people by the sea
a conversation with Emilé Saba
This year, artist, actor, and theatre director Emilé Saba is stepping into the role of Artistic Director of ASHTAR Theatre in Ramallah, Palestine, having graduated from ASHTAR’s youth program and worked as a trainer and director in the theatre internationally for nearly a decade.
Established in 1991 in Jerusalem by Palestinian actors Edward Muallem and Iman Aoun, ASHTAR Theatre is the oldest Palestinian youth theatre. Based in Ramallah since 1995, the theatre’s mission is to inspire creativity and social change and provides training in theatre to young people throughout the West Bank and in Gaza, run by local teaching artists. In addition to its youth programming, ASHTAR operates a professional adult ensemble that produces and devises new work with local and international artists.
Emilé and I first met at the 2018 ASHTAR International Youth Theatre Festival, a bi-yearly festival which brings youth theatre performers from around the world to Palestine for performances and workshops. I returned to Palestine for ASHTAR’s 2022 festival which brought together youth groups from England, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, and Sweden . Here, we discuss Emile’s approach to creating work, and what future he sees for culture and creation in the West Bank.
Ash Marinaccio: Congratulations on your new title as Artistic Director of ASHTAR Theatre!
Emilé Saba: Thank you so much! It feels very surreal to be in this position. It’s a great honour and a huge responsibility.
AM: I know we both believe youth theatre is critical, I was the founder and Artistic Director of a youth theatre (Girl Be Heard, Brooklyn) for years. I often felt like it was hard for the work to be taken seriously for the simple reason that it was created by young people. There is such groundbreaking youth theatre work happening in Palestine. Spending time at the ASHTAR Festival and meeting artistic directors from across the globe who are doing such innovative work was inspiring for me. Why do you find working with young people rewarding?
ES: I find that youth, especially young acting students, are open to the most guidance and have a desire to grow and improve their craft. When you undertake a long term theatre process with them (such as what we do at ASHTAR) we see them changing, and you see them learn and apply what they learn to their work. They know about themselves, their needs, and what they want the world to be, and are not afraid to speak up for themselves. They are hungry to learn more.
I remember being in their place and I still, to this day, really cherish my teachers and the people I worked with and learned from. My teachers and mentors have shaped me in many ways. ASHTAR’s program is a vital development opportunity for young people here. The dedication and self-discipline theatre teaches young people can be vital in their lives and careers. The program has produced many young people who became not only actors, directors, writers,but scientists, and doctors. I ask the students I work with now why they are here and why it’s important, many are doing it for themselves and the community, to be part of that journey is a great thing.
AM: What brought you to theatre as an art form? Has it always been part of your life?
EM: I grew up in Ramallah. It was (and still is) an awesome city. I love Ramallah. It’s full of opportunities and places to go, and the environment is welcoming and nourishing. I went to the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in Ramallah and it was a very supportive school in terms of extracurricular activities and drama and art classes. As children, we were exposed to a lot of visual and performing arts, and I had good soil to grow in at that school.
I believe that I always had theatre in me. I had this need to perform and create worlds and characters and to tell stories. When I discovered ASHTAR, I was 12. Playing the wolf in a school production of Little Red Riding Hood, unbeknownst to me, ASHTAR was leading this school theatre training project. I quickly joined the drama training program, and I graduated from it when I was in high school.
I tried to stay away from theatre when I was an undergrad because I wanted to get good grades at the university and felt like I couldn’t get good grades and do theatre. But, I was wrong and inevitably went back when most other people leave. I joined the university theatre group at Berzeit University in the West Bank. In 2014 I got accepted into the MFA acting program at The University of Connecticut. They were an incredible three years of learning and breathing theatre. Since returning to Palestine, I have been working in theatre and film as a director and actor.
Sketch by Saba as inspiration for his production Ornia and the Ghula.
AM: How did it feel returning to Palestine after 3 years training for the US industry?
