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To Be An Actress: A Conversation With Lara Sawalha

Originally from the Jordanian city of Madaba, the Sawalha family includes actors like Nabil (Lara's father), Nadim (Lara's uncle), Juila and Nadia Sawalha.

Rest Upon the Wind by Nadim Sawalha

"When people meet me they are like you don't look Arab" Lara says to me with a look of frustrating disbelief on her face. "I am like.. have you been to the Middle East? The Levant especially. These people can be quite fair skinned. In Palestine you will find people who are red heads, have blue eyes, white skin with freckles." To be an actress from an Arab background can be a difficult experience when working in either America or Britain. There are only a handful of roles available and often these roles fit certain ethnic stereotypes such as a dark-skinned woman in a veil, a rich sheikh or a terrorist. But despite this we are witnessing the rise of writers, performers and actors from Middle Eastern backgrounds who are taking on the performing arts and making their voices heard.

Meeting Lara in the cafe area of the National Theatre in London on the closing night of the play, Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State, where she played two different characters, we quickly settle down and we start to discuss life as an actress. Coming from a line of actors and writers there seemed little doubt that Lara would enter the acting world. Originally from the Jordanian city of Madaba, the Sawalha family includes actors like Nabil (Lara's father), Nadim (Lara's uncle), Juila and Nadia Sawalha. "Definitely my dad (Nabil) is the one who made me what to be an actress. Because he was an actor I grow up going to the theatre in Jordan, my house would be full of costumes, masks and props. Every birthday party I had been with him and his performing buddies, so I was surrounded by it and I knew it was all I ever wanted to do."

Looking through Lara's show reel and credits it's quite clear that she does not shy away from taking on quirky roles or politically challenging topics. I first encountered her at London's Ovalhouse theatre in 2013 where she played the fictional Syrian blogger Amina Arraf or 'Gay girl in Damascus' in Sour Lips. Her acting career has taken her back and forth from London to Amman on stage and screen. 45 minutes to Ramallah, Jordanian Dirty Laundry, The King Prawn, The Masseuse, The Return and The Actual Truth about Palestine in Response to Danny Ayalon, to name a few of the projects she has acted in. For many young performers trying to get roles can be a frustrating experience, but Lara seems to be doing very well in both Europe and the Middle East. Her story is in-part the story of the rise of a culture of performing arts in Jordan, and is also the story of the ascent of a new generation of Arab performers in the West.

Theatre and film in Jordan

'Parrot' directed by Darin Sallam in Amman

The Jordanian film industry has always been in a difficult situation due to its small size, lack of money and strong competition from more developed film industries in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Morocco. However, Jordan is starting to make its voice heard and the production of films like Capitan Abu Raed and Theeb means that International audiences are starting to get a taste of what Jordan has to offer. Theatre is also developing in Amman and much like the film industry is starting to make its presence felt.

"People are doing movies left, right and centre in Jordan. We even get Hollywood movie-makers coming to Jordan to film. The Martian by Ridley Scott was filmed in Wadi Rum and most of my friends were the crew on that film. In terms of local production, we see that people are doing their own movies, writing their own scripts and we are still trying to create our own style (distinct from the other Arab countries), but if things continue and speed up, Jordan will develop its own niche. "

"There's a lot of enthusiasm. There is a lot of funding from the Jordanian Royal Film Commission, but also filmmakers are using things like kick-starter and other crowd funding websites. Being an actor in Jordan is no different than being an actor anywhere else. I mean compared to Britain, Jordan's film and theatre industry is very small. There are no casting directors or agents and everything is word of mouth, and unlike in the UK or US, you have to constantly make work for yourself and do your own projects. Everyone is creating their own comedy shows, YouTube videos and to a lesser extent theatre shows. But the physical part of acting is the same."

Theatre in Jordan is particularly important to Lara, "25 years ago my father (Nabil) and his friends began the idea of political theatre and satire in Jordan. His shows were so successful, every night the theatre was packed and he did this for several years. But after he stopped the genre of political theatre and satire went cold and there was more emphasis on television and drama. It has got going again over the last few years. I have acted in different countries and with different people and I have to say working with my Dad is the most interesting stuff I have ever done. His stuff is always funny, political, now and creative. I remember the first time I did stand-up comedy and it was with my father- it was a terrifying experience. It was a competition and there were three judges to rate how good we were- my father was one of the judges. I was so nervous that I would say the punch line before the actual joke, the whole time my dad was looking at me in an encouraging way, as if to say, you can do it."

However, the availability of theatre in Jordan is limited, "Theatre in Jordan is an event. There is no such thing as theatre goers for the simple reason that there's no theatre to go to most of the year around. My uncle Nadim Sawalha brought Khalil Gibran's play, Rest Upon the Wind, in Arabic to Amman and it turned into a four-day event. It's usually a special event that brings theatre here. My dad does Ramadan theatre every year, there will be a play just after Iftaar (opening of the fast) and people who come for dinner also get to watch a play while they eat. So it's quite smart for theatre but throughout the rest of the year, if you want to watch a play, you either have to wait for a special event or if a random project comes along."

"There is also a division within the types of audience you might get. There is the Westernised west Ammani types who will go to the theatre but might not attend plays in Arabic- which is where you will get East Ammani's who are less western influenced and are less likely to attend plays not in Arabic. Theatre has to try and cater to the majority but in Jordan this is very difficult to do. Also when plays do come the ticket prices get bumped up and so only the wealthier members of society can attend."

Hopes for the Future

Like most performers Lara hopes to take on different roles in both the U.K. and the U.S. "I would love to do more comedies, serious dramas and different genres. I would really love to play a Maifoso's wife; I am obsessed with gangster films to the point that my mother is worried about me. I might also take up writing in the future and do much more of my own stuff. In terms of what my immediate future holds, I am currently doing narration for the audio book, The Girl Who Beat ISIS, which is the story of the Yazidi girl who escaped from ISIS captivity. I will also be flying out to Jordan to make a football (soccer) movie, where I will be a football player and so I have to practise my skills there."

The conversation draws to its conclusion and I am left with a very strong impression that despite its challenges, Jordanian film and theatre is developing into something very important. Lara's story is of someone trying to tell stories, and in many respects, she is a microcosm of what Jordan's emerging cultural scene hopes to be. Hungry, ambitious and not constrained by what others do or have done. While Lara will continue to make her voice heard, to demand that things change for Arab actors and actress in the West, she carries with her the torch of a nation trying to emerge into its own and make its own voice heard. I think this is the reason why her story is compelling to tell.

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