“The Most Human Art Form”: An interview with Amir Nizar Zuabi

November 24, 2020
In anticipation of the world premiere of This is Who I Am, NYC-based graphic designer and researcher Nasreen Abd Elal speaks to playwright and director Amir Nizar Zuabi on theatre-making in compromised conditions, the beauty of collaboration, and why poetry supersedes politics and psychology.
Meet the Participants

Amir Nizar Zuabi is the artistic director of the Shiber Hur Company and an international associate of the Young Vic Theatre London. His award winning shows have gained new audiences locally in Palestine and also internationally thanks to acclaimed festivals and theatres, drawing new attention to the Palestinian Theatre scene. Zuabi first cut his teeth with Stories Under Occupation for Al Kasabah theatre in Ramallah. The show won the Cairo Theatre Festival and Carthage Festival for Best Production. It toured extensively, presented at the Royal Court London, Tokyo International, Goteborg Festival, Lincoln Center NY and elsewhere. Following this success, Zuabi was invited as a guest director to the Young Vic Theatre in London in 2002, where he directed When the World was Green by Sam Shepard. In 2004 he was invited by the Teatro Collosseo in Rome to direct the play In Prigone con Wittgenstein by Mariano Apria. In 2005, Zuabi staged Jidariyya, at the Palestinian National Theatre based on a poem by Mahmoud Darwish. The show toured extensively in Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, and Spain and was invited to Peter Brook’s Bouffes du Nord Theatre in Paris and the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival. In 2009 he premiered Saint-Saëns’s Opera Samson and Delilah at the Vlamesse Opera house in Antwerp.

In 2009, Zuabi founded the Shiber Hur Theatre Company, of which he is the artistic director, and began to collaborate with the Young Vic Theatre London. As part of this collaboration he has directed I Am Yusuf, The Beloved One, and In The Penal Colony as co-productions between his company shiberhur and the Young Vic, all winning  critical acclaim in London and touring internationally. He was the first Middle-Eastern director to be invited to direct in the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he directed a sold-out production of The Comedy of Errors.

He has written 7 published plays I Am Yusuf And This Is My Brother, The Beloved One, With Great Sorrow, Oh My Sweet Land ,Three Days Of Mourn, West of Us is The Sea, and the children’s musical Mid Spring Song, as well as numerous adaptations and devised pieces for stage.

Nasreen Abd Elal: You cut your teeth on theatre and directing around the outbreak of the Second Intifada, and now we find ourselves in a situation of closure and isolation on a global scale. Neither situation is particularly friendly to theatre or to the arts in general. Is your approach to working under compromised conditions different from when you first started?

Amir Nizar Zuabi: I think growing up where I did, I never took safety for granted. In my early twenties, I was suddenly thrust into a war zone, where reality became very brittle and brutal. For me, that was a huge learning curve, about life, theatre, and the importance of both. I think that we’re given something to say about the world we live in, and then the rest is technical. You know, I just came back from creating a show for a very big theatre in Stockholm. But it’s not fundamentally different than mounting a show anywhere else. At the end of the day, it’s you and a bunch of actors trying to create something together. Obviously this pandemic has been disastrous for theatre worldwide, but this is just another chapter of what we’ll have to go through to continue to redefine our art. The theatres are closed, but you can rethink what theatre is for you. What is it in this art form that is important for you? I’m not sure I have the answers for our pandemic reality. But sometimes hard times create good things as well.

NAE: This kind of brittleness and fragility exists not just on the political and social scale, but also in relationships. In This is Who I Am, the fragmented parent-child dynamic is the emotional core of the story. That’s a theme in many of your plays. What draws you to these kinds of characters?

ANZ: I think humans are complicated creatures. That’s our beauty: we’re a mixture of filth and grace. Theatre is the most human art form. We’re unmanipulated on stage, we’re sweaty, clumsy creatures. No stardom, no superpowers. We’re not dancers. We’re not pianists who can play the Rachmaninoff Third. But because of that, because of the simplicity, we’re perfect vessels for story. I have two children and the amount of hours a day I look at them and all their developing abilities is what drives me, because in the core of my theatre-making, I’m a humanist. I wanted to be a zoologist when I was young, but I think I just changed the subject of my curiosity to people. Words like compassion and complexity and faults don’t frighten me. On the contrary, they draw me in. Because of my very unique upbringing I have a unique vantage point where I saw the best and worst of who we are on a daily basis. 

NAE: The zoologist perspective makes me think of the conceit behind theatre: putting people together in an experimental frame and then observing what they do when they bounce off each other. How much of that emerges from the collaborative process between you and whoever you’re working with?

