Interview: Lina Majdalanie, stage director of 33 tours et quelques secondes

Interview with director Lina Majdalanie about the performance 33 tours et quelques secondes, directed by Lina Majdalanie and Rabih Mroué, inspired by the suicide of a young Lebanese activist during the Arab Spring.


Ervina Kotolloshi: The futur readers may not have seen the show 33 rpm and a few seconds. Could you tell us something about the origin of this show? What caused its creation?


Lina Majdalanie: In September 2011, a young Lebanese activist ended his life. It was the beginning of the Arab spring, long before the great disappointments, the euphoria was still at its peak. This suicide mobilized and shook the Lebanese society at the institutions’ level – official or not – and at the individuals’ level, including all ages and backgrounds… 33 rpm and a few seconds is inspired by this tragic act and the passionate comments that followed this act, debates that reveal the country’s problems, the contradictions of the Lebanese society and its political deadlock. This play allows us to reflect on the Arab revolutions, their impact on Lebanon, its paralysis, its inability to react and to undertake its own revolution.


Ervina Kotolloshi: During this show, the spectators have the impression to be in the main character’s bedroom, Diyaa Yamout who committed suicide. An empty bedroom where many devices (smartphone, personal computer, etc.) are turned on and activated during the performance. Why such a radical choice? Why did you decided to represent a performance almost entirely reconstituted and represented through the smartphone’s and Facebook page’s projection?


Lina Majdalanie: Throughout the show, the stage remains empty of any human presence, and represents the bedroom of the young man in question, where everything continues to “live”, to function, to vibrate, to communicate: the television, the fixed-line phone, the smartphone, the computer, his Facebook page, his printer, and so on. A whole world of technological and communication devices that do not need our real physical presence, devices that transmit us fragmented bits of information that are impossible to entirely understand. This choice is first in continuity with our previous works, where the virtuoso body of the actor has been abandoned in favor of an actor who only speaks, says, tells, reads… And the question of absence/presence has often been at the heart of our work, both in form and content. But it is true that here we go much further, a kind of extreme. The subject itself imposed us this choice: when we heard about this young man’s suicide, one of the things that immediately struck us was all the virtual or almost virtual agitation…His Facebook page continues to receive messages just like he was  still alive… The virtual modifies our relationship to body, our own body and somebody’s else body, the perception of time and space but also our relationship to death, reality, speech, language, private and public. What an upheaval!


Ervina Kotolloshi: In the lectureperformance Pixelated Revolution, your colleague, Rabih Mroué, says that the world is full of images – why do we have to add others? Is there a reflection on the richness of the generated content, the images, texts, videos published on digital social media? What is your reflection on all this continuous flow of content caused by the suicide?


Lina Majdalanie: The frequent use of existing materials in our works, the texts and images generated by real events, comes also and above all from the fact that, after the official end of the civil wars in Lebanon, many theater or cinema works, which were based on pure fiction, turned out to be so insipid, unconvincing, and below the force of reality, below the force of lived experience. Something was wrong with the fiction itself but not because of the artists themselves. Documentary was not a solution either. Working in these categories, fiction or documentary, even semi-documentary, did not work. Several artists understood that they had to embrace things differently from now on.


Ervina Kotolloshi: Concerning the performance 33 rpm and a few seconds, has the creative process changed?


Lina Majdalanie: Our creative process has changed since a long time. We do not really rehearse anymore. (laughs) We put on the show the last few days. We take weeks, months to write the text, prepare the staging direction, the scenography, etc. Then in only 2 or 3 days, we rehearse and put on the show. For example, for this performance, creating the Facebook page, editing the video, etc. took us months of work. We did technical tests in our home. In all our plays, as actors, we are almost static on stage, we perform a little or at all. Often, we just read the text. So, we do not really need rehearsals. We are no longer interested in the acting, the quality of the acting, the style, the kind of acting. We do not care if we play well or bad, neither if we are spontaneous, natural, or artificial. We are on stage, as ourselves generally. Rehearsals in the last few days are mostly for the last timing coordinations, if there is something technically wrong…


Ervina Kotolloshi: I have a question about time. There is a clock on the stage that shows the real time which does not match with the time of Facebook publications and the time of the text messages received on smartphone, why?


