Benedictus: An ambitious international collaboration among artists from Iran, Israel, and the United States Created by Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, Motti Lerner, Roberta Levitow, Danny Michaelson, and Torange Yeghiazarian, September 29 – October 21, Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco.

Only 72 hours before a scheduled US attack on Iran. Two estranged childhood friends, one Jewish and one Muslim, born in the same town in Iran, agree to a secret meeting in a Benedictine monastery in Rome to negotiate a price for safety and freedom.

The above synopsis is the main plot for the upcoming play Benedictus, an ambitious international collaboration between artists from Iran, Israel and the United States. The collaborators — Motti Lerner, one of Israel’s most provocative contemporary playwrights; Torange Yeghiazarian, Artistic Director of Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco; Iranian-American director Mahmood Karimi-Hakak of Siena College; American designer Daniel Michaelson of Bennington College and designer for the acclaimed “Spring Awakening” at the Public Theatre; and dramaturge Roberta Levitow, founder of Theatre Without Borders — have been working together on this exciting collaboration for nearly 4 years.

During the last few months, I’ve been lucky enough to get a glimpse of one of the most interesting and inspiring artistic collaborations that I can imagine. The Benedictus collaboration started tentatively, with Roberta and Torange meeting in 2003 at the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. They enjoyed each others’ company and respected each others’ artistic aims, so talk quickly turned to a possible collaboration. While Roberta had engaged in numerous international projects in the past, she did not feel very familiar with the Middle East. Roberta expressed deep concern over the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the two thought it might be interesting to do a piece exploring the Israeli/US connection. As an American Jew, however, Roberta didn’t feel that she could accurately represent an Israeli viewpoint. When she met Motti Lerner, one of the most widely produced political playwrights living in Israel today, things really started to tick. Motti wanted very much to work on something to address the Israeli/Iranian conflict. “When we started this collaboration nearly 3 years ago,” says Torange Yeghiazarian, “we didn’t imagine how disturbingly timely the subject of US-Iran relations would be today.” Motti reportedly said, “Trust me,” sure that in a few years, the relationship between Israel and Iran would be a hot topic in the news.

Roberta’s vision for the project was that it would bring together artists from Israel with artists from Iran. But after following up with a few personal contacts in Iran, she was politely told that it would be impossible for an artist living in Iran to participate at this time. Knowing about the large Iranian community living in the US, Roberta quickly thought of adding an Iranian-American. She suddenly remembered that Torange herself spent the first 14 years of her life in Iran. The three artists — Motti, Roberta and Torange — began to discuss a possible project exploring the relationship between the three countries.

Next, a colleague recommended Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, an Iranian born artist, who has lived in the United States since 1998. Wanting to be prepared for potential conflict, Roberta invited a dear friend and colleague, Daniel Michaelson, a trained conflict mediator as well as an acclaimed theatre designer, who could help resolve situations of impasse, if any should arise. Before the first group meeting, everyone held their breath a bit, not sure whether or not there would be a rocky beginning, particularly between Mahmood and Motti. Instead, at first meeting, Mahmood and Motti opened their arms to each other immediately. As they embraced their first hello, Mahmood remembers saying, “I wish I could do this with you in Tehran,” to which Motti replied, “and I wish I could do this with you in Jerusalem.”

The group began bonding over one of the most basic experiences: food. During the first one week period that they spent together in 2005 in Albany, New York, hosted by Siena College’s Creative Arts Department, each person in the group chose a day to present his/her life, art, culture, food, etc. This is where some of the learning really started: Torange and Mahmood were shocked to find that Motti and Roberta claimed certain foods as Israeli, and Motti and Roberta were shocked to find that they claimed the same foods as Persian. The top contentions were about Fesenjoon and Salad Shirazi!