ANZ: When I write the play, the collaborative process is between me and the person I like and dislike, which is me. The father is me and the son is me in This is Who I Am. I think the trick of a good playwright is the ability to find an honest voice that is him, inside each one of his characters. When you’re lucky, it’s very collaborative. Suddenly, the amount of people that put their brain power into something that you imagined in the loneliness of your computer is gorgeous. What we write, unlike any other writing form, is hot air that leaves one set of lips, and more hot air that leaves another set of lips. We don’t write descriptions, as they are not the core of the theatre writing. So you need a lot of collaboration to fill this world. When you get it right, it’s gorgeous. Over my career as a director, I learned to celebrate much more the generosity of others, you know, to accept much more how it takes a village to raise a child and it takes the community to create a show.

NAE: With new forays into online theatre, the relationship with the audience is much different. This is Who I Am is a show that involves not only the presence of the actors, but also the sounds and smells of the food that’s being cooked, neither of which we can directly experience. On the other hand, online theatre can cross a lot of barriers to reach new audiences. What challenges and possibilities do you see in the virtual context? 

ANZ: Had it been anyone other than Maria Goyanes and Kate Loewald that approached me to write a play for Zoom, the answer would be no. But because they approached me, I decided to write something, if it was integral and honest to Zoom. At the end of the day, I’m a theatre person and the simplicity of this art form requires an unbelievable precision because you are stripped of all tricks. In this time, we’ve huddled together to satisfy one of the most primal needs we have, which is to be in a group around a bonfire while shadows flicker on the walls of the cave. Fear creeps in and then loneliness creeps in, and then suddenly somebody starts a story and we feel better because we’re listening to the story together, and we’re afraid together and that’s consoling in a way. Maybe the ability to gather a lot of audiences from different places to hear a story together is something that will become another tool that we can use. I think that the opportunities, like in every new media, belong to the youngsters. I hope it won’t replace the real thing. 

NAE: That’s also one perk of coming from the more “guerilla theatre” context. If people want it, they will show up, regardless of the circumstances.

ANZ: I’m working on this mega project, where I was asked to artistically direct something called The Walk. Handspring Puppet Company, Stephen Daldry, and David Lan came up with this idea of marching this twelve-foot puppet from the borders of Syria and Turkey, all the way to Manchester. So we’re marching 1000 kilometers and planning it during a pandemic. As we’re doing this, it’s very clear that when I’m talking with my partners, be it in a village in Turkey, or in a big city like New York, our need to get together grew out of our separation. We’re all hopeful by next spring or summer, the world will change because of Pfizer and Moderna and we’ll be in a completely new reality. But we need the thinking of a herd to find comfort together.

NAE: You mentioned the younger generations and what they bring to theatre now; it seems like now there’s a bit more of an established theatre presence in Palestine, with several initiatives and organizations like ShiberHur, so I’m wondering what the younger generation of theatre people are exploring. What approach do they have that seems different from when you were first starting out, and what do they seem to be interested in doing and exploring?

ANZ: I think the world has grown much smaller. I remember that when I was a young theatre enthusiast, I had to work really hard to see anything. I had to sneak into Israeli theatres when they had shows from Europe in order to get a chance to see anything. Today, everything’s online. That has great advantages, but it also means that everything is very easy. I don’t think there is a theatrical movement in Palestine; there are sporadic attempts, led by individuals. I was one of these individuals. There also are younger, very talented and promising individuals.

These periods like the pandemic are very interesting because they also act like a sieve. The people that will survive this pandemic are theatre people. Palestine already has a very, very fine sieve. When the Intifada started, half of my company disappeared and the ones that stayed were diehards. Were there for real, were committed. They took me along to a marvelous ride, where I was learning new things every minute. Most of the shows I’ve produced in Palestine had shoestring budgets, then suddenly I tour across Europe and get these accolades, where you’re performing in old Paris and doing Peter Brooks’ theatre, but actually you’ve created this show with chewing gum and rubber bands.

NAE: There’s something unique about working in a stateless context, where you don’t have large national institutions. It seems that, despite the obvious drawbacks, theatre can be kind of an autonomous and transgressive space. 

ANZ: There’s also a lack of theatre tradition, because we don’t have a big tradition of theatre in the Arab world. It’s a relatively new art form, which means you can pick and choose whatever you want and nobody can say no, but that’s not the way it’s done elsewhere. For most of my career my second home was London, where I had the good fortune of directing in the Royal Shakespeare Company. Of course, everything you do is like, “But there’s a tradition to this,” and you go, “Yeah, but this isn’t my tradition,” so you’re free to pick and choose and kind of create your own basket. New York feels very similar to Palestine. Maybe that’s my affinity with Kate and PlayCo and with a lot of things that are happening in New York. In some way, there’s this guerilla attitude because you don’t have a big endowment for the arts. There is this need to create, just because you have something to say, which I find gorgeous, which is very different in Europe, where you can have ridiculous budgets to do whatever you want. Which is also gorgeous. I wish we all had these budgets, too, but the flip side is also interesting. 

