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Theater in Iraq Between Big Ideas and Weak Structures

Criticism of the terrorist practices of the IS is particularly evi- dent in this scene from the play Cultural managers in different parts of the world with diverse, often difficult political, social or financial circumstances need specialized and adequate trainings and further education. They are the topic of our next Arts Management Newsletter. In the issue December 2014 about Arts and Culture in the Near East we talked with Hella Mewis about Theater in Iraq, where cultural managers are needed to ensure that the cultural sector can grow again and fulfill its tasks in the aftermath of the war, during the development of a new governmental system and against the terrorism of the fundamentalist Islamic State. Culture in Iraq contributes to the development of education, community values, and openness more actively than it is often the case in the Western world.

Picture: Criticism of the terrorist practices of the IS is particularly evi- dent in this scene from the play "Interview". © Mohamed Oda

AMN: Ms. Mewis, you plan and realize theater projects and co-productions in Iraq, in particular in Baghdad. How did you come about to doing this?

Hella Mewis: In 2010 I worked as a project manager for international theater projects at the Theaterhaus Berlin. I was in Baghdad for the first time when the house was invited to a theater festival. It became clear to me very quickly that I wanted to work in Iraq. I directed my very first own theater project there with the name of Stamba last year as part of the theme ‘Baghdad, Cultural Capital of the Arab World’. For each country of this four-country project between Iraq, Egypt, France and Germany, a play was developed based on the theme of clichés in Europe and the MENA-Region. It was premiered in Baghdad as the first international co-production presented after 2003.

AMN: What was the indigenous theater tradition in Iraq like before 2003?

HM: Theater has a long tradition and a great significance in Iraq. Until the First World War it was concentrated in the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra. With the British colonization the influence of theater grew, just like other areas of the fine arts. Around the end of the 1920’s theater departments were set up at institutes and universities of fine arts and classical and later epic theater was taught and performed. However, theater in Iraq is more than just a Western influence. There was a great deal of synergy during its development. Today, the Iraqi theater has its own form and deals intensively with the problems in the country - even right now, although the IS is in power to the north and west of Iraq. Upstart theater pieces stick out in particular. There is dance theater like the work Noise by Rasool Abbas. In the field of performance, pieces are especially conceived for the special regional architecture such as the Montara Theater in Baghdad - a Schanaschil, a former residential building with a roofed courtyard and units surrounding it. The director and choreographer Bassem Al Tayeb used nine of these units to perform scenes taken from daily life. This is something completely new in Iraq.

AMN: You have implemented numerous projects in Iraq, including a theater festival for next generation artists. To what extent have you been supported by the financial, political and managerial structures of state culture?

HM: The festival for next generation artists was organized by Muntada Theater and was funded by the Ministry of Culture. The Muntada is part of the State National Theater with currently about 270 members in the ensemble. The Iraqi Ministry of Culture operates four theater houses that were rebuilt piece-by-piece after their destruction. The ministry also has a budget at its disposal, but has only first been able to work with it since 2002. There is no strategy for culture and no cultural development plan. Today’s entire administration apparatus is set up just as centrally as it was under Saddam, using in part some of the same staff. That makes the work difficult, even though the management level in the branches of the Ministry of Culture and the theater houses has been switched and they are interested in achieving something. But their amendment proposals are subject to the approval by the parliament. For example, a culture funding strategy plan was filed in 2013 but still hasn’t been decided upon. Such official struggles with formal political opponents continue to happen daily.

AMN: What role do cultural sectors like the theater have to deal with this system, the consequences of the war, the political and social problems, and the new beginning?

HM: Upstart theaters are particularly very critical of society and are therefore very creative. Just last week, we premiered the performance Interview, a German-Iraqi co-production directed by Akram Assam. The themes of the status of women, the ideology of the Islamic State and what is happening in northern Iraq are addressed here using multimedia and various elements such as drama, dance and video installations. Addressing the target group and publicity works quite differently than in Europe. We only managed to reach a wide audience for Interview because I have contacts with newspapers and television. Otherwise, a lot runs using social media, which reaches new audiences. Normally, like in Europe, academics from the arts and social sciences go to the theater. This time others, like those from technical colleges, also came. They rarely know anything about theater projects and performances. The next generation is particularly open to discussion and change. This is not so much the case with older people. These important aspects of cultural management - audience development, the transmission of values and a critical look at current conditions – work very well here. The discussions that arise from the plays continue afterwards. Perhaps this is due to the difficult circumstances and the greater need to change something.

AMN: How do you organize and fund projects? What kinds of cultural managerial challenges do you face?

HM: There is no cultural management or marketing training in Iraq. That is the after-effect of Saddam’s centralization policies. Artists do not know how they can fund projects. This training is a responsibility of the state, which its slowly taking care of it, but it is also a responsibility of the artists themselves. A lot of work needs to be done. If an NGO is planning a project, it can apply for co-financing by the Ministry of Culture and look for other donors if this is not enough. Sponsoring by the economic sector is not well known – also by organizations, although the willingness to rethink is there. Then, there are the international supporters on location, consulates with cultural funding programs or foundations. Only a few know about these options. Also new and important is that the tasks are being distributed meaningfully and that there is advancement in structured teamwork. In the past, most things worked through contacts. To learn something like this and to teach it is a procedure. One cannot just apply European cultural management to Iraq. First, one needs to understand the differences between cultures and behaviors. Intercultural management was a great help to me and should be a greater part of the training in Germany.

AMN: Baghdad was the UNESCO Cultural Capital in 2013. You were involved in an international theater festival as part of the program. How was the feedback?

HM: I was pleased that Baghdad's application was successful because a larger budget was allotted for culture through it. There was film, art, literature and theater. We organized an eight-day festival with performances at the National Theater, in the Rafidain, and in the Muntada Theater. Two plays were presented each day from Iraq, the Arab region, as well as from abroad. The theaters were always crowded. Many international journalists have criticized the yearly cultural capital program, mostly because of the quality. But many of them were not on location and others had a political rather than a cultural background. You cannot just apply Western standards; instead, you have to know the background. Festivals are conceived differently in the Arab region. I found it very good because national and international productions from across all cultural sectors were shown, artists were invited, and there was a dialogue. In addition, the infrastructure was built up, for example, the Museum of Modern Art in Iraq was reopened after it had been destroyed and looted during the war.

AMN: What is there left to do? Where do you want have support?

HM: Most important, I think, is to promote and institutionalize cultural exchanges. Culture thrives on that. Opportunities for artists and cultural ma- nagers are needed to gain experience outside the country and to be able to participate in projects, workshops or serve as trainees. One can pass this knowledge on at home to initiate developments in management as well as in the content of culture, matching the conditions of the country. Therefore an understanding of the diversity of the backgrounds and the quality of the cul- ture and lifestyle of the Arab world is fundamental.


Hella Mewis studied business and has been working as a cultural manager since 1993 with, among others, the Kunst- hof Gesellschaft zur Kunst- und Kulturförderung mbH (Kunsthof Society for Arts and Cultural Development Corporation) as well as a manager for international theater projects at the Theaterhaus Berlin Mitte from 2010 to 2012. Hella Mewis now lives and works independently in Baghdad and organizes cultural exchange projects in various branches of art between Europe and the MENA region.


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Author/Source: This interview with Hella Mewis was conducted by Kristin Oswald/ Arts Management Network
Management Topic: Organisation & Leadership
Cultural Area: Theatre+Dance
Submitted by editor-in-chief on Jul 08, 2015