Storytelling is one of those foundational forms of cultural production, albeit one that is gradually being supplanted by other non-performative narrative forms and, increasingly, non-narrative electronic gaming. Yet some forms of storytelling have experienced a renaissance in recent years, not only in Lebanon but around the world.
Le Festival International du Conte et du Monodrame (International Storytelling and Monodrama Festival), has become a yearly institution at the Theatre Monnot. It was first held in 2000 and is now in its 13th year.
The festival began as a way to share the simplest kind of theatre – storytelling – in all its forms. “Storytelling is being requested more and more in the world as new type of performance,” says Paul Mattar, the festival organizer and director of Theatre Monnot, one “based on memories, on plays, on legends, on life-stories.”
Alongside the international festival Mattar and his team have begun a much wider project to preserve and promote traditional tales locally.
“We created a small unit of research on orality,” says Mattar, “and we started collecting stories in the villages all around Lebanon in the remote areas.”
Three years ago they launched a second, Aarabophone, storytelling festival which takes place in September in multiple locations.
“The festival next week is the international festival where we host storytellers from abroad,” Mattar explains. “But this is part of a much bigger work that we are undertaking, which is about orality, about popular memory ... the oral transmission of stories, legends and popular poetry.”
The upcoming international festival includes one evening of stories in Arabic, told by some of the local Lebanese performers who participate in the Arabic festival. Their performances will take place on the night of Thursday, March 15, giving Beirut audiences a chance to see their storytelling, which ordinarily takes place in remote mountain villages.
On Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night, the audience will be treated to performances from two international storytellers, each of whom will also perform for a second time, later in the week, ensuring that audiences have a chance to return to see their favorite performers.
The Theatre Monnot’s program is largely francophone, and this is reflected in the upcoming festival. International storytellers who attend the festival usually perform in French, Mattar says, although on occasion they have chosen to perform in their own language with appropriate translation.
This year the performers are coming from as far away as Venezuela, France, Burkina Faso and Greece. A visiting Palestinian performer will also make an appearance.
On all but the final night, the performance will begin with 20 minutes of storytelling by talented local children, selected by their schools, auditioned by the theatre, and eager to perform in front of a large audience. This year the young storytellers range in age from 8 to 16 years of age, Mattar reveals, though in previous years children as young as 5 or 6 years old have performed.
The final night, Sunday March 18, features the festival’s long-established highlight, the “concours des menteurs,” (contest of liars), in which all the storytellers, both international and local, come together to take part in an improvised group performance, working together to devise a tale on the spot.
They are controlled by the whims of the Master of the Game, a role usually assumed by Mattar himself, or another member of the Monnot team. The Master of the Game gives the storytellers tasks, ordering them to tell a story about a certain topic or use a certain word, then asking another storyteller to take over after a few minutes with a new task.
This year’s lineup promises to be a real treat for local storytelling enthusiasts. “Our festival is not succeeding because of us,” Mattar maintains. “Of course its success is because of the storytellers and the quality of the stories they tell, but also the quality of the audience. The audience in Lebanon is especially open-minded.”
Though many of the performances are suitable for children, Mattar is quick to emphasize that the festival is not aimed at families. “Our storytelling festival is targeting adults, it’s not for children,” he says. “Many times we have erotic themes developed in our stories which are not suitable for children.”
Parents are of course allowed to bring their children to any event they wish, as long as they understand that the evening performances are not intended to be pitched for children, Mattar adds.
During their week in Lebanon each of the storytellers will tour the country, performing in various schools and cultural centers with stories specially aimed at a young audience, often tailored to a particular age-range.
In the evening, it’s the adults turn.
Theatre Monnot’s 13th-annual International Storytelling and Monodrama Festival takes place from the March 13-18 at 7:30 p.m. each night in the crypt of Saint Joseph’s church in Monnot. For further information, please please call 01-202-422.