NAE: And there’s not only the ability to pick and choose from different theatre styles, but also from various other practices that are not necessarily connected to theatre, but traditions of performance in the Arab context. For instance, the hakawati, or storyteller, becomes very interesting when you bring it into the theatre. An actor can play multiple roles in a single breath rather than inhabiting the psychological mindset of one character. I’m curious how you incorporate these influences.

ANZ: It’s in the core of a lot of things I do. My plays aren’t psychological. I know it seems weird, but the characters don’t inhabit a psychological being, they’re in contact with something else. They’re tapping into different traditions that exist here. One of the biggest traditions we have is poetry, and Arabic is such a poetic language even when it’s not poetry. There’s a constant need to define and redefine what they’re feeling and how they want to express it. It was a revelation for me when my grandmother, when asked about 1948, said, “The men, they went like cold water down the throat.” I think that’s where I was created as a writer, in a language that has precise imagery. For me that’s where poetry starts to exist. I keep on flirting with this as a writer, and as a director as well.

NAE: This is Who I Am, which revolves around a father and son cooking a dish from their shared past, reminded me of my father’s own interest in recreating the breads from his childhood in Jerusalem. There’s something magical about the drive to recollect and recreate. One vehicle for that nostalgia is language, another is taste and smell. How do you approach weaving them together?

ANZ: I think that for me, psychology is boring–sorry to all the psychologists in the world I’ve dismissed with one word–but psychology is about rationalization. Trying to pinpoint the sensations that you’re feeling, the deep, molecular sensations that you go through, for me are just as important, if not more important, than to cerebrally understand the “why” of childhood traumas or giving any other concocted explanation for the sesame seeds on your father’s bread. It tells me more about him than the kind of psychological explanation, which I respect and I know is valid, but seems less alive, less sweaty.

NAE: Similar to this psychological or psychoanalytic approach, the story of Palestine is often narrated through archaeological metaphors, as something that must be dug up and uncovered. There’s a fascination with finding our archives or hidden stories, then dusting them off and presenting them to amend the historical record. But what you’re describing is quite different. It’s not necessarily about excavation, but about the profundity you can reach through a fleeting performance.

ANZ: Acting is in the core of this art. There is something about actors when they’re at the top of their game; they become transparent. It’s this mythical phenomenon, where suddenly the performer is like water in a silver bowl. He’s there but he’s also achieving something else. He’s just a windpipe for sensations that are created in you as an audience. Something disappears and something new is born in the collective. When it happens it’s like magic. And because our art form has to do partly with witchcraft, the psychological approach that has been applied to it in the last hundred years seems to reduce it. I believe that the ghost is really there in Hamlet. For me, to be able to celebrate what my art form suggests, I need to believe that Hamlet sees his dead father. We know it’s a trick, yet we still want to believe it, so it is about stretching the story as much as you can before it snaps and becomes nothing. It’s why we create soap bubbles. They glisten in the sun and they’re full of colors, and they exist as long as everybody’s looking at them. And then suddenly they burst and there’s nothing there besides a stain on the floor, if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, you have sore eyes because the bubble exploded on your face.

NAE: I’ve definitely felt that way after a few shows.

ANZ: Yes, me too. Sometimes in your eyes or in your mouth. When the bubble just drifts into the air and disappears, you remain with it for a couple of hours. That’s the pure attempt of what we’re trying to write. And like bubbles, it’s very tricky, because it depends on many variables, the wind, the sun, the heat, the moisture of the air, and you don’t even know why sometimes you get it right. 

NAE: It’s as if the audience doesn’t necessarily stop being the audience when they leave the room. It’s also interesting to me, the effect that the poetic can have on you but also how that is tied to the political, in the sense that it can transform the community you’re in.

ANZ: For me, they’re tied very strongly because politics is about the reduction of a relationship and poetry is about expansion. So, when I am talking about a political landscape or a political world, using the poetic and non-rational approach, it expands from the right and wrong and this is what we say and this is what we need to think. I can describe certain things and influence you by the power of the words. And that’s stronger than your political beliefs, stronger than your religious beliefs, stronger than your rationalism, and your tribalism. It’s very funny, because the two audiences that don’t like my theatre are the biggest supporters of the cause, and the biggest opposers of the cause. Poetry takes us out of the trenches.

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Nasreen Abd Elal is a multidisciplinary researcher, designer, and writer based in New York City.