Scholar turns playwright to get her research out to a wider audience

  • June 22, 2021
Scholar turns playwright to get her research out to a wider audience

Mona Jebril's play The Loop will feature at the Hotbed Theatre Festival in July.

Through creating a podcast, animations, photo films, a research GIF, research games, comic scripts and now a theatrical play, I am creating a platform through which I can share important research on the significantly under-researched context of Gaza.

Mona Jebril

Dr Mona Jebril [2012] did her PhD in Education on the multiple ways occupation and conflict in the Middle East have affected the mobility of academics in Gaza, their academic freedom and attempts to reform the higher education system. She is now an interdisciplinary social scientists and Research Fellow at Cambridge University’s Centre for Business Research and a Supernumerary Postdoctoral Research Associate at Queens’ College. Here she talks about her play The Loop which will feature in the Menagerie Theatre’s Hotbed Festival at Cambridge Junction in July and what prompted her to turn her research into theatre.

What made you decide to write a play about your research?

Mona Jebril: I was exploring ways of disseminating my research on the political economy of health in Gaza to both specialised and non-specialised audiences. I had already produced four photo-based films for my PhD study and then two animations for my current research with R4HC-MENA, which made me realise how useful and enjoyable it is to communicate research through art.

That encouraged me to want to keep trying new ideas and I came across the Cambridge Creative Encounters programme in 2020, which included an opportunity to work with Menagerie Theatre Company on a research play. Since my BA is in English Language and Literature, this was an interesting opportunity for me, which I thought would also give me the space to highlight the impact of the politicisation of the health sector on people and how it is affecting their daily lives – something that I have felt so powerfully through my interviews, especially with those caring for patients.

How did you go about writing the play?

Mona Jebril: At first, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to write. I only knew that I wanted to communicate the feelings of my research participants through the play. It was then when I recalled a video that I had seen on Maan news (a local news agency in Palestine) of a mother who was seeking a permit for her child to go to an Israeli hospital, which arrived too late. She was unknowingly videoed as she entered the hospital looking for her child before she realised that he had died. The scene was very dramatic and emotional and I have never forgotten it. I was more upset when I discovered that this was her only child and that she had suffered years of fertility treatment before his birth.

I decided to start from there and integrate my current research insights into the story. I also integrated aspects of my PhD research as well as my own experience of life in Gaza. This play is not a documentary about health in Gaza or the true story of this particular mother. It is a mixture which includes information from my research, aspects of the mother’s story, but also some fiction, polemic and even dark humour.

What do you think you can get over in a play that you might not be able to through standard academic publications and who do you think you can reach?

Mona: When I told my interviewees (policy makers, health officials and those caring for patients in Gaza) that I would use the interviews and academic papers to produce a report, I sensed polite scepticism, particularly from those caring for patients. As a female academic who lived in Gaza for 22 years, I could hear and relate to mothers’ sense of helplessness. When you talk to people who live under constant emergency conditions about the long-term impact on them in an academic way, the majority have little faith in what you are doing. That is because they are suffering all the while and their lives and the lives of their loved ones are at stake; some of them have already lost their sons or daughters.

People are also frustrated about the possibility of change after so many years. Because of that, I felt a responsibility to convey their voices. Their stories were different, but also had common threads as they talked about traumatising healthcare experiences under occupation and the challenging conditions resulting from the Palestinian schism. I was able to include an analysis of this data in the report, but I couldn’t include the tears, the shattered voices, the strength and the anger that I heard in my conversations. A research-based play was the perfect medium to capture these feelings, ensure participants’ anonymity, highlight different themes and also to humanise the political, something that is not often done in news about Gaza.

The target group for the play is anyone who might be interested in it. I know this doesn’t seem very scientific, but in fact, what does the word ‘public’ mean? Beyond theoretical categories, I believe that engaging with anyone who does not know about the topic of your research is engaging the public. For example, if I don’t know anything about volcanology, then I am indeed a non-specialised member of the public, while I am a specialised audience member when it comes to higher education or health. In the future, I could also consider a hybrid approach to my target group, identifying and designing related activities to enhance the play’s impact on a particular audience and allowing me to develop a more intuitive understanding of the audience.

How do you find writing in a non-academic style?

Mona: It is actually very interesting. Previously, I wrote three plays which were performed in Gaza, one by school children and two (with my sister Suzan Jebril) which were performed by the ELPC [the University Student English Literature Reading Club], but these plays were very basic. In our first meeting in the writing workshop, Patrick Morris, the Co-Artistic Director of the Menagerie Theatre Company, asked me what kind of plays I liked. My answer was a play that is interdisciplinary, factual, imaginative and includes poetry, music, humour and wisdom – so an all-in-one play. I am pleased to say, that, to some extent, I have managed to include this mix in The Loop.

