Naila al-Atrash teaches a theatre class

Naila al-Atrash glows when she speaks about theatre.

“Theatre is about being in the same house with someone else; it’s like a celebration with other people,” she says. “That’s the importance of theatre and that’s what makes it so dangerous. It builds in the audience a collective consciousness of the same issues and ideas. People sort of infect each other with the same feeling.”

Atrash, a pre-eminent director and actress in her native Syria is known in her homeland for her no-holds-barred choice of material. Now, Atrash, who studied at Bulgaria’s High Institute of Dramatic Arts, is building bridges between the Arab world and the West as a visiting professor of theatre at UNCG.

Atrash will teach at UNCG through the 2009-10 academic year. She is concentrating on exposing her students to Arabic drama, a rarity for American university students, but she struggles with the scarcity of Arabic plays in English translation.

Theatre is about being in the same house with someone else.

“I want to encourage publication of Arabic plays in English,” she says. “That absence of Arabic plays in English should not be. In our time, this time of globalization, we – the people of art, of theatre, of culture – should know each other better. This is my message to everyone in the world.”

Arabic theatre is political theatre, Atrash says, infused with social and economic issues to a far greater extent than American dramas. Audience participation is expected and encouraged, as Arabic dramatists and directors work to connect with audiences at a deeper level.

And, Atrash says, theatre is a “permanent search to renew your tools, to go side by side with change. We have to re-examine, and look forward to what kind of relationship we can build with the modern-day spectator. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Do we know our modern-day spectator? What are his needs?’”

Atrash has acted onscreen as well as onstage. She appeared in several films, winning the best actress award at the 1986 Tunisian Carthage Film Festival.

She finds her American theatre students to be hardworking and open-minded as she educates them about the social, economic and political factors that inform the Arabic theatrical tradition.

“They are actively participating,” she says. “They are really trying to come closer to that culture.”

Photography by Chris English, University Relations