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Lithuanian monodrama actress and director conquered hearts of arabic audience

Birutė Marcinkevičiūtė – Mar is well-known not only in Lithuania, but throughout the world for her outstanding acting, directing and playwriting. Having been attracted to the theatre stage since childhood, B. Mar has put a conscious effort into establishing herself in the scene: she studied is Saint Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy and has the diplomas of theatre and cinema actress and director.

The artist has been creating since 1998; she has visited over 30 European and other countries worldwide, where she staged her own theatre, literature, musical projects as well as chamber performances and monodramas – among those experiences, B. Mar has seen the lights of Arabic theatre stage, too. Her shows since the very first Fujairah International Monodrama Festival (UAE) have been appreciated for the contribution into the evolution of monodrama; she has received an honourable award from the hands of the Fujairah Sheikh and left a deep imprint in the hearts of the local audience and fellow artists who remember B. Mar as the queen of monodrama.

Despite the cultural differences, Birutė Mar calls Arabic countries her second home. Recalling the warmth and esteem of the Arabic audience, the actress says she is always willing to return to Arabic countries and heartily welcomes invitations to participate in new festivals.

You have been artistically active since childhood. Having graduated from J. Naujalis School of Arts, you later on studied to get the diplomas of theatre and cinema actress and director. What encouraged you to choose this path?

I got enchanted by the world of theatre at school, acting in the children drama study and taking parts in the performances of Kaunas State Musical Theatre. The world on stage opened up as a totally new reality then; it was way more mysterious, engaging and meaningful. I felt more like me standing on stage than in real life.

In the beginning you were more involved in music; you have graduated from the piano class. What made you choose acting?

That is true: I have played the piano for 11 years and have nearly become a pianist but... sitting at the piano, looking down at the keys I would often feel something was missing. While standing on stage, facing the audience, reciting poetry or acting in a drama study I would always feel immensely happy. So I assume it was my inner assuredness that theatre was my true path.

When and how did your independent artistic journey begin?

It began after graduating from the acting studies in Saint Petersburg, when I came back to Lithuania and played Polina in the production of Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler in the Russian Drama Theater of Lithuania. Soon after that I directed my first performance, Happy Days by Samuel Beckett in the Kaunas State Drama Theatre. I began self-consciously. I wasn’t the one to push myself forward. After one year, director J. Vaitkus, who was the head of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre at the time, accepted me to the troupe of theatre actors. Although I was really eager to act, the roles I’d get weren’t that exciting. Then I realised I had to take the matters into my own hands. That way, I discovered monodrama, a genre closest to my heart; and, quite unexpectedly, the first play, Words in the Sand, was an acclaim: since 1998, we have visited over 30 countries with the shows and a small troupe of fellow-artists; we have participated in numerous theatre festivals not only in Europe, but also in Asia, Arabic countries, Africa, USA and South America.

For nearly 20 years, you have been the creator behind independent theatre, literature, musical projects, chamber performances, monodramas; you have visited a number of Middle Eastern countries: the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria. Did you notice how theatre in Islamic countries is different? Does it have any peculiarities?

I have discovered Arabic countries rather unexpectedly, when about a decade ago a well-known Russian theatre critic and producer, V. Khazanov, having seen my performances in some European festivals, suggested that I show the monodrama, Antigone, in Sharjah international theatre festival (UAE). I think at the time we were the only festival artists representing European theatre. It was all very exciting: the local culture, the life itself. We had our show at Sharjah festival, and then other invitations followed to play at the first Fujairah monodrama festival, in other Arabic countries: Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait. I’d say, their theatre is completely different; in European terms it may seem a bit primitive, too melodramatic, but the locals love it albeit its less metaphoric or modern presentation compared to Europe, as the art of directing is less advanced and the actor on stage is the king. The spectators in Arabic countries are amazingly open, they wholeheartedly take what you give them; they burst into applause in the middle of a show when the actor undergoes strong emotions, or they shout out reacting to the action on stage.

You have showed your monodramas five times in the Fujairah International Monodrama Festival (UAE). What encouraged you to go back?

That’s true, I’ve been participating in the Fujairah International Monodrama Festival since its very beginning; I have shown nearly all of my performances there and have been titled the “queen of monodrama”; I also received a great honour accepting an award from the hands of the Fujairah Sheikh himself! Like I said, I have my audience there, who wait for new shows, and it’s always a pleasure to return – and I go back because I am being invited. The Fujairah festival is special: its organisers are exceptionally warm people; actors are invited for the whole festival duration, which allows us to see our colleagues’ performances as well; to attend traditional music and dance concerts at night in the festival area, in Dibba town; besides, the festival takes place in winter which, in the Emirates, is like the best summer: the ocean, warm sunshine... and immense love and respect of local people and the festival crew.

In 2014, at the very same festival you were awarded for the “contribution to the development of monodrama theatre”. Please tell us more about this appraisal of your creative accomplishments.

I received this award for my life-long creative work: for monodramas, for previous shows performed in the Fujairah festivals: Words in the Sand, Lover, Antigone; also for one performance I have created especially for one festival; it was by an Arabian playwright, Mohammed Saeed Al Dhanhani, The Last Night. It was a particularly interesting project: on the same night, two interpretations of this play were shown by me and a famous Moroccan actress, Latifa Ahrar; so the audience could see an Arabic and European takes on the same play.

How is this award special, or perhaps exceptional, to you?

