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Syrian Theater: The Show Must Go On - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Syrian actors take part in a street performance titled 'Sanduq al-Kar' in Damascus in October, 2008. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian actors take part in a street performance titled ‘Sanduq al-Kar’ in Damascus in October, 2008.
(Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

Damascus, Asharq Al-Awsat—At the upmarket Cham Palace Hotel in the center of Syria’s capital it was announced that Damascus had been selected to host the fourth edition of the Arab Theater Festival. That was in December, 2010, the festival was due to be held two years later in December, 2012.

Things did not go according to plan. The Syrian uprising and the bloody war that followed cancelled not only the Arab Theater Festival, but also the Damascus Theater Festival until further notice.

The conflict signalled the end to a rich tradition of theater in Syria. The biennial Damascus Theater Festival, first launched in 1969, was “seen as the father of all Arab festivals,” according to Hisham Kafarnah, director of the Syrian National Theater. It last ran in December 2010, three months before the first pro-democracy demonstrations were held.

When Damascus was named the Arab Capital of Culture in 2008, Syria’s theater scene boomed. A year-long program of cultural events included dozens of plays that used innovative staging such as ancient tombs, abandoned orphanages and street performances on the winding lanes of Damascus Old City. The European cultural centers in the capital also helped finance and promote Syrian theater until they were forced to close down.

Traditionally, performances in both private and state-run theater were often improvised comedies, some had a critical and sarcastic style that gained in popularity in the years before the uprising. These performances were often put on at theaters such as Al-Khayyam, Al-Sofara and Ramita in the heart of Damascus. They did especially good business in the summer when hordes of Gulf tourists descended on the Syrian capital. Stars of the Syrian thespian world such as the Qanou’a family, Andre Skaf, Ghada Bashour, Ghada al-Shamaa and the two late actors Hassan Dakak and Yassin Baqoush used to light up the stage at these long-running establishments. Now the auditoriums are empty.

However, many of the protagonists of Syrian theater are steadfast and have continued to pursue their work despite the many obstacles. Sami Amran, a Syrian stage director and former head of the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts, has a positive view on the state of Syrian theater. Amran told Asharq Al-Awsat that the war has made him more active and daring in his directing. “My colleagues and I have formed a new movement in Syrian theater to give a boost to drama in terms of both professionalism and maturity,” he said.

“I became more concerned with my country, and I had to work more than ever before. Let me frankly say, that for me, the theater performance industry during the crisis was made easier than ever before. Now, I have more to say through theater as well as through my own beliefs, to make theater more humane instead of loading it with a huge amount of ideologies,” he added. The director of five plays says that Syrian actors also want to get on board the new theater movement: “There are actors who champion such an experience. Those actors still exist and have a desire to continue.”

Head of the Syrian National Theater Hisham Kafarnah also has hope: “We are still putting on our performances despite the war and the mortar shelling,” he says. He points a finger at the shattered glass in the window, describing the mortar attack that hit the front of the theater department only a few days earlier. “The shrapnel reached my office, but luckily I was out and escaped danger.”

Kafarnah says that the security situation in Damascus is improving compared to the earlier days of the unrest. Although fewer plays are staged, and performance times have been brought forward, the productions do still pull in an audience, says Kafarnah. “At the beginning of the crisis people were gripped by fear and had to stay at home. When the crisis prolonged, people wanted to return to their normal lives.”

Hala Soliman, a student at Damascus University’s Faculty of Arts, is one of those resilient theater-goers. She used to attend evening performances with friends in central Damascus. She lives with her family in the southern suburbs, areas which have been badly hit by fighting between rebel and government forces. “With the passage of time, I became accustomed to this situation and I used to meet my colleagues in Al-Rawda coffeehouse in the afternoon. As was customary for us, we used to look at the coffeehouse’s walls to see whether any plays were advertised,” Soliman said. She still attends the occasional matinee performance at the Qabbani and Hamra theaters.

In the heyday of Syrian drama in the 1960s, large public theaters were constructed such as the Qabbani, attracting foreign troupes as well as local Syrian theater schools, including those led by celebrated comic actors Abdel Latif Fathi and Mahmoud Jaber. Later, Al-Hamra theater was constructed in Salahiyya district, the beating heart of modern Damascus.

A project to renovate the Qabbani Theater—named after the father of Syrian theater playwright Abu Khalil Qabbani—was launched in 2007. Work has since been suspended, although sources from within the Damascus tourism office told Asharq Al-Awsat that the project had been taken up by an investor in November this year with plans for completion within a year. When it does eventually reopen there will still be Syrian actors, directors and an audience to fill its new auditorium.