A ‘Love Letter’ of Solidarity: Distance Theater Between Pittsburgh and Beirut
At the kickoff event for the show “The Birth of Paper,” performers in Lebanon and the United States gathered online to read poetry, share personal stories, sing folksongs, show artwork, and cast spells. This innovative interactive theater project aims to bridge two vibrant artistic cities: Pittsburgh and Beirut.
“The Birth of Paper” organizers started recruiting pen-pal participants in both cities this spring, and the project will culminate in series of Zoom-based performances set to run June 24 to 29. The play is part of a five-month “theater by mail” festival, and it is both a response to Beirut’s humanitarian crisis and a “love letter to the postal service.”
This broader series is called “Post Theatrical,” and it is being organized by the Pittsburgh-based theater company RealTime Interventions. A dozen troupes have contributed works to the series, all of which have something to do with the mail. “The Birth of Paper,” which is built around letters and care packages traveling from Pittsburgh to Beirut, is the festival’s final show.
At its June 9 launch event, Molly Rice, a playwright and RealTime’s artistic director, said that she wrote the first iteration of “The Birth of Paper” in 2003. In that case, she was linking Texas and New York. At the end of that show, she gave audience members an address and asked them to write to her. “I received mail for two years,” Rice said.
For Rice, the after-effects of that performance underlined how eager theater audiences were to make and sustain connections. So when the Covid-19 shutdowns made in-person theater impossible, Rice again thought of long-distance theater. She also thought of the “birth of paper,” she said, because paper gave people “a way to communicate from far away, much like the technology we’re using now, Zoom.”
With those two ideas in mind, Rice decided, “If we’re going to do distance theater, why not really do distance theater and connect with Beirut?”
Several partners have come together around the five-day interactive performance, including the “City of Asylum” arts community in Pittsburgh and Rusted Radishes, a literary and arts magazine in Beirut. The show thus promises both an entertaining performance and solidarity with Beirut’s arts community, which has struggled in the wake of the August 4, 2020, port explosion and the spiraling rates of inflation and currency devaluations across Lebanon. (See two related articles, “Beirut Blast Cripples an Educational and Cultural Capital” and “Explosion Took a Heavy Toll on Beirut’s Arts and Culture Scene.”)
“We thought, if we’re going to do distance theater, why not really do distance theater and connect with Beirut?”Molly Rice
Artistic director of the Pittsburgh-based theater company that organized the show
Why Pittsburgh and Beirut?
When the theater company first thought about bridging the distance between Pittsburgh and Beirut, Rice said, “we thought about our friend Milia Ayache,” a Beirut-based actor and writer who has spent time in Pittsburgh. Ayache will be the star and emcee of the show.
For this new staging of “The Birth of Paper,” Rice said, around forty volunteers have been recruited to write letters, assemble care packages, and get packages shipped from Pittsburgh to Beirut. These letters and packages will be opened in real time, as part of the show.
Throughout the performances, Ayache will also weave in research Rice has done about elements of history and horticulture shared by Pittsburgh and Beirut.
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In an interview published on HVY, Rice said the work “dances that line between distance and intimacy, between the real and the imagined.”
“We believe if you look hard enough, you’ll find connections,” Rice said at the launch event. “So we’ll see what kind of linkages we’re going to find.”
Indeed, Pittsburgh and Beirut both share a history of vibrant art and economic struggle. Although Pittsburgh has largely recovered from the collapse of the U.S. steel industry in the early 1980s, that era remains etched in the city’s memory.
Both cities also share a love of music, art, and partying, Ayache said at the launch event. Perhaps for this reason, both have been saddled with a comparison to Paris. While Beirut has been called “Paris of the Middle East,” Pittsburgh has been dubbed the “Paris of Appalachia.”
Both cities certainly know what it means to experience a rapid change of fortunes. “And in times of crisis,” Rice said at the launch event, “people need to express and to be connected.”
Solidarity That Spans Borders
While the kickoff event brought together artists on both sides of the Atlantic, it also served as a fund-raiser for Rusted Radishes, where Ayache is an editor. The Beirut-based magazine was also a Beirut-Pittsburgh affair, co-founded by Beirut native Rima Rantisi and Pittsburgh native Crystal Hoffman.
The kickoff event also served as a fund-raiser for Rusted Radishes, a Beirut-based magazine that spotlights work from, by and about Lebanon and the region.
Rantisi said at “The Birth of Paper” launch that Rusted Radishes “was born to spotlight work from, by and about Lebanon and the region, especially by young people. Ultimately, we wanted to create a community that could support each other.”
With the current economic situation, Rantisi added, community support has become even more critically important. Because of the rising prices of paper and ink, “books have become a luxury item.” Yet the editors still want to keep Rusted Radishes affordable for local readers. “That means we’re also now depending on the international community to support our work,” Rantisi said.
The kickoff event also spotlighted other acts of solidarity. The Syrian-Lebanese author Nur Turkmani, who lives in Beirut, read from her evocative, multilayered essay, “A famine, a ship, and a folk song that spanned borders.”
The essay traces the history of the popular folksong “Al Rozana,” which probably originated during the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon (1915-1918). It is unclear what exactly happened with the ship called “Al Rozana,” and whether it ever docked in Beirut. But folk histories behind the song speak about surprising help that came from Syrian merchants.
Turkmani’s reading also wove in stories from 2020, including both violence and solidarity toward Syrian refugees inside Lebanon. In the end, the essay returns to 1915, when stories have it that merchants from Aleppo snuck in supplies to starving Beirutis. “A brazen act of solidarity,” Turkmani writes. “A love letter of sorts.”
Such a love letter of solidarity is also the idea behind “The Birth of Paper.” Its co-organizers also hope this isn’t a one-time exchange. In the end, they hope audience members and participants alike will leave the show “with a tangible way to connect to each other in the future.”