It is probably the highest acknowledgement of my work so far. It has been introduced by the International Theatre Institute (ITI) in cooperation with the Fujairah International Theatre Festival, and it definitely raised the stakes for me. Never before had I accepted an award like that: on the day of the festival opening, in a Fujairah square filled with thousands of spectators, from the Fujairah Sheikh in person. It felt like living the fairy-tale of One Thousand and One Nights...

What other creative work have you introduced to Arabic countries? Which are the most memorable?

The Lover and Antigone tours in Lebanon, Beirut’s Al Madina Theatre in 2012, were especially memorable as I also had a chance to get to know the old Lebanese culture. I remember bringing Words in the Sand to the Jerash Festival for Culture and Arts in Jordan in 2004 – their local culture is amazing, the architecture outstanding, and Petra city is like a dream… Then working with the Arabian playwright, M. S. Al Dhanhani, on his play, The Arabian Night: we read and analysed the translation of the play with the author himself; I learnt a lot of interesting facts about the daily life of the Arabic societies, women’s position there, the differences in tradition. Then we travelled a bit with the project: we performed in the Philippines, Manila, in the global congress / festival organised by the International Theatre Institute (ITI) in 2006. A couple of years ago I travelled to Kuwait as Antigone was invited to the Kuwait Monodrama Festival, a newly established one, following in the steps of the Fujairah festival tradition. All the journeys are very rewarding; I wouldn’t have gotten to know as much of Arabic culture and their marvellous people; nowhere else in the world have I received so much warmth and respect. Perhaps I’ve lived there in my past lives? Because every time I come back, it feels like returning home, regardless of cultural differences and traditions.

When you prepare your performances for the Arabic, Islamic countries, do you take into consideration the cultural differences and nuances?

That’s true, those places have their own traditions and customs... I once met the managers of a theatre festival in Iran, who asked if I could cover my head while acting, as their traditions require so. I said, of course. It was intriguing to feel like a Persian woman for a while. And when I showed Antigone in Sharjah for the first time, I found the stage covered in fresh flowers when I came to rehearse. “We embellished the stage for your performance, it’s so beautiful!” the translator told us. And they were very surprised when we asked to take those flowers away during the play. When I played Lover in Fujairah, we had to alter my costume – it is unusual for an actor there to have arms or legs uncovered, and we respected their Islamic tradition. I was also very surprised to see the audience applause and shout their “bravos” during the show, as if it was a rock concert. In the beginning it was unusual to see mostly men among the audience, too. And that after the shows, women would gather separately and men would stay aside in their own groups, dancing, having fun, smoking hookah. However, during the past years I keep seeing more women. I’ve heard so many sensitive stories of Arabic women who would approach me after a show and tell me how difficult it’s been to get an education, how they would study against their parents’ will, as it’s still quite common to expect that a woman will be a good housewife and that education is not for them.

What is your personal relation to the Middle Eastern countries?

Now I have a lot of friends in Arabic countries, so there is a strong personal bond with this region. I often think: what an unexpected life’s gift it is to have come to know their culture and life – so few artists from Lithuania have barely visited or acted there; we may be one of the first ones to enjoy such a welcoming acceptance in Arabic countries.

Have you ever experienced any adventures or misunderstandings while travelling in the Islamic states?

Yes, travelling there is always an adventure and a lot of fun. Take my first trip. Having landed in the Dubai airport, I saw women covered in black and men dressed in white; passport control reminded of a religious rite. We came at night and waited for an hour or so – no one’s meeting us. Only when the airport empties, we notice several men waiting around. We ask them, perhaps you’re waiting for us? We are from Lithuania. They take out a photo and start laughing: “So that’s how you look, we were expecting an old lady!” So it appears I’d sent them my picture from a festival catalogue, where I played a hundred year-old woman in Words in the Sand, with white mask and grey hair... And they expected to see someone looking exactly like that! Or that day when we were rehearsing Antigone in Fujairah, several hours before the show. Suddenly the manager of the festival enters my makeup room and asks if I’m ready. Yes, I reply, the performance is in several hours. He goes, no, are you ready now? “What do you mean now?” “You have to go on stage now, the Sheikh is here.” “What about the audience?” I ask him. “There will be audience”, he keeps convincing me. So I played the show several hours early; most of the spectators came with the Sheikh. In our country it would seem unthinkable to start a performance early, say, when the President arrives – she would most likely come at the time of event. Then I also remember TV crew with cameras entering the makeup room after Words in the Sand and asking me where the author of the play is. I reply that the author (S. Beckett) is dead, unfortunately... So the whole crew of journalists starts expressing their condolences to me... I will never forget several hours’ delay at the first several festivals. If the organisers promise that the bus is coming at 3 pm, it will show up at 5 pm like it’s a normal thing. Nobody’s worried, everyone’s smiling. I later understood that time goes by differently there, and I calmed down. However, now that the Arabic festivals show more of European performers, the time gets closer and closer to the reality…

What are your future plans? Perhaps you have new projects and performances ready for Arabic audiences?

The most recent plans include some work in Austria’s Salzburg theatre, with a young and promising Lithuanian conductor, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, where in May we’ll show a cycle of B. Kutavičius plays: The Gates of Jerusalem, From Yotvingian Stone and an opera, Bone Man on the Iron Mountain. I am invited as the director.

I will always return to Arabic countries with greatest pleasure if I am invited. I miss those places like my second home.

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