In a small classroom in East Jerusalem, seven young actors, all in their late teens, stand in a circle and stick out their tongues.
Following their instructor's directions, they shift unsteadily from one bare foot to the other and contort their mouths in all directions. The seven women and two men in this first-year class are visibly embarrassed by the exercise. An improvisation follows, and one young woman turns abruptly and walks out of the circle.
But the unsettling warm-ups pay off quickly. In the discussion that follows, the woman who left raises an important question. "I didn't know what to look for she," she says. "How do you know what you're supposed to be doing?"
Iman Aoun, who founded the Ashtar School for Theater Education and Training in 1990 with her husband Edward Muallem, says that this open-ended inquiry is exactly what the program is designed to stimulate in young people.
"How do you define a problem in new ways, and develop solutions never before conceived?" she asks. "To encourage questions is one of Ashtar's central goals."
The birth of Ashtar has indeed brought promise of exciting transformations to Palestinian theater, whose modern tradition has its roots in café story-telling rather than in the stage tradition that underlies Western theater. Only in this century have Palestinian tales grown into full-length plays, and even those, more often than not, have been occasional pieces, written to celebrate particular events or organizations. It was not until the 1970's, when Palestinians began searching for new ways to express themselves through performance, that there emerged a handful of Ramallah-based companies such as Bilaleen (The Balloons) and its splinter groups Balileen (Without Bowing), The Magic Box and Babis (The Pins), which each saw only brief success.
One of the more active members of the early companies was François Abu Salem, who in 1977 helped found El-Hakawati (The Storytellers). El-Hakawati became the first Palestinian theatrical group to become financially self-supporting, and its productions became world-renowned (See Aramco World, November-December 1988). Theaters such as Al Kasaba and The Palestinian National Theater continue to produce plays, but El-Hakawati remains unique, say troupe members Aoun and Muallem, in its success in sustaining a unified theatrical vision among its members.
Many members of El-Hakawati's company have had a hand in shaping Ashtar, but the school's success is due primarily to Muallem and Aoun. "We had had enough of touring, and wanted to begin passing on what we knew to the next generation," Muallem says. "We established Ashtar to provide others with the mentors we never had ourselves. Now we want to help sustain a vibrant and lasting theater tradition for our people."
In little more than four years, Ashtar has grown from a single three-year, extracurricular program for high-school students into a body that coordinates such programs in 12 schools and two universities. A new studio complex in Ramallah was scheduled to open in June.
Ashtar's teaching methods first take into account the gaps in the present curriculum of Palestinian secondary schools. Because of political obstruction and the lack of funding, schools have been forced to cancel many activities outside the core studies in mathematics, sciences, history and language. Ashtar addresses the cycles of despair that are so common in Palestinian young people. And, judging from the enthusiasm of the students, the school succeeds at this because its pedagogy is aimed "not only at the brain but at the whole self, including the heart."
Ashtar's teaching philosophy is simple: The actor's body is his or her primary instrument, and anyone can act with the right training. It is through awareness of his or her physical circumstances that an actor can best present the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of character, whether the performance is literal or allegorical, classical or avant-garde.
Under the leadership of Muallem and Aoun, Ashtar has enlisted non-Palestinian instructors, too. Peter Braschler, a Swiss who established the theater company Maralem in Zurich before joining Ashtar's faculty, specializes in curricula for beginning performers and teachers. Sameth Hijazi came to Ashtar from Berlin, where he worked with the Berliner Ensemble, whose non-naturalistic style has influenced much of 20th-century theater in the West. Ashtar's part-time instructors are skilled in fields from lighting design to mask-making.
Muallem and Aoun say that the strong potential of the program was evident from the beginning, when one class of students studied in a high-school basement after hours. The attrition rate was high then because the beginners could not cope with the long hours of improvisation, body work and discussion about the learning process. But those who stuck with the program demonstrated significant changes: By the final production of Beauty and The Beast, Aoun says, "the students themselves began to ask for more hours, because they really wanted it to be good. They wanted to make us happy, and also to prove something to themselves." Students surprised even their instructors by refusing breaks during rehearsals that sometimes lasted as long as eight hours.
From the beginning, Ashtar has also explored an expanded sense of social norms. Muallem and Aoun find that many of their students have learned little about teamwork in their academic curricula, and thus Ashtar's instructors emphasize interaction. "It's more realistic to solve problems together than alone, both onstage and off," Aoun explains. "But first you have to know how."
Acting and movement classes at Ashtar also challenge students because, often, it is only at Ashtar that they study with members of the opposite sex. Consequently, at the beginning of most courses, young men and women remain as separate from each other as possible. "Only slowly did they begin to feel comfortable," Aoun says of one group, "but by the end of the year, actors who couldn't look each other in the eye at the beginning hugged each other onstage without embarrassment." Their shyness overcome, they were able to focus more clearly on learning their craft.
