Non-Western Theater Elevates Local Culture

Theater Professor Jillian Campana discusses the richness of local theater traditions and the ways in which they can engage Western-dominated theater.


A boy learns to play traditional Wayang puppets amid the coronavirus outbreak in Jakarta, Indonesia, March 14, 2021. Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Reuters

The Cairo Review’s reporter-researcher Ibrahim Elzayat and assistant editor Omar Auf sat down with Jillian Campana, a professor of theater at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and author of the book Western Theater in a Global Context: Directing and Teaching Culturally Inclusive Drama Around the World

Campana discussed the connectivity of non-Western theater and her work with the film The Puzzle Club which explores how the stage can help brain trauma victims socially heal. This is part two of a two-part interview, please see part one here.

Cairo Review: Tell us about The Puzzle Club and The Making of the Puzzle Club and how theater can be used as a tool for healing?

Jillian Campana: That was a project that I did years ago that arose out of working with survivors of traumatic and acquired brain injury. That, of course, is a trauma in and of itself, when someone has had some kind of, in that particular case, cognitive deficit experienced as a result of an injury. But also, sometimes physical or emotional injuries have the same kind of level of destruction, the person is forever changed. The way that they are seen by others and the way that they see themselves is changed as a result of what has happened to them. So there’s an opportunity there to reinvent oneself as the person that they want to be rather than the person that is seen by other members of society. 

That particular project worked with members of, I would say, a support group of brain injury survivors, who were trying to not go back to the life that they had pre-injury, but who were trying to live on their own, trying to have a more active voice and be a more active participant in their society, and even in their family lives—maybe get back to work. So I worked with them to use drama as a way to practice behaviors and skills, and practice asserting their new identity in a positive way. In other words, they could practice in a rehearsal, and then take their rehearsal out into the live real life performance in the street, you could say. 

And what I did was a series of drama exercises with them over a year and I interviewed them throughout the course of that work several times. And then I took all of the transcripts from that work (it was hundreds and hundreds of pages) and I wrote a play using their words, to explain what it’s like to live with a brain injury and what it’s like to try to come back after that and to come back as a whole person again. And that particular technique is called verbatim theatre, using the exact words of actual people as the text. And that’s really, really empowering, because it can often give a person who doesn’t have any voice quite a loud voice, and especially if an audience comes, which can be incredibly powerful.

CR: This connects to your recent book called Western Theater in a Global Context, which came out last year. It is about teaching Western theatrical practices and directing English language plays in non-Western or non-English speaking contexts. What core difference does context make? Is it reflected on content, methodology, or something else?

JC: Both. Definitely the content, but also the way in which we make a piece of work and the way we learn about a piece of work. I wrote the book because I think it’s necessary that the world widens its exposure to global theater. Western theater has been the dominant canon all over the world. I’ve lived in Brazil. I lived in India for four years. I lived here for the first time in the early 90s. And I’m always amazed that in all these places, there is an interest principally in Western theater above the beautiful art forms that are regional and local. So I wanted to write this book for everyone to consider how important the global theater scene is, and to understand the rich traditions that exist around the world. And also when someone is making a piece of theater, or when they’re teaching about theater, it’s really important to understand and learn from the place in which the work is being made; taking into consideration all of the aspects of culture, language, the philosophies that come with a different culture, and integrating that into the work by actually asking the people who live in that place what resonates with them the most.

I think we’re looking to elevate theater traditions that have long been ignored or pushed aside. When I first came back to Egypt, about five years ago, I had to really listen to my students about visual imagery, about how bodies look in space, how close an actor gets to an audience. Because the way that I see the story unfolding, and the static images in the play, are very different than the way an Egyptian audience member might see that. I can’t assume that the way that someone in Egypt or India or Brazil would see the same play that I’ve created because there’s a different philosophy and a different mindset that comes to the performance. 

