Mohamed El Khatib translated by Isabelle Mangeot-Hewison
Children: Estelle and Matan
Mahmood: This episode of the Rising Podcast will be about The Dispute - a theatre production that gives children a voice in discussions about divorce. Often children are not asked what they see or experience when their parents go through a divorce. We feel there’s a real need to protect our children from the difficult problem of breakups.
In The Dispute, children of parents who have split up are invited to take to the stage and offer their point of view. The show was originally conceived in France by Mohammed El Khatib who interviewed more than one hundred children over several months before asking whether the kids would feel comfortable expressing themselves on stage.
Given the COVID travel restrictions, RISING has been presented with the novel opportunity to tour a theatre concept. The Dispute will be staged in Melbourne by artist, teacher and director, Jackson Castiglione.
In this podcast, two children; Matan and Estelle. Will be asking theatre directors Mohammed El Khatib and Jackson Castiglione about The Dispute. Mohammed El Khatib is translated by Isabelle Mangeot-Hewison.
Matan: What is it like in France, do you go to visit the Eiffel tower, and go to the top of it, and look at the view? Now. As I was saying. Do you go out for dinner in France and eat snails?
Translator: Okay. The Eiffel tower, we leave it to tourists. And we eat as many snails as you eat crocodiles and kangaroos.
Matan: Hello, my name is Matan. I'm eight years old and I have a bunk bed in my room. And why did you make a play about divorce?
Translator: At first, to answer the question of Matan, it was not planned. He just wanted to do a play with children so he went into a class and he was talking and he realized that most of the conversation was revolving about the fact that they were living in different places and that – ‘oh, sorry I can’t do that, I forgot my notebook at my mum’s place’ or ‘I’m going next week, I won’t be in the same place’… so, Mohamed thought ‘Well, there seems to be a lot of separated people, parents, in there, so he asked and more than half of the class had separated parents. Which made him think ‘well, there must be something there in their daily life.
Jackson: I think in contrast to maybe the origins of the performance of Mohamed’s work or original concept, I think in Australia, divorce is a little bit invisible. And I think it’s like – there’s a silence around it. Which is in an attempt I guess to, yes ‘protect families’ and acknowledge that there’s a ‘problem’ that is only dealt with within the family. But I think in lots of ways there’s an unconscious stigmatism of people that are divorced. And, I think, one of the first things when the festival approached me to do this project, in my mind, was - we need to test whether parents are okay for their children to talk about it. And, that children are okay to talk about it. And it’s actually been quite a massive project for us to cast it in Australia. I don’t know how easy it was for you Mohamed, but this is not something that’s very forthcoming in Australia, and certainly, we couldn’t go into schools in Australia and just talk to children about divorce – we would be shut down immediately.
Translator: So, what Mohamed says is in France, maybe not as much as he has no ways of knowing, but it’s incredibly taboo in France as well, especially from the voice and point of view of the children. So lots of people talk about divorce and separation, but these people are the adults, the psychologists, the ‘experts’, but the children are totally – that angle is just – you just don’t talk to them. So in some schools, they felt that it was probably better to enter via the questions of relationships between parents and children, and then, because it’s so much part of their lives, the separation just came up naturally, because naturally if you talk about the relationship between children and parents. They were living in this paradox where the schools, the inspectors of work and that sort of thing were saying ‘don’t broach that subject with children – it could awaken absolutely terrible trauma in them, et cetera.’ But then, once they were speaking with the psychologist, the psychologist was saying exactly the opposite. ‘No, absolutely not – they need to speak, want to speak, they want to free and give a voice to their potential trauma - or not, but to let them talk, themselves, about it.’ And so, for Mohamed, that’s what theatre is, it allows a voice to be heard, and so it allows the voice of these kids to be heard and to feel totally at ease.
Jackson: I feel really similar to Mohamed – in Australia we’ve had very similar views. We’ve had authorities, government agencies, sort of, y’know breaking pots and pans, being really freaked out, and yet we’ve had parents and children saying ‘we want to tell our stories’. And therapists, child psychologists saying exactly the same thing. And in all of this, the hoops we’ve had to jump through in order to just get a cast, and we just still haven’t got this script approved? We still haven’t got that approved. But to do all of this, to me there’s a shaming in it – a shaming of saying ‘actually, you’re not able to tell your story.’ You know? ‘Your story might be too traumatizing for yourself.’ And for me that’s an innate prejudice in our society that we need to address.
Matan: Why did you decide to work with kids and not adults?
Translator: Well, first of all, because that’s what we were saying before – they don’t have a voice. They have never been consulted, because of all the problems - and so it’s really important to give a voice to those kids who are actually the first who are concerned about it all, really. On the first line, in the frontline of it all. But also, that’s metteur en scene speaking, the director speaking. It’s incredibly fantastic to work with children because they are so free in their voice when they talk – they have a tone, they just say what they feel - rather than adults, who, by virtue of being adults and having their experience and having read and having thoughts et cetera, who are formatted in a way by society, by ideas or by shame sometimes – which, kids don’t have that at all.
