Zbib opens a living room à la Lebanon

Wednesday September 12, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN -- When theater artist Maya Zbib steps in front of an audience in the Currier Ballroom on Saturday, she will continue a journey that began 6,000 miles away in a Lebanese living room.

The 31-year-old co-founder of Beirut's Zoukak Theatre Com pany is at Williams College for two weeks to present lectures, master classes and two performances of her one-woman show, "The Music Box."

Most often performed in a living room, it uses actual and imagined stories collected from women of different backgrounds and countries to explore the habits, practices and perceived truths of women in their homes through incidents and artifacts.

In an email exchange, as she juggled unpacking her own new home and preparing to travel overseas, she described "The Music Box" as "an intimate, playful world triggering memories that are close to the heart."

"I like to experiment with new boundaries between performer and audience," she explained. "The performance is about homes, so I wanted the audience to experience visiting a home each time, from finding the locations through unofficial maps -- many of our streets are not listed, and to find locations we rely on visual descriptions, such as ‘next to the big tree on the right, near the yellow building' -- to discovering the smell and feel of each home."

A frequent international grant recipient, she performs at festivals and theaters from the Middle East to Britain and France. This is the second time she has staged "The Music Box" in English, rather than her native Arabic and French.

"There is a kind of a distance with the text when performing in a language which is not your mother tongue," she said. "Asso ciations are different, and consequently the range of im prov isation within the text differs."

The universality of the subject matter binds audiences together.

"What strikes me each time is to find out how similar our stories about the home are, no matter to which culture we belong," Zbib said.

In 2010, Zbib participated in the prestigious Rolex protégé mentoring program. She de scribes her year with controversial director Peter Sellars -- including a visit to war-ravaged Congo and a month rehearsing the opera "Hercules" in Chicago -- as "a very enriching experience."

Williams College theater chair David Eppel encountered "The Music Box" while perched on a high stool at the Rolex showcase at the New York Public Library.

A South African who got his start in antiapartheid theater in the 1960s and 1970s, Professor Eppel explained by phone that he teaches courses that explores what he calls "struggle theater" from all over the world.

"Looking at this young woman and how she was responding to events in the Middle East, and in Lebanon in particular, with theater," said Eppel, "I was just entranced by this extraordinary, quiet, powerful look at the lives of women in their homes."

"It's almost like being admitted into the intimacy of a circle of women," he observed.

In Williams College's ‘62 Center Series programming, Eppel said he looks for productions that are dangerous.

"Not so much physical danger, but the danger of risk and of exploration: productions that test the audience -- and that entertain," he said.

Sellars, Zbib's mentor, "starts from within the rules of theater and then breaks every one," Eppel said, "turning the theater inside out. That's taking risks."

Zbib, he said, was able to respond to the trauma of life in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon, in whichever way she needed to, whether she broke the rules of traditional theater or not. Even without Sellars' large production scale, Eppel believes the intimacy of Zbib's theater "in a way becomes the large canvas" with which she works.

According to Zbib, theater is a platform from which to face and question society -- and herself.

"It started as a rebellion within my family," she said, "and now it's a choice of life."

The draw of solo performance is the possibility of intimacy and direct confrontation, as well as the risk of putting herself in a vulnerable position, she said.

"It's always a challenge," she said. "When it works, it's like magic. But when it doesn't, it can wreck you." Wednesday September 12, 2012

What: Maya Zbib's ‘The Music Box'

Where: Currier Ballroom,
Williams College,
14 Driscoll Hall Drive, Williamstown

When: Saturday, and Saturday Sept. 22, both at 8 p.m.

Admission: $10 for adults,
and $3 for students

Information and tickets:
(413) 597-2425

Free public programming:

Post-performance Q&As moderated by Assistant Professor of Theatre Amy Holzapfel (Saturday) and Assistant Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature Mara Naaman (Sept. 22)

Film screening of ‘My Brother
The Devil' at Images Cinema
on Monday at 7 p.m.; post-screening Q&A with filmmaker Sally El Housani, moderated
by Professor of Art Liza Johnson


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