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In conversation with Rimah Jabr and Dareen Abbas

November 11, 2022

After her architect father dies, a young woman sifts through his unfinished designs, discovering that he spent a decade designing a space to keep her safe from surveillance, war, and high-tech weapons. Overcome with grief, she falls into the fantastical worlds and imaginary spaces her father created. This story explores the struggle between human life and war machines and the challenge of living in the present while surrounded by the memories of those we’ve lost.

Developed in Residency at The Theatre Centre, Broken Shapes is a collaborative hybrid performance constructed of visual installations, videos, and performance based on Toronto-based theatremaker Rimah Jabr and Brussels-based visual artist Dareen Abbas’ research on the unintentional ways that physical space can influence our minds. We connected with Rimah and Dareen during rehearsal to talk about notions of space, blurred lines between grief and healing, and the process of bringing Broken Shapes to fruition.

Performer Femke Stallaert in process at The Theatre Centre

The Theatre Centre: Dareen, the installation and its moving elements are such a dynamic and striking way of visualizing the work’s themes. Where did the idea for this set piece come from?

Dareen Abbas: In the beginning, I was thinking of making a room out of several cubes on top of each other but this felt too abstract. One day by coincidence I had the idea of constructing a room based on the board game “Jenga”, where you have to put cubes on top of each other and if anything falls you lose. Somehow this physical aspect gave the set an inner world, and so I proceeded with the design. Later on, as I was making the videos this very restrained idea “thinking about cubes” expanded suddenly and the cubes started to transform into a city, bricks and forms floating in water.  

The TC: Conversations about occupation and self-determination, specifically in Palestine, have really come to the forefront in the past few years. Rimah, have you noticed a shift in how people engage with these topics since starting this development process?  

Rimah Jabr: Yes, the changes are noticed, especially on social media, more and more people are curious about educating themselves about the Palestinian cause, and art can be one of many ways where people can get a sense of what it’s like to be dealing with an occupation and its circumstances such as closures, vulnerability, uncertainty, accessing space, and being controlled, and gazed at. Palestinians since 1948 have witnessed territorial destruction that shifted the urban landscape, created visual occupation, and a space of oppression under the pretence of surveillance and control. The influence of confinement on Palestinian creativity is unignorable. 

I realized that time had a crucial influence on my spatial experience back in Palestine, especially concerning the suspension associated with curfews, which generated a feeling of being confined. It affected my sense of continuity; therefore, unintentionally, I created all my plays since I started making theatre in obscure places where the characters are trapped in a situation. Despite the influence of my experience on the way I work, the story of Broken Shapes is in an unidentified place, and it could be happening anywhere. We wanted to approach the story from a global perspective focusing on the human experience, whoever they are and wherever they are. A show like Broken Shapes can give the audience a sense of those experiences. People can interpret these senses based on what they know about the Palestinian cause or other conflicts, such as the war in Ukraine and the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. 

The TC: Grief is such a universal experience, even though everyone processes it differently; how have both of your approaches to working through grief shown up in this work? 

RJ: Grief can be over people or things; in the show, it is clear that it is about a daughter grieving the time she didn’t spend with her father, but the daughter processes grief through confusion, questions, and dark humour. I often write absurd text, and this is my way as a person dealing with losses, with the idea in my head “at least let’s laugh”. When I wrote the first draft, it was structured based on the five stages of grief, but the more we worked on it, the more this line between stages of grief blurred. 

DA: I thought about grief for a long period of my life while being aware of the dangers of aestheticizing it of course. What I wanted to deal with in this work was more the contemplative qualities of grief, because it has this fusion or a sort of immersion between “the self” and the object of grief, I think this contemplative aspect can be very healing.  

The TC: Broken Shapes was supposed to open two years ago and was postponed because of COVID-19 restrictions. How does it feel to finally bring this performance to audiences? 

RJ: It was a long journey. The project went through different phases since we started developing it; cancelling the show because of COVID-19 was a significant rupture in the process. However, it positively impacted the work because we’re talking about spatiality, and witnessing that every human being on this planet was under lockdown will help our audience to relate to the theme. Also, the time in between allowed us to reflect on the work and improve the show. 

DA: It is a sort of out-of-time experience, from another aspect, there is definitely an underlying feeling of true contentment, that we, finally, despite all the obstacles we are able to present it.

Co-creator Rimah Jabr in process at The Theatre Centre

The TC: How did The Theatre Centre’s Residency program support the creation of this work?

RJ: Since the beginning, we had support from The Theatre Centre on many levels. We were offered space and time at The Theatre Centre to develop the piece and logistically, we were supported in bringing our international artists come to Canada and for our Canadian artists to go to Belgium. The support also included help writing grants and guidance on artistic and logistical decisions, but the most meaningful part of this generous support is the mental support, especially after the pandemic; we feel that we were in safe hands. The Theatre Centre team was there for us in every step we took over the past four years. 

The TC: Finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from Broken Shapes?

RJ: I hope they will enjoy it; this is my first concern, then I think they’ll never look at a space the same way they used to. 

Broken Shapes is running from Nov. 22 – Dec. 4, 2022, live at The Theatre Centre.


Photos by Dahlia Katz