Jackson: At the moment we’re in rehearsal and doing line edits in scripts, and so it’s literally a co-writing process for us. And the way that they’re able to shape it, all their ideas are far, far greater than my own.
Translator: That’s the point, isn’t it?
Jackson: Yeah, I guess it’s… in that process it’s giving them more agency and more power to share their message in a way that’s more powerful. Yeah. More agency to share their message that’s more powerful. So, you know, I’m not trying to coach a performance, they’re sharing the way forward for the work, that they’re confident with and that they can deliver.
Estelle: What is the job of a director?
Translator: So, our job, the metteur en scene, or the director, is to tell a story and as we are actually adult, and we are lacking in imagination, we just go and see other people who – mostly children – and we ask them to help us tell these stories and so here we are. That’s our job. I think it’s a good job.
Estelle: How do you cast the kids?
Translator: So it wasn’t a casting trip that he did, he went talking to children - and talking to about 100 plus children. And every time he was talking to them, at the end, he would ask, would you like to come on stage and speak about your experience and say all that on the stage? And some of them said no, some of them said yes, and so then from their little pool of people that said yes, Mohamed was looking for diversity, so that the end cast would be as representative as possible of our children. Of the society of different people. So the casting was not about the better actor, the better speaker, the better anything. It was just about diversity and making sure that every type of voice could be represented.
Estelle: Is it hard to talk to kids about divorce?
Translator: The very fact that they are children makes it much easier. I mean, what’s complex is asking questions about their divorce and separation and such a trauma to adults, because they bring their charge of life. And whereas children they just respond factually. And actually, they want to speak about it. And they’re never asked, because nobody asks, because everybody is afraid of… so, as soon as they are able to talk about it, they just go for it. And that's what makes working with children such a joy.
Jackson: I think, there are times where I find asking certain questions in the process hard. And those questions are cleared with parents beforehand, and they’re cleared with the children as well, the way we're doing it in this process. But yeah, there are moments where I find I really questioned my own power in that dynamic. And asking those questions that – I guess it's a fine line. But we try and create that safe environment, that supportive environment and there's always an opt-out for the kids. But in the same breath, we don't want to patronise them. We want to allow them to speak freely and courageously. Yeah, it's a difficult line.
Translator: Of course, a safe space is very important, but at the same time, uneasy moments and complex moments can actually be the most creative and the most ‘theatrics’ is his answer. So, most of the time, he's projecting an unease of his own rather than the children.
Jackson: Yeah, absolutely, and also transformative, right? Like, being able to skirt that line in a very safe way that enables transformation to make place - like I guess one of the things I've been quite surprised by in this process is the fact that some parents actually have never spoken to their children about divorce or about the separation. And, in some ways, this production, or even just the interview process, you know, is a catalyst for that.
Translator: So, he absolutely agrees that this show is not a therapy and is not seen as a therapy for anybody to do. However, one of the maybe unintended consequences is that it's a show that makes people feel good. And makes the children feel good. And that unintended consequence is something that he cherishes, obviously, because it's amazing.
Jackson: It's empowering. It's… they're feeling included, they're feeling heard, it's ‘Hey, guess what, separated families are families too.’
Translator: Yeah, absolutely.
Jackson: Do you think the church plays – I mean this sort of scepter of Christianity – and I don’t mean to offend Christians, but this unconscious bias we have, through fairy tales, evil stepsisters, evil stepmothers… this kind of church making divorce… You know, to the Catholic Church, I'm Catholic, the Catholic Church bringing shame. Do you think the shame in France is to do with religion?
Translator: It’s a generational thing, as well. When Mohamed was a kid, it was incredibly shameful to be a kid of divorcees. People were just not talking about; I remember that generation very well. In France, you would not talk about the fact that you were a divorcee. And as you were saying, in a church, the priest would not touch anybody who was a divorcee. They were just incredible, so it was really, really tough. But nowadays absolutely not. It’s not at all a shame. It’s not shameful, I mean in some ways, sometimes, just exaggerating a little bit, but it’s kind of cool.
Translator: We’re talking about restricted circles. So, yes, absolutely, in Muslim families, it still is a shame to divorce, like it is still a shame to divorce in a very Catholic family. However, Mohamed was saying he has an uncle who divorced 15 years ago. And that was… he was rejected by his family and the Muslim family just did not want to have anything to do with him. He has a cousin, however, who just divorced and it's fine. He's not rejected by his family. So clearly something is happening, even within those restricted circles. And I would say the same about Catholics as well. Where again, when I was little, priests did not want to talk to divorced women in general, whereas now, it's absolutely fine.
Matan: Do you think children are good actors? I do.