Lina Majdalanie: It has to do with the different temporalities in which we live in simultaneously. We have voluntarily chosen that the reception of SMS is spread over one day (about 33 hours), the Facebook publications are spread over 33 days, the answering machine’s stockage capacity of the fixed-line phone is 30 minutes long, and the TV reports are spread over 30 weeks or 30 months, as we want. And all these different temporalities are represented in a one-hour show. We stayed around the number 30 or 33 because the vinyl record inspired us for the performance’s title 33 rpm and a few seconds.


Ervina Kotolloshi: Speaking about this show, you often say, the mediums offer different temporalities, they offer different narratives. Can you develop this issue?


Lina Majdalanie: First, each of these mediums comes from a different period of time. But also, each one has a different temporality. For example, the answering machine’s stockage capacity of the fixed-line phone is 30 minutes. But in reality, there are not necessarily 30 minutes of message(s) inside. Because somebody today leaves a 3 second message. Tomorrow, somebody else leaves a 4-minute message, etc. The answering machine, in its 30-minute stockage space, can thus contain different messages spread over one year or simply different messages spread over one day, or exactly a 30-minute message. Often, these are short messages. There are rarely long messages. Television pretends transmitting information in real time but there is an information’s retransmission every 30 minutes or every hour, depending on each channel. And the perception of actuality is very present but quite different from what it was a few decades ago, or even a few years ago… The actuality’s temporality is shrinking over the days. And as soon as there is a recent news, the previous new is no longer new. It becomes already obsolete. Therefore, the news’ temporality is increasingly fast, ephemeral, but also repetitive, retransmitted two, three, X times. Then, the information is outdated, old, worthless. On Facebook, the temporality is linked to current events as well, but in a different way. It has to do with my own current events. It is reactive, affective too. It is personal, subjective. And the information is not retransmitted every 30 minutes or every hour. It is fixed, it is up to us to search and find old publications. Temporality is completely different from television, if we have not seen a new publication, we have missed it. It is all over. In this sense, there are many different temporalities: duration and repetitiveness. The narrativities are also different: the kind of things told in each of these mediums are different. The relationship of reciprocity is also different: we dialogue via the telephone, and the conversation may diverge on several subjects or not; the answering machine is an one-direction medium,  often used to say: I’m at such place, call me back; the dialogue is supposed, hoped to come. On television, there is no dialogue, and it is focused on information. As for Facebook, it is a lot of things at the same time. The way of writing on these media is also different, the language, the sentence structure, the characters we use are different. The forms of narrativity are different. Facebook is not theater, it is not a dialogue, but at the end, it is a bit like a theater dialogue. In this sense, the mediums offer different narrativities from each other.

Ervina Kotolloshi: The books’ presence on stage is the presence of another temporality, I suppose …


Lina Majdalanie: Absolutely! Another temporality of production and reception.


Ervina Kotolloshi: Since you have just mentioned Facebook, do you think the platform represents an aesthetic space? A space where there are dialogues, characters, conflicts …


Lina Majdalanie: It would be absolutely another kind of theater. It is a bit like after the invention of the camera, it was a mistake to try to imitate the paintings language through the camera. The camera had to find its independence from the paintings. Then, the painters felt frustrated with the camera, they wanted to imitate photography and later they wanted to liberate themselves from this influence. It is another medium. Similarly, there is a theatrical aspect on Internet and Facebook, but it is certainly something else. It is quite different. I encourage people to see the differences rather than the similarities. Always. Do not look for how they are similar, but how they are different. I find this particularly important and interesting, finding the specificities and characteristics of each medium, each artist, each generation.


Ervina Kotolloshi: When you wrote the play, did you immediately add pictograms, spelling mistakes, abbreviations, capital letters?


Lina Majdalani: Often immediately. When we look at Facebook, users write like this. Sometimes we were wondering why such a sentence is written in capital letters, why such a word is written in capital letters. The users who wrote in capital letters, gave us the impression that they wanted to shout, to scream. What we write also depends on how other users read, the way of reading changes from one user to another, they may add anger to their reading or other feelings. In our case, the generated content is not pronounced but written, therefore, we are wondering about the way a content should be read, what was the author’s intention: sarcasm? Bitterness? Aggressiveness? Anger? We also thought that the spectators, during the show, would be reading all the time and that there wouldn’t be an actor to set the right tone, it would be nice to juggle around with content layout and to give a bit of relief to the content, a bit of meaning. In any case, we took a lot of posts shared on Facebook and kept them as they were. When we added things, we tried to do the same thing as the shared publications. We really do not know anymore what is real and what we have invented.


