Shakespeare in Palestine

By Abdullah H. Erakat, Ramallah

Yasmin Qadmany’s parents did not want her to study acting. In fact, they tried to prevent the 26-year-old engineer from doing so, to the extent that when she told them she was going to follow her heart, they stopped talking to her. That was three years ago, and next year she will graduate. But before she does, she and fellow thespians at the Drama Academy in Ramallah will put on a production of “Romeo & Juliet.”

“I faced difficulties. But I overcame it because I saw it as a challenge,” says Qadmany noting that her relation with her family is now better than ever. Qadmany is gearing up for another challenge in late November: a two-week workshop taught by the all-female company, the Manhattan Shakespeare Project.

Sarah Eismann, the founding artistic director of the Manhattan Shakespeare project says the project came about last year after she performed in an international production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Folkwang University of the arts in Germany. Students from Palestine’s Drama academy also made up the cast.

“They were just incredible artists, as well as passionate, courageous and really wonderful people. So when their director asked if I wanted to work with them again, I was like yeah, of course, I would love to,” she adds.

The Drama Academy managing director Petra Bargouthi says the workshop, (English with Arabic translation), is an excellent way to prepare her students for next year’s Shakespeare festival in Germany.

“Language is the most important character when it comes to Shakespeare. It’s a game of language, so this will be very helpful for our students to understand and discover the poetry in Shakespeare,” explained Bargouthi – also a movement therapy instructor – in an interview with Variety Arabia,

The academy, the first of its kind acting school in Palestine, is located in downtown Ramallah and is hosted by Al-Kasaba Theatre and Cinematheque.

Teaching artist Jensen Olaya says she hopes that she and her colleague Eismann will contribute to the “already rich curriculum” of the Academy.

Olaya explained that the sessions will be recorded by film documenter Lena Rudnick: “I feel that Shakespeare is a widely used tool to teach theatre and performance. I feel like his themes are universal on the smallest, most intimate level and I hope that the universal themes can help us connect past cultural and political divides,” she wrote in an email to Variety Arabia.

It’s not only her first trip to the Palestine, but to the Middle East. While she says there are people in Ramallah who have already welcomed her, Olaya says she still cannot quite comprehend that she is actually going and does not know what to expect.

“We have received support – both financial support and moral support – from people in the US and I feel like I have a lot of people who are hoping that I go out there and return with wonderful stories to share about Ramallah and its’ people,” Olaya adds.

“It’s a little scary,” says second-year acting student Rabee Hanani, who has mostly been educated in Germany, but his feelings are more of curiosity than fear.

“By being exposed to different cultures from different countries in the world, we gain more,” he said.

Third-year Drama Academy student Jihad Al Khateeb says he hopes this workshop will make him a better actor, not only in performing Shakespeare, but in general.

“I think the most important thing is how to do Shakespeare the way he intended for us to do it,” says the 24-year old.

Leaving Ramallah, Olaya and Eismann will head north to Jenin’s Freedom Theatre, where they will carry out the same thing.

The venue made the news headlines in April 2011, when its co-founder Juliano Mer Khamis was murdered in broad daylight by unknown men on the steps of the theatre.

Managing director Jonatan Stanczak said the incident caused some students to drop out of the student theatre acting school, but things are now back on track.

Currently, British director Diane Trevis, the first woman to work with the Royal Shakespeare theatre, is conducting a workshop there.

“I am aware that Shakespeare is a very important component of any actor’s development. It’s a great opportunity for us to have one of the best Shakespeare troupes in the world working with our students,” adds Stanczak, who is a nurse by profession.

“We believe culture is the glue that keeps everything together and it is also the process that allows Palestinian society to form itself around ideas,” he said.

“Most of the people who come to Palestine and do the workshop become more aware of the Palestinian life and Palestinian humanity,” says Bargouthi. “I hope this will be a way of knowing us and understanding us and also for our students to see how people perceive them.”

“I merely want to connect as an artist on a human level: person-to-person, overcoming political barriers,” said Olaya.

Eismann says the Manhattan Shakespeare project is simply excited because it is their first venture into creating international relationships.

“We’re not there to make a political statement. We’re just there to create theatre, and to create art,” she concluded.

The story was originally published in Variety Arabia November issue.

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