(Photo by Rami Sameh. This post is a part of the MetLife/A-Ha!: Think It, Do It program.)
It is easy to feel both hopeless and helpless when watching the daily news cycle about the Middle East. I don’t recognize the people I see on the news. The news never shows the people I recognize. I despise television, the technology that is supposed to bring the Middle East closer to me. I despise the Middle East it is force-feeding me.
Because I know a different Middle East. The place that is pulsating with ideas and creativity. Where theatres are packed and people debate the content of a play for days. In the Middle East I know, people are alive, thriving, and engaged; artists debate their ideals and commitment to social change. They strive for a better tomorrow and a world that values their life and their experience.
How do I share this Middle East with my American colleagues?
Because if they knew the people I know, if they see the plays I’ve seen, and if they engage in the conversations that are remotely close to the conversations I’ve had, surely they too will fall in love.
This is why I love “Project Alo?” It is a first step toward putting artists in the US directly in touch with artists in the Middle East. And we use simple technology that is accessible to everyone: Mobile phone video cameras. This is how we set up the project: Five teams of two participants each create one-minute videos on their cell phone and send it to each other. Then each watches his/her partner’s video and in response creates one of their own. It goes on for five rounds to make a ten-minute dialogue.
What felt special about this proposal was that because each artist creates the video clip in his or her own environment, the images and sounds are reflective of the artist’s life and processes. This is a very different experience from flying artists to our environment to create work; expecting them to follow our process, to work in our language and according to our rules. Through the video clips, we catch a glimpse of each artist’s inner life, hopes and desires. The video dialogues create a magnetic field of creativity pulsating with connective energy. They are intimate, revealing and full of honesty.
I remember watching them in the beginning of the project and being surprised by the lack of words. People used music and there was certainly background noise but there were very few words. “Show, don’t tell” seemed to be the general modus operandi. It felt as if each artist is sharing a puzzle or a riddle: solve it and you will be my friend. The hunger to connect was deeply palpable in each exchange. The artists were generous with each other; they had fun responding to one another’s visual imagery in unexpected ways.
- (Photo by Azade Shahmiri.)
The teams had different approaches. Some were more literal, others more experimental. Some changed their approach from clip to clip, others maintained a consistent aesthetic. Everyone took risks. Simple, but huge risks like recording outside in Baghdad; or showing one’s long hair in Tehran. When one team member was concerned about his partner’s safety in Damascus, the partner subtly reassured him by showing calm and peaceful images of his city.
Although each artist had a cell phone camera, access to other resources was very different for each participant. The whole city or country would lose power for an extended period of time, in some cases.
The speed and robustness of the artists’ internet connection was a constant source of aggravation. But at the end of the day, the material was created and shared. What was palpable was a strong sense of narrative and dialogue. This is partly built into the project but also reinforced by the participants, who are all theatre artists. There is a difference in the way a theatre artist looks at the world. I detect a search for identity; a search for ‘my place in the world.’
Now that the pilot phase is complete, I wonder about next steps. All the participants are eager to continue with the work. This is encouraging. It seems important to deepen our relationship within the existing group rather than increase the number of participants. In the pilot phase, the artists communicated via the facilitators. This was necessary at times but more often seemed to create distance. What would happen if the artists communicate directly? The one-minute video captured on cell phone seemed a successful model. We will keep that model but open up the exchange to the whole group on a shared platform, a private Facebook group, for artists to post video clips and comment openly. This will expose the artists more than before. How will this impact the quality of the exchange?
(Photo of Damascus by Ramez Alaswad.)
I love “Project Alo?” because it brings the U.S. I love and the Middle East I love closer to each other in an intimate and honest way. “Project Alo?” is also my revenge on television: this great promise of access and connectivity which now serves mostly to instill fear and promote misinformation. We take technology into our own hands and turn the cell phone into a chronicler of life. We share our reality on the virtual realm because it allows us to be who we are, at least for now. Thanks to the creativity, generosity and courage of its participants, “Project Alo?” will continue to subtly shift our understanding of each other in deep and unexpected ways.
It feels important to share this project, to send it out into the world, so to speak. We are looking for opportunities to showcase the project and the participating artists, as an opening to a new conversation about US-Middle East relations and the role of art and technology in facilitating dialogue. We are also looking for partners who may want to duplicate our model in a small group of their own. If any of this is of interest to you, I would love to hear from you!
Torange Yeghiazarian is the Founding Artistic Director of Golden Thread Productions, the San Francisco theatre company devoted to exploring Middle Eastern cultures and identities. In this capacity, Torange has produced numerous world and American premieres by playwrights of Middle Eastern heritage, including such writers as Yussef el Guindi, Betty Shamieh, Denmo Ibrahim, and Mona Mansour, and launched the REORIENT FESTIVAL OF SHORT PLAYS from and about the Middle East, now accompanied by the REORIENT FORUM, a weekend of panel discussions, presentations, and workshops. Torange has designed a number of groundbreaking programs at Golden Thread including MIDDLE EAST AMERICA: A NATIONAL NEW PLAYS INITIATIVE (in partnership with the Lark Play Development Center and Silk Road Rising), which awards $10,000 to an American playwright of Middle Eastern heritage for the development and production of a new play; KIMIA, inspired by the process of alchemy, facilitates the creation of new plays through innovative collaborations and artistic exchange; NEW THREADS, a staged reading series to support the development of new works from and about the Middle East; ISLAM 101, an initiative to create dynamic plays inspired by Islamic arts and philosophy; and the FAIRYTALE PLAYERS, a touring ensemble that performs children’s stories from the Middle East at schools, libraries, and festivals, which is the cornerstone of Golden Thread’s innovative and robust theatre education program. To highlight women’s voices from the Middle East, Torange curates and produces WHAT DO WOMEN SAY?, an annual performance event featuring poetry, performance, and polemic celebrating International Women’s Day.
The intent of the MetLife/TCG A-HA! Program is to enable theatres to dare to try new approaches to problem-solving artistic, managerial, production and/or technological challenges–to try things the organization doesn’t and couldn’t normally do. To learn more about the program, click here.