Facing gentrification and financial struggles, al-Madina Theatre is one of Lebanon’s last non-commercial art spaces.
Beirut, Lebanon – In 1994, as Beirut was brushing off the dust and rubble of the country’s devastating civil war, Masrah al-Madina (al-Madina Theatre) was born. The iconic theatre was established to resuscitate the artistic and cultural life that Beirut was famous for before the war.
Now, 20 years later, Beirut is going through a different set of changes, led by unfettered real-estate giants ripping down the city’s historical landmarks. Public spaces have been privatised, and Starbucks, McDonalds and other Western food chains have sprung up across the city.
Amid this rapid change, Masrah Beirut (Beirut Theatre), one of the oldest theatres in the capital, closed its doors last year – despite popular protests to keep it open – after the building was sold to a real-estate developer. Now, al-Madina Theatre is one of only three theatres left in Lebanon to offer non-commercial, artistic events.
“We are a cultural theatre. We only host works that are based on artistic cultural expressions,” said Louay Ramadan, 39, who has managed the theatre since it was first established by artist Nidal Achkar in 1994. Speaking to Al Jazeera from his office, as artists arrived to start rehearsing for a dance show, Ramadan explained that by avoiding commercial shows, which generally bring in the most money, the theatre struggles to stay afloat financially.
“Three quarters of the Lebanese audience today look merely for entertainment at commercial shows and perhaps a quarter of people still look for cultural venues to attend; the latter are our bloodline that keeps us busy,” Ramadan said.
Facing financial troubles, and without any subsidies from the Lebanese government, al-Madina Theatre turned into al-Madina Theatre Association for Arts and Culture in March of 2005. As a non-profit organisation, the theatre receives private and institutional donations from Lebanon and across the Arab World
The theatre aims to promote dialogue and create a space of free expression. In addition to plays and performances, al-Madina Theatre organises festivals, exhibitions and film screenings, and hosts cultural events such as conferences, seminars, lectures, book signings and workshops.
Roy Dib is a Lebanese artist and art critic, whose work focuses on the subjective construction of space. The 30-year-old told Al Jazeera that while al-Madina theatre is trying to appeal to young artists and broach new ideas, the steep cost of renting theatre space remains a problem.
While there is no fixed rate, Ramadan told Al Jazeera that al-Madina charges artists between $600 and $800 to use the theatre as a rehearsal space, while rental costs can go up to $2,000 on performance days. He added that the theatre sometimes offers its space up for free when artists cannot afford to pay.
“The main problem in Lebanon for theatres is that they cannot sponsor an event or cater for events that won’t have a financial turnover. In the absence of a budget to cover logistics, this kind of theatre work becomes stagnant,” Dib said.
Al-Madina originally began in a smaller space, known as Metro al-Madina. Today, the smaller theatre is an extension of al-Madina and is under different management.
Hip-hop artist El-Rass will launch his second album, “Adam, Darwin and the Penguin” at Metro al-Madina on May 24. “I think Metro al-Madina is a much-needed kind of place in Lebanon,” El-Rass told Al Jazeera, “[for] its mantra of pushing new forms of art, its size that allows both sophisticated performances and affordable prices for artists and audience with a cozy feel.”
Lina Sahab, an artist who performs in the cabaret show Hishik Bishik at Metro al-Madina, said the theatre provides “a space to express and perform alternative shows and concerts for an audience that has been long denied such a venue”.
“Metro al-Madina brought back that spirit and art, and the more we performed our Hishik Bishik show, the more we realised our audience was growing and liking what they watched,” she said.
Throughout modern Lebanese history, theatres have served as a hub for political events. Theatres across the capital hosted politically active Lebanese artists, like Ziad al-Rahbani. They also helped resurrect Lebanon’s Hakawati (storyteller) tradition through the works of artists like Roger Assaf, who produced shows on the heroism of Fedayeen (literally, “those who sacrifice”, a reference to Palestinian fighters) and their resistance to the Israeli occupation.
Clashes also broke out during the Lebanese civil war in front of Beirut Theatre, which sits in the waterfront area of Ain al-Mraisy.
Dib told Al Jazeera about an incident that occurred in April 1969 at the Beirut Theatre that cemented the theatre’s influential role in Lebanese politics: That night, Dib said, Lebanese security services interrupted a play, Majdaloun, while the actors were still onstage.
“The actors decided to continue the play in the street and resumed acting, walking with their audience up to Hamra Street… Actors then clashed with the police one more time, finally stopping the play and ending in their arrest,” he recalled.
Issam Bou Khaled – a director, scriptwriter, actor and expert on theatre in Lebanon – told Al Jazeera that in the 1970s and 80s, theatre was more interactive with its audience, many of whom were working-class Lebanese who wanted theatre to reflect the political issues of the time.
“Back then, there was the influence of the Palestinian revolution, the Left and the movements of unions and workers’ syndicates. Then, Masrah Beirut presented artistic expressions that reflected concerns on the streets. People used to look forward for that interactive theatre,” he said.
“The artists and audience found each,” Bou Khaled added, “and that kind of theatre was a mediator [for] interacting and influencing.”
According to Ramadan, al-Madina Theatre continues to serve as a centre for culture and political expression. “The theatre became a platform for various expressions, some calling for change in the political situation, and others advocating issues that concern society,” he said. “Our theatre brings together people from all sects, from all regions in Lebanon, and [from all] political views and colours.”
Outside the theatre, in Beirut’s traffic-filled Hamra street, Mahmoud, who runs a newsstand next to al-Madina and did not give Al Jazeera his last name, agreed.
“This theatre represents a time when Beirut shone its cultural values on the world,” Mahmoud said. “Today Beirut is full of clothing shops and shopping malls. The moment theatres like al-Madina cease to exist, is the moment Beirut’s cultural image is erased.”