Theatre in the rubble

Jan Willems
Jan Willems (© Eric Beauchemin)

A decade ago, a chance encounter took Dutch theater-maker Jan Willems to the occupied Palestinian territories. Following the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993, he decided to set up a theatre company there. Theatre Day Productions’ goal is simple: to offer a day of drama to all school-aged Palestinian children in Gaza and Hebron. The plays, which are based on life in the occupied territories, are followed by workshops in which children are encouraged to talk about the issues they face on a daily basis. It’s a heart-warming tale about a man trying, in his own small way, to restore some humanity in the occupied lands.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: August 8, 2004


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Under Foreign Skies – Portraits of Dutch people abroad doing remarkable things”. The program is produced by Eric Beauchemin.

The violence that comes with the Israeli occupation is devastating…is making people crazy. The humanity is lost. I think only culture can help us find back that humanity.

Jan Willems is a theatre-maker who arrived in the Palestinian occupied territories nearly a decade ago. Like many people of his generation, Jan Willems was active in protest movements in the 1970’s and 80’s. He was a squatter. He actively opposed nuclear energy and like hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, he demonstrated against the stationing of nuclear missiles on Dutch soil. Throughout this turbulent period, Jan Willems was also active in youth theatre and drama, both as an actor and a director. In the early 1990’s, a chance encounter took him to the occupied Palestinian territories.

It’s a love story. I met someone in The Netherlands who was working here, a theatre-maker involved with the Palestinians that made very beautiful, naïve-style acting that I liked. And they invited me to come and act with them, to play a role. That was the beginning. EB: So when you came here, what happened? How did it go? I was part of the well-known group, the first really renowned Palestinian theatre group, called al-Hakawati. Al-Hakawati means the story-teller. From being a Palestinian group, they actually became ambassadors, cultural ambassadors of Palestine because the Israelis censored a lot of their work. They were based in Jerusalem. So their action field was the West Bank and they were not allowed to work there. They could only do some shows in the Arab villages in Israel. But that was too small for them. So the only thing they could do was try to go abroad and bring their plays outside. The nice thing about them is that they as Palestinians did not push the political issues of we are Palestinians, we are victims. We want to show our side of the medal against Israel. But they just tried to see what actually are we as Palestinians? What is our life? Where our jokes, our comedies and our big tragedies? And they were not afraid to make fun of their own society. And in any situation where people are organizing the resistance against the occupation or the suppressor, there’s always actually this danger that we actually only live in the harness that the enemy gives us because we can only talk about him and what he does to us instead of worrying about ourselves and creating the possibility for a good life.

Not long after Jan Willems arrived, an event on the other side of the world brought a fundamental change to life in the occupied territories. In 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords. For the first time since the creation of Israel in 1948, it appeared that the two peoples would be able to reach a lasting peace settlement. Those were heady days in the occupied territories, and people began dreaming of a new future.

We had to think as people in the theatre group al-Hakawati what we want in this new situation and we decided well, let’s take a good look. The adults, they have the war in between their ears. They only like to play war. They want to see the problem of the political issues. The kids like to fanaticise. They are still very well able to dream and to think about another life. And they are not shy to talk about what is actually their problem and what kind of conflicts they live in in their own society. And next to that, more than half of the population is younger than 15 years old. So in fact you lock out more than half of your audience if you go and work for adults.

Theatre Day Productions
Theatre Day Productions (© Eric Beauchemin)

Jan Willems and a few other members of al-Hakawati decided to form a new theatre company. The goal of Theatre Day Productions was simple: to offer a day of theatre and drama to every school child in Gaza and Hebron, two remote regions, both physically and culturally, in the occupied territories. Neither one, says Jan, had a theatrical tradition.

