Four years ago, I brought a delegation of young theatre artists from New York to the ASHTAR International Youth Theatre Festival to perform an original show and participate in a cultural exchange with Palestinian theatre artists. For all of us, it was our first trip to Palestine. More importantly, this trip marked the beginning of an ongoing collaboration that has brought ASHTAR artists to New York to showcase their work and collaborate with local artists. In July, I returned to the 2022 ASHTAR International Youth Theatre Festival in Palestine as a documentarian to photograph and shoot a short film about the festival. Following the festival, I sat down with ASHTAR Theatre’s co-founder and artistic director, Iman Aoun.
Ash Marinaccio: I was so happy to see you and everyone at ASHTAR in person this year. It was a close call because, as you know, shortly before the festival I was dealing with COVID.
Iman Aoun: Oh yes, I remember.
Ash: COVID has made it challenging to plan live events and has made the theatre feel particularly insecure. How has the pandemic impacted you and your work at ASHTAR?
Iman: For a whole year, COVID was raging in Palestine. From March 2020 through March 2021, it was very hard. We had to stay inside most of the time. In the second year of the pandemic (2021), we went back to work and started making films instead of plays because it was still dangerous to bring everyone inside the theatre. So, ASHTAR made films and started to present them locally and internationally.
Ash: Where are these films? Are they available for the public to watch?
Iman: Well, we made three films: The Wonder School, A Long Story, and The Gaza Monologues 10 years: The Dream Continues. The first two are available on our YouTube Channel. Currently The Gaza Monologues 10 Years: The Dream Continues is being presented in film festivals across the world, so it’s not available on the public channel yet.
The pandemic showed how effective virtual theatre could be in creating and reaching new communities. We did the ASHTAR International Youth Theatre Festival’s fifth edition hybrid, which was dynamic. It brought people together from areas of the world that we wouldn’t be allowed to have on the ground in Palestine, like Sri Lanka and Gaza. People who live in those areas are disconnected from us and can’t enter through the border, so it was lovely to have people connect internationally in that way.
ASHTAR also got to be part of international projects that we wouldn’t have been able to take part in otherwise. Virtual theatre honestly undid borders and opened new dimensions of collaborations, and that is important. That is something we will continue to foster. We want more collaborations. We want people to visit us. We want artists to come to Palestine and see for themselves what is happening. No matter what people see in the news, they will never understand the issue unless they are here.