Mona Merhi*

Abstract: This article gives a general insight about contemporary theatre practices in Lebanon while focusing on four landscapes that are inter-related: In order to understand Theatre in Lebanon, it is important to examine the eco-system in which performance artists thrive. After examining the governmental bylaws and support structures offered by both re-granting organizations and other governmental entities, The following lines will highlight, in a very concise manner, some of the tendencies and particular signs that feed one another in order to construct a vivid and a diversified theatrical scene that is yet to be discovered.

Keywords: Τheatre, Lebanon, governmental support, playwright, funding, grants, decentralization,  theatre collectives

Landscape One:  A Conflict Beyond the Political History of Lebanon

Lebanon went through a very severe civil war between 1975 and 1990, whose repercussions are evident to this day. As a matter of fact, even before the eruption of the civil war, Lebanon had always been subject to internal, confessional and regional conflicts—sometimes announced, sometimes hidden. These divisive conflicts have been so constant in modern Lebanese history as to render notions such as “nation” and “national” effectively void of meaning. A striking example of this is the fact that there is no contemporary history book in Lebanon’s primary schools; the most modern textbook covers the period up to the Independence, in 1943. Continuous internal conflicts since then have resulted in a weakening of the body of the state and governmental institutions. The Ministry of Culture was created in 1993. Long before its existence, the theatre scene in Lebanon was mostly based on individual initiatives. The most notable exception was the establishment of the Baalbeck Festival committee, which led to the establishment of the School of Modern Theatre.

If we compare the current theatre scene in Lebanon to that of the mid-1990s, there appears to be a more vibrant theatrical life these days. There has been a proliferation of theatre productions and more groups, collectives and theatre spaces. However, all these efforts rely on the support of civil society and foreign donors with little support from governmental entities.

A closer look at what the government offers to Lebanese theatre/performance makers shows the following:

  1. A national theatre doesn’t exist so far.[1]
  2. Public theatre venues are a scarce commodity in Lebanon. The only venue that is made available to the public by the government is the Unesco Palace;[2] and, even in this case, it is very rare that theatre and performance makers are actually able to access this space (even though it could be used for rehearsals and/or performances).[3] It is, sadly, also the case that the municipalities are not being pro-active partners in the theatrical scene.[4] 
Unesco Palace in Lebanon, the only venue that is made available to the public by the government
  1. The ministry of culture distributes 270,000 US dollars as grants for theatre and dance projects per year. The amount of the grant ranges between $5,000  and $15,000 (meaning that an average of 36 grants are offered per year to all the artists in the performing arts). Furthermore, the process gets more complicated, as the grantee is obliged to collect their grant from the Ministry of Finance after the production is completed (this can take years in some cases).
  2. Actors and theatre directors in Lebanon have to pay a tax which amounts to 40% of their net profits (this compares, for example, with 17% for hotels).[5]
  3. According to Legislative decree #66, issued in 1967, an average of 5% “amusement and leisure tax” should be deducted from the ticket box office of each theatre or performance venue in alignment with other leisure spaces like ski clubs, swimming pools and night clubs.[6]
  4. In 2016, the Ministry of Finance issued decree #3705 which imposes a 2% financial fee on theatre/performance/concert tickets. In addition to that, a 10% fee was imposed on contracts signed with foreign artists,[7]  which is used to finance the Lebanese Artists’ Fund. 

The lack of a financially healthy theatre scene in Lebanon is not only the responsibility of the Ministries of Culture and Finance. Every play in the country has to pass through the offices of the General Security,[8] which exercises powers of advance censorship under Decree 2/1977 and grants security officers “the right to fully reject or partially approve the staging of a play . . . .” Many battles have been fought against absurd decisions taken by the censorship office.

Despite all the obstacles created by the establishment, theatre and performance makers in Lebanon have always found ways to create their productions and reach out to audiences. Simultaneously a hidden culture has developed according to which theatre and performance artists tend to consider trying to advocate for artists rights or to work with or against governmental agencies a waste of time.[9]

Landscape Two:  Who Are the Main Financers of Theatre in Lebanon?

