66 Minutes in Syrian detention

his month, immerse yourself in a theatrical experience unlike any other. You are a tourist who has somewhat imprudently decided to visit Damascus, the capital of a nation where a fiery anti-regime uprising has left some 15,000 dead since March 2011.

In his play entitled 66 Minutes in Damascus, Lebanese director Lucien Bourjeily gives you a look into what it might feel like in Syrian detention.

Based on a series of first-hand accounts from a few of the estimated 17,400 missing in Syria, Bourjeily, who until recently has used improvisational theater for mostly humorous endeavors, takes the audience on a somber exploration into Syria’s infamous, dungeon-like prison world. NOW Extra sat down with the director to hear more about the performance that will take place later this month as part of London’s LIFT Festival.
Tell us more about the play and the concept of immersion theater.

Lucien Bourjeily: A group of tourists is picked up by security services in Damascus and taken in for interrogation. It is both interactive and immersive. You get in and witness something.  The audience is among the detainees. It gets you to think what you would do in such a situation… Would you ask for a lawyer or for help from your embassy? And what about when and if you come out? Audience members are living this journey… They are seeing it. 
The actors have a general idea, but are prepared to improvise, depending on the audience’s reaction.

Can you tell us more about the first-hand accounts you used?

Bourjeily: We went to the northern Lebanese village of Wadi Khaled and interviewed families, children. Some were recent arrivals, some had been there for a while. We talked about everything, not only detention. Detention is a draining experience… These interviews were the first layer. Then I met a lot of activists who escaped from Syria. We also read books, articles, blogs.  Such research was essential to everything from setting up the sound design to the general atmosphere. It’s mental torture… hearing the sound, a lot of the times you don’t really see, but you hear… It goes on for 24 hours… It doesn’t stop. This was all included in the sound design and general setup.
Given the intensity and discomfort, are there any age limits for the audience?

Bourjeily: There is a warning, especially for those who have claustrophobia. They should be ready for an experience that is not enjoyable. It is not an amusement park. The prisoners might feel uncomfortable, but at some points you can also see the brighter side of human nature… which is what we heard from several prisoners… when they had the chance of having a breather. They jumped into the moment, because everyone hopes that they will come out. As you are inside, you tend to try and distract yourself. The play is a bit more than an hour long and includes some surprises that I don’t want to reveal.

So what is the goal of such a performance? To raise awareness? 

Boujeily: The first thought that came to mind when I did this is the Lebanese prisoners. In a way it has always been an important thing for me… the Lebanese detained, this human rights abuse of people disappearing. And you never know where they are, not knowing if they’re dead or alive. That’s why they take everything from you, even your belt, to make sure you don’t hang yourself. It is something we need to talk about. 

I also wanted to do something about the Arab Spring. It is specifically because of such human rights abuses that people are rising up: the day-to-day treatment and total disregard of human rights, when all you want is your dignity, physical and psychological respect from the government. This was symbolized by the famous Syrian boy who was castrated, tortured and returned to his family last year.

Who is your target audience?

Bourjeily: We were actually wondering yesterday: Who would really come to such a performance? We were going into the psychology of the audience. We think most attendees will be Londoners, and likely Syrians. Part of LIFT’s strategy is to include international work, so we are expecting a bit of everything. We also have the support of the human rights supporters in London.

Will you be bringing the play to Lebanon?

Bourjeily: We will try, but General Security is an issue. For example, they will ask for a text, but the play is improvisational so there is none. In the past, much less controversial things have been censored and until now, all things done by Syrians were not as explicit. We are speaking of what is happening, like a documentary… but more.

Catch 66 Minutes in Damascus as part of London’s LIFT festival taking place this June. For more information, click here.