Ayham Majid Agha is a Syrian actor, dramaturge, and director. After studying theater arts at Sharjah Institute for one year, he completed his studies in acting at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus where he started his acting career, initially in a pantomime performance Ghafwa (Nap) with Al Sajer Troup. Later, in 2003, Ayham was a founding member of the band Studio Theater accompanied by other students from different departments at the Institute. The group performed interactive theater projects in remote areas of Syria and presented performances in different parts of the country under the supervision of Professor Marie Elias. Through those tours, which lasted for seven years, very sensitive social issues were tackled such as polygamy, civil marriage, violence against women, early marriage, and family size. From 2006 until 2012, Ayham served as an associate professor at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus before leaving Syria and settling in Berlin. In addition to that, he has had numerous engagements at theatres in Damascus, Manchester, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Seoul, and Hanover.

Ayham Majid Agha Portrait. Photo by Mey Seifan.

In 2016 Ayham was invited to the Theatertreffen festival as a performer in The Situation directed by Yael Ronen and with participating actors whose biographies are intertwined with the conflict and political situation in the Middle East. Later, Ayham co-founded the Exil Ensemble at the Maxim Gorki Theatre as a platform for professional artists who have been forced to live in exile and up to seven actors from Syria, Palestine and Afghanistan who had been working with full-time contracts at theater. Besides being the artistic director of Ensemble’s projects, he participated as an actor in the shows Wonderland and Winter Trip, contributing at the same time on a notably larger scale with writing and directing in The Hamlet Machine, a play based on Heiner Müller’s piece. In the 2017/18 season, his play Skeleton of an Elephant in the Desert premiered in the Studio Я at the Gorki Theater for which Ayham won the Young Critics Award at “Radikal – The Festival for Young Directors”.

The following interview took place by video call Beirut/Berlin on the 19th of May 2021.

Najwa Kondakji: You were born in Deir ez-Zor, a distant city in eastern Syria, but you studied in Damascus. How did you deal with this new space?

Ayham Majid Agha: At the beginning and during my studies, home and institute were the space for me, as we were studying for so many hours. The relationship with the city was through the theater, but when we began studying dramatic character analysis, we had to go out to the street, and there was the surprise, knowing the city. The relationship with space moved from the institute to the city, and the city became the theater.

NK: In an overview of your rich career while living in Syria, where you studied and worked in various places, shall we consider that interactive theater is the most distinct experience?

AMA: Certainly, it is a fundamental juncture in my life. I learned how to be an actor, director, writer, and manager when I represented the Joker who runs all the relationships with the audience and leads the show. I’ve gained experience on how to develop the idea of performance when there’s no ready text.

NK:  I think you were the first to begin applying interactive theater outside cities on a large scale in the Syrian countryside. It’s a founding step of specific performing art that was unknown to the public. No doubt that was very difficult.

AMA: It was not just difficult but sometimes dangerous, because we couldn’t anticipate the reaction of people in these remote areas. It happened once that the preacher of a mosque called us nonbelievers through the minaret and incited people against us. Then we headed to him as a Sheikh for advice and to solve a family problem between two actors seeking divorce, and we shared that with people. In that way, the show was performed and his attitude towards us changed. Moreover, we suffered from the lack of some resources, as the internet was not available at the time. Therefore, we were unable to see enough visual materials to be recognized adequately with Augusto Boal’s works. We relied on the written references provided by Mary Elias and imagined what the performance might have been like.

NK: How did you keep working as an assistant teacher at the Damascus Theatre Institute until 2012, a year after the outbreak of the war in Syria? What happened from then until you left Syria?

AMA:  Circumstances had become very complicated. I was no longer allowed to live in Damascus because I’m not one of its original inhabitants. I had to rent a house outside in order to continue my work, and at the same time, it was impossible to go to Deir ez-Zor due to the checkpoints, since the city had come under the control of Islamists before ISIS arrived. During this period, I was known to be supportive of the revolution with my fellow artists. Nevertheless, I went out normally to tour the performance Intimate directed by Omar Abu Saada in Beirut, Cairo, and Hanover. So, while I was in Berlin about to come back, I decided to stay after gaining a 6-month residency during which I got to know my wife Olga Grjasnova.

NK: The Maxim Gorki Theater is considered one of the most important theaters in Germany. How did you manage within a short period of time to get acquainted with and work in this remarkable theater?

AMA: It happened thanks to my wife and by coincidence, too. A new theater management was opening the season with a theatrical adaptation of one of my wife’s novels. This is how the acquaintance took place, then an initiative came from their side if I have a project that could be presented in the theater, so the interactive show Conflict Food was recommended, in which I hosted artists and novelists, but not playwrights. While we were cooking, we tackled conflicts between countries over recipes, and while reviewing historical, scientific, psychological, and social documents. I was leading the show in English while my wife participated by reading the introductory paragraphs and documents in German. The success of the show enhanced opportunities for collaboration with the theatre for subsequent projects.

