For the past few months, 14 Beirutis and 14 Pittsburghers have been trading letters. This transatlantic exchange will now serve as the basis for a new virtual play, starting Thursday, which seeks to bridge the empathy gap between strangers and commemorate the fading use of handwritten letters.
Written by Molly Rice and directed by Rusty Thelin, “The Birth of Paper” stars Lebanon’s Milia Ayache, with whom the pair previously worked on their 2017 play “Angelmakers: Songs for Female Serial Killers,” in what is described as an “exchange of goodwill between potential friends.”
“Right after the [Aug. 4, 2020, Beirut Port] blast I got an email from Molly and Rusty asking if I was OK. I wrote back immediately saying I was OK but I wasn’t in the right head space and I don’t even know how I wrote 60 emails back to friends,” Ayache told The Daily Star. “I can’t even remember what I wrote or how my fingers clacked on the keyboard to get information across.
“Later on in December, she emailed me again and said she had a project with me in mind … thinking about distance, especially in today’s Zoom climate,” she added. “We as humans have a desire to reach out and touch other people and that’s very clear through Zoom, but there is … no tactile element to it. The crux of the play is about the myriad ways we can connect and a plea to remember different forms of communication, like paper.”
The Zoom-based performance, running June 24 to 29 and produced by RealTime, is an adaptation of Rice’s 2003 play of the same name, now tailored to fit the pandemic era and where it sits in Lebanon’s many crises.
“We had long conversations about where Beirut is as a city right now, where Pittsburg is, and what is the significance of paper to a city like Beirut,” Ayache said. “I told them about how Beirut is a publishing hub for the Middle East. Paper was becoming increasingly more expensive as we were speaking about these ideas. If I went to Malek’s and wanted to buy pens, markers and paper, it now costs like LL300,000.
“I reached out to colleagues, friends, a delivery guy I knew who speaks English, asking if they felt like writing something on paper to a stranger,” she added. “People have been shells of human beings in the aftermath of the blast, and one letter-writer told me that sitting down to write a letter gave them so much joy, as they hadn’t picked up a pen in two years.”
The art of letter writing is essential to the play’s goals. While writing an email would have been easier, taking into account Lebanon’s unreliable postal service, the time needed to sit down and think about the message being permanently put on paper allows the writer space to carefully consider their response, and empathize with the receiver in a way that quick emails and texts lack.
“The tendency with these kinds of shows is to be one-sided, and suddenly Beirut becomes this victim,” Ayache said. “There is an American impulse, which doesn’t necessarily come from a bad place, for people there [who] ask, ‘What can we do to help?’
“Instead, why not meet us on equal footing and consider [Beirut] a city twinned in underrated artistry,” she added. “It’s people writing to each other, taking the time to listen and for people to be taken seriously … it’s about instability and being united in uncertainty.”
The pandemic has seen several artists resort to online performances, some of which have been received without much enthusiasm. Lacking a sense of audience interaction, such shows can have difficulty generating the same suspension of disbelief mustered in in-person performance.
Though it’s on Zoom, the creators of “The Birth of Paper” are determined to avoid such a fate by including a more personal and interactive element for audience members. Each Beirut viewer will receive a package from someone in Pittsburgh, containing handcrafted gifts from Handmade Arcade and independent artists, some of which will be opened onscreen.
“We didn’t want this to be a passive, consumptive experience and the alternative is not some cheesy forced audience participation either,” Ayache said. “There are multiple ways of interacting in this show, based on will and the comfort level of the participants.
“There is also a chat box which will be used,” she added, “and there are also sections of the show where audience members will be invited to ‘step into the light,’ as Molly puts it, to participate. It’s all carefully mapped out and there are many moments where this uncertainty is written in and I’ll have to make those decisions on the fly.”
Tickets for “The Birth of Paper” are free of charge to Lebanon residents, and can be reserved at: posttheatrical.org/the-birth-of-paper
We are Trade Board Limited, the experts on all things Vanuatu. We can help you with the various smaller chores associated with business activities. See the complete list at https://tradeboard.biz.