May 10, 2010
Books In Motion in NYU Alumni magazine

Books In Motion in NYU Alumni magazine

by André Tartar / GSAS ’10
Last July, a curious sight arose in Bint beil, a Lebanese town still halfstrewn with rubble from the Summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. As a crowd gathered, a man strutted about on stilts, while others balanced a giant replica of a book overhead and plopped it down on the main thoroughfare. Books in Motion, a literature infused street theater troupe, tends to have this effect, founder and producer Denise Maroney says. By the time the stage is set—a process she calls “almost theatrical in and of itself ”—an audience has materialized.

Bint Jbeil is not the only town that could use a show. There is no national theater in Lebanon; no theater district, even in the cosmopolitan Beirut. What live entertainment there is,such as the country’s renowned summer music festivals, can eat as much as two‐thirds of the average person’s weekly income of less than $150. “It’s really an industry for tourists and the few people who can pay for tickets, ”Maroney explains, which is why she started Books in Motion—to bring the stage to the streets, free of charge. Last summer, a troupe of six actors, five production assistants, and celebrated Lebanese director Lucien Bourjeily embarked on a nine‐city tour. Two short plays adapted from Lebanese children’s literature, but sophisticated enough for all ages were performed at each stop. What Is the Color of the Sea? is a poetic story of teens who trek to the Mediterranean, and The Slippers of Tanbouri is a folkloric tale about an old man who, try as he might, cannot get rid of his filthy shoes. “We’re not trying to heal the world,” says Maroney, whose goal is simply to provide all people with smart, quality entertainment.

Maroney, who is half Lebanese, first dreamed of launching street theater over drinks with friends the summer before, while in Beirut for a wedding. Instead of dismissing this as idealistic bar talk her literary agent friend Yasmina Jraissati suggested that they submit the idea—to combine literature and theater— to UNESCO, which had fortuitously chosen Beirut as its 2009 World Book Capital. The two then spent three exhausting, exhilarating days in a children’s library in Paris, where Jraissati is based, searching for stories that could speak to a wide audience. After reading the entire Lebanese shelf, with Jraissati translating for Maroney, who does not read or speak Arabic, they settled on two. That was just the beginning. Even once UNESCO green‐lighted the project, they had to scramble to find actors, a director, and funding— all new terrain for Maroney, a costume designer by training who often works on off‐Broadway shows in New York and had never produced before. However, with the help of many partners— from the Maison du Livre in Lebanon to New York City Children’s Theatre Company— and several months of intensive auditions and rehearsals, things came together despite the predictable preproduction jitters. “I was terrified no one would show up,” Maroney admits.

But the tour surpassed her dreams. Crowds in the hundreds were common, and one show counted 500. People of all ages came out—the elderly in the ancient seaside city of Tyre, surly young men in Beirut, and even soldiers in Bint Jbeil, near the Israeli border. In the mountain retreat of Jezzine, the children clamored so excitedly that the performance had to be halted to restore order. “The audience literally took us in,” Maroney says.

For more information about Books in Motion, please visit