For example, in Western theater, we tend to stage images on the stage from left to right because that’s the sight line, that is the way that the Western reader reads a Romantic language script. Our eyes are taught over time to see one thing [on the left] and then move over to the right, and in a way that informs our understanding of a story. In Egypt, it’s the opposite. If you have an audience member who’s more trained to read Arabic script, they’re going to be looking for the first image on the right side, and they’re going to follow the journey to the left. And if I don’t privilege their knowledge, then I’m not going to do myself any favors when it comes to making a connection with an audience.

CR: We look at Western theater as the global standard or the dominant mode, so there’s this unfair dichotomy of Western and non-Western. But in the non-Western traditions, there’s a lot of richness and diversity. What similarities and differences can you point out between theater in places you’ve worked in, such as between Egypt and India?

JC: I would say both India and Egypt tend to be very dramatic places. Theatrical things happen in the streets more often. Not plays, but theatrical moments—parades and weddings, for example. I happen to live on a street that’s very close to a park that so many people go to to get married, especially during the pandemic. And so on my street, several times a night, there’s a wedding party that goes on, and there’s a theatricality that comes with that event that is incredibly beautiful. People, even in their homes, stop and listen for a moment and recognize it as a beautiful expression. When I say theatricality, I mean that it’s heightened, it’s outside of the normal way that we go about the world. It’s a unique emotion, and coming together as a group of people to honor or celebrate something, to me, that’s theatricality. And that also happens in India, there’s just a lot of parades that happen, there are a lot of celebrations.

In India, there are performance traditions that are so ancient. They’re completely different to how theater is performed in the West. They’re really dance-drama, as is the case throughout Asia; the body is more involved. And in Egypt, there are two dominant forms that I mentioned, khayal al-zil, which is puppetry where the body isn’t involved, and also halqa, which is usually seated storytelling, so there’s less body. There’s a philosophical component that comes with that when you remove the body, you have to often be more cerebral. I find that to be the case throughout a lot of Middle Eastern forms.

CR: How do these heightened acts of theatricality affect your work?

JC: I remember a taxi ride that I took when I first moved back in 2015. The taxi driver asked me if he could smoke, and I said sure, so he careened four lanes over next to a minibus, grabbed a cigarette from the someone in the minibus, went all the way back over to the far lane, forgot he didn’t have a lighter, went back to the minibus, all while going super fast. And I remember thinking, this is terrifying. And so interesting. That little story actually made its way into one of the plays that I did here about four years ago.

CR: I think you’ve summed up the experience of driving in Egypt perfectly when you said it was terrifying and interesting.

JC: I did actually go to a doctor about a year ago because my heart was racing. And the doctor said to me, “Do you look at the road when you [are in the car?]” Of course, I said yes. He said, “Stop.”

CR: What are you looking forward to this year in terms of theater?

JC: I’m super excited about this play that we have coming up, “Mish Zanbik”. I’m excited to see how audiences will perceive it. I’m very happy and encouraged by the number of people who are participating; we have sixty people involved in the making of this play. And I would say it’s a really great intersection of gender. At first I thought this was going to be something that more women are drawn to, and that was not the case at all. So that felt really, really heartening. And I have to say, the scripts that have been written by the young men and women who have written this are incredible, and they’ve already taught me so much about the way that the younger generation views sexual harassment and sexual assault.

CR: I hope they raise awareness on the issue.

JC: I think it will spark dialogue. And that’s where awareness starts. We’re just talking about it even if the conversations are difficult, or people disagree. [The key is] just beginning to have those talks to understand and unpack those issues more profoundly.

Jillian Campana is a tenured full professor of theater at The American University in Cairo, where she also serves as the Associate Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Having earned an interdisciplinary Ph.D in theater and the social sciences, her research and creative work look at drama and theater as tools to build community, equality, and identity. She has developed several theater projects around the world, including programs for persons living with brain injuries in Sweden, victims of sexual trafficking in India, and victims of sexual harassment in Egypt.