The Campfire Project

Please watch this video we made in December at Ritsona.

Updates

Check here to stay informed of our progress!

October 2015: Wave of news on profound scope of the Syrian Refugee Crisis—many Americans attempt to respond.
January 2016–October 2016: Jessica raises 25,000 thousand dollars with Bess Glorioso and Erin Roth (amazing Fiddler on the Roof crew) for several refugee relief–based organizations including MOAS (Migrant Off Shore Aid Service), UNHCR and Village Health Works
March & April 2017: Jessica hatches plan of a community theater model for the camps and Arin Arbus agrees to direct The Tempest
August 2017:  Syrian American actor Laith Nakli advises on the project-he becomes our guardian angel
December 2017: launch of crowdfunding campaign at Fractured Atlas
February 2018: completion of campaign
March 2018: Finalize team, travel documents
April 2018: Finalize Arabic translation of text
May 2018: Assemble documentary team from Greece
June 2018: Final preparations
July 15, 2018: rehearsals begin in Ritsona

Dear Friends:

In mid-December, Arin, Jenny, Mary Mitchell and I travelled to Ritsona, Greece, to observe life at a camp for 800 mostly Syrian refugees. For many residents, it was the second bleak winter they’d experienced in this isolated settlement, where the few NGO’s which provided basic education and therapeutic activities were being phased out due to lack of funding. The Greek government is doing the best they can, but days provide little if no structure for anyone over 12.

We returned from the camp on the eve of Christmas and there was so much energy and joy in New York. We had left a place where there was no ritual of any sort—no school, no routine, no communal sense of purpose. Just waiting, and grief.

Refugees don’t just experience violence in their home countries; they are also almost “universally victimized while they flee,” Doctors Without Borders’ Jason Cone says — including becoming victims of torture, enslavement, and sexual violence in transit. “They have to leave almost all their material possessions by the time they have reached any kind of international assistance,” he says.

“Most Americans probably presume that being a refugee or displaced is short term,” Cone explains. “The reality is that most people, once they flee, are displaced on average for 17 years.”

The Project

On July 15, 2018, our extraordinary team of 12 theatre artists will travel to Ritsona to begin our ambitious 4-week residency. We will be taking every aspect of theatre production to this community to engage as many residents as possible in mounting an abridged production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Why The Tempest?

We chose Shakespeare’s The Tempest as the starting point for the project because it is a story of exile and the search for salvation. These themes clearly resonate with those who have fled the current conflict in Syria, Turkey or the Middle East. The lead characters in the play, Prospero and his young daughter Miranda, find refuge on a deserted island where it is Prospero’s art and magic that keep them entranced and holding on to hope. Shakespeare’s themes are universal and we believe that through the exploration of this play we will be able to find a more compassionate understanding of both the text and the life of residents in the camp.

Where?

The Camp:
This camp is based near Chalkida, approximately one hour north of Athens city centre. There are currently around 800 refugees residing in Ritsona. Summers in Greek camps are harsh and winters even harsher – generous donations of clothes and basic goods are made but sometimes residents go without clean water and food. To that end, we are planning for supplemental meals to be served at our rehearsals.

Why are we doing this?

“At the deepest level, the creative process and the healing process arise from a single source. When you are an artist, you are a healer; a wordless trust of the same mystery is the foundation of your work and its integrity.”
—Rachel Naomi Remen, MD

Why this Community?

“They want to feel part of something good. There is such despair. They don’t want to be part of a stigmatized group. They want to belong to something positive and you are giving them that opportunity…by giving them something to CREATE.”
—Katrina Saoulli, Executive Dir., I AM YOU

“I spent several years directing plays in a medium security prison in upstate New York. It was there I learned that theater is often most meaningful in communities which have a profound and urgent need to make sense of an incomprehensible world. Theatre connects us to our humanity and reminds us that we are not alone.”
—Arin Arbus, theatre director

Why these 12 people?

Our curated, multi-lingual company does not skip a step in facilitating camp-wide involvement:

The New York Team

  • 1 producer — Jenny Gersten
  • 1 director — Arin Arbus
  • 1 music director — Mary Mitchell Campbell
  • 1 composer — Cesar Alvarez
  • 1 choreographer —David Neumann
  • 1 clown —Orlando Pabotoy
  • 1 mask master — Shelley Wyant
  • 2 actors — Adham Murched, Osh Ghanimah
  • 2 actresses — Rasha Zamamiri, Jessica Hecht
  • 1 stage manager — Bess Glorioso
  • 1 educator/actor — Dave Hugo
  • 1 education director — Colette Cavanagh

Yes, we might be able to do it with fewer artists but the truth is, it takes tremendous man power to move people out of their iso boxes and into the sunlight. On any given day the majority of the population stays inside because of PTSD and institutional depression. With the little time we had there-we were able to run a few test workshops which received widespread interest and participation from the 12- 20 year old population. Our belief is that if we can get this core group interested , older residents will venture out to help with sets, costumes, music and food.