NK: In the projects that followed you participated as an actor, but it wasn’t a pure acting experience. You always insisted on writing your own script and design its creative solutions as well, why?

AMA: Because I refuse to let anyone else speak about a case that concerns me, just as I refuse to present a case that I am not the owner of in the true sense. For example, in the performance The Situation I created a character different from the characters in the play who were mostly refugees learning the language because I don’t have refugee status in Germany. I felt that it was not my right to take up this experience, which I do not know, because I did not get lost at sea, did not live in the refugee camps, nor did I suffer from transactions and official paperwork.

“Hamlet Machine” performance at Gorki Theater in Berlin, 2016. Photo by Hussein Alshatheli.

I dealt with the same principle with the shows In Our Name and Hamlet Machine, despite its specificity and value in German theater literature. In order to implement my principle, I reached out to the wife of writer Heiner Muller and obtained the right to change the text, which has a sense of subjectivity and human profile. A hypothetical/presupposed character was created expressing the idea of transforming the term death from news of calamity into a number, based on a statement in the original text “The dead is one and the sum is dead”. In this show, three long monologues were added that were as long as half of the original text, but overall my contribution to directing did not contradict the director’s view of the show as a whole structure.

NK: I have known from an interview with you that establishing Exil Ensemble was inspired by Brecht’s work in Switzerland where he created with other German artists as ensemble with the same name.

AMA: That’s right. Nice to mention in this regard that we have visited Brecht’s archive in Switzerland during the tour for Winter Trip performance, where we met an eighty-year-old dramaturge who worked with Brecht and talked with older people who had seen some of the ensemble’s shows when they were in their teens. I share with Brecht the political point of view on raising issues; moreover, we aim to provide space for not only exilic professional theatre artists but also for those who found themselves in internal exile in their own countries. I think that’s vividly tangible in most of the ensemble’s performances starting from the first show Wonderland, as three artist-couples had been invited to act from the perspective of different countries: Syria, Palestine, and Afghanistan.

NK: The multi-nationalities of actors and their relationship with the exile-space are always present in the ensemble’s performances as boldly appeared in the Winter Trip, which was addressing problematic and controversial issues through the footage projected in parallel with the actors’ performance on stage along the show. Are these documentary materials from the trip you actually made?

AMA: The show was the trip’s output, which was filmed in all its stages. The trip with 23 persons including actors and the whole crew lasted for 16 days during which we visited 12 cities in Germany and Switzerland by a rented bus. All of our activities, movements, meetings, and discussions were filmed whether with people or with each other as each person searched for his own questions about Germany to discuss with those he met in those places. The show was formed from these stories, dialogues, and monologues without working on a ready-made text, only Brecht’s poem “On the turn of exile”. Organizing all of this, from the trip to the show, for me as an art director was difficult due to the administrative tasks that required accomplishing. Therefore, my participation as an actor here has been very limited.

NK: Despite all that, the administrative work of the theatre ensemble did not prevent you from going through the experience of directing the show Skeleton of an elephant in the desert. So, how was this idea born?

AMA: Well, that show was the first major turning point in my directorial career in Germany. The thematic idea of the show was inspired by a monologue I had written during a writing workshop with the participation of four writers from different countries. The entire show was built on the idea of unity which was included in the monologue. In extreme cases such as bombing and siege, an individual finds himself compelled to retreat. Alone, one tries hard to comprehend or speculate what might be taking place outside the walls of his shelter, and this gives him terrifying anxiety. As in the monologue, the matter is, “When one flees from his brother, mother, father, companion, and sons.” It is that moment when a person rejects the other, whose presence hinders us from comprehending what is happening. It was this vision that brought together the four characters of the play: the sniper, the circus performer, the filmmaker, and the nurse. Each of them is living within his/ her own loneliness.

NK: The narrative structure of this show is phenomenal compared to the classical dramatic structure, where the drama is based on action, reaction, and the unity of the story. In your show, we find stories told by the actors, rather than actions that build stories. Were this structure and performance intentional?

AMA: Of course. The dramatic structure was intentionally broken the whole time. While I was writing the script of the play, and being an actor in the first place, I knew exactly where each character anchored, leaned and where they would go in the dramatic sense of the word. Naturally, that does not mean I was dictating the way of performing to the actors; I was just highlighting the things that should not be done. The most important among which is that the nature of the play does not allow or tolerate any kind of emotion. It was due to this point in particular that I, for example, insisted on using microphones so that the actors would not have to raise their voices, which resulted in fine-tuning both the voice and the emotion. The one thing I asked the actors to do was to enjoy the performance they are making, with no rising emotions.

