Basic to the basics. Again. With more specifics this time. / by George Bajalia

Inevitably, the question always comes up. “Why are you studying theatre in here?” Here being Tangier, being Morocco, being North Africa- really anything. It’s always asked in earnest, accompanied by another locale that might be better suited for young theatre folk. For a bit, it had me questioning myself and my choice. As I (thought I) learned during my time here last year, the best way to miss out on the essence of a culture is to impose your own research agenda upon it. 

So I started asking a follow-up question–”Why shouldn’t I be? What’s wrong with theatre here?”- and the answers started to get interesting. They ranged from responses about the lack of discipline, and the “amateur” nature, of much of the theatre in Morocco to very practical answers about funding, and everything in between. So, in response to these questions, I started thinking, what is the place of (the) play in Moroccan culture, and how does theatre factor into social order here?

Breaking theatre down to its essentials-performance, audience, often with a text but most importantly with an intention-the amount of theatre here really anywhere in the world is simply astounding. Fights on the street cause tourists to stop and stare, but more often than not it’s more of a performance, albeit an argumentative one, than a physical confrontation. Community values of honor and shame are commonplace and much more integral to public life, in general. For various reasons, however, these forms of performance are less directly interesting to me. Perhaps because they have been thoroughly written on and perhaps because it easily descends into the kind of Mediterraneanism I touched on in my previous post. That said, they are no less valid because of it. In fact, they still play into my research here quite specifically. 

In these forms of performance, people make daily decisions regarding their self-representation to their community, neighbors, co-workers, clients, etc… In a culture such as this, where the display of self is rooted in deep notions of public and private, these values are bound to transfer to the stage. What is truly comedic and truly dramatic in any given context is often what is most familiar, taken and represented in performance. My interest lies in how they are represented on stage; in any given performance, the actors, directors, and playwrights must make choices about how they will represent these well known and deeply held notions. As they do so, however, they must contend with the changing winds of globalization. These forces change rapidly, yes, but they also innately bring a form of change with them. Actors, in life and on stage, must reference signals in the shared cultural canon in order to connect with the audience around them and changes in this canon mean changes in the manifest representations. 

Do these winds actually change the values themselves, though, or simply their depictions? That is the crucial question of my research, right now. Framed as such, there is surely too much research than I could possibly do in my limited time here. Try as I might, the cultural canon is always changing and performance is changing just as quick. What I can try to do, though, and what I aim to do with my time is to build an understanding of how these changes occur and analyze the patterns within them.

So, yes. I am studying theatre. In Tangier. In Morocco. In general. But it’s must more nuanced than that. As much as I would love to see a play every night, there are performances around every corner, as well as performers. And there are surprises. Like a US embassy sponsored event, “Broadway in Morocco” that is taking place this week, where actors from New York are holding acting training sessions for Moroccans all over the country. Or, for example, in the import store. Yesterday afternoon, as I stopped in to grab something, the cashier asked me what on earth I was doing in Morocco. And why I spoke Moroccan Arabic. Inevitably, the question turned to the familiar. “You’re studying theatre? Here? In Tangier?” This time, though, he wasn’t done yet. “That’s amazing…” he continued, “I’m in an improv troupe at my university here! We’re small and just getting started, but we perform all the time!”. And you know makes this story even better? He had tortillas.