A badly set stage

A lack of funding is strangling the Lebanese performing arts

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Director and producer Jacques Maroun references a hackneyed phrase to sum up the state of the performing arts in Lebanon: “People like to say that ‘In theater, you can’t make a living, but you can make a killing,’” he says. “Unfortunately in Lebanon you can do neither.”

Maroun’s indictment will come as a surprise to many. His 2012 production, ‘Reasons To Be Pretty’, was generally regarded as a box office hit. It ran for three months at Al Madina Theatre, during which time it attracted over 11,000 visitors, pulled in by an all-star cast including Lebanese golden girl Nadine Labaki. Despite a packed house and an extended run, Maroun reveals that the play only just succeeded in breaking even. And even this, he insists, was a welcome relief. Due to a shortfall in sponsorship, his company, The Actors Workshop, had contributed much of the budget directly.

If a big budget production with popular appeal views closing its accounts as a triumph, where does that leave the rest of theater in Lebanon? According to Junaid Sarieddeen from performance collective Zoukak Theatre, the only productions which make money locally are those that talk to an audience’s “animalistic instincts” — frothy drama about sex and power. He cites the vaudevillian shows compered by comedian and TV personality Georges Khabbaz, which run for months on end at his Chateau Trianon Theatre as one example. A similar format, combining dinner and drinks deals with entertainment shows, is to be found in many of Beirut’s biggest hotels, or in the city’s plushest new performance venue Playrooms, which opened last year with the ‘set menu and stand-up’ formula as its bread and butter.

 

A non-profit mentality

Putting these shows and the occasional blockbuster spectacular at Casino du Liban to one side, what is left? The impression conveyed by those most closely involved in Lebanese theater is of a landscape where financial resources are so sparse that notions of profit have almost lost their salience. Instead, theaters are driven by two things: a desire to generate audiences and the wish to provide a platform for directors who might otherwise emigrate.

Abdo Nawar is in charge of programming at The Sunflower Theatre. Alongside Al Madina, Babel and Monnot theaters, his Tayyouneh-based space makes up a key part of the backbone of the city’s performing arts scene. “We know it’s a choice to go against the market, but it’s a choice that most artists make. We see it as part of our mandate,” he explains. Rather than approaching ‘serious’ theater as a for-profit venture, The Sunflower believes its role to be the nurturing of creative talent. As a result, it chooses to indirectly produce the majority of the plays it hosts. That means that while they don’t intervene artistically, the theater provides technical assistance and doesn’t charge for the use of the space. In exchange it takes 30 percent of ticket revenues. The partnership is often the only thing that makes staging a play possible for hard-up directors, but the returns are often dismal. Nawar says on many occasions the theater’s cut amounts to a meager $200 for a four-night run, a sum that hardly covers the electricity overheads.

The lack of focus on profit is exemplified in other aspects of the theater’s business model. It vetoes performances with overly long runs or those whose only concern is to make money. And when it comes to ticket pricing, the theater takes as its reference point how much it believes students are able to pay, currently estimated at $10. If ticket prices increased, Nawar believes he would lose his audience. He estimates that a meager seven percent of his overheads and staffing costs are currently covered by ticket sales.

 

Public funding privation

That ticket sales are so resolutely failing to cover the cost of production might lead one to presume that Nawar is being unduly benevolent in keeping ticket costs so low. However, he is keen to point out a fact which he knows shocks the uninitiated: tiny ticket revenues are the international norm. When Nawar was working with a dance company in Canada, he says the fact they were covering four percent of costs via ticketing was greeted as a major success.

Nawar believes that in areas of the world where investment in the arts is strong, such as Canada, it is often the case that 100 percent of a theater’s running costs are covered by government subsidies. In Lebanon the figure stands at an unyielding zero. Although he believes that the Ministry of Culture does have a modest budget for performances, he suspects they prefer to spend it on larger projects, such as the summer’s major festival.

Without government subsidies The Sunflower must depend for its survival on a series of bursaries provided by international NGOs or Beirut’s foreign cultural institutes. Funding is generally tied to specific productions, and although Nawar accepts it is the only option, it does involve relinquishing some control over output. Support coming from the French Institute means the theater often finds itself playing host to visiting performances from France with which they have little involvement. On some occasions the exertion required to secure funding outweighs the anticipated returns. Nawar admits there are some funds that The Sunflower now eschews because the paperwork is too taxing.

At Monnot Theatre, Ziad Halwani has chosen to wipe his hands of the search for private sponsorship. “When you enter this game it will be very hard to maintain your objectives, because you have to run after money,” he explains. “And you have to dwell with other organizations that are searching for money as well. I don’t think this is the proper way to do it.”

Monnot’s unwillingness to court sponsorship means that it has entirely given up producing plays, even in the limited way set out by The Sunflower Theatre. Instead it rents the space for a flat rate of $500 per night — or less if the producer can perform on weeknights. Halwani says he feels unable to charge more, despite the fact the price hasn’t increased in the last ten years. “Some people would take it, but then I’d end up with only the kind of shows that can bring money — the comedy, the easy things.”

Of all the theaters, Monnot is in perhaps the most financially privileged position. St. Joseph University underwrites its running costs and it pays no rent on its premises, which belong to the Jesuit Fathers. But even with low costs, no in-house plays and cutting down to a skeleton staff, when Halwani writes up the balance sheet at the end of the year, the money brought in by the theater never makes up what the university has paid out on salaries, electricity and technical maintenance.

The exigencies of funding have a direct effect on Lebanon’s theatrical landscape before plays even reach the stage. Zoukak Theatre is one of Beirut’s most ambitious performance companies. Its work generally falls into two categories: ‘art for art’s sake’ and work directly involving marginalized communities such as Palestinian refugees. Due to international NGOs disproportionately funding the latter, Zoukak has oriented itself more towards community-based work. During their big performances, for which they have hired venues including Monnot Theatre rather than using their small studio in Adlieh, Sarieddeen estimates only ten percent of their costs were covered by ticket sales. With this in mind, it is not hard to see why sponsorship considerations play such a formative role.

Bending to the will of private sponsors is the only option in a country where public financing does not exists. Nor does the government provide tax breaks for those involved in the performing arts. By virtue of its structure as a cooperative, The Sunflower should be exempt from paying electricity and from municipal tax according to the law. “We go with the paper which says this, and the minister shows us another piece of paper saying we should pay. Who knows which is right?” asks Nawar with resignation.

Nawar believes that the unwillingness to invest in theater is a short-sighted decision on the state’s part. “The economic argument for funding theater has been proven; it’s not a secret,” he points out. Mark Rubinstein, president of the Society of London Theatre, noted in April 2013 that in Britain, where state funding of theater remains high, the VAT revenues from West End shows alone surpass the value of state theater subsidies handed out each year.

Within the stage community, the suggestion that the Lebanese are less interested in serious theater than their international contemporaries gains little traction. “There is no problem of audience in Lebanon,” insists Sarieddeen, but adds that “unless there is funding, this kind of theater will always struggle.” Nawar agrees: “In any country you go to it is the same, naturally. Comedies and musicals are where you make your money. The difference is, in those countries, the theater that exists has its costs covered by state subsidies.”

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