NK: This must have been an enduring task you carried out during rehearsals and while the actors were building their characters. How did you manage to convince the actors to regulate the emotional energy of their performance?

AMA: In fact, it was extremely challenging, to the extent that I had serious clashes with the actors at the beginning of the project. However, I showed them some video clips documenting true stories that took place in my city of Deir ez-Zor. The first scene shows a woman sweeping the floor in the middle of her demolished house, saying, “Well, it is enough that my house is destroyed, it cannot be filthy too!” The second scene depicts an armed fighter bathing under the stairs while telling the story his brother’s death. As for the third scene, it was a shot of children in an amusement park that was bombed. The kids were waiting to ride one of the rides that did not work and just made a terrible noise. All of these archetypes practiced their actions with emotional neutrality, that is, without showing their intense inner pain. These people were simply going on with their lives, and that is exactly what I was trying to talk about. Besides, I was keen to present the Syrian war in an unconventional way.

NK: Can we conclude that you were aiming to create a new performance form? Alternatively, did you develop this method in line with the theme of this particular play?

AMA: I cannot say for sure whether this was a new performing art or not. As for me, I went my own way and used research missions to this end. I began building performance from the methodology of Antonin Artaud, including cruelty, kinetic performance, and masks. Then, I drew from Grotowski’s notion of “poor theatre.” Finally, I reached the fragility of Stanislavsky’s system, as theatrical performance cannot be created without his methodology.

NK: Remarkably, there are plenty of performance elements based on multiplicity and overlap. For example, the actors take turns playing each other’s lines. We saw the nurse’s lines being said by the actor who played the sniper, and so on. This is in addition to the feature of multilingualism of the show. Why did you adopt this mechanism? Did it create confusion in the audience?

AMA: Regarding the line exchange, I did it to keep the audience from thinking that these characters are the actors themselves. Any ambiguity fades within minutes of the character’s performance, and the character is identified by the very first words of the script. As for multilingualism, it was the result of the circumstances, as each of the four actors spoke a different language, so the only solution was for each actor to speak their mother tongue. However, the result was a different form of performance. For my part, I believe that whenever subtitles get on the stage, they take the place of a character. When the act occurs, a relationship is built between the actor and the recipient, in which the translator is a third party. This relationship is never cold, since this mediator plays a role in shaping the form of performance and controlling the rhythm of the dramatic action.

NK: I speculate that the search for a new performative art also touched upon the directive elements that were tested or experimented with a different use of the stage and the breaking of the fourth wall, am I right?

AMA: With no doubt. I tried for both the spectator and the actor to live the real void, not the theatrical one. I built a contradiction based on placing them in an empty room, but I wanted those in that room not to interact. This is what I call fragility by trying to build two different worlds in one place. Towards this end, I chose the little studio instead of the main stage to stage this play, making it a place that simulates the work of the brain, so in this room, we lose 30% of our ability to understand reality. When the audience as a whole lacks the same proportion in the understanding of different events, it has no choice but to complement each other. Therefore, people were prompted to wonder what each of them was watching. I practiced the idea of the play on the audience, the same as I did on the actors, where 30% of the script was missing.

As for the technical equipment and media technology, I chose to use everything in the hardest way possible. The choice to perform on the small stage was a case in point, as the empty space looked like a box. I also asked the lighting technician to block any source of light from the audience, a request to which he answered that I was crazy! Ultimately, we were able to implement this idea and the result was amazing. I have also tried, of course, to experiment with other elements of the play in a way different from previous plays, like using electronic music similar to the sound effects we hear in video games.

NK: What we see in Europe is far different from the theatrical production systems in Middle Eastern countries, especially in Syria, where theaters operate under state supervision and are part of the public sector. In reference to the idea of theater being an independent institution that produces art; does the management of Gorki Theater have a certain operating strategy that it imposes on its collaborating artists?

AMA: In no way. However, diversions in views may sometimes arise. That is exactly what happened, as there was a dispute over the continuity of the Exil Ensemble, which is why I chose to quit. I am currently working as an art researcher at the German Historical Museum. During the Covid-19 pandemic, I hope to be able to implement one of the ideas I am working on to be my next theatrical project. Serious questions worry and preoccupy me, like, how should performance be global? What do we expect from the performer after the isolation we have all lived through? People got used to hiding parts of their identities, and Europe has witnessed the emergence of a new kind of attitude towards everything. Therefore, I do not think that the conventional performance forms will have the same meanings as they did before.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.