Books in motion

Books in Motion or (B)IM is a Lebanese traveling theater group that just finished their third set of shows this summer. Their country-wide tour brought theater to audiences throughout Lebanon, from Tripoli in the north to Bint Jbeil in the south. Mashallah met with producer Denise Maroney to talk about public art in Lebanon and challenges and rewards from setting up plays in the country.

Beirut is a city with a rich cultural life and plentiful of activities for its residents to choose from. There are numerous theater venues, galleries, cinema clubs and bookshops carrying titles in Arabic, English and French, and the city plays host to many cultural events throughout the year. However, this has not made art and culture accessible to everyone. First, the large majority of events are concentrated in Beirut. Second, and more importantly, there is very little public art in Lebanon. Typically, tickets to performances and festivals are not cheap, and events are often directed at a limited audience.

(B)IM has expanded public art throughout Lebanon. Kids from cities and the countryside, from hospitals, orphanages and summer schools have seen the plays; so have parents and passersby from all over the country.

It was in this context that Books in Motion was born. Denise Maroney, Lebanese by birth but brought up in the US and Japan, hit upon the idea for the project when discussing with friends one night the lack of public art in Lebanon. Maroney, who has a background in theater, envisioned creating a free traveling theater to bring plays to venues across Lebanon. Her idea coincided with Beirut being named the 2009 World Book Capital, which provided the perfect opportunity to launch a cultural project in the city.

Maroney invited Arabic literary specialist Yasmina Jraissati to select two Lebanese children’s books to be adapted for the stage: What’s the Colour of the Sea by Nadine Tourra, a story about a diversity and friendship, and Fatima Charafeddine’s The Slippers of Tanbouri, a contemporary take on a Lebanese folktale.

Rehersal at the Araya station
Rehersal at the Araya station

The plays were directed by Lucien Bourjeily, who is known for his work on innovative theater projects in Lebanon and founder of ImproBeirut. This performance group has taken theater to the streets, notably during the 2008 political when they promoted theater as an alternative means of expression. With Books in Motion, Bourjeily once again brought acting and storytelling to the heart of Lebanese society: the streets. As with Bourjeily’s earlier works, improvisation and interactivity have been central components of the Books in Motion shows. Maroney explained why this approach works excellent with the local audience: “Lebanese love to contribute in what they see; they are quick on their feet and witty”. She continues, “People are hungry for what we’re offering. It’s always amazing how many show up: teenage boys, soldiers, babies; all of them listening to what we have to say.”

The happy audience at Tripoli’s Safadi Hospital

After performing on the streets and in public spaces in the summer of 2009, Books in Motion partnered in winter with the Lebanese Cancer Association to take the same show to hospital children’s wards. This year, with the launch of the new play Aya se3a byoussal el tren? (When is the train arriving?), they performed in abandoned train stations. Aya se3a byoussal el tren? is based on local Lebanese legends and celebrates the history and culture surrounding the country’s now abandoned railway. Having gone from working with books to creating theater out of legends, using a variety of art forms like puppetry, music and dance, the group decided to put the ‘B’ for books in brackets, changing their name to (B)IM.

“I’ve had the best experiences of my life and the worst.”

By choosing to perform in such diverse and accessible locations, the group has expanded public art throughout Lebanon. Kids from cities and the countryside, from hospitals, orphanages and summer schools have seen the plays; so have parents and passersby from all over the country. And not only the audiences, but also the ensemble and crew, as well as the stories told by the plays have reflected Lebanese diversity.

Denise Maroney

For Maroney, this was the first time she worked on a project in her country of birth. Since launching it, she says, “I’ve had the best experiences of my life and the worst”. At first, nothing was easy, especially her not speaking Arabic. She also became increasingly aware of her role as a woman and a female producer. Also, Beirut is in many ways a city of contradictions: “You get ripped of, and then you’re given the most generous treatment”, she says. “This taught me a lot about human behavior”.

She likens the future to a snowball: bigger and bigger, with more possibilities all the time.

She also got to see her original idea for Books in Motion evolve into a successful concept, having made two comebacks already on the Lebanese scene. When asked about the future for (B)IM, she likens it to a snowball: bigger and bigger, with more possibilities all the time. Many local artists like the concept and are interested in developing it further, in Lebanon or elsewhere. So, for lovers of public art who missed the chance to see Books in Motion in action on the streets and (B)IM touring the train stations, next occasion might come soon enough.

Pictures by Sandra Fayad and Jessica Kalache.

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