Masrah Ensemble makes, develops, and fosters research and criticism of theatre with a focus on the Arab stage. Based in Lebanon, the Ensemble aims to reconfigure audiences and to encourage transcendent, riveting theatre.
Since 2009, Masrah Ensemble (ME) has been staging performances, cultivating talent, and championing artistic and cultural exchange through residencies, festivals, and educational programs. ME challenges prevailing ideas of what theatre should be, where it should take place, and to whom it belongs. The artists and audiences of ME are citizens, youth, refugees, migrant workers, professionals, and amateurs. Adopting radical, new approaches to the creative process, ME presents work, usually free of charge, in nontraditional and semi-public spaces.
Highlights include a three-month Amharic-Arabic-English festival featuring performances of works-in-progress in Beirut and New York; an Arabic-English production of Mud (1982) by María Irene Fornés in a salvaged Ottoman mansion with fourteen free performances for audiences of laborers and theatregoers; workshops with young refugee artists; and programs across four continents tracing the history of theatre and social change amid the Arab revolts.
In 2015, ME began the first phases of Family Ti-Jean (FTJ) in collaboration with Basmeh & Zeitooneh for Relief and Development in Shatila and with the key support of the Prince Claus Fund and the Violet Jabara Charitable Trust. Teenage Syrian and Palestinian refugees perform alongside actors and musicians, including some migrant laborers, in FTJ. To our knowledge, there has never been a production in the history of Lebanese theatre with leading, creative teammates from both the refugee and migrant worker communities.
Why is Masrah Ensemble appropriate to be the recipient of the Ellen Stewart Award?
No other organization in Lebanon consistently develops performance in a constellation of spaces to cultivate long-term collaborations between citizen and non-citizen artists. ME’s methodology creates synergies between minority groups who normally don’t get the chance to meet and make theatre together. The guiding principle is simple: theatre demystifies “the other.”
ME has fostered such collaborations since early 2013, working first with community leaders and NGOs that unite workers of various nationalities. For instance, Rahel Zegeye, a leading activist and domestic worker, began her activities as a playwright and continued as a dramaturg in a 2014 ME festival. She selected Yekermo Sew (Tomorrow’s Man) by Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin, Ethiopia’s late poet laureate, as a pillar of the festival and consulted on its Arabic translation. Probably the first work of Amharic literature to enter the Arabic language in Lebanon, it was presented at community centers, Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York (in the English translation developed by ME), and universities in Beirut: students – many with domestic workers at home – didn’t even know that Amharic is a language but found themselves embodying characters from the Ethiopian literary canon.
ME’s activities with young and emerging refugee artists have led to local and international opportunities. In 2013, exiled Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar traveled as part of the Doomed by Hope series at five US universities. In rural New Jersey, theatre students at Rowan University prepared and performed scenes for their peers from his play about a twenty-something filmmaker documenting testimonies of torture of young activists in Syrian prisons.
Key accomplishments and impact of the work
Since its inception and with very little funding (ME’s yearly budget has not exceeded $25,000), what is most impressing is the genuine rapport ME creates with the people who collaborate on projects. ME doesn’t use people’s tragedies to create art or theatre. The artists of ME listen to the needs of the organization’s partners, from Yale University and the feminist collective Nasawiya to Alwan for the Arts (US) and the Migrant Workers Task Force (Lebanon), and create with them, not on their behalf. The artists – be they citizens, migrants, or refugees – decide together the context of the work. With perseverance, the organization maintains relationships and builds on its collaborations with a grassroots approach. In 2014, ME produced a two-month playwright residency program to develop new Arabic drama (first initiative of its kind in the Middle East) in collaboration with young theatre makers in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The resulting play, Before Dinner by Yasser Abu Shaqra, a Palestinian-Syrian writer and now refugee in Turkey, was presented in New York in 2014 and in Tokyo last December; this coming March, it will be published in Japanese and featured in the Festival Europe des Théâtres in Paris.
Masrah Ensemble is distinctive both in Lebanon and internationally for its ability to embrace a number of key paradoxes: while promoting Arab theatre, the company is inclusive in its embrace of multiple national, ethnic and religious perspectives.
The types of theatre actions proposed by Masrah Ensemble in Beirut are … effective actions of the first order, training participants in how to break through the prevailing status quo.
The deep, slow work that Masrah Ensemble has begun in classrooms, community centers, and refugee camps has global importance and impact.
“The Doomed by Hope” project appears to be succeeding in its aim to bring together performers, productions and audiences from different backgrounds, giving them a much-needed chance to interact and overlap.
The Daily Star, India Stoughton (January 10, 2013)
On a stormy December night in Beirut’s Zokak al-Blat district, young performers from Masrah Ensemble, a theatrical research non-profit, took their places for a staged reading of work from acclaimed Arab playwrights – one of whom, Hassan Abdulrazzak, had joined the crowd … Readers performed by the light of what seemed to be hundreds of candles tirelessly sourced in darkness from every room of the house. The light flickered on the performers’ faces and sent a supporting cast of shadows dancing across the stately space’s walls. The effect was mesmerising, with the venue’s strange mix of opulence and decay providing a near perfect setting for a séance-like conjuring of characters.
Now Media, Daniel Dolan (February 6, 2013)
Triangles Playing across Amharic, Arabic, and English in Beirut and New York
Masrah Ensemble: Devised Theatre Workshop with Preteens (2013)
PO Box 175249, Mar Mikhaël Annahr, Beirut, Lebanon