We sometimes think that in Hebron people are very involved in keeping cultural programmes out the door, outside of the town. It’s a very, very conservative region, culturally speaking, not so much because of religion because in Gaza it can be the same, especially in the camps. The problem in Hebron for instance is that there are a few families that are actually clans who have the power. This is a very traditional way of deciding things. The Palestinian Authority…you can say what you want about them, that they don’t function well and all that, but they have some kind of worldly power that is modern in comparison to what’s going on in Hebron. So it’s a very tough town to enter. EB: So how did you start setting up your organisation? We started very simply with what we like to do and what we can do. We like to make plays. In Gaza and in Hebron, there are not a lot of actors so the first thing that we had to do was set up a training programme. And you know there is no theatre school in Palestine and if there would be one it would probably be in Bethlehem or in Ramallah, not in an area where people from Gaza or Hebron could get to. So we said, OK, let’s do something new. Let’s make a training programme that is like a school. Maybe we are like a mobile school that sometimes is in Gaza, sometimes in Hebron and we produce shows and we train people. But then we have to do it over a long period. So we took a time of three year. We made a three-year curriculum. We have not many teachers. We ask help from outside, from the Arab world or from Europe, teachers who can help us, who are interested in our work and who want to support. Good professionals that we meet in our European network. And that’s what we have been doing for 9 years. We turn over every 3 years like 6 to 8 people in every town, and then we take a new class. We cannot take every year a new class. We just have one group and we will make plays with them and we will train them and we will reach a lot of children while we train them. It’s like a vocational school for the arts.

EB: How do you find these people because 6 to 8 people, it means you have very strict criteria for choosing the people you are going to train? A lot of people would like to join us. Well, a lot of men, and then we have one of the problems of our programme. Women cannot be on the stage. They can, but their families don’t like it because of the body exposure that comes with theatre, they prefer that their women do something else. So we had women in our training programme but after one year when it becomes a professional perspective, somehow it goes wrong. EB: Then how did you actually choose the men who entered the programme? Well, of course we make it known that we start a new year. We publish it in the newspaper, but in fact because so many people know us, they know already that next year Aiam al-Masrah, the Arabic name for Theatre Day Productions, they are going to start a new programme, so they start invading our offices months before. We make long lists. We make first interviews with people in our office. And then we do a lot of auditions and we see what people we feel are committed to the work and of course talent. EB: You say it’s a three-year training programme. Is it 8 hours a day, 5 days a week? In the first year, it is much less. We want to give people the possibility to get used to the programme. So we have a quite intense training programme, but it’s only for three months. And then, yes, we work 6 days a week, 6 hours a day. It’s a double rehearsal per day. That’s the beginning training. We ask them to think about how they would initiate their own project, how they would be able to work with colleagues in the camp where they live or the neighbourhood in Gaza or Hebron where they live, just for them to start thinking about how they can initiate their own work, because that’s one of the main issues of our work. We will not be able to keep all our trainees on board because we cannot pay everybody salary and we cannot pay 20, 30 productions a year. Our actors from the moment that they are in their second year, they know enough about drama teaching and about acting that they can create their own small projects in the city or the village where they live.

EB: How do they do that? Do they simply go talk to people in the community? Do they talk to children? What do they do? Yes, well a main issue of our work is that we have a very good working relation with the Ministry of Education, with the PA ministry of education. EB: The PA is the Palestinian Authority of course. That’s right. And of course we proved our quality in the past 9 years, they are always happy when in any region where we are, when we can work with their school children. Sometimes we do it in school time. Most of the time, directly after school hours. We provide a bus or several buses to come to the place where we are. We have a central place here in Gaza where we are sitting right now. But we move it every year also to places like Rafah and Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, that’s in the south of the Gaza Strip and in the Hebron south West Bank area. We go all over the place because we make our plays always very mobile.

EB: Do you find that there are big differences in the issues that concern people here in Gaza and those that people in the West Bank are dealing with? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. But how to say that in a few words? Sometimes you think it’s two different countries. You know the language is different. When somebody from Gaza visits the West Bank, it’s immediately clear in the language, after two words. This is a Gazan. What you can say about the difference of the people, in Gaza, they are much more connected to Egypt and in the West Bank, they are more connected to Jordan. That already gives a difference in mentality. In fact, in Gaza, more than 70% of the people is a refugee. In the West Bank, you do not have that. In the West Bank it’s the other way around. There are many more people that are from the town where they live than refugee camps. In Hebron, there are two refugee camps on the borders of the city. In the Gaza Strip, almost everything is a refugee and they overwhelmed the local population that tried to keep up their standing – and that’s also not so nice – because they tried to fight the refugees in fact which is their compatriots in trouble. But there’s a conflict between original people from Gaza and the refugees. They will not get the jobs that they are entitled to, and that kind of trouble is there. Gazans are much more dependent on Israel for work. There is no work at this moment and there always was tension about work. It was never allowed to build up an economic sector that would be self-sustainable. So people need money. The money problem is very big in Gaza. The craving for getting as much as you want for any service, they need it to survive. In the West Bank, people can be more relaxed about that but Hebron is a special case because there are, they are merchants and there are clans and they are protective towards each other and they don’t like new influences from inside even if with our work, they have to admit this is beautiful, this is wonderful. But maybe not [chuckle]. EB: Where do the storylines come from? We have a lot of sources. We use literature. Our main source of inspiration however is daily life in Palestine. It is unbelievable how much inspiration there is in a place like this. I mean there are conflicts all over the place. People are very involved in arranging their lives, in starting to understand in the morning how they will get to the end of the day, having food, having all kinds of things. There are conflicts all the time because of the pressure that people are living in.

