STARMAKER BETTY TAOUTEL
THE STRUGGLE OF PERFORMANCE ART IN LEBANON + HOW YOU CAN HELP HER WIN THE WAR
“When your play is showing at the Théâtre Monnot, the Beryte or the Théâtre al Madina, these are places labeled as cultural theaters. In people’s mind, going to these theaters is a synonym of boredom or having to over think to appreciate whatever is showing. That’s because there is a huge lack of theater culture in Lebanon. They don’t know that cultural theater can be as much fun as other types of shows; it will just try and bring out a message, something that might try to improve the way people think. It will just have no dabkeh here, and no song there.”
Betty Taoutel, comedian, playwright and theater director, is inexhaustible on the subject of Lebanon’s performance art scene and the way it works. With what can be interpreted as a touch of sarcasm in her voice, she explains: “There is only one type of theater that works well for a long period of time in Lebanon. And ‘a long period of time’ is relative. These plays, more like cabaret shows- we don’t need to name them, are the ones that mix singing and making fun of politicians. They have one performance per week, in a small restaurant that can only seat up to 100. All of these shows pretend they’ve been working for a year, when actually, they would never be able to fill up a 300-seat theater, five days a week, for several months. People who enjoy these shows need to realize that there are other types of theater, there’s always been and there always will be! It is the kind of theater that makes a clean sweep at festivals! You can’t imagine our frustration when we’re abroad presenting our successful play, one that receives several awards, and then we’re back here and there’s absolutely no recognition of our work.”
Betty’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed though and for good reason. Her newest play, “El Orb3a Bnoss el Jom3a”, that filled up the Théâtre Monnot for several weeks, is fun and easy to watch, slow without being boring, and it is both comedic and cultural. The play takes place on a specific Beirut street, in a neighborhood where everyone knows everyone. The plot tackles the marriage and its difficulties, combining funny scenes and more serious ones. “Marriage is a universal topic, but when we juxtapose it with our habits and customs, to the very Lebanese [habit of] gossiping, it’s not a ceremony anymore, it becomes a festival, a carnival,” says Betty. “The fact that people run into debt because they have to please X and Y cancels the concept of getting married for the sake of marriage- to be with that specific person. We get married for the people, not for ourselves. We get married because cohabitation is not allowed; we get married because society pressures us. People don’t understand that marriage is not the seen in the play.” Taoutel here discusses the different couples in her play and the dynamics of their situations. There are the fiancés that can’t get married because they can’t of financial constraints, the divorced man, the woman who has forgotten how to be anything but a mother, the senior couple who never had children. She is exploring concepts of solitude, doubts, and the dream of a better future. Betty’s take on the topic is exceptional- rather than focus on the wedding part of the marriage alone or vice versa, she intersperses these subjects, demonstrating how different people see marriage uniquely at stages of their lives and more importantly, at different stages of their coupledom. Her role in the play is that of a woman who’s been married for 15 years and who doesn’t share anything with her husband anymore. She only lives through her children, waiting for them at the bus stop day in and day out. “At some point in the play, I tell the bride-to-be, ‘Ma bet dou2eh ta3met el we7deh ella la tetjawwazeh’ [You only get to taste solitude after you are married.] We can be married, have kids, a family, and [yet] feel incredibly alone. Solitude has nothing to do with how many people you have around you.” Betty is married with four kids, “for 14 years, not 15,” she says smiling, forestalling my question about her personal experience with marriage and her inspiration. “Writing is generally inspired either by things we have experienced or things we have witnessed in our circle of friends. It is also the work of our imagination, but it does root in reality.”
Betty wrote and directed the play, as she did for her previous work, “Ekher Beit bil Gemmayzeh” but this is the first time she ever performs in one of her plays. “Originally, I am a comedian and a dramaturgic art professor at university and by force of circumstance, because my students presented their work at the end of the semester, I started directing. Over the years, I have worked with a lot of directors and I’ve always been an active comedian; I would give ideas concerning the play, the other actors, everything. My long acting career actually led me to writing and staging. Before these past two years [sic], I had never claimed to be a writer. I had never signed my plays; I had always stated they were loose adaptations of texts belonging to other people.” Betty has always seen theater as a collaborative work and just as she did in the past, she encourages her actors to contribute their two cents about the play they’re working on. “I started working on ‘El Orb3a Bnoss el Jom3a’ in February of this year. By April, we started scheduling meetings, reunions around the text every other week. As I was not writing in one go, I didn’t have the whole structure. During the meetings I would submit more ideas, show the actors the development of my writing and they would give me their opinions as well. They all participated in the evolution of the play.” Betty appreciates this work-in-progress method, as it is “very particular to theater. That’s how I used to work with my previous directors and that’s the way my professors taught me. As a director, I have my own working technique that is a patchwork of different techniques, inspired by people I’ve worked with. For instance, my comedy work is close to Jalal Khoury’s. For the emotions, I was inspired by Michel Jabr. Alain Plisson taught me classical theater and refined staging. I am strongly inspired by Roger Assaf and his direction. They all offered me the opportunity to go on stage with them, and all of them taught me something; I owe them a lot.”
