STAN, a radical digging in the tangible

Around letters from Aida to her imprisoned lover, the Belgian theatre company STAN built a show that is a triumph of love, freedom and poetry. A show without director that was presented in European cities and may visit the region.

“If Israel decided to build a state on the moon, only then would we possibly play in Ramallah.” These words are not those of a loyal Arab, but of Frank Vercruyssen, a member of the Belgian theatre company STAN, with whom we talked about the company's last performance, the tangible . The piece is based on a number of texts by Mahmoud Darwish, Samih Al-Qasim, Etel Adnan and Mourid Barghouti, meeting John Berger's voice in his famous book From A to X .

In the summer of 2008, Vercruyssen was imagining a dance performance about Palestine. He read Berger's book, a collection of letters from a woman to her imprisoned lover, that is dedicated to the late Ghassan Kanafani. In From A to X we read about Aida who sends radishes and bottles of olive oil to Xavier in prison. The letters reveal her world, the memories of the two of them, her body's nostalgia and everyday life that whispers to the absent man. Xavier doesn’t respond to her letters, but writes down his observations on the back. This plot was the starting point for the creation of a theatrical performance.

The (politically) committed company STAN was founded in 1989, bringing together four actors, recent graduates from the Antwerp Conservatory who wanted to create their own company. These actors only saw simple plastic arts experiences around them, and a type of theatre dominated by a dictatorial director. They decided to found a company guided by the actor's experience and to create plays without a director. As they couldn't agree on a name for their company, they called it “STAN” – the abbreviation of “Stop Thinking About Names”. Up to the present, the company has created over seventy plays.

Frank travelled with three dancers to Damascus, Beirut, Ramallah and Hebron, in preparation of the performance. They returned to Belgium after soaking up the atmosphere of these places, to await the arrival of two theatre students from Damascus, the Palestinian Eid Aziz and the Syrian Rojina Rahmoon, set to play the two main parts.

In Berger's book no places are named, although one of Aida's letters shows us a military scene with tanks, violence and resistance. The play doesn’t name places either. We can't even be absolutely certain which places are shown in the pictures on three screens. No checkpoints, no soldiers, no separation wall, but streets, buildings, tunnels and settlements glowing with light in the gloomy darkness that surrounds them.
The piece was presented in Norway and Brussels last April, it will travel to Théâtre de la Bastille in Paris and to other French cities, and it may be performed in Beirut, Damascus and Cairo.

In its work, tg STAN still sacrifices the actor to the text, giving priority to the word. We could say that this is “acting against acting”, as the actor brings out the energy of the underlying meaning of the text. The actor identifies himself with what he says and generates the text on stage as if it were written in front of us, as if we had entered the writer's mind. In this way movements become extremely restrained.

The piece unfolds in front of us like on a building site. The performers are scattered along the sides of the stage, the actress takes a few steps to say something and then withdraws to the side, giving over the floor to the actor. The three dancers join them from time to time before performing their solo in an enchanting scene to the rhythm of a text by Etel Adnan. To all this, experimental music is added, played by Vercruyssen on a computer set on a table to the side, that he leaves to recite a text by Darwish. This performance is shaped by accumulating and adding elements. The people on stage are like a group of sculptors, gathered around a block of void. We see this void as a massive block that is staring at us. A block that holds two worlds, one within the prison and the other outside of it. A lover talks to the absent man in order to intensify his presence, and a prisoner searches for his voice in poetry.

Frank doesn’t hesitate to say that he wants to support the Palestinian cause… but not directly because, he says, “a Western audience is swift to reject”. He gets agitated while remembering how he and his colleagues walked around in Hebron, feeling “suffocated by anger and despair”. He says he is an “extreme leftist” who doesn’t look for balance, and he bitingly mocks “the shit normalization”. tg STAN's theatrical intention remains “the struggle against the lies of the Western world that we live in”.

Al-Akhbar (Libanese newspaper), Waseem IBRAHEEM, 17 June 2010