Lebanese Theaters Face Uncertain Future Under Covid-19

Lebanese Theaters Face Uncertain Future Under Covid-19

With the government’s five-stage reopening plan slowly unfurling, it won’t be long until theaters and performances spaces are again allowed to operate.

With the culture sector struggling, the last few months have left many theaters on edge, uncertain if they’ll be able to bounce back as they have in the past.

Chateau Trianon, Georges Khabbaz’s Zalka-based theater, has had no box office receipts for months, having been shuttered during lockdown.

“We’re waiting to see what happens, to start working again. We’re purely profit-based and unfortunately everyone is stuck at home right now,” Khabbaz told The Daily Star. “We’re all contract based – no projects, no income.

“We were in the middle of the season, showing my new show ‘Yawmiyyat Masrahji,’ so once things open up again we’ll probably carry on with the three months left of that, until we get back into the swing of things.”

He remains adamant that theater will always have its place.

“There are people questioning the future of live theater because everything is going online now and people are watching it, but theater has been around for thousands of years,” he said. “It has surpassed wars, disasters. It might take a backseat rest once in a while but always comes back because people need it in their lives.”

Other theater operators share these sentiments, but it quickly becomes apparent that no two spaces share the same problems.

While Chateau Trianon and Zoukak Theater have in-house troupes – meaning they could choose to get straight back into work when spaces reopen or offer online performance – Theatre Monnot and Masrah al-Madina face different challenges. As performance venues, they depend on the stability of the country’s playwrights – who are also navigating the economic crisis.

“We have a special arrangement because we’re a theater that is a public branch of the Universite St. Joseph,” Theatre Monnot administrator Ziad Halwani told The Daily Star. “Other theaters rely on running shows to make money, but we’ve been fortunate to have a university that supports theater, taking care of the running cost, which relieves some of the pressure for us.

“I’ve spoken to many producers and directors who have said they are eager to return and perform but we have things to consider. We can’t open the theater with ticket prices being much higher than people can afford but we also need to consider the production groups – how to help them restart the theater scene and bring some returns to them, to make running a show worth the costs.

“If directors and producers can’t run plays, we might as well be closed, so we need to look for ways to help them too. It will be difficult for them to get started again but we need to look for a way to keep ticket prices reasonable for both sides.”

Masrah al-Madina founder Nidal Ashkar says her space’s problems have been in the making for years, due to a lack of state arts funding, now compounded by popular demonstrations and lockdown.

“For many months [during the protests] we offered the theater to young people to express themselves, without paying anything. We felt it was our contribution to this upheaval and many came to present whatever they wanted, with people coming in, paying LL2,000 – LL3,000 as a donation,” the veteran actor and playwright told The Daily Star. “The theater was bust and for all this period we haven’t made one penny and are unable to pay the workers and technicians.

“We’ve been here for 26 years and not once did we stop. All these people that came out of the war discovered Arabic music and theater and now suddenly it’s a complete death,” she added. “I think nothing will be as it was and things will change. The dreams we had are going to have to change. It’s already difficult to run a theater in Lebanon during safe times. Now it would be very difficult, you have to think about taking people’s temperature, seating half-capacity, cleaning everything.”

Halwani notes that this lack of public sector funding has forced the arts to rely on personal innovation and creativity – something the reopening theater scene is going to need a heavy dose of. As it seems likely that spaces will be allowed to seat at half-capacity or less for a while, the balance between creativity and solvency will be especially delicate.

“It’s our job, and any person willing to venture out in this situation to work will be welcomed. If we’re allowed to open and can navigate the rules we’re here to help,” Halwani said. “On a personal level, all this depends on the decision and research of the producers. They need to see if their project will be able to make something out of only 50 percent capacity, if it will cover costs or allow them to pay their workers.

“Right now, I believe there may even be some people willing to take these risks, even if they don’t make a profit, to put on something small or perform old plays, which will have less costs,” he mused. “New sets, light and sound, choreography and costumes cost a lot of money. Old sets, costumes and performances can be upcycled or recycled … We’re always telling performers to work acoustically, to reduce costs and take advantage of natural sound.

“People will go back to basics, simplify and become more creative and work intelligently. There are people willing and theater is a big part of these people’s lives. They can’t just sit at home and hope the situation improves.”

Ashkar hopes to reopen, hesitantly planning the theater’s annual Mishkal Festival, which usually takes place in September. Without funding or sponsors, however, she will have to remain shut.

She says she’s been trying to take an appointment with Culture and Agriculture Minister Abbas Mortada to inquire about public funding, but with the minister focusing on the agricultural side of his job and only being available once a week, she has been unable to pursue the matter.

“We’re all writing and asking for help but so far I haven’t been given an appointment. The government must help because they should not allow Beirut to become barren of creativity, soul and life,” Ashkar said. “It would be a catastrophe for people. I can only hope they give it attention like they’re giving attention to everything else.

“There’s no point to water, electricity and infrastructure if there is no creativity and culture to hold the city together.”

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