How Az Theatre is humanising Palestinian voices

6 Mins read

A new theatre project in a King’s Cross art gallery is highlighting the suffering of Palestinians in the current conflict with Israel.

GAZA: Messages & Images by the London-based Az Theatre company uses monologues from those living through the attacks in Gaza to draw attention to their plight.

Founded in 2004 by artistic director Jonathan Chadwick, Az Theatre’s first project War Stories sought to tackle issues around war internationally.

Working in association with an international theatre festival in Romania, Jonathan decided that it would be much more beneficial to work with countries which were in a different relationship to war than the country he was living in, the UK.

“My aim was to use theatre and drama workshop techniques to explore the stories and experiences people had in those different contexts, and their relationship to war in different countries,” he explained.

The goal that Jonathan had set out for this project was “to find the language and ways in which stories could be expressed and embodied by the world”.

“It was looking at the context in which people had changed in the process of contact with war. It didn’t limit itself to just those actions that happened in the centre of the war and the destruction of humans in war, but all the relationships that surrounded it,” he continued.

After forming friendships with people from Gaza whilst working in Romania, Jonathan planned to visit Gaza during 2006, which unfortunately was unable to happen due to conflict.

In 2008-9, Az Theatre started to focus on a bilateral relationship with Theatre for Everybody, which is situated in Gaza.

As part of this, Jonathan spoke to people living in Gaza: “It was just one of those conversations which sort of changes what you do” he says, “I thought that I needed to do work in the context of this conversation.

Picture of Jonathan Chadwick at P21 Gallery
Jonathan Chadwick presenting Gaza: Messages & Images at P21 Gallery [Faseeha Khalid]

“When I was speaking to them on the phone, bombs were going off in the background, and I thought that we needed to keep a relationship going based on friendship and creativity with these people.”

During 2000, on the advent of the second intifada, known as the Al-Aqsa intifada, Theatre for Everybody turned their talent from producing plays, to working with young people using drama therapy techniques.

“Theatre is a space where the imagination plays a very strong role. There is a possibility that you can use the space you use to perform in to create things. Through their imagination which mirrors things going on in their lives, and the world as they see it, this worked, similar to drama therapy,” Jonathan explains.

After working with young people who were suffering from traumatic experiences which they were unable to get out of their head, as well as exhibiting various signs of disturbance, it was clear that they were in need of this other space.

Working alongside an event with Theatre for Everybody in a program for young people, named Gaza Breathing Space, Jonathan said was highly beneficial for Az Theatre.

Supporting them as well as using theatre in that way was enabling people in the UK to learn more about Gaza through the work produced by the collaboration, as well as increasing engagement with the atrocities occurring there.

“The ability to run events here in the UK started to happen, we were able to use a large projection screen to run events which made contact with people in Gaza through Skype. It allowed us to communicate like a window between our two worlds,” Jonathan said. After this, other projects based in Gaza began to take shape.

In 2012, their project Gaza Opening Signs took place in Dier al-Balah, the centre of Gaza Strip. The project was created to break down the isolation of deaf young people and those with hearing disabilities with those who did not.

“It trained young practitioners who had these difficulties in drama workshop techniques, and we then also linked up with a school here in London,” Jonathan told us.

During the Gaza war in 2014, child protection officer and co-director of Theatre for Everybody, Hossam Madhoun, who was, and still currently is, in contact with Jonathan began creating a conversation about ways in which Az Theatre could characterize the atrocities taking place there.

In current times, Az Theatre’s project Messages from Gaza Now has been incorporated into an exhibition of events at P21 Gallery.

“It was an escalation of genocide which was going on in Gaza. I had a conversation with Hossam over the phone. I told him to write and write. Writing is more powerful if you cannot speak, and then give it to somebody else to read,” Jonathan told us.

In a series of reading events, the texts produced by Hossam, as well as messages which have been received by Az Theatre from their colleagues and friends in Gaza, are read aloud by a group of artists and others involved in Az Theatre.

Prior to this, an open-air event had taken place in Finsbury Park, creating a listening circle outdoors, where others were able to listen and join in a conversation. Relationships were developed around the project, involving a diverse group of people.

Since October 2023 there have been three Messages from Gaza Now events, each one with a different combination of material.

After the last event at P21 Gallery, a member of the audience said: “Being able to sit and just listen to accounts from those facing the current events in Gaza right now is a lot more humanizing. It is one thing being hit with facts whilst scrolling through our phones, but being able to just listen and feel, has such a huge impact.”

In the exhibition Gaza: Messages & Images, a film of the last Messages from Gaza Now event was installed in the main space.

Ruth Lass, an actress from a Jewish family, started working with Jonathan in 2012, after playing in a production of a play that toured in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank.

“It had a very big impact on me going out there, and I had an epiphany whilst working at a theatre in Palestine. Just the amazing kindness of the Palestinian people I had met, and how understanding they were. Their articulate way of sharing their history with me when we were talking, I’d realised I had grown up surrounded by propaganda, and passed down knowledge which was false. It was taboo to let go,” Ruth said.

After the realisation, Ruth sought to get in touch with other people in the Jewish community, who were pro-Palestinian. After being told about Jonathan and the work he was doing, as well as attending a workshop at Az Theatre, they developed a collaborative work relationship.

When analysing pieces of a text from a poetry book written by Frank Smith, Gaza D’ici-là based on the Goldstone Report on 2008/9’s invasion of Gaza, Jonathan and Ruth thought that it had to be shared, and Gaza needed to be talked about in relationship to this work.

“It was getting harder to share Palestinian stories without being called anti-Semitic. Jonathan’s long-term collaboration with the guys from Theatre for Everybody is what made us decide that we would do some readings of Frank’s piece, and invite people to come and read, as well as to hold a conversation to see if we could get the narrative moving,” Ruth said.

After collaborating with colleagues in Gaza over online conversation and getting them to read: “Hossam’s writing is amazing, he is so open and articulate, vulnerable and poetic in the way that he writes which is something that should be shared with other people. You will not come across anything like this in the mainstream media,”

“There are messages in the media which are very factual with no detail, not similar to Hossam’s writing which is a lot more detailed. From trying to contact his daughter, to how to get bread, to how the market has changed, to the existential crisis and the pain.”

Coming together with P21 gallery and being given the space to present work in solidarity, as well as bringing a community together to participate and read pieces which have been sent, was the final component for Messages from Gaza Now to take place.

The goal they wished to receive after the formation of this project was “to get Hossam’s messages out, and combat the dehumanised messaging there is on mainstream media about Palestinians,” Ruth told us.

“Either you don’t hear about Palestinians or you hear about them from Israel’s perspective. In recent events after the 7th of October, we thought we needed to get Hossam’s message out and let people know what is going on day to day. All together in one space, bearing witness to what is happening, and feeling each other’s emotions, not in a virtual space.”

At the end of each event, the audience are given the space to voice what they are feeling. “There is a long period of time where we speak to each other and talk with the audience, to see if there are questions or what has come up. It is fortifying.”

“It is so important to have the space for discussion, so you’re able to connect with others through your heart and talk about what we have to do next.”

Featured image by Faseeha Khalid.

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