Would #Free_Theater trend in Lebanon?

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Last Thursday, Nidal al-Achkar appeared on a trivia show on a local Lebanese television station to promote her play, “Al Wewiyeh’ that is currently running in her Al Madina Theater. She praised herself, her director and her co-star and deemed the performance a must-see, “I call upon all of the Lebanese to come watch the play. For people who can afford a ticket, pass by Al Madina Theater to get yours, and for those who can’t, just tell the ticketing office that you were invited by Nidal al-Achkar.” I decided to take that offer.

It was borderline embarrassing to ask for my free ticket, especially after Nidal separated us Lebanese into two categories: those who can and those who can’t afford “the theater.” The next day, I head towards Hamra and, with a faked confidence, into Al Madina an hour and a half before the show so I don’t make a scene as the pauper asking for his free ticket amidst a line of cultured, intellectual, legitimate buyers.

I had prepared various monologues in response to any objection to my financial status. I am a writer, and writers in Lebanon are only paid to consume basics. My monologue included proving my poverty through reciting grocery lists from cheapest vegetables to more luxurious ones, with slight interludes of how the price of Zucchini has skyrocketed this season. My Plan B was to tell them that I produce financially invaluable art, and in extreme scenarios when they would discover that I am also an architect, I would explain – in details – my views on architecture to prove that even that prized possession of a degree is not pouring in the dollars.

“Hello,” I said to the man behind the glass, “Don’t laugh, but Nidal invited me to watch her play yesterday. She doesn’t know me…” and as I explained the situation, the young man on the ticketing counter grew more and more endearingly confused. He obviously had no knowledge whatsoever of what was going on, and it was obvious to me now that I was fooled by a marketing gimmick cleverly performed by Dame Nidal, “Come back in ten minutes,” he said.

I spent those ten minutes in a bar next to Al Madina, sipping a two-dollar shot of Arak and rehearsing my seemingly useless monologue. I added a complimentary five minutes to my waiting time to look less frantic and went back in. This time, I was ushered to another window where I had to recite my story again. My new audience-of-one was as confused as my first and also told me to come back in ten minutes with an additional glimpse of surprising hope, “Don’t worry, consider it done. How many tickets do you want?”

I won! I asked for two tickets, invited a friend and in around ten minutes, we had our tickets, E8 and E12, quite wonderful seats for that matter. The play was reviewed over and over ever since it started running in Al Madina, and I’m not interested in adding my opinion on its conduct. Regardless of whether I liked the performance or not, I was content by how the evening was unrolling.

I wondered if anyone in the audience also picked up Nidal’s televised invitation. It’s rejuvenating to witness any sort of credibility in this country. I was taking on the invitation like I would take on a challenge cynically expecting everything to go wrong. Surprisingly, It didn’t. Nidal invited me (and everyone else) to her play. I said yes, got my tickets and had a free-of-charge theater evening. I will do it again.

I invite everyone to do so, too. If you have some extra cash, don’t rip the woman off – buy a ticket, but if you don’t, you’re free to attend. Would that pick up, though? Would it be sustainable for a theater to offer free access to those who can’t pay to get in?

If we are to think of it classically, where ticket sales are supposed to pay off expenses and generate income, then the answer is most definitely “no.” Luckily, there are more interesting ways of thinking about this. A friend told me that in Tunis, for example, the government buys all the tickets for every third show of a theater performance, allowing free entrance to one third of all theater performances in the country. I’m not going to aim high and ask the Lebanese government for anything, but a community-based approach to something similar could not be so hard. The Hamra Street’s Merchants Association is very active in organizing street festivals and cultural events. Instead of only organizing event-based activities, such associations could invest in supporting local cultural organizations.

Cultural institutions could also make use of increasing “corporate social responsibility” budgets of different private companies, where these companies would invest in producing an overall positive impact on society and the public sphere mainly for their own benefit. Whether it’s an honest belief in public good or not, I think cultural practitioners should use and gently abuse the private sector’s endeavors in cause-marketing, releasing themselves of the burden of barely paying off their expenses via ticket sales.

Yet the most charming thing about last Friday remains somehow outside the tectonics of how to free theater, although that remains interesting to discuss further. What was most memorable in my experience was not that it was unpaid for. We are continuously bombarded by lies, false claims and deluding propositions on different media platforms. Politicians, cultural figures and other people in “authority” have programmed us into not believing anything they say, as roads remain unpaved by politicians that promised so before their elections, the Internet remains slow, the phone bills remain high and electricity a luxury. Then a theater owner invites everyone to her venue for free if they can’t afford tickets and actually lives up to it. I am happily confused. It makes me dream childish dreams, like free theater for example, and I like it.

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