Art, music and dance will frame our production. The performance will be a melding of two sensibilities but the heart of the piece will be theirs. By including four Arabic speaking team members, we will be able to insure that the story is understood in their native tongue while feeding their desire for English tutoring. Your donation to this project will enable residents of this camp to have a creative and hopefully therapeutic experience that might support their integration to another country and in the immediate, give them a surge of motivation.

Bios

Jenny Gersten (producer)
Jenny Gersten is a theater and experience producer.  Currently Sweeney Todd Off Broadway, Live Cinema (written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola) and various projects in development.  Formerly she was the Executive Director of Friends of the High Line, Artistic Director of Williamstown Theatre Festival and Naked Angels, and Associate Producer of The Public Theater.  For over five years, she worked with the inner city mentoring organization for Hell’s Kitchen youth, The 52nd Street Project, as Development and Marketing Director.

Jessica Hecht (project director, acting ensemble)
Jessica Hecht is an American actress and teacher known for her award-winning work on Broadway and in several acclaimed television series including Friends and Breaking Bad. She has taught for two decades at institutions ranging from Williams College and NYU to NYC public schools and the esteemed 52nd Street Project. She was inspired to work with refugees while preparing A Fiddler On The Roof in its most recent Broadway incarnation.

César Alvarez (composer)
César Alvarez is New York-based composer, lyricist, and writer. His musical FUTURITY received the 2016 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical. César also has received two Drama Desk Nominations and a Jonathan Larson Award. César is an Artist-in-Residence at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the Artistic Director of Polyphone, a festival of new musicals at UArts. He is a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and received his MFA at Bard College. www.musicisfreenow.org

Arin Arbus (director)
Arin Arbus is a director of theatre and opera. For the last decade, she has been a resident artist at Theatre for a New Audience where she’s directed seven of Shakespeare’s plays. Arbus spent several years making theatre with prisoners at a medium security prison in upstate New York, in association with Rehabilitation Through the Arts. She has worked on Shakespeare with students at Juilliard, NYU, Brown and The New School and has directed operas for Houston Grand Opera, Canadian Opera Company and The Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Mary-Mitchell Campbell (music director)
Mary-Mitchell Campbell is the Founder and Executive Director of ASTEP-Artists Striving to End Poverty, and has led humanitarian work through the arts in the US, Africa, and India for the past decade. She is also a Broadway music director, currently working on the upcoming Mean Girls. She tours with many concert artists as a conductor and pianist, including Kristin Chenoweth and Raul Esparza. She is passionate about the power of arts education and imagination for children to break the cycles of poverty.

Colette Cavanagh (education director)
Colette Cavanagh is an educator and arts administrator with a BA in International Relations, a MA in Education and a MA in Arts Administration and Cultural Policy. She has lived and worked in six different countries, including Lebanon where she volunteered teaching children in Palestinian refugee camps while working as a magazine editor, and in the UK where she completed her MA degrees and worked in the education department at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. She currently teaches at a private high school in New York City

Osh Ghanimah (acting ensemble)
Recent Stage: The Boy Who Danced on Air (Abingdon Theatre), Vagabond Trilogy Wkshp (The Public, NY). TV: The Looming Tower, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Blacklist, Happyish, Deadbeat, Sneaky Pete, Late Night with Seth Meyers, Law & Order: SVU. Film: All We Had, starring and directed by Katie Holmes. Training: BA in Theatre and English Literature, BS in Education, Loyola University Chicago; MFA in Acting, Harvard/ART. Osh is the recipient of a Harvard University Presidential Fellowship and served as a Guest Lecturer of Acting at the university’s Office of the Arts. He gave a 2015 TEDxBroadway talk and serves as the Founder & CEO of Broadway For All. oshghanimah.com / IG: @therealnycog

Bess Marie Glorioso (stage manager)
Bess Marie Glorioso is a New York based Production Stage Manager. Bess has done over a dozen Broadway Shows along with numerous Off Broadway and Regional shows. Some of her favorite work involves working with students as a teaching artists to bring the joy of Theatre into their lives.

David Hugo (educator/actor)
David Hugo has been a professor in the Theater Department at LIU CW Post since 2007. He teaches freshman acting and all the musical theater acting courses.  David has performed regionally, on national tours and on Broadway. He was last seen on Broadway in Les Miserables where he portrayed Grantaire in the final Broadway cast.  David received a master’s degree in theater in 2005 at LIU Post, where  He found the Suzuki method to be an excellent technique for teaching musical theater, and he was able to devise a system to integrate it into the musical theater curriculum.

Adham Murched (acting ensemble) is a graduate of the Syrian Institute of Fine Arts. He is an actor and a writer with tens of very popular dramatic series from Syria and Lebanon under his belt as well as numerous stage credits around the Middle East and Europe.  Currently Adham is a writer and an acting coach on the highly regarded TV show Arab Casting. His role is considered pivotal to the success of the show. Adham has also starred in many short films in the region and made his US acting debut in a short film called Paradise and has just completed his first American feature film, Winter. His family resides in Syria.