Most theatre and performance makers in Lebanon rely on foreign funding. Arab regional funders Al-Mawred and Afac have been to the fore in supporting both established names and young artists in the Lebanese theatre and performance scene. These include: Hanane Hajj Ali, Carlos Chahine, Ali Chahrour and Chrystele Khodr. In addition to these two major institutions, Mophradat offers a small number of grants, and Ashkal Alwan has been financially involved in many performances, most notably the lecture performances created by Rabih Mroué.

In addition to such regional funding, some Lebanese theatre/performance makers receive support, mostly from European institutions, to engage in collaborative projects, such as artists’ residency programmes, presentations of works in progress and co-productions with theatre companies/venues in Europe and, to a lesser degree, the USA (for example, the Sundance Institute MENA residency programme). Other opportunities are offered exclusively for Syrian and Palestinian artists residing in Lebanon by cultural institutions such as Ettijahat, Citizens-artists and the Qattan foundation.

Besides the entirely insufficient number of grants available to artists in Lebanon, the reliance of some artists upon grants has created a “know-how” culture, in accordance with which artists have learned how to navigate the grant-giving system. Such a culture co-exists with another type of theatre and performance artists who do not necessarily know the “know-how” or who disapprove of the grant-giving system.

There are some artists who prefer to rely on the box office. After receiving many grants, independent director Hisham Jaber, inspired by cabaret and café theatre, decided (in 2012) to create Metro-Al-Madina, a theatre venue to be funded entirely by box office receipts and to be dependent upon the development of new audiences. Metro-Al-Madina, as a private company, pioneered a new performance scene which presents work attracting diverse audiences. It is worth noticing here that theatre venues in Lebanon mostly rent their spaces so that visiting companies can present their work, rarely contributing to the production of plays or to the creation of a yearly schedule that reflects a certain vision or artistic tendency .[10]

This unhealthy, financially-speaking, theatre ecology-system affects the creative process itself, in a way or another, as artists are driven towards creative choices which they wouldn’t probably otherwise make. Artists in Lebanon have to create their own opportunities and, often, become their own producers, all the time working with few resources.

Metro-Al-Madina Taxi Talks performance

The lack of resources has, inevitably, played a significant role in shaping trends in the Lebanese theatre scene. Solo-performer productions have come to prominence since 2014. These include monodrama, storytelling, lecture performances and stand-up comedy.

Whilst the choice of having one individual on stage is mainly a question of financial resources, this is not always the case. Going solo can have aesthetic motivations and implications that are worthy of an extensive study. For example, in her show Where Can I Find Someone Like You, Ali?, Palestinian actress and writer Raeda Taha narrates her personal experience as a daughter of the Palestinian martyr, Ali Taha. Her choice to tell her personal story by enacting it alone on stage is rooted in a personal need, rather material considerations.

Yehia Jaber, a Lebanese poet, writer and director, is known for his monodrama productions. His plays make for a kind of representational theatre that takes as its subject matter the diverse confessional identities in Lebanon. His work depicts the various confessional communities in a very popular way which, nevertheless, would be worthy of deep, anthropological examination. His decision to make eight monodramas since 2013 is entirely due to production constraints.

Many factors have contributed to the increase of solo productions in Lebanon. Stand-up comedy, as a genre, has become more common. In addition to altering the performing arts ecology, the creation of small theatre spaces, cultural coffee shops and multipurpose venues has also made a contribution to the aesthetic choices made by artists.

In general, it seems that sharing personal narratives by members of under-represented groups is also a social need. In recent times, there has been an observable rise in the amount of work which reflects (on) individual or collective memory/ies. Whether they belong to a fictional or real character, whether they are intended to spread laughter or induce tears, whether they tackle very intimate issues or radical political views, these solo productions project an eagerness for narration and storytelling. Is this eagerness due to societal factors revealing our complicated relationship with the past? Or do its roots go back to older traditions of storytelling in the region?

