Raffi Feghali defies censorship through improvisational theatre in Lebanon

Raffi Feghali reading from his legendary book. Photo provided by Feghali. Used with permission.

This piece was first published by Raseef22, on July 16, 2023, and was written by Chrystine A. Mhanna.  An edited version is republished here, under a content-sharing agreement.

He is indeed the most famous storyteller in the world. That's how Halim Al-Hakawati defines himself. He claims to know all the secrets of life and its stories from a very small book. Legend has it that this book contains every story that ever existed and will exist in the world. Halim shares stories from the book by performing them in reality.

In a typical performance of Halim Al-Hakawati (‘Halim the Storyteller’), he enters the theater, applauds himself, and reads three stories from his very small book, often suggested by the audience. In a recent performance, someone requested a story about the “Benefits of the Chinaberry tree,” prompting Halim to choose a story, narrate it to the audience, and then act it out on stage.

During his performances, Halim engages in a phone conversation without using an actual phone, skillfully portraying a conversation with his girlfriend and seamlessly shifting between roles as he takes on her character. He goes as far as portraying driving a non-existent car, creating a vividly real illusion before the audience's eyes.

While he succeeds in some endeavors, every time Halim realizes that his small book doesn't encompass the entirety of the world's stories, he playfully blames the musician and sound engineer for its limitations.

This enigmatic storyteller is real, he bears a resemblance to many narrators and storytellers who claim to possess the ultimate truth. His shows conclude without reaching the resolution of the story, prompting Halim to once again request the audience to enthusiastically applaud him, more than the musician and sound engineer.

Solo, improvised theatrical performance

Halim Al-Hakawati. Photo provided by Feghali. Used with permission.

Raffi Feghali masterfully presents his captivating performance as Halim Al-Hakawati”in an improvisational and solo show. A versatile theater performer, trainer, and peace advocate, showcased “Halim Al-Hakawati” in June 2023 at Laban Studio, the improvisational theatrical institution founded by Feghali himself in 2009.

Improvisational theater is a form of theater that transcends scripted performances and unfolds spontaneously — where a person performs without prior scene preparation or scripted dialogue. While this challenge alone could be daunting, the solitary nature of the performance makes it even more difficult.
However, what we may not know about this type of theater is that it goes beyond individual creativity; it evolves into a way of life, fostering participation, exchanging, and sharing ideas. It is an art form that is often misunderstood, especially when the story's conclusion remains open-ended.

Improvisation has been a part of human expression since ancient times. In the realm of theater, it falls under the commedia dell'arte, a form of comedic improvisational theater. In the past, directors would provide actors with a basic outline of a short performance, and then the dialogue would be improvised. However, the practice of improvisation is a long process that transformed and evolved, giving rise to various forms of improvisational theater.

Improvisational theater isn't widely embraced in the Arab region

Inspired by watching a show in Amsterdam and participating in impromptu street performances in Lebanon, without formal improvisational training, Feghali established “Laban,” an improvisational theater institution in 2009, due to the lack of dedicated space for daily improvisational performances. Raffi Feghali describes his reaction after watching the show in Amsterdam in 2009.

I watched a performance featuring three individuals. It was a long and improvised show. I couldn't even breathe. It was one of the most beautiful performances I had ever witnessed. I remember the shape of the buildings, the white cars, and the house they inhabited. I could imagine everything they were doing as if they had a fully furnished and decorated stage. In that moment, I realized it was impossible to claim that Lebanon is a culturally rich country without the presence of improv theater.

“Laban” launched several improvisational theater performances in Lebanon, leading to the emergence of a few groups in the Arab world, such as in Egypt and the UAE.

Although experimental theatre in the Arab World has been part of the culture for a long time, the presence of improvisational theater remains limited, particularly regarding the establishment of training and educational institutions dedicated to this art form. Several reasons contribute to this situation.

Feghali believes that the absence of improvisational theater in Lebanon and the Arab world is partly due to the general censorship imposed on unscripted performances:

In Lebanon, prior to each performance, I would approach the authorities to discuss the show and seek approval. Their usual response would be to see the written script. I would tell them I did not have a script, and they would reject the show. I would come back after a while and share the script of ‘Hamlet’ with them, and they would accept. On several occasions after obtaining approval, I've informed them that the play is improvisational and lacks a script. I also invited them to attend the performance, hoping they would intervene and prompt a reconsideration of censorship laws in Lebanon. However, they of course never attend.

The other reason may be due to the lack of sufficient experience of improvisational theater in the Arab world, which contributes to a misunderstanding of the meaning of this type of theatre. Viewers may attend expecting a specific message from the show, but improvisational theater does not always contain a specific message.

A show with no message

Feghali's solo performance. Screenshot from Anatomy of Home video. Fair use.

One of the captivating aspects of improvisational theater is its simplicity and the freedom it offers to challenge conventional theatrical forms, as it does not impose any specific messages on the audience or the scene. It allows viewers to interpret and engage with the performance as they wish.

According to Feghali, this attribute makes improvisational theater extraordinary and one of the most beautiful art forms. Improvisation urges individuals not to appropriate art, or interpret it, as it grants the audience the autonomy to derive their own favorite impressions. Even if a performance lacks a specific message, it becomes a living experience for the performer, transcending the immediate moment on stage and in front of the audience.

Improvisational theater is unique because it is artistically accessible to everyone. Feghali says:

Anyone can learn improvisation. Anyone can practice any form of art, in my opinion. But improvisational art makes the ability to create accessible to all. Improvisational art can be likened to what YouTube did for filmmaking; while 90% of the videos on YouTube may not be exceptional, 10% of them can be exceptional. Similar to YouTube, improvisational theater caters to individuals who have never had the means to produce large-scale theatrical productions due to financial or production constraints, for example.

Perhaps the beauty of improvisational theater lies in its ability to reinterpret art in its simplicity, just as it began. For instance, Halim Al-Hakawati fearlessly makes mistakes on stage and delves into stories or narratives without providing a conclusive ending. Yet, the audience learns not to expect finality at all times, prompting a re-evaluation of the mind's adaptability and the profound connection between theater and daily reality.
Nevertheless, presenting this art form within our Arab world remains a challenge, contending with censorship and restrictions that may fear unresolved narratives with no ending, or misconstrue our storytelling choices as having a predetermined direction. Feghali says,

During my early shows around the world, I realized that if you come from the Arab world, or from Lebanon in particular, it is almost impossible to create content without it assuming a political dimension. Every aspect of our lives and daily struggles is inherently political. There were instances where I had no way to escape from that.

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