EM: It was hard at the beginning. There was fear and doubt. I asked myself, should I have stayed in the US? I knew a lot of people in Ramallah, but I had to reintroduce myself as the artist I had become. I wasn’t looking for the same things that I was looking for before I left. The MFA program in Connecticut showed me that I am an actor and director and could be both - I didn’t have to choose. Eventually I started proposing projects to people and everyone was welcoming. I worked in summer camps, training kids, and doing drama. After nine months of being back, I got a job at Al Kasaba Theater teaching acting.
There is no theatre “industry” in Palestine. There is a community and plenty of theatre makers and artists, but it’s not an “industry” like in the US. In Palestine, funding for the arts is all tied to NGOs. Culture functions under international NGOs (This is a huge issue and topic of discussion in and of itself.) But, there is no infrastructure and it is hard to work under no umbrella. There is no security for the future. For example, I worked in film casting for a while in Palestine and I realised how little to no resources exist. There is no database, there is no system in place. There are no standard payments or benefits for artists. There is no actors union. All of these resources and production elements depend on the project and the company and what kind of budget they have.
AM: I’ve seen first hand the kind of close sense of community you cultivate with your young artists, something I also admire about your work is its striking aesthetic. Is that how you work with collaborators of all ages? How would you describe your approach to creating work?
EM: My origins as an artist are visual, I was an artist and a writer before I was interested in theatre, so visual aesthetics are an essential part of any work I do. I use pop culture, satire, and magical realism to agitate the audience’s imagination. Mainstream Palestinian theatre is stuck in realism normally, and has black-and-white messages and solutions. I’m not interested in that. I want to leave the audience with unsolved questions, opening their eyes to ideas and discoveries about themselves and others. I believe the sense of community is because everything I do comes from a place of searching for self and identity, trying to examine human connections and relationships.
Saba in 2077: Who Wants to Survive
AM: You are also an actor and are in the process of touring a solo show 2077: Who Wants to Survive, which has been developed collaboratively with ASHTAR and Al Kasaba Theatre in Palestine and the Bridgeworks Theatre in Germany. Can you tell us about that production?
EM: It started with the director Simon Eifeler visiting Palestine from Germany. We met with possibly the intention of working together, but we didn’t talk about anything. When he went back to Germany, he contacted me about a play he was directing – a one-man show set in the future about a detective on a mysterious case who is behind a wall – he said it made him think of what he saw in the West Bank, life behind the wall. Bayan Shbib, a playwright, director, and actress from Ramallah, wrote the script in English, and we started rehearsals virtually.
For seven months during the pandemic shutdown, we rehearsed on Zoom, broke down the text, and workshopped it together digitally. With me being in Ramallah, and my director in Germany, we had no option but to work online. I was hesitant at the beginning about how this would work. In the end, the show's intimacy was born on Zoom really. It almost felt like a radio play. Being in a chair behind a screen pushed me to use my versatility in portraying several characters through only voice and emotions.
In December 2021, I went to Dusseldorf and Koln and rehearsed for the first-time face-to-face with the director. We had three performances of it in Dusseldorf, and then when I returned to Palestine, I had about nine shows throughout the West Bank.
Saba in 2077: Who Wants to Survive in the 2022 ASHTAR Interntaional Theatre Festival, Ramallah Palestine (photo: Ash Marinaccio.)
AM: What has the reception been like?
EM: The feedback is beyond what I hoped for, I was hesitant at the beginning about how the audience will receive themes about queerness, the future, and the over style of neo-noir, because the style is new to them and the issues are not generally discussed on stage in Palestine, but I was positively shocked; it connected intimately with the audience, and it started conversations about the future and human connection. It spoke to a group of people who don’t feel represented or seen in any scenario and people were generally happy to see themselves represented on stage. The play is about the future of humanity, and questions about human and technological connections. The Palestinian audience received the essence of the play and were intrigued by the story itself. Some audience members were asking a lot of questions about the politics of it, like if and how the situations in Palestine mimicked its dystopia. They felt like the politics and message of the show didn’t come from a place of propaganda and wasn’t forced.
AM: What projects are you looking forward to?
