It’s been a remarkable year for thousands of New England elementary and middle schoolers. TIGER (Theatre Integrating Guidance Education & Responsibility), the University’s professional, Emmy Award-winning educational musical theatre program that travels the region, includes a veteran artist with numerous international credits and accolades among its five-person cast.
Fida’a Ataya ’20G is a storyteller, drama-in-education specialist, and actress. She is in New Hampshire to perform, partner, and learn new pedagogy to incorporate in her native Palestine.
Storytelling is an ancient traditional art in Palestine, but Ataya is the first professional female storyteller in the West Bank in modern times. She started with her grandmother’s traditional tales, later updated to reflect today’s realities. “I created this job from nothing 12 years ago,” Ataya says. “This is my profession.”
Her talent and expanding repertoire took her from her homeland’s libraries and community centers, to schools and universities, and ultimately to major festivals across the Middle East and Europe.
Ataya focuses on bolstering those who have little, and as a former member of the Playback Theatre she empowered everyday members of the audience. “I conducted the story, and with professional actors we improvised the story back to the attendees so they were the heroes in their community. We highlighted their stories as Palestinians in Palestine, not heroes from Hollywood.
“I work with very normal people, even forgotten people,” she continues. “I go where there is no TV, no electricity, where they live in a tent, and have no access to water.” She herself has lived in refugee camps for months at a time, in part to share the daily life of her audiences by listening, collecting, and telling stories.
Ataya’s many current undertakings include international art and activism residencies, through which visitors live with and learn from local residents, then create community-based art. “We are using art as a tool to create awareness,” she says.
Palestinians claim Jerusalem as capital of Palestine, and the United States’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017 motivated Ataya to learn more about both the city and America. She accepted an invitation in 2018 to the Fourth International Teaching Artist Conference in New York City and led a Carnegie Hall presentation on Storytelling and Activism. Her trip also featured performances in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ataya visited PSU during this period through a connection made by her friend, Steve Low, meeting with faculty, conducting a workshop, and bonding with Professor Trish Lindberg, co-founder and director of PSU’s Educational Theatre Collaborative and TIGER. The two creative dynamos deepened their ties when Lindberg traveled to Ramallah, Palestine, in March 2019 and were among the co-creators of the Palestinian-American Children’s Theatre (PACT). Ataya co-produced A You and Me World, Lindberg’s compilation of songs and dialogue dealing with anti-bullying and the importance of mutual respect. Almost every member of the cast of 28 fifth and sixth graders was new to theatre.
“The lack of options for children in Palestine limits their vision,” says Ataya. “That’s why we need many more high-quality, intensive, and inclusive options.”
To advance that goal, Ataya came to PSU in September to earn her master’s in integrated arts and continue work with Lindberg. She performed in the campus Annie ensemble last semester and regionally with TIGER.
TIGER’s emphasis on teaching “resilience” intrigues Ataya, who connects it to more significant observations about America. “I was surprised to learn and I like so much that women here are strong, and that they teach here about resilience and being strong,” she says. Ataya enjoys the warmth and safety of the PSU community and appreciates the Lamson Library, where her studying has earned her straight A grades.
Other discoveries have prompted deeper thoughts. She was initially puzzled when simple patriotism was offered as the explanation for displays of the American flag, since raising the flag in Palestine is more symbolic. “We hold up the flag because we are oppressed living under occupation and want to show, ‘we are here.’”
Plymouth is privileged to have Ataya and her multiple talents through May. “I’m so thankful for the many opportunities and all I am learning,” she says. “This has been such a wonderful experience and I think every day, how can I bring what I am learning back to Palestine and share with our communities there?”
This question will be answered in part in August, when Ataya and Lindberg’s next collaboration, a return engagement in Ramallah, will produce Palestine’s first original children’s musical. The two are also developing Seher (Magic) Theatre, a new touring troupe.