Ervina Kotolloshi: You just said that while reading everybody can add his own personal interpretation. As a result, the spectators’ experience changes from one to the other …


Lina Majdalanie: In each work, in each recipient, this is partly inevitable, and this is what we try to do through all our creations, to trigger the personal interpretation of spectators on what is happening. And especially in this show, everybody adds its own tone, its own rhythm to the user-generated content reading. It is an individual relationship, within a community of equal citizens, each one is unique and singular. Everyone must receive the show in their own way, freely. For us, this is particularly important. This is our way of applying what Brecht said about dividing the public. This is important for us, in a country like Lebanon, where we often forget our individuality in the face of the unique voice of the community. In Lebanon, the aim is not only to divide the public into social classes, but also to separate it from its community and its ideological habits.


Ervina Kotolloshi: A real fact inspired this performance which generated a lot of content on the Lebanese activist’s Facebook page. Does the Facebook page of Diyaa Yamout, the main character who committed suicide, still exist?


Lina Majdalanie: Yes, yes… Facebook at least until now has not deactivated this account. I do not know if the parents have taken any steps to deactivate the account and stop people’s jibber-jabber.


Ervina Kotolloshi: Did the main character, Diyaa Yamout, really film himself, using his smartphone, before his suicide?


Lina Majdalanie: He actually filmed himself to prove that he was not killed. To prove that it was a free act. He announced his suicide online, he sent an email to his friends. He also filmed his suicide using his smartphone so that the police would know, during an after-the-fact investigation, that he committed suicide, but he did not upload his latest video online. But what interested us is the way this suicide politically shook the Lebanese, the chain reactions caused by this suicide, and what this reveals about the political, social, religious mentality of the Lebanese, the contradictions that exist between them, but also the personal contradictions of each one of them. So, we did not do any research to find out who this young man really was, we did not want to be in a voyeuristic intrusion into this young man’s life. We were satisfied with TV reports, his Facebook page, his blog, etc. Although we have mutual friends, we did not go to our friends’ house to ask them about him. We did not want to go into a psychological or sociological analysis of this young man’s life. What interested us is how an act committed by a young man activist shook the country, his friends, the power in place in Lebanon. A reflection on how social media are impacting the world today. We used a lot of generated content, a lot of real data.

Ervina Kotolloshi: But the activist’s Facebook page has been recreated and the reports have been re-filmed?


Lina Majdalanie: Yes, everything has been reconstituted. The content of the reports is played by actors, but the texts are reconstructed almost in the same way as the reports transmitted on television, except the third report. The content of the third report has been a bit theatricalized and reduced because it was longer. The reconstitution of the two other reports have faithfully respected: the structure, the shooting, the editing, the content of the real reports.


Ervina Kotolloshi: Did you consult any book on social media when you wrote this play? For example, you mention Marc Augé during the show, and his theory on non-places?


Lina Majdalanie: No, we did not consult books, but we thought a lot about Augé’s non-places, which we had already read, when we wrote this play. However, we did not know Facebook (we do not use this medium) and we decided not to do “scholarly” research on this. We wanted to sign in and discover this world. And to create a direct relationship with it, to have our own impressions, without the intermediary of the other people’s ideas, or rather we wanted to avoid preconceived ideas, even if they are very valid. This is our way of working, we first approach things on our own. Then we will see what other thinkers, researchers, writers think. We prefer not to discover the world with other people’s ideas. We like to confront the object; we like the personal approach. We are never completely virgin, we already carry within us our own readings, our own ideas, our own knowledge. We are already nourished by readings, but I prefer to do specific research after creation, or after the personal empirical research. The aim is not at all searching for some kind of virginity or an authentic original truth, but it allows us to approach better the specificity of any case we are working on, then approaching the Lebanese specificity, then approaching… It is like growing circles.


Ervina Kotolloshi: Your show questioned the spectators on actor’s physical presence on stage and the principle of here-and-now in the theater.


