In April 2013, Lebanese opera and theater fans were given the rare opportunity to interact with American opera and theater director Peter Sellars, he of the gravity defying hair and controversial, cutting edge, politically engaged performances. Clad in a colorful floral shirt and beaded necklaces, Sellars wandered among the audience as he spoke, discussing the need for theater practitioners to create space for dissident or marginalized voices to be heard.
Sellars’ talk was part of Zoukak Sidewalks, the program of monthly talks and workshops by international artists, organized by Lebanon’s Zoukak Theater Company and Cultural Association. But as to how Sellars came to visit Beirut, it goes back to a partnership formed in 2011, when actress, director and one of the founding members of Zoukak, Maya Zbib, was recruited by the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, a philanthropic program launched in 2002 to pair prominent artists around the world with gifted emerging artists working in a related field.
In February, Zbib invited other Rolex protégés to visit Beirut and work with Zoukak. “When you’re part of the program, you really become part of the family somehow,” she explains, “and it’s not like a one year thing.” The Rolex team worked with Zoukak and local artists over five days to create a work in progress public performance, focusing on issues central to Zoukak’s practice, including the necessity of making art collectively and the politics of what it means to be an artist.
“It’s really a very big prestige, somehow, but that’s not what’s interesting — the interesting thing is that Peter Sellars is amazing!” the dark haired, fair skinned actress enthuses one sunny morning in Sodeco, over a steaming coffee. “I was so lucky, because I know a lot of other protégés who were with really good names [but] they didn’t get a real experience, because their mentors were not available. Peter came here three times, I think, and I went with him to the Congo, the US and Germany. But it’s not a project, so we didn’t end up doing a show together, and this is not the point of the program. It’s more about exchange … we became friends, essentially, and we still are. I call him and he calls me and we try to meet.”
Sellars’ focus on re-tuning the opera for a more diverse crowd made him a perfect candidate for Zoukak Sidewalks. Furthermore, his approach to performance ties in with Zoukak’s own unique collaborative ethos and democratic attitude to theater making. Founded in 2006 by a group of six young theater studies graduates from the Lebanese University, Zoukak set out to explore modes and meanings of performance, and to find an alternative way of working that eschewed the traditional hierarchy of the local theater tradition.
“The main idea was to have a structure that enables us to deepen our research of tools and topics,” Zbib recalls, “and what needs to be talked about today. For us, it was about working horizontally and trying to create a non hierarchical structure, and I think we’ve succeeded in that. There is leadership, but it’s not directing. So when somebody proposes a play, they direct it but they’re not ‘the director.’ Their work is questioned, and this means that the work is pushed to a better place, because you can’t take things for granted.” Zoukak places emphasis on presenting work to a diverse audience, rather than the cultural elite, touring the country and bussing in audiences from across the country to see their shows in Beirut. Having developed their own system of drama therapy, pioneered by founding member and clinical psychology graduate Lamia Abi Azar, they frequently work with marginalized groups, from Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s camps, to incarcerated youth, children with disabilities and victims of domestic violence.
The collective also frequently perform overseas. This year alone, they have traveled to India, where they participated in the International Theater Festival of Kerala in January, and to Houston, where they were invited to take part in the CounterCurrent Festival in April.
When asked if she sees Zoukak as an intrinsically Lebanese creation, in spite of its international outlook, Zbib says, “We have an identity as a company, but it’s not necessarily Lebanese,” she says. “It’s our mixture of people that makes our unique Zoukak style.”