Theatre Triangulation: Tangier, Tetouan, Fez / by George Bajalia

My guest post is now up on the Tangier American Legation Blog, so check it out here 

Or scroll down for the full post below. Be sure to check out the TALIM blog too, as it’s regularly updated with great posts about the intersection of Tangier’s past and present.  

George Bajalia, Fulbright Scholar in Tangier, provides us this guest post on his adventures in theatre at the outset of his year-long research program in Morocco.  At TALIM, we believe in making the most of limited resources, and the semi-miraculous juxtaposition of Fulbright theatre scholar, American film festival in Tangier, and American Voices "Broadway in Morocco" workshop in nearby Tetouan was an opportunity to leverage cultural assets."

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Researching theatre in Morocco is often a contradictory affair. When I talk about my research with people, they often ask me why I came to Morocco to study theatre. Wouldn’t I have been better off somewhere in Europe, or perhaps in Egypt, they ask. Other times, I meet people involved in local improv groups, write plays for small troupes, or grew up reading classics of theatre translated into Arabic or French.

My first time in Tangier, I was waiting at Café de Paris waiting on a potential research contact to show up. I must have looked anxious because the man seated next to me asked if everything was all right. We struck up a conversation, and before I knew it the time for my meeting had come and gone. When I started lamenting that to my new friend, he stopped me and said, “a coincidence is worth a thousand appointments,” he said. How true.

Several weeks ago, I was at TALIM and ran into Jerry. As I explained what I was working on, his excitement grew. As it turned out, my move to Tangier from Fez came at the perfect time. Mrs. Karla Rais el Fenni, a longtime Tangier American, had recently received a grant from the US Embassy to organize an English language film festival and theatre performance. However, she still needed someone to help with the direction of the play. As a theatre director, that seemed to be something with which I could definitely help.

TALIM Theatre workshop ball

Jerry had also heard about another Embassy program run through the international cultural organization American Voices, who were running a series of workshops throughout Morocco on acting and theatre marketing.  I turned out to be in a perfect position to connect the two events. The workshop was heading to Tetouan for a three-day program in the North. So, I squeezed into a grand taxi to Tetouan, walked into a building full of artists young and old, and introduced myself to the American crew.  They appeared a bit surprised to meet a countryman who works in the same field! For the most part, I just sat in the back and watched.

At one point, I watched as a group of budding dancers moved in unison on the upbeat of a song, in the exact opposite rhythm of most dancers in the US. To an outsider, that might not seem remarkable, but Michael Parks Masterson (a director who works with American Voices) and I were intrigued. Most dancers have trouble finding the upbeat, but instinctively move on the downbeat. In all of his workshops, all over the world, Michael had never seen dancers immediately find the upbeat, but struggle to find the downbeat. After some reflection, he deduced that something in Moroccan music must focus on the upbeat. Several days later, at a Gnawa music session in a friend’s home, I realized he was exactly right. Traditional Moroccan dance emphasizes movement on the upbeat, not the downbeat.

In the marketing workshop, Joanie Pelzer, a New York actor and producer, related a story from her time in Rabat. A theatre had produced a play about women’s issues in Morocco, focusing on rape. The word “rape” was in the title, and featured prominently on the theatre’s signage. When she arrived, they told her how the theatre had trouble filling the house with their target audience - women. They changed the advertising, removed the word “rape,” and noticed an increase of women in the audience. Apparently many women hadn’t wanted to be seen entering a theatre that seemed to be featuring rape so prominently. They were interested in the play’s subject, but the advertising had actually prevented them from coming.

The team was working under a tight schedule and wasn’t able to take up our invitation to come to Tangier, but we agreed to meet up a few days later in Fez, where I had some business to take care of. I was able to introduce them to a good friend of mine who is working to start a non-profit organization,Zanqa Arts (literally, “Street Art”), dedicated to organizing workshops and performances for youth in the Old Fez Medina. Coincidentally, Zanqa Arts was hosting a dinner party that weekend for their own artists, and several of the people from the Embassy and American Voices, including artists from the theatre workshop that morning, were thus able to connect with this very active group of street artists from Fez.

I came away from the experience with a network of contacts that I know will prove crucial in my research here, as well as quite a few new friends. Finding performance, and performers, in Morocco seems daunting at times and these workshops proved invaluable. In time, hopefully TALIM and foreigners such as myself will be able to participate in and contribute to a vibrant performance community that isn’t always the easiest to find. I’ll be sharing the lessons I learned from the workshops, and the presenters, with the young actors I’m working with this spring through Karla’s festival and we’ll certainly be inviting the artists I met in Tetouan. The key to my research here, I’m learning, is embracing coincidence and being ready to work at any time. I had walked into the TALIM library expecting to spend the day buried in books, and walked out energized by a new possibility, but incredulous that so much was happening – the trick is just learning about it.

As I had learned at Café de Paris, a coincidence may indeed be worth a thousand appointments, but the key to making these opportunities count is following up on them and pulling together ideas, resources, and people to create new possibilities out of them. In this case, Jerry connected groups of people who didn’t know about each other and events that were unrelated but extremely relevant to one another. The impact of the American Voices program will last beyond the workshops themselves, and the festival will be better because of the workshops. A community of people, active amongst themselves, now has the possibility to connect with other likeminded artists. In an age of social networking sites, connecting online is easier than ever. However, serendipitous occasions such as this prove that we still need to reach beyond the easy access of email and Facebook. Sometimes all it takes is a chance meeting and a cramped taxi ride to make the connection.