Lina Majdalanie: We often talk about here-and-now on the theater, but there are also all the theories of performance and body art that say the opposite, that theatrical action is always repeated, it is a fiction, it is mechanical, theater treats always another time, another character; whereas in performance, it’s us/me in the real and physical action, in the here-and-now. In my opinion, these are old debates, not remarkably interesting. They were interesting at one time, but today we cannot keep talking about the same concepts and terms. These concepts just helped us to orientate ourselves, there were works more oriented towards the here-and-now and others more towards the representative form. But the pure here-and-now does not exist. In my opinion, a performance in the here-and-now where any form of representation is completely excluded is not possible. There is always a minimal representation, and vice versa. The play, 33 rpm and a few seconds, is different, but we often work on the threshold. We are in the representation but at the same time, we do not play any role, we do not play any character. It is always Lina and Rabih, even if we play a role, we give our name to the role. Borders are always blurred: is it here or elsewhere? Did they embody a character or not? Is this true or false? Is this a real story or not? We also use our stories within somebody’s else stories. And we also use somebody’s else stories within our own story. So, for us, the here and there is not really here and there. It is our approach about all kind of dichotomous binarities. In our works, the images are often used as well, it is me, here in flesh and blood on stage, and at the same time, there is my image which is not me in flesh and blood, which is elsewhere, which is something else. We always use microphones as well; we do not use the real voice that comes directly out of our bodies. We use the microphone because we insist that art is artificial. And I am not ashamed to say it. To be human is to be an artificial animal, someone who uses symbols, mediums, different forms of communication, this is how society and social relations have been created. In artifice. If we were “natural”, we would still be animals in a “pure” state. So, we claim artificiality and we work on the different forms of artificiality. Moreover, how can we still recognize what is artificial or not? As for the question: how do we work with artifice and non-artifice? Everyone makes his own choices, everyone has his own ideas, his own ways of doing things, his own inventions according to his way of approaching the world.

Ervina Kotolloshi: You just said that in your work, there is no role, there is no character. What about the show 33 rpm and a few seconds, is there any role, any character?


Lina Majdalanie: Yes, there are roles, but I do not know if we can consider them characters. These are people on Facebook. They are different from each other: the one who defends Islam, the one who defends Christianity, the one who defends secularism, the one who defends the left, the right, anarchism. Yes, there are those who use very rude words and those who are polite. Yes, there are different characters taken from reality. In our work, in general, we tell their story in the most neutral way possible, we do not embody the roles. We play on irony, on sarcasm, on tonality but it is not a psychological approach or anything else.


Ervina Kotolloshi: On the Facebook page of your main character, the users express themselves in different languages, English, French, Arabic. You differentiate the representation of these languages ​​by the color of the font. Did you immediately think about this language layout on Facebook?


Lina Majdalanie: I do not know when we thought about representing the translation for everybody’s language accessibility during the show. One of my friends, graphic designer, conceived the Facebook page’s creation using complicated software that I do not understand. We, the theater directors, invent ideas and other professionals find means to realize our ideas.


Ervina Kotolloshi: In your future shows, are you going to use again the content generated by users on social media?


Lina Majdalanie: Everything generated on social media, but also everything published in newspapers, books, media, can be a real political revelation. They deserve to be analyzed, dissected, commented on, to understand how they work, how they produce and reproduce the world around us. It is a direct connection with reality, but it is neither documentary nor semi-documentary. But all depends on the subject. It depends on the work we want to do. Each period, each subject, brings its own adequate form. One day, we might once again consider that a physical and embodied theater is necessary, given the new political and cultural circumstances … One day, we might once again revive fiction as well. This play is not a manifesto saying the theater should be like this. This play has its raison d’être, given the world we live in, it has also its raison d’être, given our work on representation, acting, actors’ body and speech on stage. This experience will mark us for sure, but we do not know on what we are going to work the next time.


Ervina Kotolloshi: You just said that this is a performance will mark you. What do you mean? What are your thoughts? What has this show provoked in you?


Lina Majdalanie: I mean we cannot go back. If we go back to the actor’s presence on stage, it cannot be the same. In our work, the presence of the actor is very reduced, as I just said. This representation is the logical continuation of other previous works. It was not a sudden idea. In our work characters and acting were never important. There is consistency between this work and the others. Even if this representation goes much further. Nevertheless, each work pushes us towards something else, pushes us to go further. Towards a different work. This work will mark us like any other work, there is no going back. We can bring the actors back on stage again, but it will certainly be different.


Ervina Kotolloshi: Thank you.