Most of Ashtar's classes include a majority of young women, despite the difficulty Palestinian theaters have typically had in finding adult female actors. "The girls feel that this is their only chance to work in theater," Muallem explains, "because once they are out of school, it is hard for them to justify continuing. This is a very traditional part of our culture." For many young women, evening activities—including drama rehearsals—are discouraged.
For this reason, Muallem chose to direct the program to secondary-school students. "At this age, children are mature, but still fresh," instructor Braschler says. "The girls are not yet being pressured to get married, or not to perform in public. The boys are also more open to new ideas."
In 1994 Ashtar added a teacher-training workshop to provide some consistency to the growing number of drama programs that Ashtar coordinates. The training consists primarily of body work, which encourages new perspectives on sensory awareness and movement. The second part of the course involves the theory behind the role of physical expression in performance. Beginning with the feet and working their way up, participants start by stretching their bodies and discussing the effect that the body has on interpreting a character.
"For example, if you don't stand firmly, the whole body appears shaky," explains Braschler, who runs the workshop. "What's more, all the parts of the feet contain pressure points that are connected to inner organs. There are warm-ups for every limb and joint, because every part of the body affects the condition of all the others." Through the exercises, participants expand their understanding of the physical interpretion of personal experience.
One provocative discussion in the teacher-training workshop came out of a version of the theatrical warmup called "the mirror game." In this exercise, two people face each other, and each takes a turn leading movements that the other attempts to mimic as precisely as possible. The exercise's purpose is to develop a sense of other people onstage, in order to encourage actors to work together. On this particular day, one workshop member found it difficult to look into the eyes of his partner, and the exercise came to an abrupt halt.
"In this case, the unsuccessful work became an asset to the class, because it raised the issue of teamwork, something our students need to learn," Braschler says. "These teachers will now understand first-hand their pupils' difficulty with this issue, and will be better able to help them overcome it. Experience is always more effective than theory."
Another session was devoted to the ways that every society pressures its members to behave, and how those do's and dont's are dealt with in theater. "In our school," says Braschler, "it's particularly important to break down old conceptions of the ways people relate to each other, in the ways bodies can exist in space—it's just that simple."
The small size of Ashtar's classes allows teachers to tailor the curriculum to pupils' individual needs. One young woman who moved well onstage but found it difficult to focus intellectually was given a text by British playwright Harold Pinter. His characters constantly shift their allegiances, and one can never be sure why they speak, or whether what they say is true. Braschler reports that working with the Pinter text greatly improved the student's ability to think on her feet. "Acting is practice," he says. "No two performers need exactly the same training."
Final summer productions at Ashtar are chosen and rehearsed with these issues in mind. In 1993, rehearsals of Beauty and the Beast were designed to prevent students from being physically inhibited by the text. In place of the long hours of memorization familiar to Western actors, the students learned their lines by singing, whispering, or shouting them to each other across the theater.
"I did not allow them to take the scripts home," Braschler says. "I wanted them to get the words into their minds and bodies in new ways. They themselves had a chance to contribute to the final product." For the same reason, stage movements were not blocked until three days before the performance. "The strategy is to force actors to think at all times, up to the last minute."
The result was impressive. After only one year of training, the cast acted with poise and professionalism. It was difficult to believe that these students had only recently learned to look at each other directly, or move comfortably in front of their peers. "We were very proud of them," Aoun says. "But more important, they were very proud of themselves. It's remarkable what can be accomplished through sheer commitment and hard work."
Beauty and the Beast presents an entertaining fairy tale, but it was also chosen for its subtle political messages as well. Braschler explains that it is important to give girls strong, intelligent role models. Even more unusual, Beauty listens to her own heart instead of her family's advice, and Braschler explains that, the moment she accepts her love for the beast—the monster, the enemy—she makes peace possible.
Perhaps the greatest challenge Ashtar faces is financial. Although more than a half-dozen international cultural agencies have provided funding to date, the school's first years were marked by moves from one classroom to another, and the school still has no permanent home. The core faculty still spend much of their time raising funds. "It's a real problem, one that we haven't yet solved," Aoun admits. "We have little theatrical tradition in our community, and we need to educate people about the importance of the arts."
Nevertheless, the school has high hopes for its students' futures, and there are plans to make the Ashtar program a degree-granting one, to help students continue their educations abroad.
"We are the only theater school for Palestinians in this region," Aoun explains. "It is a big responsibility, but we know we are already making a difference."
Annette Kramer holds a Ph.D. from Brown University, where she also taught courses in drama and literature. She has worked as a director, producer and dramaturg in the United States and Great Britain.