Jan and his group believe it’s important for people, young and old, to develop their creative and artistic sides. But they also want to help young people deal with some of the issues they face on a daily basis in the occupied territories. To explain how these ideals are put into practice, Jan took me to at a community centre in the Jabalia refugee camp in the north of the Gaza Strip. Two of the actors he trained were about to stage a play for 30 youths between 10 and 14 years of age.

EB: What’s the play about? It’s about a man who was very successful in his career, a journalist who writes beautiful pieces and columns about society, about life and fantasy also. He’s tricked by his own people, by his own colleagues because they are so jealous. They don’t want him in this place. They want to have his position. So what they do is they set up some kind of plot, you can say, that all kind of stories about him are going around. After a few weeks, he’s fired because of that reason. So what we see is a man who refuses to speak out of pure frustration. He is not able to function anymore the way he wants because his environment makes it impossible for him to express himself properly and to live in the right way. So he is silent. He doesn’t speak a word. His family gets crazy. They don’t know what to do.

Scene in the play Houses of People
Scene in the play Houses of People (© Eric Beauchemin)

At the moment that the play begins, we see his oldest son, his eldest son comes in. He comes from abroad especially to wake up his father. And because it is his oldest son, he starts speaking. We hear everything that happens. The problem is only that his son cannot convince him that the world is changing, that his son or the next generation will be able to make a change in life and that disappointment brings us back to the beginning of the play. It ends like it begins. He is silent. He doesn’t speak. There is no way for him to live. EB: Where did the storyline come from? Well, the storyline obviously comes from a writer. I believe he’s Syrian. He feels a lot of criticism for his own people and for the system that he lives in in the Arab world. There is a lot of corruption. There is no cooperation of people. There is no real feeling of democratic values, of giving people the freedom to develop themselves, to have an individual identity that can bloom, that the capacities of the people will be able to come out and function well personally and socially in the country for the benefit of everybody.

EB: We’re about to see this play. About 30 children or young people are about to watch it, and then what will happen afterwards? Is this play supposed to lead to a type of discussion? The way we made the play is that our actors found a style that is attractive to young people. They identify with the son but then they are disappointed in the son because he cannot really find a solution. After the play we do a small workshop in which we talk about silence. Do we recognise why this man is silent? Do we recognise this in our own life? Are we sometimes silent because we don’t know how to answer our dad, how to answer our teacher? What actually means silence? Can you be silenced because you are frustrated? Can you see from that people are silent because they actually need help? Can we help each other? Is there something we can do together to solve this problem? I think our audience is coming in [chuckle]. We have to go the back to the show. We can take later…EB: We can talk afterwards.

EB: How did it go today? It went well, I think. I’m happy. We [chuckle] Of course a play like this, it’s a very verbal play. So there’s a lot of talking. So the acting must be very precise and electrifying because the kids react immediately. When they’re bored, they’re bored. So we need to work a little bit on the acting, but actually I think it went fine. They liked it. They laughed. They had a good time.