Any consideration of contemporary Lebanese theatre must also take into account the tendency among some theatre makers to translate foreign texts into Arabic, adapting them to a Lebanese context. A number of artists, such as Jacques Maroun and Carlos Chahine, work exclusively in this field.[11] Although this tendency has existed in Lebanon for a long time (for example, Maroun Naccache adapted Moliere in 1847), the works of Maroun and Chahine have succeeded in introducing contemporary playwrights and authors to the twenty-first-century Lebanese audience in a way that is relevant to modern daily life in the country. 

The poster of the production of Venus, starring Rita Hayek and Badih Abou Chakra and directed by Jacques Maroun

Maroun focuses on the adaptation of acclaimed American plays, such as Venus in Fur by David Ives and Reasons to be Pretty by Neil La Bute. Having completed his studies in the USA and been tutored at the Actors’ Studio, Maroun’s career has reflected the influence of American culture. Likewise, Chahine, who lives between Paris and Lebanon, has adapted many contemporary European and American plays and novels, including God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza and Illusions by Russian playwright Ivan Viripaev.

Over the last three decades the ecology of Lebanese theatre has undergone a considerable transformation. In 1991, at the end of the civil war, one could barely find a theatre collective (that is, a collaborative group of theatre practitioners) in Lebanon. It should be noted that an avant-garde theatre movement did exist in the country between the 1950s and the 1980s, represented by such collectives as the workshop company Mouhtaraf Beirut, modern theatre troupe Firkat al Masrah al Hadith and the Al-Hakawati troupe.[12] However, by the early 1990s, such collective and diverse practice had all but ended, leaving the theatre field open to a more individualist approach.[13] There were, however, rare exceptions to this rule. The Shams cooperative, for example, played a leading role in Beirut theatre in the late 1990s, going on to establish the Shams Theatre space, which prioritized the development of the young generation of artists.

Al Hakawati Troupe in Memoirs of Ayoub (1993)

It wasn’t until July 2006, when the Israeli army attacked Lebanon, that the Zoukak collective emerged as a new and different kind of active theatre collective structure. Not withstanding the value of theatre as an artistic aesthetic representation that is by nature doomed to be a political act, Zoukak uses theatre as a tool for psycho social support, henceforth moving gradually towards the social and/or the educational perspective. The collective refers to a horizontal structure in the decision making and management system as well as in the creative artistic process while  being an NGO and a theatre company at the same time. Through its exceptional success story, it initiated a legacy that has spawned (and will spawn) similar endeavors.

However, it is not only the success story of Zoukak that has contributed to the emergence of some other troupes or collectives/NGO’s. Although the influence of Zoukak is, to a certain extent, impactful, and despite the fact that working within a group gives a certain sense of psychological immunity to the artist, there is another factor at play here which could be considered as even more important.

Zoukak, He who Saw Everything. Photo: Marco Pinarelli

There has been an essential change in the system of any sort of civil work, which, nowadays, is fundamentally based on the existence of NGOs. One should look at the donors’ tendencies to support NGOs and collectives, rather than individuals. More and more, donors and granting organizations are establishing programs and grants to offer more constant support to small and medium structures or institutions that are often based on collectivities, whether their status is an NGO or an informal group. In addition to that, some theatre practices, such as forum theatre and playback theatre, rely, to a great extent, on the collective spirit, which has recently led to the creation to one or two troupes. All the aforementioned factors have ultimately contributed to the establishment of theatre collectives/NGO’s/companies such as Collectif Kahraba (2007), Laban live lactic culture (2010), Masrah Ensemble (2012), Minwal theatre company (2014), and others.

May he Rise, a co-production of Ali Chahrour and Zoukak, presented at the Festival of Avignon in 2018. Photo: Zyad Ciblany

Furthermore, we should note initiatives which promote a decentralized cultural scene. For example, after spending years in the Mar-Mkhayel area in Achrafieh (Eastern Beirut), and having nurtured the culture in that community, by practicing art in homes and public spaces through their festival “Us, the neigbhbours and the moon,” Collectif Kahraba relocated to Hammana village in Mount Lebanon, 1,200 metres above sea level. There they launched the Hammana Artist House (HAH). Similarly, Kassem Istanbouli, a theatre director and founder of Istanbouli Theatre, and the Tiro Association for the arts, transformed abandoned or closed cinema venues in the south of Lebanon into theatre and film venues.