It was just the beginning of the three-year learning process that is still going on today. The entire group laughs at the food story now, but it seems a very poignant example of part of the larger conflict. “Each one of us has his own narratives of the historical developments that took place in the Middle East,” says Motti Lerner. Mahmood nods, “[it’s a matter of] respecting each others’ narrative, not accepting it.” Over the years, no one in the group has taken the position of wanting to convince everyone of their narrative. Rather, each person in the group realizes the importance of separating the individual from the government, in terms of responsibility. “If someone judges me based on what the Islamic government does or what the Bush administration does, I’m doomed,” says Torange.

Keeping this in mind, over the years, the group has come to feel that the essence of their collaboration hinges not necessarily on the fact that they are each a representative of their country, but that they are five individuals coming together to create a theatre work. Mahmood stresses, “We are artists with a political point of view, not people who are seeking to use theatre for politics.” He believes that at this point, politicians and academics seem to be stuck in old ways of thinking and aren’t making progress towards conflict resolution and peace building. “Maybe it’s up to the artists to make the change now,” he says thoughtfully. The group hopes that their collaboration will help the audience be more aware of how important such political discussions are right now. Roberta adds, “Americans may not be aware of how imminent this discussion is in the political debate…maybe the best service that we can provide as artists is just to call attention.”

Having a trained mediator has helped the group immensely in their collaboration. The group started out getting to know each other in an exploratory kind of way, without being sure what creative collaboration would evolve, or if they would continue working together at all. Over the years, as strong individual artists, they have found different ideas inspiring and had different ideas about the outcome of their collaboration. Add in the fact that some of them come from historically divided backgrounds, and it isn’t surprising that there have been times when the group was sure that the collaboration was over. Roberta, the dramaturge, admits to doing some sneaky behind the scenes work, acting many times as the mediator between two distinctly different creative ideas, ultimately helping the group come back to a common idea and able to make compromises (a most crucial outcome, as in this group of five artists, everything that has happened regarding the Benedictus project has happened in consultation with everyone else).

As the conversation turns to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict during one of the interviews, and Motti and Mahmoods’ voices begin to rise higher and higher in the room, I watch as Roberta artfully acknowledges both sides of the argument on a very personal level. She pleads with each person to remember the importance of learning to acknowledge the harm done to a person, even if it was done by one’s own people in the past. She notes that each of us brings historical injustices done to our collective identity to the table, and that it affects our ability to trust one another. I watch as the conflict subsides, by no means solved, of course, but in the moment the urgency lessens, and the two artists look each other in the eyes with a profound respect. After a moment, Daniel exclaims, “This is how it has been for 3 years!” The tension in the room dissipates completely and the group laughs at the truth of his statement.

During their collaboration, the group has consistently tackled difficult personal and political questions: questions like, ‘is war inevitable or is dialogue possible?’, ‘what is the nature of human-ness in relation to the present conflict in the Middle East?’ They aren’t asking easy questions, and naturally, they aren’t getting easy answers. But the group has come to expect this and to value that dialogue that has evolved. “Theatre is a place of dialogue,” Motti reminds us, “and it has always frustrated me that theatre artists don’t have much dialogue between each other.” While the group doesn’t feel that their collaboration will necessarily end all conflict in the Middle East, I think that they do feel that their collaboration is a reflection of a larger dialogue that is ready to happen in the world.

The play, Benedictus, doesn’t ask easy questions either (you wouldn’t expect it to, would you?), and so naturally, there aren’t any easy answers. What you can expect is an evening full of on-the-edge-of-your-seat action, full of important ideas to carry home and continue the conversation that the artists started nearly 3 years ago. Benedictus features renowned Iranian theatre and cinema thespian, Ali Pourtash* and Egyptian-born Arab-American actor of TV and theatre, Al Faris*, most recently seen in “The Unit” at the invitation of its creator, David Mamet, as well as veteran Bay Area performer, Earll Kingston*. The play runs September 29th through October 21st at the Thick House in San Francisco.

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* Member of Actors’ Equity Association and Screen Actors’ Guild

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