Grid Iron and Al-Harah Theater on Bethlehem Cultural Festival
Ahead of the Bethlehem Cultural Festival at Glasgow's CCA, we talk to some of the people behind the new project shining a light on the Palestinian town's cultural and artistic scene
Ben Harrison is used to staging shows in all sorts of different places. Grid Iron, the Edinburgh-based theatre company he has been Co-Artistic Director of since 1996, is known for its site-specific work – locations for shows have ranged from a working cancer hospital in Jordan to ten metres underwater in Belfast's Lagan Weir. But something about making work at the periphery of the Israeli-West Bank border hit him differently.
"I don't think I've ever done this before, but I stopped the workshop," says Harrison, who has worked as a director for over 25 years and has facilitated workshops all over the world. An expert at knowing how to fill all sorts of spaces with stories, he suddenly found himself in a place where he felt there was "nothing to add... The space was too overwhelming," he explains. "Anything too artistic, too aesthetic, too visually ambitious, felt totally wrong. Because you can't compete with the monstrosity of what the wall is. All you can do is witness it."
Harrison was in Palestine at the time to work with the company Al-Harah Theater on the very first Bethlehem Site Specific Festival, launched by Al-Harah in 2020 to celebrate the city of Bethlehem's standing that year as the Capital of Arab Culture (although due to the pandemic, the actual festival was postponed until the summer of 2021). In Feburary 2020, he travelled to Bethlehem with director Allie Butler to facilitate workshops on site-specific theatre with a group of ten emerging Palestinian theatre directors. The concept of having a site-specific festival in the area transpired "because there are lots of old houses in Bethlehem and Beit Jala," explains Marina Barham, Co-Founder and General Manager of Al-Harah Theater.
"Some of them are inhabited and some of them are not, but people don't know their history and their stories. [Site-specific theatre] is something new that does not exist much in Palestine – we thought this could be a way to make these spaces come alive." Supported by the British Council, Al-Harah began looking for a UK-based partner with a history of site-specific performance to develop the project with. Everybody kept recommending "Ben Harrison and Grid Iron," says Barham. "They were one of the oldest groups in the UK working with site-specific performance. So we proposed [they collaborate with us], and they agreed."
Harrison and Butler worked with the group of directors for nine days, developing the concepts that would later debut at the festival. The directors were asked to create work that responded in some way to the spaces they were in. With the exception of the workshop "right by the separation wall," when Harrison felt compelled to stop, he found the experience "joyous" and "very close to domestic life".
"I think what was interesting about some of the old courtyards and buildings we were working in was the sense of family history, and families being there for generations and generations," he says. "We chatted to people who were living next door to the spaces we were working in – they were very interested in them." Barham credits the festival with giving many elderly members of the community a new lease of life. "It revived neighbourhoods with older people. In Star Street, there are many houses where the younger generation have moved out, and it is just elderly people living in them," she says. "[The festival] gave them a new appreciation of their houses, their stories, their lives. When we finished, I went back to visit them after a couple of weeks and they said, 'are you coming again next week to perform?' I said 'No, I'm sorry, but we will come back!'"
The festival, when it took place in 2021, proved to be a great success. "With these site-specific performances, we had new audiences, new faces we hadn't seen in our theatres," says Barham. "It was full of life. Some of the directors have a completely different vision for theatre after this experience, and they want to continue working in this field. In Palestine, we don't have a lot of good theatre venues. This is a good substitute, using alternative spaces and houses – it's a way to get closer to the community, and reach more normal people, not just the usual theatre-goers." Both Barham and Harrison hope to revive the festival again in 2022; Barham can see it becoming a staple cultural event in the region.
This month, Harrison and Barham will be appearing together at the Bethlehem Cultural Festival at the CCA in Glasgow to speak about the Bethlehem Site Specific Festival and share a documentary that was made about the project. The BCF aims to shine a light on the rich arts and cultural scene in the 'not so little town' of Bethlehem – reminding attendees that there is more to this part of Palestine than the religious and political history that is often associated with it in the West.
"[We wanted to show] that Bethlehem is a Palestinian culture, full of multiplicity and diversity," says Abdelfattah Abusrour, Festival Director. "Here you'll find Muslims, Christians, and so much cultural and artistic life. It was important for us to present and celebrate this Bethlehem – to show that it's not only a religious place where people come to think about Jesus, but also a place where life is, and where people of different religions are living as Palestinians and as equals." Alongside discussions, such as the one between Harrison and Barham, the programme features film, live music and poetry. For Harrison, it's important that such an event takes place in the UK. "The only news stories you see [about Palestine] in the West are ones of violence and despair," he notes. "When actually, the culture is as rich as any other culture. There are political reasons for why we don't see as much of that – but we should."
The Bethlehem Cultural Festival, CCA, Glasgow, 4-5 Dec