David Neumann (co-choreographer)
David Neumann is currently a professor of theatre at Sarah Lawrence College. Most recently, Neumann’s work received two 2017 NY Dance and Performance Bessie awards. He has been named Artist in Residence at the SETI Institute and was awarded a Robert Rauschenberg Residency and over the years received 3 Bessie awards, a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Award, an Asian Cultural Council Fellowship, residencies at MASS MOCA, ADI , MANCC and support from the Rockefeller Foundation, Creative Capital and NYFA and National Dance Projects among others. He was born in Paris and currently resides in NYC

Orlando Pabotoy (clown)
Orlando Pabotoy most recently Performed on Broadways: 24 Hour Play Festival honoring Marsha Norman. TFANA’s Servant of Two Masters, Recent Direction: The Serpent Woman for The Juilliard School and Movement Director for The Acting Company’s 2017 Season. He has worked Nationally and Internationally at: Lamama Etc., The Public Theater, The Guthrie Theater, The Met Opera House, Classic Stage Company, New York Theater Workshop, The Old Globe, Yale Repertory Theater, Ma-Yi Theater, Center Theater Group (Los Angeles), and for The Cultural Center of the Philippines. He teaches internationally in the Philippines, Netherlands and Italy. He is a Faculty member for TSOA Drama Department, The Juilliard School and is the founder and Artistic Director of the Artigiani Theater Troupe. Awards: OBIE, John Houseman Award, Fox Fellow.

Shelley Wyant (mask director) is a teacher, performer, director and a theater person. The mask has been her special training tool for over 30 years and she has trained students at Brown, Yale, Smith, Bard to name a few.  Currently she is on the faculty of NYU, The New School and Circle in the Square Theatre School. Since 2010 she has been working with Jana Sanskriti a theater of the oppressed company near Kolkutta India where she will return to direct their adaptation of The Good Person of Setzuan in 2019.

Rasha Zamamiri (actress)
Rasha Zamamiri is an Arab-American actress, singer, and voice-over artist. Born in Kuwait and raised all over the World, she has been featured prominently in Guest Starring roles in Film and Television in addition to appearances in several internationally traveled plays, musicals, and readings. Rasha is most recognized as the Hijabi Woman in the Coca-Cola, “America Is Beautiful” commercial campaign, airing during the Super Bowl and Olympics with the distinction of being the first Arab woman shown in a veil in a Prime-Time national commercial campaign.

Acknowledgements

 

Worthy Reading

Finally, we found this deeply moving essay in Volume One of the Ritsona Kingdom Journal, published by Lighthouse Relief, a literary magazine published by the youth center at Ritsona.  It was written by the teenager Musstafa Musstafa, and is published here with permission.

An empty place surrounded by trees, a sad place.  This is the place that we arrived to and its name is Ritsona.   On the day that we arrived, we didn’t know what had happened or what would happen.  It was a place full of empty tents, but without life.  The tents were just waiting for people to live in them.  Even the trees were sad.  The only thing that we could feel was the harsh cold.  There was no sound at first – just the eyes of people watching this empty place and wondering, “What we will do here?”.  Then you could hear the voices of people talking between themselves, “What is this place we have arrived to, what did we get?” and the voices of children crying, scared of the dark night.

Everyone made something from nothing in order to have work to do.  Everyone has a hobby.  During the day, children play freely and do not know what they are waiting for.  Young people do not live in their childhood, instead they are looking for a place to rest, a better life, for their future.  Men sit and think about what to do for their children today and in the future.  Here thy can do nothing for them, only collect wood to make a fire and keep their children warm.

At night time we sit, meditate and contemplate under the moon.  We see only clouds, rain and the smoke of fire.  We hear the children crying.  The moon gifts us with light during the night and the trees with wood to keep us warm.  But we have forgotten how to feel, we no longer feel fear or even the cold.

In this camp there are many people who were confused by each others’ customs, traditions and nationalities.  We are from different communities and of different faiths.  We spend our time with each other – this place was our only hope to live.  We have lived with each other with smiles and strength.  We have given hope to each other and have gained respect for all religions.

Now, after one year, those days are gone.  This place, Ritsona, has become our homeland for a part of our life.  After one year, this place is full and has changed.  It has become a happier place.  The people who live in this place give it life.  They have changed the trees from sad to smiling and now the birds who fill them sing.  Now when people visit us, they say, “There are people here – they are human.  They have pain and are suffering, but still they smile.”  The visitors live and then they return.

Everything in this camp has become a story.  We made the dirt speak of our suffering.  The tents have become a tale.  Love is a novel.

It is impossible to forget our pain and sorrows from Syria and the war.  But now we have the new pain and sorrow of waiting for our future.  The waiting has become like a knife that causes suffering and the pain is real.  Here we are waiting for someone to say to us, “Come and share our place with us.  This world is not just for one person, it is for all people.”