Having worked under the direction of several noted Lebanese and Middle- Eastern directors like Hassan ben Jeddi in Morocco or Bassem ek Kahhar in Iraq, Betty’s acting talent has made her the sole element of Joe Kodeih’s “Matar Charles de Gaulle”, one of the first one-woman shows in Lebanon. “It tells the story of a young girl that went to France to get married, but the fiancé never shows up at the airport, and she’s just there, waiting for him. The difficulty of this kind of play is that everything is based on the actor’s performance. I had nothing to act with except my body, my voice and my body language. It’s very hard to juggle with one’s emotions as well.” She played a sort of modern day Dickens-like Miss Havisham. If this role was difficult, Betty reckons even more challenging was undertaking her role in Maroun Nassar’s 2011 film “Rue Huvelin”, that of a woman whose son was kidnapped and who lives with the hope of finding him one day. “Playing this woman was psychologically exhausting. I could not perform the same scene more than twice. Actually, even Mounir [Maasri, Film Director] wouldn’t let me. I remember one day on set, when the DOP [Direction of Production], after watching me try the first take, the second and the third of the same scene, got up, said, ‘I will not shoot this scene again! Over my dead body I will not shoot this scene again,’ and left the set. That’s how exhausting it was. I was very proud to be offered this role though I am mostly known for my comic characters.” The movie received mixed reviews: there were those who thought it was a chef-d’oeuvre, and those who found it too politicized. Betty shrugs: “Well, the country is divided. There will always be a party that feels assaulted. I think the movie was not received in Lebanon as it has been abroad and that’s very unfortunate. There, they have the objectivity to appreciate a movie. Here, we are soaked deep in politics. Whether we like it or not, we are biased. And the quality of the movie suffered the consequences. But I think everyone should watch it anyway, because it’s Lebanese.”
I tell Betty I used to be in a theater company when I was a teenager, and that I’ve always seen film as an inferior art, especially because there is no second take on a scene when you’re on stage. As Betty is an actor in both movies and plays, I’m surprised that she confirms my bias: “Theater is indeed superior. It’s the crème de la crème of the three categories: television, cinema, theater. Theater is the basis of an actor’s education. Outside Lebanon, an actor’s career plan is to end up on stage.” On the subject of Lebanon’s theater scene and the way it intersects with television presence, Betty gets all fired up: “Television offers a wider broadcasting [audience]. When an actor is seen on TV, the general public gets to see him. Sometimes, when people don’t see me on TV for a long time and run into me, they go, ‘Where have you been? You’re not working anymore?’ But I am working! You just have to go to the theater to see my work! You know, it is normal for actors to do both theater and cinema or television, it happens everywhere. The frustrating difference is that here, theater is the least promoted medium. I am not complaining, thank God my work is doing good, my plays fill up, I had 9000 spectators for my last play, but it’s nothing compared to what it could be if going to the theater was common in Lebanon. If a play could have 15 or 20 entries, can you imagine? How awesome would that be, to see a play fill up a theater for months!”
If going to the theater was once the norm in Lebanon with the plethora of musical plays featuring Fayrouz, Nasri Chamseddine and Georgette Sayegh, “it has become an anomaly,” says Betty. “We do not educate our children about theater. I was a school teacher for many years and let me tell you something: they are not willing to let go of one hour of mathematics to take the children to the theater. That’s one thing. The second is the political instability of the country; for years during the civil war, the schools were only anxious about the programs and trying to get them done by the end of the year. Social and cultural activities, especially for kids, had disappeared.” Betty has personally experienced the consequences of said political instability. In 2005, she had staged two shows for school children: one at the Théâtre Monnot and a roaming performance, travelling from one school to another. She had sold both her shows by the time former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated “and all of a sudden, every single school called it off. Nobody dared taking the kids out, and very few schools actually had a stage to welcome the travelling show.”
When asked if she’s seen the recent Nadine Labaki play, Betty makes things clear before she answers: “First, this is not Nadine Labaki’s play, it is Jacques Maroun’s. Well, it’s an American play adapted by Jacques Maroun, and performed by Nadine and three other major actors: Talal el Jurdi, Nada Abou Farha and Elie Mitri.” Does it irritate her when people refer to the play as Nadine’s? “Honestly? Not at all. It’s just that theater is, as I’ve said before and as I’ll keep saying, a collaborative work. As for the play itself, I was not impressed by the content. Regardless of the actors, who are all very good ones, regardless of the direction which was developed. The problem was really the content of the play, the script but it’s very subjective: American sense of humour doesn’t really appeal to me. If you want my honest opinion, I think we live in a country where so much happens every day that we really don’t need to find our inspiration somewhere else. That being said, please go watch the play everyone, it’s good for the Lebanese scene and I’m sure you’ll have a good time.”
Betty is the flag-bearer of the Lebanese art cause and tries to promote not only her work but everyone else’s work in Lebanon too. “One must watch every single Lebanese movie. Watch ‘Caramel’, ‘Bosta’, ‘Tannoura Maxi’, ‘West Beirut’ and all the Ziad Doueiri movies, all the Maroun Baghdadi movies, who really are pieces of art, all the plays.” Betty wants us to see Drama Therapist Zeina Daccache’s plays for the “courageous and amazing work she’s done with the prisoners,” and Ziad Rahbani’s work “for the laugh and the particularly lucid social criticism.” She wants us to get to know Lebanese theatre and film and then formulate our own opinions about the work that’s being done. Betty wants us to watch the old and the new of Lebanese performance art, because it might be the saving grace of our national heritage. It’s just another way of honing our critical thinking skills, and more importantly, giving Lebanese dramatists the audience and the regard that they deserve.
Keep national dialogue alive using the medium of theatre and film. Raise your flag for the arts in Lebanon, beginning now and here, with Betty Taoutel and her comrades at arms.
BY YOUMNA CHAGOURY
PHOTOGRAPHY WALID HOYEK + JASON ZAMORA