The theatre company telling stories that the mainstream media overlooks

Claudia Marinaro, a scriptwriter for a play that deals with a conversion to Islam within an atheist Dutch family, explores how theatre can challenge prejudices

Theatre only comes alive in the presence of an audience: it depends on an interaction between someone who tells a story and someone who listens and watches. It seeks to provoke an emotional and intellectual reaction, and as such it is an inherently political medium. It is also an art form entirely based on the concept of change. Plots are set in motion by an alteration in the characters’ circumstances, and their story can’t come to an end before the characters have changed too.

It seems then that drama is a particularly appropriate tool to bring about change in society. This is the premise that led director Annemiek van Elst to found And Many Others. This theatre company is dedicated to telling stories overlooked by mainstream media and aims to create social change by fostering understanding and compassion.

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Becoming Mohammed, the company’s most recent production and one which I wrote the script for, was inspired by van Elst’s experience of coming to terms with her younger brother Maarten’s conversion to Islam while in his late teens.

As the youngest member of a Dutch atheist family who had never had any contact with Islam, he shocked his parents by announcing his conversion. While Maarten’s choice first caused tension and misunderstanding, especially as everyone was confronted with their own prejudice, it also brought the family closer together.

Our intent with the show was to tell a story about a conversion to Islam that did not involve explosives

Although inspired by real events, the play is largely fictional. It deals with Islam and conversion, but it is, above all, a story about acceptance and the bond between siblings.

For us it was extremely important to make a show that presented conversion in a positive light. In fact, while Islam frequently features on screen, stage and page, most of the time it is in relation to terrorism, or as a device to justify a character’s fears and prejudice. This hugely affects people’s perception of the religion.

The director herself was surprised by her reaction to her brother’s conversion, which was all the stronger because of how personal it felt. In hindsight, she realised her understanding of Islam had been affected and warped by years of negative representations of Islam in the media. Our intent with the show was to both tell a story about conversion that did not involve explosives, and to offer support to the families of converts, or reverts.

A scene from the play Becoming Mohammed

Reversion is a difficult process to go through for both converts and their families. The former might find themselves stuck between two worlds while feeling like they do not quite belong in either, and are in fact often described as a minority within a minority. Families, on the other hand, might perceive their beloved’s conversion as a loss, as the person they used to know embraces a new way of life. We wanted to show that, while challenging, this process can also be joyful. We wanted to show that it can also be an opportunity to learn about a different culture and to become a more compassionate, more understanding and ultimately richer human being as a result.

In theatre, the act of putting certain characters or stories on stage makes them visible to an audience who might ignore or fear them

Storytelling can be a powerful political act when it challenges preconceptions and stereotypes. In theatre, the act of putting certain characters or stories on stage legitimises them: it makes them visible to an audience who might ignore or fear them.

Representation is a catalyst for social change, and a powerful tool in the hands of writers and artists, especially in a moment in history where many seem to be cynical about politics but are open to being challenged and moved by entertainment.

Storytellers have both the power and a responsibility to strive towards challenging prejudice and changing the way we look at diversity.

Images: Claudia Marinaro

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