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2014 Letter

Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, June 2014

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Dear friend and supporter,

Eight years ago we formed the Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre because – and there’s no other way to say it – we were simply bowled over when we met the visionary and charismatic co-founder of The Freedom Theatre, Juliano Mer Khamis.

All of us had had seen (and some had experienced) the horrors of the Israeli occupation and committed ourselves to fighting it but many of us had not decided how. After meeting Juliano in New York and learning that he and his colleagues, Jonatan Stanczak and Zakaria Zubeidi, intended to build a creative center, independent of political groups and NGOs, in a refugee camp!! that would open the minds and creative hearts of young Palestinians – even if their bodies were locked into the West Bank – we couldn’t hold back. We decided that we had to support the infant Freedom Theatre as a meaningful way to strengthen Palestinian civil society, an essential aspect of fighting occupation.

Coming from a variety of backgrounds (teaching, performing, writing, activism, financial management, and other fields), we had no idea how life-altering this commitment would turn out to be, and how much pride and heartbreak would be involved. (Juliano Mer Khamis was murdered April 4, 2011 by an assailant as yet unidentified.)

Now, eight years later, not only does the Friends group represent The Freedom Theatre in the U.S. and organize for financial support, we also act to protect the theatre when it comes under assault. As a completely independent institution, the theatre must fend off onslaughts from various quarters, especially those from the Israeli security apparatus, which physically attacked the theatre building and arrested many staff after Juliano’s murder and detained them for weeks or months at a time before releasing them. The Friends has mobilized thousands of people around the world to protest such attacks.

You should get an idea in this annual letter of why we are so proud to be associated with The Freedom Theatre and why this has been a very busy and most productive year. One of our top aims is to strengthen the bonds between the
Friends of the Freedom Theatre and the theatre’s supporters, and an important part of this is providing you with information about this amazing place.

Our focus this year is on the incoming Theatre School class of 10 young men and women who are starting their journey of the Theatre School’s three-year professional training program. The class not only demonstrates the continuing growth of the theatre but shows how young people are coming to it as a way of fighting the occupation’s most insidious effects – the claustrophobic sense of isolation and the shutting down of creativity and optimism.


New Theatre School Class
This is the third and largest class of theatre students admitted to The Freedom Theatre. (The second class graduated on the anniversary of Juliano’s death and a memorial was incorporated into the graduation ceremony.) Seven young men and three young women are in this class, more female acting students at one time than ever before in the Theatre School’s history. As many of you know, it is a special mission of The Freedom Theatre to recruit young women to its  programs, a difficult effort in a conservative society. The ten students range in age from 16 to 30. Not only is the  group larger than ever, it is more diverse geographically. In addition to five students from Jenin City, one student comes from Azzeh Camp near Bethlehem, two from villages in the Hebron area, and two from Nablus. The five students who are not Jenin residents board at The Freedom Theatre during the week because daily travel back and forth is too time-consuming even under normal conditions, which are made worse by delays at Israeli Army (IDF) checkpoints.

The students give a variety of reasons why they want to study at The Freedom Theatre. For example, Samah Mahmood, a young woman of 19 from Jenin, says, “Here I have the chance to do what I really want to do and what I dream about. I want to get young girls in Jenin to venture into theatre and to dare to challenge themselves and the culture we live in.”

Amir Abu Al-Rab, 16, lives in Jenin as well. He comments, “I now have a greater understanding of who I am and how people perceive me. My confidence has increased and I feel more secure in my body, which makes me dare to express myself.”

Ibrahim Moqbel, 22, a Jenin resident, wants to connect theatre with circus and further explains, “I would also like to convey my own experiences about the occupation of Palestine and how it affects young Palestinians in their daily lives. For many years I have seen it through the eyes of others; now is the time for me to tell my story.”

Ismael Aloul, 20, and Ihab Talahme, 21, both live in villages near Hebron. Hebron is where the most vicious and violent settlers live. Large contingents of Israeli soldiers continually patrol the city and the nearby villages, seldom intervening when settlers attack Palestinians, including schoolchildren. Speaking about their lives growing up under occupation, Ismael comments says wryly, “Let’s say [the IDF] are present 25 hours a day.” He adds, “When I was a child and saw soldiers I was afraid, it’s the same for all small children. It’s normal for us. The soldiers are a source of fear only.” Ihab agrees. “When my small cousin wants to go outside, his mum tells him to come back, there’s a soldier outside and maybe he will shoot you.”

Ozama Alazzah, 23, from the Azzeh Camp near Bethlehem, says he sees himself as a director in the future, but first would like to complete a master’s degree in drama.

Sadeq Azzouqa, 24, a Jenin student, would like “to do stand-up comedy with the aim of directing the spotlight on the problems of our society, even if it’s not an easy thing to do in our community. I know that there will be many who will not like what I do. But I hope to change that through my work.”

Raneen Odeh, 20, from Jenin, explains her purpose being at The Freedom Theatre: “After three years I will be educated, not just as an actor, but also as a human being who knows what she wants in life. After my three years here I will be holding on tightly to my opinions, thoughts and words which I will try to use to change my society. I want to open people’s eyes to things which they have long turned a blind eye to.”

Alia Alrosan, 30, and her brother, Ahmad Alrosan, 24, live in Nablus. Ahmad says that he has “actually never been happier” than now, after starting at the Theatre School. Alia was the coordinator for the Freedom Bus project, and then decided to train as an actor. She says that under occupation “our spirit has shrunk. But theater makes us appreciate life. Being really alive means making decisions about your life. I believe in humanity. I refuse to say that occupation is my only reality. This is the first time in my life I feel like I’m in the right place for me and my people.”