EM: I’ve been working with the Palestinian Museum on their new exhibit called People by the Sea, which examines the history of the Palestinian coast from the time of the Ottoman empire till the Nakba in 1948 and then after that. The Nakba is the displacement and eradication of Palestinians beginning in 1948. It was a unique experience. They approached me about integrating theatre with the exhibition, and we worked closely on the project and the show.
AM: What was it like working with the museum? Were they open to a theatre approach?
EM: The experience was eye-opening for both of us by learning about each other’s processes and methods. I collaborated with the playwright and theatre maker Amer Hlehel to depict the everyday and domestic lives of the Palestinians in the coastal cities during different historical and political periods. The museum was interested in historical moments of Palestinian cities from the Ottoman Empire through the Nakba. The writer wanted to depict love, stories, smaller encounters, everyday human interactions. The show consisted of human installations in the space, where two or three actors perform and repeat a scene to a mobile audience. Scenes were staged inside the museum, and the final scene took the audience outside the building, where the actors performed their last scene between the trees with the horizon behind them.
Crowds gather outside for the premiere day of People by the Sea at the Palestinian museum. (photo by E. Saba)
Inside the Palestinian Museum’s presentation of People by the Sea.
EM: I also recently completed an opera based on a story by a Palestinian prisoner, Walid Daqa called Opera Amal. It was inspired by Alice in Wonderland. In Opera Amal, a girl wants to go and meet her dad in prison, but instead she meets animals that live outside, inside, and through the prison wall. Those animals help to guide her through the prison to meet her dad. We told this story through music which is interesting because right now we have these local musicians being attacked who are talking about urgent issues and what it’s like to be in Palestine from the inside. I feel like, as artists in Palestine, we are figuring out how to tell our own stories. Once we put a face to the struggle, we will reach more audiences.
AM: What are your hopes for ASHTAR as you step into your new role?
EM: I’m looking forward to a strong year and many ideas for projects and new collaborations. We have a full program of events and productions. In May and June, three student plays will debut. We will have two training residencies for our drama trainers with our partner Crooked House Theatre in Ireland, and one in Turkey. Also, we have two professional shows running and touring locally and outside of Palestine in English and in Arabic, and a series of different workshops in theatre and healing. I hope that what I’ve gained in experience and education will be helpful and needed for ASHTAR and everyone involved to continue growing, learning, and creating. Working at ASHTAR is a great chance to create, trade ideas, ask questions, and help create healing.
EMILÉ SABA is a director, actor, and the new artistic director for ASHTAR Theatre. Saba’s grandparents are originally from Jaffa and Lod, but he was born and lives in Ramallah, Palestine. Saba graduated from the University of Connecticut with an MFA in stage performance. Among his directorial works: Taming of the Shrew - Al Kasaba Theatre, Monodrama Jabra - Inad Theatre, Peer Gynt, Love on the Shelf – ASHTAR Theatre, Opera Amal - Amwaj Choir Group, People by the Sea - The Palestinian Museum, Asimo - The Palestinian Circus. Recent acting credits include: Monodrama 2077, Who Wants to survive - Bridgeworks/ Fred theatre - Germany, First Class - Al-Hakawati Theatre, By the Sea – a film by Wissam Al-Jaafari, Between Heaven and Earth a film by Najwa Najjar, The Logic of Birds - a film by Sarah Beddington. You can find ASHTAR on FACEBOOK and INSTAGRAM and donate to their programs via PATREON.
ASH MARINACCIO is a multidisciplinary documentarian, theatre artist, and Ph.D. Candidate in Theatre and Performance at the CUNY Graduate Center, where her research investigates documentary theatre and theatre in war/conflict zones. For her creative work, Ash has received a Lucille Lortel Visionary Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women, been listed as one of Culture Trip's “50 Women in Theatre You Should Know”, a recipient of a Drama League Residency, a NY Public Humanities Fellow, and is a TED Speaker. She is the founding artistic director of the United Nations recognised NGO, Girl Be Heard. In 2021 Ash created Docbloc, dedicated to bringing documentary artists from across genres together to create live performance projects. WEBSITE | INSTAGRAM