Article by: Eyad Houssami
From project design to execution and documentation, the various phases of any artistic and cultural activity in public space entail negotiating with the urban social fabric. Who are the communities implicated in public art and performance? How do artists approach and address them – whether as collaborators, partners, interlocutors, or spectators – and how do those encounters reverberate through time? How do publics themselves address or respond to such artistic interventions?
In Lebanon, prevalent discrimination and racism, to say nothing of severe economic inequality, shred the urban social fabric. Migrant workers and refugees, for instance, face harsh restrictions on their mobility in many towns across the country and also in the big cities. With Masrah Ensemble, a nonprofit theatre organization in Lebanon, I worked as a director for many years with artists – citizens and non-citizens in Lebanon – in semi-public community centers across Beirut. But it wasn’t until 2016 that the organization’s work moved with a clear intention to public gardens and parks, highly contested spaces in the dense capital. Perhaps that is due, in part, to the fact that I myself am not a citizen in the country and haven’t until recently understood fully, as a director, how and why these sites would be suitable platforms for creation and theatre dialogue.
What we sought to maximize through Family Ti-Jean, a long-term Caribbean-Serbian musical theatre project with performances in spring 2016, was inclusion and access by opening up the design and execution processes at every turning point with our collaborators, partners, and – for the teenage artists mostly ref
ugees from Syria – their families. From our open rehearsals and performances of the late Derek Walcott’s Ti-Jean and His Brothers in Shatila to those in Horsh Beirut and Sanayeh Garden, we sought to create a sense of belonging, to circulate through the city, to return to various sites of Beirut throughout the entire process, as a traveling theatre troupe with some members of the audience often following us. Mobility enabled inclusion and access, for the artists, young and old, as for the audiences across the city. The strategies discussed and conveyed by other artists and organizations in this section of co-writinglab.com shed light on how documentation, openness to improvisation, and above all willingness to play with the structures of power – despite the sometimes oppressive forces of state, religion, and neoliberalism – enable street theatre and public art initiatives to deepen their engagement with public.