Kids with a lot of questions
Kids with a lot of questions (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: I noticed that all the kids were raising their hands. They had lots of questions, lots of things to say. Yeah, that’s always the thing. Theatre is a new tool let’s say in Palestinian society. There is a lot they want to ask because everything is new. They have a lot of questions and what we do is we play a little trick. We make it a game, so the two actors, they become like an entertainment duo. They receive all the questions and then they play them back to the audience and they make it like a riddle game: who can answer this question, ah you, ah, that’s very good. All the questions are good of course. And in this playful way, they tell us in fact what the play means, how they connect to it and that’s very, very nice. There’s a lot of fantasy and apparently the play invites them to fantasize, to create their own reality. EB: And that’s the goal of it. And that’s the goal of it, yeah of course. We don’t just show them something that is nice to see. We try to give them a play that makes their mind go, that gives them a way to connect their own fantasy to it. So it’s not only the story that we tell. We always try to tell the story in such a way that they have to finish the story. EB: But this means that every single day the workshop is different. Oh yes, oh yes. And it’s not only different because all the kids are different. This is everywhere in the world I think. But in Gaza and the Gaza Strip it is different because it makes a big difference in what area you are acting. Like now we are in a refugee camp. We are in Jaballiah. Kids have a lot of problems. I mean, one day the Israelis came in here with tanks and 20-30 people died in one evening. That gives a lot of stress in families, in people’s lives. That has consequences for the way parents are able to listen to their children. There is miscommunication everywhere.

Kids applauding after the performance
Kids applauding after the performance (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: Afterwards, we saw some of the kids come up here in front and they were acting out one of the scenes in the play. But the afterwards the kids were doing something completely different. What was that? In the beginning, they try to do scenes that they saw in the play. They imitate and that of course especially for kids is something fantastic. They love to imitate what they saw and to take the story into their own hands and change it a bit and make grotesque characters. That they love. Sometimes they like to play the role of the son in the play to see if they have a solution, a solution that satisfies the father. Or maybe because they are angry at him, they try to make him more angry. They play, they play with the theme. And some of them feel the problem that is in the play. They meet silence, silence as a message, not as a political message but as a symbol of them not being able to express themselves, and the need to be listened to. Please let’s talk. Let’s help. We need to cooperate. We cannot shout against each other all the time. But then there is a moment when we ask them questions. And of course we try to invite them to talk about how they think the story relates to their own lives, how do you meet the themes of the play in your own lives and they have a lot of stories. As I told before, it’s a lot of family stories and we invite them to act out those stories. And that of course are completely different stories. Then it is only the theme related to the play, but in fact it’s about them and their family stuff: the girls who talk about the older brother, how can I tell him that I don’t like something because the older brother in the family is like the father. It’s a big authority and how do you deal with that on a daily basis? And all kinds of stories. They have a complete life of problems that they can share with us.

Theatre Day Production’s main venue is located on the grounds of the Gaza City YMCA. Like most buildings in the crowded and impoverished city, it’s not much to look at.

Well, it’s very run down. The paint comes out of the walls and all that, but we create our own beauty by hanging black curtains around us and putting simple black PVC on the floor, so that we have the illusion of a black box, of a real theatre. EB: So that people when they come out from the outside and come in here, they’re entering into a completely different world. Yeah, yeah. That’s right. Of course one of the things we do like to show is that with all the primitive means that are available to us, we can create beauty. We are able to say hey, this is our life here. We can do fabulous things and don’t forget it, that we are rich inside. EB: The productions are they mainly for children or are they also for adults? Well, like in Holland people say youth theatre is for people between 8 and 108, and I think that it’s for us too. We create plays but actually we love what we do, I mean, we as adults making plays for children. We laugh and we have trouble because it’s about serious problems that’s also about us. Yes, our performances are for children but I have never heard ever when we have an adult audience that they feel it is not for them.

EB: Today we saw a very small production, but you can see that this room is much more professional and you have a very different type of production here. This is a production that is made based on improvisations and it is about the way violence enters into the family since we have all these problems for the last three years, what we call the intifadah. It is professional in a way that we took 3 months to make this. We created a poetic text based on our improvisations and we took time for the acting, to rehearse and to really make it a beautiful play, yeah. EB: What’s the name of the play? The play is called the Houses of People, Byut an-Nas. That’s a very simple title but it has a lot of meanings because Byut an-Nas, in the houses is where it happens in Palestine. Family life is a really important root of society. Family ties are much more stronger than in Europe. It’s amazing in a society so much in trouble how family ties are strong. It’s not at all like for instance in South America or Africa. There is a base here in the family for people to grow and be a strong society. You can see that. The potential is there. And of course also it brings a lot of trouble and conservative stuff. You know, the father being the king of the family. But on the other hand, he’s always out. But now, the borders with Israel are closed. The fathers have no work. So father is at home and when he is at home, he has to be the king. But in the daylight, the women are the queens. They live together. They find their lives. They have problems but they also have their jokes. Together they are a powerhouse. But when the man is in the house, it’s different. And then you have the tension and you have violence also. The communication between the children and the parents is getting lost. This is one of the main stories that came to us the last three years in our drama workshops with kids that they are having less opportunities to communicate with their parents, that they are so busy trying to find money, jobs, deal with their problems, and the tension in the house that they are under the carpet somewhere.

