Theatre Fails to Draw Crowds

Stage productions struggling in face of funding squeeze, government restrictions and dwindling public interest.

Theatre Fails to Draw Crowds

Stage productions struggling in face of funding squeeze, government restrictions and dwindling public interest.

Tuesday, 10 March, 2009
Throughout her long career as a stage actress in Syria, Berta Khazzam has witnessed actors, scriptwriters, directors and audiences gradually turn their back on the theatre.

For the past 18 years, Khazzam has been performing on stage without pay. To earn a living, she also has an administrative job in the public sector.

“Although the situation surrounding the theatre [provokes] despair, I will continue to act on stage,” she said. “Through theatre, I fulfill my [destiny] in life.”

Many theatre workers like Khazzam say that public support for the dramatic arts in Syria is insufficient to keep them going.

The authorities allocate around 20 million Syrian pounds (around 420,000 US dollars) a year to the state-owned national theatre, which has branches in major cities.

But most of this budget is used to pay the salaries of 300 employees, in addition to other administrative expenses, said Mustafa al-Aboud, deputy director of the Higher Institute for Theatrical Arts in Damascus.

According to Aboud, only a small fraction of the funding goes towards producing new plays.

“This is what is destroying the theatre,” said Aboud.

Recently, a new branch of the national theatre was opened in the northern city of Homs to promote performing arts in the area.

But such positive developments are few, and several stage talents are now turning to television where salaries are far higher and there are more opportunities.

Others, however, say that performing arts have lost their vigour not because of a lack of funding, but as a result of decades of tight governmental control over the content of productions.

“The national theatre can’t be free from… the politics of the state because it is [a state] establishment,” noted Muhammed Bari al-Awani, director of the national theatre in Homs.

Before plays can be publicly performed, all scripts have to be approved by a committee of censors appointed by the government. Although writers and intellectuals sit on these censorship boards, a representative of the regime always has the last word on any committee.

Plays can be banned on many grounds, including inflaming sectarian tensions, insulting faiths and beliefs and threatening the regime, say observers.

Such prohibitions mean that self-censorship among playwrights becoming the norm.

Most playwrights know the red lines they can’t cross and write their plays based on that, said Aboud.

According to Khazzam, a play on the subject of child beggars was once banned because addressing the topic was considered to be an insult to the ministry of social affairs which is supposedly fighting against this scourge.

But occasionally, the censoring committee grants licenses to relatively controversial plays.

For instance, after much deliberation, a play by prominent Syrian intellectual Saadallah Wannous, which dealt with the sensitive issue of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria’s defeat during the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel, was finally granted permission to be staged.

Aboud also noted that censorship was far stricter in television than in the theatre, which reaches a far narrower audience.

Awani argued that the public was deserting the theatre because the themes explored in productions had become too intellectual and sophisticated.

Today’s plays are disconnected from the every day realities of life and address only the elite, he said.

Awani also attributed the decline in audiences to the growing phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism in Syria, the followers of which frown upon many forms of art and theatre.

According to Khazzam, the level of culture is deteriorating in society and this is reflected in the content of plays.

“The theatre has lost its role as a force to mobilise the people for a cause,” she said. “I am not optimistic about [its] future.”

Meanwhile, some Homs residents said they were not excited by the prospect of the new theatre in their city.

“I don’t feel as if the theatre can stimulate me or develop my intellectual faculties,” said Issam Emil, a pensioner.

Bassel Joubayli, an interpreter, argued that theatrical productions suffered from the restrictions imposed by the authorities.

“I feel there is no evolution, either in the subjects or in the styles… Serious theatre does not seem to exist any more,” he said.
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