Manama: Stories of gender relations and the struggle between traditional parents and their Westernized children have been taken to the stage by six young screenwriters and five acting students at Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) under the theme "Arab Awakenings."
The students produced six original short plays in a "Collaboration Class" co-taught by Ann Woodworth and Sue Pak, professors in NU-Q's Communications programme. The course joined acting and writing students in a collaborative process to develop their plays.
"The ideas behind these plays were all revolutionary, hence the name Arab Awakenings- they addressed issues that are not often discussed in Arab culture," Motasem Kalaji, a junior communications student who acted in five of the six plays, said. "Some of these issues include family dynamics, patriotism, and existential dilemmas."
Pak, who led the students through the scriptwriting process for the course, said it took some time to get the students to write about their own experiences and surroundings. The young people originally wanted to write about New York and other far-off places they'd seen in movies.
"Perhaps it seems easier to write about ‘other people' as a way to protect yourself. That way no one thinks your play is about you or anyone you know," Pak said.
"It soon became obvious that the plays were not working because they were too far removed from the actors' and the writers' own experiences," Pak said. "The only way they could create something truly interesting was to start by writing what they knew. That meant taking some very brave steps like leaving New York behind, and setting the stories in areas the students were familiar with."
When the students took their plays to the stage in December to a packed audience of family, friends, and faculty and students from across Education City, they had created characters and stories that dealt with issues concerning many young people in the region.
NU-Q junior Ethar Hassaan found inspiration for her script, "Between Nothing and Something," in her experience this February, when she traveled to Egypt's Tahrir Square to witness the revolution on the ground.
Her character Noha, a female journalist, refuses to leave the country with her husband Haytham and rejects his depiction of protestors as "unemployed slum dogs." Thamer Al Thani, a senior at NU-Q, wrote the script for "Nagging Survival," which follows a young Arab-American man and his traditional Arab mother as they try to survive a fatal disease outbreak. As hero Yusuf does everything he can to stay isolated from the rest of the infected population, his mother is bent on reminding him of his roots and on finding him a wife.
In a story on loss and acceptance, Dana Atrach of the class of 2013 touches on themes with deep personal significance. Just as her main character, Laith, a pianist, struggles to accept that his injured hand prevents him from continuing his successful career in performance, Atrach had to give up basketball for a year after she tore her ACL last season. The play A Little Star ends on a hopeful note as Laith remembers that it was passion and not fame that drew him to play piano in the first place.
"Watching the show come to life those two nights after this whole process was extremely rewarding, knowing all the hard work we had been through and being able to share that with the community and watch their reactions to it," Atrach said.
The three other plays featured Arab protagonists in struggles with identity. Kaltham Al Thani's The Deal takes place on the set of an Arabic soap opera being shot in a studio in Dubai.
A Westernized, teenage boy confronts his troubled father in Lama Al Abdullah's Holding On, set in Saudi Arabia. In his light-hearted Another Possibility, Omer Mohammad's character Mustafa is given the chance to live for more than "paying the bills."
"I wanted the students to experience the collaborative process of creating theatre," Ann Woodworth said. "Theatre offers us the opportunity to discover more about ourselves, each other, and the world in which we live. The goal was to provide an arena where students could explore what is important to them, perhaps say what may not be possible to say in their daily lives," she said.
Her plans include expanding the university's theater programme and another "Collaboration Class" next autumn semester, with journalism students joining the communication students to bring "real stories" from Qatar to life.
Ann Woodworth has worked professionally as an actress, director, and as a teaching consultant. She has 35 years of experience in teaching and acting. She is a founding member of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble.
Her plays have been produced in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Her full-length play, Boys, enjoyed a twelve-week run at the Tinfish Theater in Chicago. Pak is the recipient of the Steve S. Kang Artists and Scholars Award.