Scene in "Houses of People" (Byut an-Nas)
Scene in “Houses of People” (Byut an-Nas) (© Eric Beauchemin) 

It has been very difficult to convince people that drama and youth theatre can be very useful tools in helping a society to develop itself. The Palestinian culture has been suppressed for a long time now. It started already long ago. But let’s say from the time of the British, after the First World War, came here, Palestinian culture did not have the freedom to develop itself like it would have being an integrated part of the Arab world. That only became worse of course after 1948 when the Israelis came and tried to make everything that was connected to Palestinian identity, they tried to erase it. The word Palestinian could not even be mentioned. Now that of course changed in 1994 with the Oslo agreements. We got more freedom, but the feeling of people that we are a country with a voice, with a common cultural heritage, that got lost in all these years. And that needs to be restored. And without that, how can Palestinians live? I mean I think about it. What else do they have than fighting their enemy and fighting with whatever tool there is to fight their enemy if there is not an understanding of who they are? When you have a culture, when you have a feeling of belonging together, a history and a useful identity, then you can worry about other things than just fight around and shout and be aggressive. In that sense it is a very integrating tool. We are a people that need to build a nation of ourselves and that we need to do a lot to build that. And that actually we have all the rich tools inside of us to do that. You know it’s also one of the things that are not corrupted. I mean, the Israelis don’t allow you to build up your own economy. There is inside the Palestinian society a lot of corruption. Things are not done in a democratic way. The violence that comes with the Israeli occupation is devastating, is making people so crazy. I mean I don’t have to tell you anything about people blowing themselves up and things like that. The humanity is lost and I think only culture can help us find back that humanity, can bring us back into contact to who we are as Palestinians and build it up again. EB: You say we as Palestinians. Do you feel like you are a Palestinian now? I know I will never be but yes I identify completely with them. That’s my work and my life. Yes. EB: Since the outbreak of the 2nd intifadah, life has become much more difficult but also much more dangerous, both in Gaza and the West Bank. Have you considered at any point leaving because it’s becoming too dangerous? Well, we actually only considered it when countries from all over the world told their embassies in Israel and their representative offices in Palestine to take people out, even to leave Israel, not only the Palestinian territories. I mean, then we didn’t know what to do. We said well, if they say it’s so dangerous, maybe it’s true. In fact, you get the feeling that those embassies have to do those things because they don’t want to be misunderstood later if there’s trouble, that they can be the ones that you go to to be compensated financially or in another way. I always felt good working here and have been able to avoid the clashing points at the moment that it was needed. If I would not be able to do that, if there was a risk because I am all the time let’s say surprised by dangerous situations, then I think I would stop my work. EB: Do you feel like you’ve found a mission for yourself here in the occupied territories? Yes, obviously. All kinds of lines that started somewhere in my teenage life came together here because I was quite a critical person in Dutch society, involved with…you know, we didn’t want the atomic bomb and nuclear energy and things like that, squatting, trying to find some place of liberty for people to live, to find our own freedom in The Netherlands. It was kind of a logical choice for me to come to Palestine when that opportunity was there, when it offered me the possibility to connect that militant dream with my life as a theatre maker. And ach to be honest, theatre is so fascinating. For me personally it gives everything other people have from a religion or from… I have that with theatre. It can give me a lot of answers, spiritual answers also to big life questions. And that profession – theatre-making- and imagination and fantasy and finding new perspectives in life, how I as a person can grow also personal development, that I will be active in this profession until I am 80 years old and I think there’s a good chance that I will still be here.

Eric Beauchemin was in conversation with Jan Willems of Theatre Day Productions in Gaza City. “Under Foreign Skies” was a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.