Berit Kuennecke reports from the frontline of Palestinian theatre.
I went to Palestine to work with the theatre company Al-Hara (the neighbourhood) in Beit Jala, Bethlehem. It was during the end of Ramadan, and my first day was spent on the back of a truck, watching the company perform a children's play at eight different locations throughout Bethlehem. These included two refugee camps, one of them with a high proportion of children whose parents have been imprisoned in Israeli jails. Inad's theatre (the forerunner of Al-Hara) was shelled twice during the second intifada and the company has now moved to a new building which has rehearsal rooms and an office, but no performance space.
The theatre company is the only one working in Beit Jala at the moment, and they have very strong links with the local Palestinian community as well as internationally-their co-production with Backa Theatre from Gothenburg recently won them first prize in Romania's annual international children's theatre festival. The production will tour Egypt and Jordan in December.
Since the end of the second intifada Palestinian theatre has begun to thrive again. Although there were plays produced during that time, the curfews meant that actors as well as audiences often found it impossible to make it to the theatres.
Jerusalem is home to the Palestinian National Theatre as well as the Al-Kasaba Theatre, whose production Alive from Palestine played to packed audiences at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2001. Al-Kasaba also has a second, bigger theatre in Ramallah, which is seen by many as Palestine's main cultural centre - the building contains two auditoriums, and rehearsal rooms as well as a cinema.
The development of Palestinian theatre has always been closely linked to Palestine's political situation. During the British mandate theatre for the local population consisted mainly of productions of British plays, which meant that Palestinian playwrights were never in a position to develop their artform in the same way as Egyptian or Syrian artists were able to. Hence contemporary Palestinian drama often still draws on the traditional Egyptian theatre's three-act form.
However, the situation did not stop authors from writing and occasionally getting produced, often trying to evade British censorship. One of the most prolific writers of that time was Jamil Habib Bahri. One of his first plays, The Beloved Country, was published in Cairo in 1923. Theatre companies from other Middle Eastern countries toured Palestine during this time, inspiring Palestinians to set up more than 30 acting companies in the major cities.
After 1948 many Palestinian dramatists moved to and began to work in neighbouring countries such as Jordan. In the mid-1960s a Palestinian theatre organisation was established which defined the reviving of Palestinian heritage as one of its main aims. A newly formed national acting troupe began touring Middle Eastern cities such as Cairo and Damascus.
After 1967 poets and writers such as Naela Al Attresh and Khalil Tafish began writing for the newly established Palestinian National Theatre as well as other theatres in the West Bank. Since the 1990s efforts have been made to establish more theatres in Gaza, and the Royal Court's international programme has brought Palestinian writers and directors together to work with theatre directors such as Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott) and Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia).
Lloyd and playwright Stephen Jeffreys also went to Bethlehem to work with Inad. Jeffreys recounts how, during their workshop, he suddenly noticed Israeli soldiers firing plastic bullets and people being carried off on stretchers outside. When he suggested interrupting the workshop, however, the Palestinian artists' response was clear: 'We have a riot every day, but we don't have a workshop every day - carry on.'