8 October 2014.
Tabitha: It’s been great chatting to you informally around the edges of the workshops. Thanks for letting me interview you so that others can have a glimpse into your work and the creative process going on. Firstly, how did you get into working in theatre?
Omar: I graduated from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Syria. After graduating I started working as a dramaturg. With six of my colleagues from the institute we established a group called ‘Studio Theatre’. And that’s how I started, I was the director. In 2004 we created a work called ‘Insomnia’, which was shown in Damascus and the UK, we and continued working from there.
T: You told me once that you studied engineering for four years before changing to theatre. What I find amazing about it is that after four years of investment in it, you changed to theatre.
O: Yes, I studied electrical engineering for four years, but I felt I was not fitted for it. Engineering was always my family’s wish, not my interest. I was very young when I started university, just 17, and I wanted to make my family happy, especially my father. But after four years I realised that I can’t do this. One of us has to be happy, and in this it had to be me! So I changed to studying theatre, on the recommendation of friends.
T: What drives you as a director? What are you trying to achieve through your art, not just in this particular production of Antigone but in your work as a whole?
O: This has been changing and shifting so much in my life, it’s not been fixed. When I started I wanted to be working creatively in the company of actors, of artists. After that I got very involved in the concept of the theatre of the oppressed, and started working in small villages in Syria. So in that time I started to discover how the society around us starts to affect us, and I felt I want to be more with the community and with the people, and I want to make projects with them.
After that I started thinking more about my situation as an artist and director, and my relation to what happened in my society and my political situation and how to express this in my work – or not express it.
Now everything has become very complicated. Now my goal is to keep developing my craft and my career, to keep working and producing. It’s not so easy because of the political situation in Syria now.
T: Which brings me on to my next question. Over the past three and a half years, how has the revolution and war in Syria affected and been a part of your work?
O: I don’t think I made a big change in my work before and after the revolution. What I believed before, I still believe. As I told you, I want to work with communities and the people around me, I want to reflect and support, I want to work with society, and I think I kept on doing this.
But what has really changed is that since 2011 I have been unable to perform in Damascus. I have had to work more outside Syria. This is a big change for me about my relationship with theatre, my relationship with the audience and my role as an artist. It has provoked a lot of hard questions for me. Take the relationship with the audience. I know Syrian society; when we were working there, we know the audience we are going to. Now we’re not performing there, we’re doing performances for a night or two all over the place and we really don’t know the audience. I ask myself what the goal is in this? And I am starting to find some goals, but I’m not sure if I am as comfortable with them as I was before.
T: Is that because, in your approach to theatre, it’s about transformation, not just of actors but also of audience – you’re seeking to affect them, to influence them, to plant a seed in their minds. And when you don’t know the audience, it’s hard to know what seed to plant or how to plant it, or whether it has taken root?
O: Yes I think so. Because I am working in theatre, and it is different to all other art forms because of the live presence of the actors and the audience in one space at one time. So I think knowing the audience is very important as they are part of the creation. You must ask yourself ‘why not another audience? Why here? Why now?’ I was trying to find the answers to these questions in Syria, but it is even harder now.
T: I suppose another question is ‘why this particular play, with these people, at this time?’ So, why Antigone, with Syrian refugee women, in Beirut?
O: The main theme of this text is a very important one for these women. In Arabic, tamarrod – that is, insurgency, rebellion, disobedience. Antigone defies Creon, she refuses to obey. She insists on doing what she believes is right, even though there are a lot of consequences. This is one of the most important questions for Syrians today. Did they do right or wrong in deciding to ask for freedom?
Secondly, what I really loved about this text is that Antigone is a woman and challenging Creon who is a man. This was one of the most important things in the Syrian revolution at the beginning.
Also, this text has a lot of debates and arguments and sometimes you don’t know who is right and who is wrong. This is our situation too in Syria, everything is under debate and we do not know who is right or wrong.
T: Last year you and [producers] Itab [Azzam] and Hal [Scardino] put on a production of The Trojan Women with Syrian refugee women in Jordan. That play is the testimonies of the women of Troy talking about the Trojan war, and there are obvious parallels to the Syrian situation. How does working on Antigone compare?
O: There are many differences between the two texts, and actually Antigone feels more relevant to the Syrian context in many ways. Firstly, the wars they talk about are so different. In The Trojan Women, the war is coming from outside – the Greeks invaded Troy. But in Antigone, the war is coming from within, between two brothers.
Secondly, The Trojan Women takes place after the war has happened, the women’s destiny and fate is decided and they have no agency, no decisions to take. Antigone is not like this. We are watching the character of Antigone take a series of critical decisions. She is active, she decides her own fate.
Also, Antigone’s situation is more complex than that of the women of Troy. In The Trojan Women the truth was simple to understand; the enemy is the Greeks who came and destroyed the city of Troy. For sure the women in the play had right on their side. But Antigone is more complex. Creon has some right on his side too – he can be seen as trying to protect the city. This is more similar to the Syrian situation, especially now that it has started to be more complicated. It is hard to follow one course of action and be sure it is the right one.
T: How have this group of Syrian women, some of whom cannot read or write, all of whom are living in extremely difficult conditions as refugees, and all of whom have their own stories of tragedy, reacted to this text written over 2000 years ago?
O: I think we have seen a wonderful reaction in the women. They got it very fast. They quickly grasped the relationship between the text and their own situation on so many points. For example, they recognise that Antigone shows a war between two brothers and within one family and that this is like the conflict within Syria. They feel that Creon is a dictator and not just, which they also see as similar to the Syrian situation. They believe that Antigone acts according to what is right, they agree with her and support her. More than anything, this is important, because they are connecting emotionally with the text.
T: What is your dramatic process for re-imagining the text in the Syrian context?
O: We always start from the participants themselves, the women in this case. We are discussing more about their backgrounds, their stories. We seek connection points between them and the text. We read the text many times. We have many questions – do we use the original text? Do we use their stories? Do we seek to interweave them? I am asking the women their ideas about how to realise Antigone.
T: And what are you looking for in the women when you come to casting the characters?
O: We are not working according to standard process. If I am working with professional actors, I cast from the beginning and know exactly what and who I am working with from the start. But in this case, I knew nothing about any of them. We didn’t refuse anyone who wanted to participate. Some of the women can’t read or write, or have voice problems. But our only criteria was that people wanted to be involved and would show commitment.
So I can’t think in the old way for casting. I think about those who are most connected to the main characters, and their interpretation and understanding of the characters. Maybe we will create new things or new characters which are different to the original text. For me the text is the starting point for discovering the women and their stories and characters but not more.
T: What is the most satisfying thing about your work?
O: The most satisfying thing for me is working with the women themselves. You see day by day how this work affects them. This is a social treatment. All of these women have had very difficult experiences. It is lovely to see this healing thing – seeing them express change, express ideas they couldn’t express before.
T: What are you hoping to achieve with the final performance?
O: For the final performance, I want to achieve many things. I want to change as much as possible this stereotyped image that many hold of the women I’m working with, this wrong impression that people have.
The second thing is that I want to deliver the stories of the women themselves, their feelings and their characters to the audience. That connection and link with the audience is very important to me.
And finally, we are working hard to make it a good play. Because if it succeeds then the women will feel the sense of achievement that comes from really doing something important.