Improvising with the Germans

One of the first rules of improv is to start from a place of “YES, AND…” Agree with your stage partner and then add something of your own. For example, if your partner says something like, “Man, it is hot in here!” you might say something like, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Okay, I stole that example from Tina Fey, but you get the idea. Build on the ideas of others and contribute to the conversation. Always contribute.

This exercise is so common in theater circles that within hours of meeting each other, two groups of students from opposite sides of the world came together last week for Diyar Theater’s annual Cultural Exchange Program and began their time together with improv. They barely knew each other’s names, and they were agreeing with each other and adding to the conversation. This mutual affirmation coupled with unscripted expression is the basis for any productive cultural exchange.

But for Palestinian teens, a free and open exchange of ideas and cultures, especially on their home turf, is not to be taken lightly.

For one week, about a dozen teens from Germany joined teens from around Bethlehem to collaborate on a piece culminated in a public performance. In between practices and rehearsals, the students shared shwarma, hiked hills overlooking vineyards and Israeli settlements, and simply hung out.

Eighteen year old and longtime Diyar participant Marah Qumsieh shared what that experience was like. Meeting the German students for the first time affirmed some stereotypes she had of Germans but also brought new revelations.

“We expected them to be strict, and they were strict- meaning, they work hard. But they know how to have fun, too.” Marah believes that this exchange is the only real way to understand another culture, another’s experiences.

“About us, they knew there was a wall, but they didn’t know the story behind this wall. They didn’t know how we really live because they only know what they see through the media.”

Diyar Theater Director, Rami Khader would agree, adding that the value of this program is “the human value. It give students a chance to know each other on a personal level, to see beyond the stereotypes. It’s much bigger than the performance. They get to connect to each other through their passions. They are putting a face to the faceless.”

It’s much bigger than the performance. They get to connect to each other through their passions. They are putting a face to the faceless.

This matters for Marah because for this one week, she can show her new German friends that Palestinian teens “are normal people who have lives, who have fun, too.”

For once, these Palestinians have a chance to add to the conversation.

Next summer, these students will be reunited, this time to perform in Germany. And in a few short weeks, Marah will return to Bethlehem University where she is studying software engineering. But her world will be a little bit bigger. She’ll take with her the confidence that comes with saying “YES AND…” She’ll take with her the knowledge that she is seen by those beyond the separation wall.