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From Jal El Dib to Disney World?

Entrepreneurial children’s theatre looks to expand

by Ellen Hardy

Growing up in Jal El Dib during the civil war, Mayella Zard remembers, “everybody was crying, but I was thinking I was going to become a princess… all my focus was on my costumes and makeup.” Her enterprising parents organized theater shows to occupy and entertain neighborhood children during difficult times, to great success. Even when the war ended, the shows remained a fixture of the local community. When Zard graduated from university with a degree in business auditing and finance, she saw the potential of her childhood pleasures. With just one other staff member, she set out to professionalize the productions and expand their audiences in order to turn a profit. Eleven years later, OM2 has 35 full time staff on its payroll and an international network of freelancers who contribute to the productions, seen by tens of thousands of children in Lebanon and an increasing number across the region.

OM2 produces one or two plays every year, always on a social or educational theme: 2012’s is the environment. Productions are shown at the company’s own theater in Antelias, the Odeon, and also tour the country, visiting schools in more than 40 municipalities. OM2 has also expanded into creating tailor-made productions for corporate clients, and for voluntary associations like the Red Cross. Of the 25 or so theater companies in operation in Lebanon, estimates Zard, OM2 is one of the few producing original productions in Arabic. Her mother, Giselle, writes all the scripts, often in consultation with child psychiatrists. OM2’s large network of craftsmen and creatives is also important in putting together the scenography and costumes possible on each budget.

Building a functioning network of state and private clients took years of hard graft. When OM2 started out, Zard had neither data on her market nor a map of schools in Lebanon, so she did the rounds herself. It might have felt like she was visiting “a thousand schools a year”, but she managed to build relationships with schools and municipalities so that they would commit to the production every year. She also encouraged the wider public, sometimes through a proxy who would sell tickets for a commission. Over the years, OM2 has come to the attention of the government — one of the first productions was held in the presidential palace — and of banks and other large businesses.

International dreams

Zard estimates that OM2 entertains around 100,000 children in Lebanon each year, at 10,000 lira ($6.63) per ticket: a conservative turnover estimate of $663,000, not taking into account adult audiences, supplementary projects and productions overseas; for example, OM2 has put on productions in the Jerash festival in Jordan for the past six years. In recent years OM2 has started branching out into books related to the productions, and will soon be launching an animated TV character, Maryam, who represents OM2’s values in the live theater productions, in books and online. Recent talks have raised the possibility of franchising the company — schools in Qatar are looking to reproduce the experience for their children — making the wartime hobby for a family in Jal El Dib into a region-wide player in the big business of children’s entertainment. 

Zard still retains much of her original enthusiasm for the magic of the theater that made such an impression on her as a child. Asked what she sees ahead for her business, she focuses instantly on the quality and technology of the productions. 

“Disney World is a thing I think about,” she says. “All we need is funds, and not just thousands, millions sometimes.” And not just funds, but as many staff as the business can support. “My mum used to ask me, ‘what do you want for a gift on your birthday?’,” smiles Zard. “I used to say, one extra employee!”

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Ellen Hardy

Ellen Hardy worked in digital media in Beirut, London, and Paris before returning to Oxfordshire in 2016 to study for an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, graduating with Distinction in 2018. She joined UEA in 2019 as a CHASE-funded postgraduate researcher in Creative-Critical Writing. Her writing has appeared in various publications, and her research project is a historical novel based on a 17th-century cabinet of curiosity.

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