Backstage at Al Shams Theatre in Jordan's capital, Amman, an animated Odai Hijazi, the venue's manager, tells the tale of how a committed team's labour of love has brought the theatre to where it is today. Between the 350-seat venue and a cafe with a small stage, a host of plays, comedy shows, live music concerts and performance workshops are provided, in the hope of offering a creative and immersive space for performers throughout the city.
“The owner of the theatre, Abdelsalam Qubailat, took a big risk on this place,” says Hijazi, 31. “It was a pretty crazy idea to turn the old Concord Cinema into a theatre, because there is a lack of an arts scene here, and it could have gone very wrong.”
But the punt worked out, and the theatre has been up and running for almost two years. "This transformation has breathed new life into the space, but it still has some of the original touches from when it was a cinema up until the '90s, such as the ticket booths and the seating, now re-covered in red fabric – they haven't been replaced," Hijazi says. His passion for theatre is abundantly clear – he struggles to sit still as he talks with enthusiasm about the vision behind the venue.
"We're trying to do something different here, because getting started as a theatrical artist can be difficult. This space is available because most of us work here on a volunteer basis; we do everything ourselves – even building the sets," he says.
Following a path in theatre
Despite graduating with a law degree, Hijazi followed the path of performance and is now a professional theatre actor, alongside his involvement in three television series and a radio show he currently hosts. "I love theatre because being on stage in character is a feeling like no other – it's total freedom," he says.
Last month, Al Shams Theatre hosted an international dance festival, which had performers from Switzerland, Belgium, Greece and Jordan take to the stage. Well-known Egyptian comic Mohammed Tarek also performed recently, drawing in almost 1,000 audience members for each of the two days he was on stage.
Throughout the autumn, the theatre will host several plays, including award-winning Sea and Sand – a philosophical piece that tackles complex topics – as well as lighthearted performances aimed at children, such as Happiness in a Bag, featuring animals in a jungle delivering life lessons on happiness.
"It's an interactive experience for the children and they're always totally enraptured throughout the performance," says Hijazi, as he jumps from his chair and begins re-enacting a scene from the play. His dedication is impressive – he spends time at Al Shams Theatre every single day of the week and oversees a core team of about 20 people who contribute to the running of the venue.
“It’s tough because I don’t have much time for friends or family – in fact, I warned my wife before we got married that theatre is my priority – but you need to be focused if you really want to achieve something special,” he says.
Bringing to life the Al Shams Theatre
Al Shams Theatre founder Abdelsalam Qubailat, who was brought up in a tent among the Bedouin community in Jordan, performed his first play in a cave, he tells The National. He went on to study theatre in Russia from the age of 17 to doctorate level, and a play he co-wrote about the siege of Leningrad, which first took to the stage in 2008 and won two Golden Masks, continues to be performed in Russia today.
Qubailat lived in the country through the collapse of the Soviet Union and saw how theatre helped people make sense of what had happened to their country. "It was an incredibly difficult time – the whole of society completely changed, it was chaos. But I saw how theatre played a pivotal role; Russians could look at their situation from an outsider point of view, they could laugh at themselves and criticise themselves – they could confront their problems through theatre," he says. "When I came back to Jordan and witnessed events such as the Arab uprisings and the rise in violence and extremism, I felt that theatre had to play a role in solving these problems."
Renovating the cinema into the Al Shams Theatre cost 366,000 Jordanian dinars (Dh1.8 million). Qubailat acknowledges it was a risk, but says it was worth the gamble. He directed the venue's first play, Pay ... I Won't Pay, in November 2017, which was an adaptation of an Italian satirical production addressing the political and economic difficulties faced by Jordan. "Theatre is the best way to have a dialogue or exchange. Without theatre there is no civilisation," he says.
Raising awareness for the arts scene in Jordan
However, he admits the lack of an arts scene in Jordan is a challenge, and Al Shams Theatre aims to tackle it by being not only a performance venue, but also a community space that sparks creativity throughout the wider society. The theatre organises workshops each month to offer performance training, while also attracting new talent to join the team.
"We want to work with new, young people, and we're also looking for investors who want to help progress the theatre," says Qubailat, who highlights a lack of financial support from the government as an additional challenge.
“Al Shams is known by many people, and its importance is beginning to be recognised. We are the only theatre house in Jordan, and our vision is to develop the country’s cultural understanding through shows that are not only enjoyable, but of high quality and substance, too.”