Likewise, and years before the existence of (HAH) and Istanbouli Theatre, Omar Rajeh and his partner Mia Habis, (founders of Maqamat and of Bipod festival, the Beirut International Platform of Dance) were keen on spreading their dance practices outside Beirut. Therefore, they created “Beyt el Raqs” in Deir El Qamar, where they hold regular dance classes and annual artists residencies take place. However, maintaining strong links with village communities, developing loyal, local audiences and, therefore, keeping these community venues running have all proved to be challenging tasks. On more than one occasion, Kassem Istanbouli was obliged to close venues he had created.

Alongside the phenomenon of decentralization, most theatre makers who are based in Beirut theatres are attempting to expand their audiences. Nowadays, we often see productions which have had several tours outside the city of Beirut. Perhaps, the production that best exemplifies this decentralizing and  democratizing trend is Jogging by actress, director, cultural activist and academic Hanane Hajj Ali. After achieving considerable international and regional acclaim, and following many representations of her work in theatres and performance venues in Beirut, Hanane has been touring all over Lebanon presenting Jogging in peripheral cities, provinces and in rural areas.

Jogging, by actress, director, cultural activist and academic Hanane Hajj Ali: a production that best exemplifies the emerging trend of decentralizing and democratizing Lebanese theatre. Photo: Pierro Chiussi
Landscape Four: Missing Landscapes…

Although the theatrical scene in Lebanon is vivid, vibrant, dynamic and diverse, there is very limited documentation reflecting upon the productions, the aesthetics and the discourse of Lebanese theatre. This is true both in the fields of cultural journalism and academic research. In the last decade, there have been no more than twenty books published about theatre and performance in Lebanon. Furthermore, there is no specialist, peer-reviewed publication for theatre and the performing arts.

The notion of the “playwright” (in the sense of an individual who is totally dedicated to playwriting) is also almost absent from contemporary Lebanese theatre. We often see devised theatre making or directors/actors/producers writing their own texts and carrying out many other production tasks at the same time. The only names of playwrights between the 1960s and the mid-1980s that I can recall are Henri Hamati, Issam Mahfouz, Oussama El Aref and Youssef Saad.

This relative absence of the independent and dedicated playwright is, perhaps, one of the most influential factors in Lebanese theatre. It is my contention that this deficiency gave rise to a different production structure in Lebanon, one that is more liberal and in which boundaries and rules are often bent. The absence of the writer means that the main pillars of theatre making in other countries simply don’t exist in Lebanon. This enabled experimentation—for example, in terms of the visual dimension of theatre and in a defiantly non-Aristotelian approach to plot and character. This might explain, to a certain extent, the abundance of solo shows in Lebanese theatre, and its tendency towards narration, storytelling and translating foreign texts. 

That said, there have been some recent breakthroughs regarding the role of the playwright. After participating in a playwriting workshop held by the Royal Court theatre in London, Arze Khodr (who has forged a career as a playwright and TV scriptwriter) wrote The House, a play about two sisters, a brother and their relationship with their inherited house.[14]

Arze Khodr said that the main inspiration to write the play Al Bayt (House) was Damascus’ old houses. It was written between 2007 and 2008

To note the relative absence of the playwright from Lebanese theatre is not to imply an insufficiency in the theatre works that have been devised collectively or written by the actor or director of the piece (although, in some plays, we may feel the absence of the playwright). However, we should contemplate the implications of a national theatre scene from which the playwright is almost totally absent.[15]

The landscapes outlined above (in terms of the formal, informal and hidden individual/collective structures within the Lebanese theatre scene) are not exhaustive, but they offer an insight into how theatre works in the country. Despite the positive impact of the lack of governmental support and the non-existence of a classical infrastructure for theatre making in Lebanon, which led to an alternative creativity based on self-taught practices, creating a certain balance between the presence of the establishment as a supporting pillar for creativity and the latter structures is an essential challenge for the years to come. I wonder how the theatrical scene would be reshaped with the emergence of such a balance.


