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A hidden theatre reenacts 2018's suffering Open in fullscreen

The New Arab

A hidden theatre reenacts 2018's suffering

The hidden theatre in Volterra [Supplied]

Date of publication: 5 December, 2018

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New 'theatre reportage' brings together participants from around the Arab world and Europe to act scenes from the past year's news from a personal perspective.
Over a week in the old city of Volterra, Tuscany, in Italy, participants from across conflict-affected areas of the Middle East came together to create theatre out of their experiences.

The week was run by the Theatro di Niscoto "hidden theatre" group, through a method they call "Theatre Reportage".  An independent initiative between European and Arab theatre practitioners, the festival tells the stories of those living in areas of conflict using theatre, monologues, song, film, radio and street actions. 

Actors, journalists, activists and artists performed over three days, sharing the voices of everyday life under war. 

"I want the public to live for one moment, a few minutes, what the people in Palestine, Iraq, Kurdistan, Egypt, Syria live during occupation, oppression, war, where bombs fall every day, a reality we know exists but feels very distant," says artistic director Annet Henneman. 

The festival in Volterra marked the twentieth year of the theatre which has has visited Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Egypt, Turkish/Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and countries across Europe. 

"The main aim for the theatre is to go beyond the headlines and the hectic news cycle which takes the humanity away from people, and instead puts narratives, faces and art to bridge the gap between this news cycle and audiences, and to build a strong and empathetic relationship between the audience and the participants and the actors," said participant Muzna al-Naib from Syria.  

"In many ways the rehearsals were the most important part in the whole experience because during that week we managed to do what other people take years to develop in terms of solidarity, the growth of empathy, and understanding what is going on in other countries - whether Arab or Europen countries - in terms of fighting for justice," she said.

"
It gets you out of your own small sphere into a wider global sphere and you realise how this is your fight, and how its part of a bigger fight for a better world, and how important it is that the narratives should be loud and clear and heard."

It's about the events that have strongly affected civilians in these countries and conveying this news through personal stories to the audience



Muzna acted in the play, the central piece of the festival. Opening with a wedding in the town hall, participants walked through the ancient city of Volterra to the "hidden theatre". The actors then filtered off a catwalk, broke into groups, performing mini-acts for sections of the audiences simultaneously.  

"The play is always different, wherever they perform, based on what the actors want to convey," Jood, an actor from Syria, explained.

For this year's play in Italy, the action focused on the events of the past year in Palestine, Iraq and Syria and different parts of Kurdistan.

"It's about the events that have strongly affected civilians in these countries and conveying this news through personal stories to the audience," he said. 

Scenes included mourning, an election scene where actors fought physically over a chair which referenced Iraq, and a story about children living in fear as a mother warned them the walls have ears - which sought to convey life in Syria under the Assad regime. 

There was also a "march of the dead" where actors mourned for protesters killed in Gaza, a White Helmet volunteer killed in a Russian airstrike and a protester in Iraq killed by a sniper. 

"It manages to go beyond the barriers of different languages and cultures to convey the stories to the audience - it was performed in three different languages - English, Arabic and Italian," said Jood.

Other participants agreed with the theatre's capacity to bring people together and forge solidarity. 

"It's important for me - its very beautiful - the work with the theatre… has taught me many things about the life and humanity, and people in the Western world," said one Iraqi actor.

"The festival was beautiful because it collects all these people from different countries with different languages and cultures. It shows western people and people in Volterra how these cultures and languages can be together."


The connection with the festival to Italy was also important. The country itself faces difficulties from an economic crisis, and has recently elected a right-wing government with strong anti-immigration sentiments.

"I believe that tonight is a very important night, especially the twentieth birthday - it's a form of resistance which is necessary especially in this time - we need to open our eyes," said the town's mayor, Marco Buselli, who opened the festival with a speech in Volterra's town hall. 

"I think there are many issues especially in Italy right now, but the most important one is the issue of indifference - we are so indifferent to what happens every single day, before we understood the pain - but now something happens, and then something else happens, so we don't feel anymore," he said. 

"And connected to this problem with indifference it's important that we care. There's a problem with ego-centrism that builds walls and not bridges. So politics needs to be able to connect instead of divide."

The theatre also has a close relationship with the city, having performed workshops in local schools. "
There's now an international dimension to the city - we are connected internationally," the mayor said. 

His sentiments were echoed by fellow city resident Paula Silatto, who described herself as friend of the theatre for ten years. 

"The importance of the theatre is to give us the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, to know their stories and how they live in their country and to have access to all this information that we usually don't have - or when we do, we have it differently," she said, adding that many locals feel the same way.

"Of course Voltarra has affection for 'theatre reportage' so they are all happy to welcome this special event and there are lots of people caring and participating and the nice thing is that they contribute in their own way - they give hospitality to the people in their homes and the restaurants, so its something that gives also an opportunity to those who live here to know how to collaborate and to stay together, which is a good thing," said Paula.

"I'm so grateful to have contact with Annette and the work."

The opening ceremony took place on November 23 in the Sala Giunta of the Volterra Council Hall and featured speeches from Antonio Pasquino, Italy's ambassador to Baghdad, Luisa Morgantini, the former deputy President of the European Parliament, and representatives of local and international NGOs. 

"We are grateful for the city and the people of Volterra for hosting our festival and for making our big international family feel at home here," read a statement from the group. 

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