Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence tells stories of a city in ruins

Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence tells stories of a city in ruins
When home is destroyed, the memories of it that remain take on new significance: nostalgia, longing, pain, resistance. To share those memories, to tell those stories, becomes an act of rebuilding. 

This is the foundational idea upon which Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence came to be. The show, on now in Montreal as part of the Festival TransAmériques, is an intimate retelling of stories connected to a city in ruins, destroyed in the 2011 Syrian uprising for democratic change. 

“This performance is an invitation to explore the power of words, borrowed memory and the power of storytelling,” says Mohammed Al Attar, who wrote and conceptualized the show in collaboration with Omar Abusaada and Bissane Al Charif. 

Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence consists of 10 true stories gathered by Al Attar from displaced former residents of Aleppo, taken on and interpreted by 10 actors based in Montreal. In this one-on-one performance, each audience member will hear one story sitting directly across a table from its narrator. 

Each displaced resident was asked to talk about their most beloved place in Aleppo, their relation to that place and their perception of it from where they have been forced to relocate. Al Attar then took these interviews and shaped them into monologues.

“The 10 local actors are embracing these stories. Their role, if I can put it like this, they are translators, interpreters,” says Al Attar. “They are conveying something precious, very precious for their characters, and giving it to a spectator that they don’t know.”

The performance has been put on in other cities, always with local actors conveying the stories. Al Attar says this is to build bridges between people and places, to bring people together through storytelling. 

“There’s a margin of freedom for the actors to propose things here,” he continues. “That’s actually one of the reasons why, in each city with this performance, we work with new actors, because we also want to see what those actors could bring to this performance, what those actors could bring to these stories.” 

In keeping with this goal of connection and exchange, each viewer is given the opportunity to relay a message after the performance. Left alone in the performance space with a recording device, the viewer can, if they wish, respond to the story, and these recordings are sent to the original storyteller.

The unconventional format of the performances, with the stories being told to only one audience member at a time, was a way to preserve the intimacy of the interview process that generated these stories and allow the audience to experience it for themselves. Al Attar said that the form came organically and almost imposed itself, rather than coming from a conscious choice by the creators.

“Things evolved like this from these interviews, and from how intimate, how sensitive, how vulnerable sometimes they were in speaking about these stories and unfolding them and sharing them. Because really, these are precious things for people.”

This performance is one of several for which Al Attar collaborated with Abusaada and Al Charif to create. While in their usual method Al Attar mostly writes the text, Abusaada works with the actors and Al Charif with the set, the unusual form of Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence blurred the lines between their different tasks slightly, allowing for even more collaboration. 

To work with the actors here in Montreal, all the rehearsals with Al Attar and Abusaada happened virtually. 

“We are lucky to work with professional actors, very good actors, very sensitive and clever, and that made our life easier to be honest.” But still, Al Attar says that the human connection that makes the rehearsal process so special doesn’t come as easily online.

One thing that links the three creators is their commitment to theatre that supports the Syrian people, wherever they are in the world.

“There is another level of this destruction, it’s also the dreams that were destroyed. For these characters, like for many Syrians who are scattered around the world, maybe these stories are their main tool of resistance,” Al Attar adds. “Because they were defeated, the dream was crushed and the crowd totally oppressed. Their cities, villages and homes were destroyed.”

Al Attar says he hopes the stories will allow the audience to see a side of Aleppo and of Syria they are less familiar with: a look past the chaos and destruction that has dominated news coverage of the area for a decade, to the lives of the real people that were forever changed.

“I hope the audience will feel that these stories embody a lot. They embody a lot of the history of the city, of the economic and social-political transformation, what happened in the city. And also of the lives of these people, who they were, and who they are today.”

Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence is on at the Édifice Wilder until June 12, with daily presentations in English at 5 p.m. Tickets for the show are available here. To consult the complete Festival TransAmériques program, please visit the FTA website.

For more on the Montreal arts scene, please visit the Arts & Life section.
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