Gemmayze, including the well-known Black Box Beirut, Al Madina Theatre, Theatre Gemmayze, Melkonian Theater and Theatre Monnot, which opened in 1997.
The presence of these intimate and underground spaces affirms Beirut’s long held status of a vibrant theater life in the region.
“Lebanon had such a strong theater because from all the Arab countries, this is one of the [few] countries that had freedom of speech, where all the Arabs would come to Beirut to write, paint, speak and publish. It’s still there. I really admire the audience in Beirut – they’re open-minded and ready to be challenged,” Abiad said, who teaches performing arts at Lebanese American University.
Making it a transnational project, Ezzedine consulted with six British playwrights such as Angela Harvey and John Jesper, to donate different monologs (later translated into Arabic), free of rights and charge to the cast.
“Since I heard about the Beirut explosion, I really wanted to do something to help and especially help my fellow theater artists,” contributing actor and writer Geraldine Brennan wrote in a post on Instagram.
Filmed in one of the destroyed venues, Whispers is composed of a cast of twelve reputable performers of the Lebanese scene: Badih Abou Chakra, Bernadette Houdeib, Sany Abdul Baki, Nada Abou Farhat, including Nadine Labaki and Georges Khabbaz.
This group stands as a rare collaboration of actors in the country, none of them received payment, and were committed to the producers’ vision of granting 100 percent of the funds to those affected by the blast. On a simple set, they delve into a multitude of topical themes, such as feminism, relationships, mental health, loneliness caused by COVID-19, and other socio-political issues.
Abiad admits that directing Whispers was an emotionally difficult endeavor, as the pain hasn’t subsided from all that has been lost on August 4.
“It’s as if you’re learning how to speak and think again,” she explained. “That’s why we called it ‘Whispers’ – we are just whispering these texts and we are learning again how to be creative, to write, to laugh.”
In a single pre-recorded online showing the Whispers team raised over 70 million Lebanese pounds, which was then distributed to the destroyed venues. Screened on YouTube, it attracted more than 3,500 viewers from all around the world. According to the theater’s organizers, the first screening deemed successful, which is why a second one will be launched by late March/early April 2021. They hope to gain more viewers by including English and French subtitles, and eventually support young local production professionals.
Whispers started as a project to bring artists together, and raise funds for repair, but organizers later realized that the project could also bring people together in camaraderie and heal.
“We thought we were saving the theater, but it ended up that the theater saved us,” Abiad said.