Translator: Always. But sometimes, it’s despite themselves. They don’t realize. Yeah. Their quality of just being present is… he said, you know, just put a little cat on stage. You know in a few minutes the cat’s going to do something stupid, and there’s going to be an accident of some sort, etc. Well you can do exactly the same with children. With children, at some stage… you’re never away from the possibility of accidents and that makes the performance constantly live, in that sense.
Jackson: Yeah. But I would say, I just feel like we’re just in a strange era now where people are sick of actors convincing them how beautiful they are or how strong they are, or how invincible they are… I think there’s some vulnerability in children that really speaks to us. And I consider the children I’m working with an equal artist to myself, or to any other older artist. But their little vehicle or body is just a 10-year-old’s body or an 8-year-old’s body… they have a different skill set. But I really see working with a 10-year-old performer, in lots of ways - there’s just as much power as working with a seasoned professional actor. And I am more interested in casting someone very close – a professional actor – very close to something that’s personal to them – rather than getting them to pretend. I really want to know where that line is for that professional actor. Where is that true vulnerability? I just don’t want to see some old RSE ham pull out his bag of tricks to get an audience to love him. I don’t know… like Mohamed said to me, they want to cast children, but not child actors. So, you know, we’re not going to agencies or anything like that, it’s people that want their story to be told.
Translator: So the hardest thing, for Mohamed with the kids is the very limited time for concentration. And they’ve got a concentration span that is so small that you can’t just rehearse for hours on end, you have to really make sure that you hit where you want to hit really quickly. And that can be difficult.
Jackson: Yeah, that's the first thing. I totally agree. Also, I guess I sort of have to say, the regulations around working with children in Australia, I think there's a little bit of overkill and maybe over-protectionism. When parents have informed consent around projects, that's not good enough in Victoria, which is sad, because in a way that limits… You know, you have to have a large budget to be able to work with children. I can understand arguments for that. But I think it also limits the amount of work they can do or the amount of stories they can tell.
Translator: Yeah. He agrees with the fact that the bulk of the work is to do with adults and parents. And of the pre-work, once it’s done, once that bureaucracy is done, once you have the trust of parents… and that’s quite a bit of prep-work, really, to gain the trust of parents, which the kids really feel. Because, if they feel that their parents trust the project, it’s all good. And another thing as well is also to gain the… I don’t know about the trust, but at least the understanding of the schools. Or even just teachers, to make them understand how that sort of adventure can be incredibly formative, and not just something else that you have to work around if you’re teaching the kids.
Matan: Has anyone’s parents ever yelled at you?
Translator: Okay. So, I’m just going to translate the first answer, which was not an answer to the question because he had misheard the question, but.. so, Mohamed first thought that the question was ‘have you seen a lot of parents or have you heard a lot of parents having fights with each other?’, or shouting at each other. Obviously, quite a lot. And what Mohamed was saying was that what he learned from the children was that they all knew that their parents were going to separate more or less because they knew that their parents were shouting at each other. Whether they heard it or not. So that was the response to the non-question.
But the response to the real question was not that many, but he remembers one instance where the father, knowing that children were going to tell quite a lot of stories, and were free to tell quite a lot of stories, just did not want his daughter to play. But the mother wanted his kid to play. And the kid was clearly great, and the kid could only play one every second week. So she would play when she was with the mum, and she would not play when she was at the dads. So, that was an interesting one. So I’m not sure it’s about the parents shouting at him, but it’s about a parent shutting him down.
Jackson: Yeah. And that’s the territory, isn’t it? Y’know, we have to be respectful of that, and those wishes, and even if the play becomes the catalyst for the power struggle or some sort of struggle, we have to own that and be very respectful to their… yeah. To what can sometimes seem unreasonable wishes.
Matan: Why do people go to the theatre?
Jackson: Mohamed’s visibly scratching his chin. (laughter)
Translator: Probably because they’re bored, and a theatre is probably one of the last places where – I suppose in the cinema you can see people – alive. Live. It’s also a place where you have permission to start crying. And that’s really doing people good.
Jackson: Look, I think it's a beautiful response, Mohamed, from you. I think it's - I feel like I need to give a less poetic response being an Australian, but I think we have a bit more of a fraught relationship with theatre, and I think we have a sort of colonial legacy of English theatre, that I was certainly bred on in my education. And I think is, you know, less and less relevant as we become a little bit more culturally sophisticated. But yeah, for me, I think theatre is that - it provides, but - because it's smaller-scale production than film, I feel like you can explore more niche worlds and more unique worlds and stories -as a radio or podcast is starting to do now - where you can really get an in-depth understanding of people that are different from you. Yeah. And I think that's important.
Mahmood: This episode of the Rising podcast is created by Litmus Media. It’s produced by me, Mahmood Fazal. Associate producer and editor is Eugene Yang. Listen at Litmus.Media or wherever you get your podcasts.