In 1977, a group of Palestinian students at the Hebrew University selected the rising theatre director François Abu Salem to lead the development of a play on the topic of freedom of expression. Since 1970, Abu Salem has been a leading founding member of East Jerusalem’s most significant troupes. The Palestinian community at the Hebrew University received the short play, Awwal Manshur (First Leaflet), with accolades, which prompted François and the students to discuss the possibility of producing a play outside the auspices of the Hebrew University. Before long, the group began working on a new play called Bism Al-Ab Wal Um W al-ibn. The troupe at the time of this production included: Jackie Lubeck, Abu Salem, two students from the Galilee (Edwar Muallem and Adnan Tarabsheh), and two Jerusalemites (Talal Hammad and Jamil Eid). Soon thereafter, Muhammad Mahamid from Um Al-Fahem replaced Eid. For the first time in his theatrical career during the 1970s, Abu Salem had successfully launched a troupe that recognized his leadership, which lasted for a decade thereafter.
Over the years of its existence, 1977-1990, El-Hakawati helped in the shaping of the identity of Palestinian theatre. It caused a transformative understanding of the power of theatre to reach audiences. Other actors joined over the years, while some departed. Newer members include, Daoud Kuttab, Radi Shehadeh, Ibrahim Khalayleh, Amer Khalil, and Iman Aoun. By the end of its life, El-Hakawati had embraced the acting services of artists throughout Palestine, including Mohammed El-Bakry, Youssef Abu Wardeh, Kamel El-Basha, Valentina Abu Aqsa, George Ibrahim, Ismail Al-Dabbagh, Hiam Abbas, Nabil El-Hajjar, Imad Mize’ro, and many others. Their theatre appreciated the technical services of Imad Mitwalli, Imad Samara, Amer Khalil. It also used the administrative services of Mohammad Al-Batrawi, Anis El-Qaq, Jamal Ghosheh, and Fateh Azzam. They engaged with world theatre in productions by Bertolt Brecht and Anton Chekhov. These names are simply a sample of the massive influence of this remarkable cultural achievement.
Heavily influenced by Grotowski’s Poor Theatre, Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre and Arienne Mnouchkine’s Le Theatre Du Soleil, they developed their own creative process, which resulted in a series of original plays. Similar to many collective-creation based ensembles, the actors improvised on specific themes and situations, while the director conceptualized a through-line, chose the appropriate scenes, and guided the development of the play. Usually, each actor played multiple roles and participated in building the set, props, and costumes. According to Abu Salem, the troupe embraced its identity as a popular Palestinian theatre in language and aesthetic, choosing to present their messages in easily communicated stage pictures rather than expansive dialogue. They would typically tour their plays for Palestinian audiences in villages, followed by a secondary tour to Europe or the United States for both Arab and Western audiences abroad.
The theatre was founded over a period of six months that started in late 1983, when the troupe rented the burned down Nuzha cinema in the heart of East Jerusalem, across the street from the American Colony Hotel.The cinema was regulated under Jordanian law and was considered part of the cultural capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In the 1967 war, an air missile went through the roof leading to its first period of decline. After it resumed operations, religious fundamentalists burned it down because rumors proliferated that it played erotic films. Shortly thereafter, the site became little more than a public dump and according to urban legends an encounter point for illegal activities. The fate of this cinema changed dramatically when Abu Salem and his fellow troupe members decided take it over. They renovated the building and its grounds. In a project that could only be described as miraculous, the troupe labored for six months to transform this deserted cinema into a world-class theatre. In May of 1984, the theatre opened to outstanding reviews. In the following few years, under the leadership of El-Hakawati, the theatre had functionally become not only the most prominent theatre in Jerusalem, but also Palestine’s most sought after theatrical space.
Since the golden years of Palestinian theatre in Jerusalem in the 1980s, El-Hakawati theatre has undergone numerous changes that led to the current name of the Palestinian National Theatre. Particularly during the Oslo period of the mid to late 1990s, Palestinians aimed to reinforce the presence of national institutions in the city. Cultural production became a primary medium for East Jerusalemites’ assertion of their cultural identity. The PNT hosted events ranging from theatrical productions and festivals, musical recitals, dance concerts, film screenings, and book launches. With international funding, the PNT co-produced plays with partners across Europe, the Americas, and the far East. In the following two decades, its projects included a summer theatre school, film training, play publication, visual arts exhibits, touring play-bus productions for children, and weekly meetings among Jerusalemite writers. More importantly, the theatre raised a generation of school children who regularly attended theatrical productions and for some, it was the site of their graduation.
Since its opening in 1984, the theatre faced tens of closures and threats of closures by the Israeli authorities, who often cited that events were funded by the Palestinian Authority (PA) headquartered in Ramallah. At times, arrests of artists and censorship of productions were linked directly to content, however, when Israel abolished official censorship, reasons for bans primarily took place under the guise of security threats or links to the PA. In 2009, the PNT participated as a key institution in the Jerusalem as Arab Cultural Capital project. This Arab league sponsored initiative promised to improve the cultural infrastructure and support Palestinian cultural producers in a summer long series of events. The Israeli authorities initiated close watch on these events and the theatre was closed on several occasions throughout the summer. In response, the events, which were supposed to occur primarily in Jerusalem, took place in various locations in the West Bank. Arab capitals were encouraged to produce weeklong cultural festivals inspired by Jerusalem in their own countries. Ultimately, the failure of the project suggested that the road ahead for the PNT was becoming increasingly more difficult.
In the last five years, the PNT continued to suffer many financial and political losses, despite its continued production of theatre for both adults and children. Since 2012, upper management changed four times. A struggling board of directors has called on one of the original members of El-Hakawati to take over the helm in late 2014. Artistic director Amer Khalil forged relationships with local artists and began regular programing. He encouraged the co-production of Roses and Jasmine, a controversial play that has been a resounding success. In June 2015, the play garnered large audiences and inspired heated debates, reminding theatre workers and Jerusalemites of a golden era of creativity and unlimited potential. In the response ranging from oppositional to extremely supportive, the PNT was regaining its spirit of internationalism and aesthetic rigor. Most recently, Amer Khalil created partnerships with theatres in the Galilee and produced Qanadil Malek Al-Jalil (Lanterns of the King of Galilee) which successfully brought to life the novel by Ibrahim Nasrallah and established a unique new lens into adaptation and the power of cross pollination within various areas of Palestinian cultural production.