[1] Unlike Tunisia, where there is a national Tunisian theatre supported by the government in charge of making and distributing yearly productions, the concept of having a national theatre doesn’t exist yet in Lebanon, despite the efforts of some academic figures to launch a national theatre campaign. Professor Hisham Zeineddine from the Lebanese University is struggling to launch a campaign for establishing a National theatre.

[2] The Unesco Palace was built in 1948 and renovated in 1998. It contains a 1,200-seat theatre, two exhibition halls and two conference rooms and a third floor that has had multiple uses. 

[3] Theatre and performance makers don’t have access to this venue mostly because it’s too large or it doesn’t fit their technical needs (it is not well maintained and equipped). The venue is mainly used randomly by many entities and for various events, including: educational celebrations by the Ministry of Education; gatherings of political parties; and graduation celebrations by private universities. Gradually, in the absence of a state strategy for putting the venue at the heart of arts and culture in Beirut, the Unesco Palace has failed to reach its potential as a home for the performing arts.

[4] The municipality of Beirut doesn’t have any public venue to offer and gives little support to private theatre venues/initiatives/events. Despite the fact that most municipalities have multi-purpose spaces, and some of them do have theatre premises with facilities, there is no constant or continuous use of these spaces, nor has a strong link between theatre/performance makers and local communities been established.

[5] See: Geagea, Nayla, “Legislations concerning culture in Lebanon,” a study commissioned by Culture Resource, November 2013, p. 33.

[6] See: Geagea, Nayla, “Legislations concerning culture in Lebanon,” a study commissioned by Culture Resource, November 2013, p. 47.

[7] See here

[8] The General Security offices belong to the Ministry of the Interior.

[9] That doesn’t mean, of course, that no collective efforts have been made to claim artists’ rights. There have been a few initiatives: for instance, the campaign to protect a Beirut theatre from being demolished and transformed into a mall (2008), and the efforts made against the censorship law (2008| 2015-2017). Although those battles represented certain breakthroughs at their respective moments, they reached a stagnant phase and became all incomplete activism in the interests of the arts in Lebanon has stagnated since.

[10] This is why Metro-Al-Madina Model is important and significant: in addition to renting space, it makes its own productions and co-produces others.

[11] There has also been significant work on the reverse process of translating Lebanese plays from Arabic into English. At the American University of Beirut, Professor Robert Myers, Sahar Assaf and Nada Saab have worked on translating and adapting dramas such as The Rape by Saadallah Wanous. Following that, through the AUB Theatre Initiative, they also worked on a Lebanese adaptation of Tracey Lett’s August Osage County.

[12] Mouhtaraf Beirut was created by Nidal Al Achkar and Roger Assaf. Firkat al Masrah al Hadith was initiated by Mounir Abou Bebs. The Al Hakawati troupe was founded by Roger Assaf, gathering Hanane Hajj Ali, Rafic Ali Ahmad, Nicholas Daniel, etc.

[13] The last of this generation of collective companies was the Al-Hakawaty troupe which presented its final production, Memoirs of Ayoub, in 1993.

[14] Of course there are many actors and directors who write their own texts, such as Maya Zbib, and Issam BouKhaled. However, I am trying to search here for someone who is totally dedicated to playwriting.

[15] There are other landscapes that are worthy of consideration, of course, such as: theatre education in Lebanon, theatre and freedom of expression, contemporary dance, and site-specific performances. There are also other subjects such as: the performing arts as a metaphor for Lebanon’s fragmented spaces, identities and narrations; and the right to public space, and so on. I have tried to prioritise some key areas in the limited space available. 

*Mona Merhi is a creative writer, theatre maker, critic, and cultural activist. She holds a Diploma of Higher Studies in Theatre and a Master’s degree in Cultural Mediation. She writes theatre reviews for local, regional and American newspapers and online platforms. Her latest work as a theatre maker called That Very Moment engages with the cause of the disappeared of the civil war.

Copyright © 2019 Mona Merhi
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Theatre and Performance Landscapes in Lebanon
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