Lebanese director brings new voices to theater despite her country's fragile state of peace

March 4, 2011

By Lynette Kalsnes

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(Rolex/Chuck Osgood)
Maya Zbib, an actress and director from Lebanon, is the protege of director Peter Sellars.

When a new production of Handel's Hercules opens Friday at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the audience will see a modernized version with Hercules as an American general, returning home from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. What the audience won't see is a young woman behind the scenes with unique ties to the region who's watching and learning.

Hear Peter Sellars' full interview: peter sellars.mp3

In the depths of the Lyric building, a rehearsal room was covered with broken pillars and jagged boulders. Mezzo-soprano, Alice Coote, sat on one of the rocks, looking haunted.

Her husband, Hercules, had made it home safely from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. She has just learned that out of jealousy, she has accidentally killed him.

Peter Sellars, the famed theater director, coached her movements. Sellars told her to bring her hands up to her face and to think of them as snakes as she was singing. Then he told her to bring her hands down to her knees, and keep them there as if an invisible force was holding them down.
 
Behind the director and star, Maya Zbib sat taking notes. She’s also an actress and director -- but in Lebanon.
 
"Watching Peter’s work, which is totally different from anything I would do, has led me to learn new things and has opened my mind on new ways of doing work," Zbib said.
 
Zbib is shadowing Sellars with the year-long Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. It pairs rising stars with artistic masters. She hopes what she learns from Hercules will help her bring a new theatrical language to Lebanon.
 
"It’s more powerful because it’s not talking about the situation directly," Zbib said. "So this is what we’re trying to deal with how to talk about now without necessarily saying this politician and that one, and they’re not nice, and whatever, because it leads to nowhere."
 
Zbib co-founded the theater group, Zoukak. Members give drama therapy workshops in refugee camps  and provide an open rehearsal space to stimulate ideas. Zbib said they don’t directly take on violence or the fragility of Lebanon’s peace.
 
"We don’t address it because we live it, because everything we do, there’s always a contingency factor, there’s always like an emergency situation," Zbib said. "You cannot really build things, you cannot program things for the next three years because you never know what’s gonna happen."
 
She said, though, the uncertainty tends to keep the work feeling very fresh.
 
Zbib herself is a child of war. She was born during the Civil War that lasted from 1975 to 1990.
 
"I would go collect parts of the bombs after the bombing in the garden, it was like a game for me, I didn’t get it. And I would see my parents being afraid for my brothers, my brothers almost  being kidnapped, our door being blown away, but I didn’t take them very deeply in because it’s just how things are," she said.
 
But by the time of the 2006 war, she was 24. She was angry over all the death. She expressed herself through theater and art. She went to hard-hit areas and took photos of what she saw, including at her aunt’s house:
 
ZBIB: She had this amazing image where a bomb went through the wall and broke the closet, so there’s this hole between the wall, the closet, the mirror. It’s like there’s so many layers of people’s lives (that) get crushed because of violence.
 
But despite that, the show went on for actors in her company.
 
"They were working every day, going to rehearsals," she said. "It was like a very risky situation because you never know what car is going to blow where."
 
"To actually see day-to-day negotiated life in that contested terrain is very, very moving," Sellars said.
 
Zbib’s mentor, Peter Sellars, traveled to Lebanon to visit Zbib, her family, artists and activists. Sellars was struck by the way her theater company’s determined to work as equals, without a director. He saw the group trying to establish its own “home-grown democracy.”

"To watch this young theater company not be yet another autocratic structure but really say what would it be like to sustain a democratic structure?  In the microcosm of their theater company, they are testing the issues that are shaping the Middle East at this moment," Sellars said.

Zoukak is inspiring other theater groups in Lebanon to follow its model, and students are coming to workshops.
 
"It’s like this very small country that’s dissected in three million ways, but everybody wants one thing. I think theater could be a means to say that," Zbib said.
 
Theater can say things politicians can’t because it gives people an equal voice, Zbib said. She hopes that voice can help bring an end to political corruption and to divisions among religious groups in her country.