Freedom Theatre Productions in 2013-14
The essence of The Freedom Theatre is its productions, which play to thousands of people from all over the West Bank. (The Freedom Theatre estimates that 5,500 people, about 70 percent of them children, attended productions in 2013.) The theatre developed both original plays and adaptations, such as “Lost Land” (an adaptation of Le Grand Meaulnes with original music), “Suicide Note from Palestine” (inspired by 4:48 Psychosis), “The Island” (an adaptation of a play by South African Athol Fugard), “Stolen Dreams” (written by students), and the children’s play “Magic Note” (inspired by the German folk tale, “The Pied Piper”).

“Suicide Note from Palestine” and “The Island” toured Italy, Brazil, and Sweden. In the U.S., “The Island” played to sold-out audiences in four states. In addition to the plays, the theatre has held a series of original “hakawati” (storytelling) workshops and performances for children, such as “Mouhktar, the Boy with Big Ears,” based on the theme of discrimination; “Zalouta,” a story about a fly that was happy with all the garbage; and “The Goldfish,” about wishes and greed.

Freedom Theatre Programs
The Freedom Theatre has initiated a one-of-a-kind training program in Stage Management. This three-year program combines theory and practice as students attend to the practical and logistical requirements of the theatre’s productions during rehearsals and performances.

Drama in Education, an outreach program aimed at teachers, is designed to train Palestinian educators in the use of drama as a pedagogical tool, much the way Arna Mer, Juliano’s mother and founder of the Stone Theatre, the precursor of The Freedom Theatre, worked with teachers to develop alternative educational systems.

This program is associated with Trauma Transformation, a program for social work and mental health professionals to similarly use drama in therapy.

The Freedom Bus, an annual tour of local people, internationals and theatre staff through villages in occupied Palestine, concluded its third trip recently with interactive theatre performances, drama workshops, live musical events, and storytelling. The tour, partnered with Jordan Valley Solidarity and the South Hebron Hills
Popular Committee, was described in vivid terms on its blog. Here are some excerpts:

Day 8: . . .[near At-Tuwani] In the morning some of us get up at 6.30 to meet a group of Italian activists that accompany school children of all ages past an illegal Israeli settlement and an outpost that is notorious for violent
and aggressive inhabitants. . .  In the afternoon we split into two groups, one is to rebuild a shelter for children whilst they gather to wait for their escort by volunteers and military. The second group accompanies the local shepherds with their flocks so they can have their animals graze in the luscious deep green grass that grows very close to the illegal settlement. .  .[in the evening] Together with some members of the local community we listen to Munther Al-Raee who performs a repertory of beautiful, sometimes haunting but mostly upbeat and rhythmical Palestinian songs.

Students in the Film Unit learned filmmaking techniques and produced five films in 2013-14, available on www.youtube.com/thefreedomtheatre.

Photography students engaged in a five-month course and produced Spectrum, a photography exhibit that documented the breadth of their lived experiences. The Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre has a version of this exhibit, which can be shown on request to community groups. In addition, the Friends produced a small book based on the exhibit in April 2014 to coincide with Juliano’s memorial.

Creative writing workshops taught students how to write articles, short stories and poems; the theatre’s youth magazine, Voices, was published twice. Future plans include publishing novels by students.

Drama workshops gave 12-15 year-olds the basics of drama with an eye to recruiting future members of the theatre class, as well as giving young people exposure to the life tools that come from drama skills.

Playback Theatre Training, for those of college age or older, provided training for this unique method of creating spontaneous and improvised theatre based on stories told by the audience (used on the Freedom Bus).

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Right now
The Theatre School students are busy preparing for their first presentation, an original play called “Enemy”, which brings together the students’ personal stories with the Greek myth of Medusa. Young photography students, all female, are working on learning to use the camera as a tool for storytelling, while the theatre’s Film Unit staff are eagerly waiting to hear back from several international film festivals to which the 2013 short films have been submitted. In the coming months, a team from The Freedom Theatre will work on developing a play based on stories from the village of At-Tuwani, particularly stories of women in the community, which are very important in the struggle against oppression. Others will spend the summer training to become trainers in the commedia dell’arte technique, which has shown to be particularly successful in the context of Jenin and The Freedom Theatre.

Here in New York, we expect that representatives from The Freedom Theatre will come to the city in fall 2014 as we begin to gear up for another production tour in 2015. We are also working on plans to start other Friends groups in Detroit and Los Angeles.

When we started the Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre we didn’t know how proud we would be of its accomplishments eight years later and how painful its sorrows would be. We also didn’t realize how much supporting The Freedom Theatre would also benefit us personally by introducing us to great people here in the U.S. like you.

This incredible past year that you have just read about is only a snapshot of what The Freedom Theatre can achieve. But the theatre depends on all its supporters. If you are not yet a supporter of this valiant group, we hope you will become one; if you are already a supporter, we hope you will continue, and even expand, your generosity!

Warm regards and great thanks,
Dinky, Terry, Yoram, Felice, Jen, Dorothy, Kathy, Liz, Josh, Dana, Erin, Noelle, Linda, and Inea

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HOW YOU CAN SUPPORT THE FREEDOM THEATRE TODAY!

Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, Inc. sends 88% of funds raised directly to projects of The Freedom Theatre.

Small donations may be made payable and sent to: Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, Inc., P.O. Box 592, Tarrytown, NY 10591.

Tax-deductible donations may be made payable to our partner, MECA (Middle East Children’s Alliance). Please write “The Freedom Theatre” on the memo line and send to the Tarrytown P.O Box as above.

Credit card donations may be made on-line: mecaforpeace.org/partners/freedom-theatre

For information, suggestions and comments about the Friends: call Constancia Dinky Romilly, 917-991-5653, or email friends@thefreedomtheatre.org

LIKE Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre and The Freedom Theatre on Facebook.

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