I also found using a non-academic style liberating. Initially, I struggled with how to balance writing about factual data from my political economy of health research in Gaza with creating something interesting for the theatre, given the political sensitives associated with the topic. I was assuming that a research-based play should be informational – a documentary. Consequently, the first draft I wrote of The Loop was full of information – as if I was packing it with evidence and details, just like I would do in writing an academic paper. After receiving feedback, I realised that such intensity was not needed and that I should put the story at the heart of my writing and focus on what the characters would be saying to each other in a real-life situation. I could then decide if what I was adding would be valuable or not to the story. In brief, less is more!

I also had to consider practical considerations about theatre production, for example, whether it was possible to produce a play that included 20 actors. This also directed my creativity.

How did you get selected for the festival?

Mona: I first applied for a theatre writing workshop with Cambridge University’s Public Engagement team through the Creative Encounters programme in 2020. The workshop was offered by Menagerie Theatre Company to participants from the University of Cambridge. It was held at the peak of Covid-19 in March 2020 so we had to do it on Zoom.

By the end of the workshop, each of the participants was asked to submit an application if they wished to join a specialised writing workshop for young writers at Menagerie. As part of the application, each candidate was required to submit a detailed idea of a play for the Menagerie panel to choose from, with the possibility that the selected play would be part of the Hotbed Festival 2021. My application was one of only two applications that were selected from the University of Cambridge group.

I joined the young writers workshop in September, and since then have been working on The Loop. It was an amazing opportunity to meet professional, experienced young playwrights, read each other’s work and discuss and exchange feedback. In addition, each one of the participants had useful one-to-one sessions with Patrick Morris who provided critical feedback on our work and recommended ways to improve it.

We were then invited by Menagerie in February 2021 to submit a complete first draft of the play to be considered by the judges. I was informed that my play was selected for reading at the Festival. I am proud of this achievement as it will be wonderful to see The Loop read by real actors. The event will also be recorded. I am also excited for my colleagues whose work will be featured in the Festival. I am optimistic that I can take The Loop forward and hope that this will be the start of (perhaps) my side career as a research playwright!

You have been very innovative in the ways you have been using to put your research over. Do you think academics need to broaden the way they engage with the public?

Mona: Yes, I definitely think so! Communicating research through publications and conferences is good, but it is not enough and it is not the only way available to create impact or disseminate important work.

But it seems that many academics (and universities) remain prisoners of the ‘publish or perish’ logic. Also, success and fame in academia is so often linked to the number of citations that someone has. I want to say that, while doing my PhD research, I have sometimes cited academics whose articles resonated with my data. Do I think that these writers had any particular impact on me or my thinking? Not necessarily. This is, of course, not to undermine the value and usefulness of academic publications in anyway, but to problematise the ‘ivory tower’ of the traditional university’s approach to impact and encourage more inclusion of alternative ways of disseminating the important work that academics are doing to a wider audience.

The current academic culture poses a challenge for researchers like me who might want to do things differently, although I must say that the University of Cambridge as a university is making noticeable efforts to change this culture, as the amazing work that is done by the Public Engagement Team shows. That work is something that I have personally benefited. But the majority of the academics and researchers in Cambridge and at other universities remain ambivalent when it comes to public engagement and the communication of research through more creative channels.

Because of that, and despite ongoing support from my director Professor Simon Deakin, it initially felt professionally embarrassing to say, for example, that I was working on a research animation video of 3:15 min for 20 hours instead of putting the time into writing a journal article, especially given that I am an early career researcher. But, in fact, this time spent working on animations was a good investment because I learnt new skills and was also able to share my work widely through social media using the film.

I also continue to use the animations as educational tools in both academic and non-academic settings, but in the traditional world of academia, the extent to which such creative endeavours are considered ‘legitimate’ academic outputs remains unclear. Public engagement is also perceived as the responsibility of the public or a specialised media office in the department or the university and is mostly done through traditional methods such as media releases and site visits. Creativity seems to be limited to academics or administrators who specialise in art and creativity rather than being seen as something with which researchers generally can engage.

But a combination of enhanced technological advances, the increased threat of climate change and even health challenges such as Covid-19 seem to be pushing things in a new direction, redefining what the word ‘publish’ in ‘publish and perish’ means and raising questions regarding traditional academic conferences. For example, the pandemic made some of the academic community more comfortable with Zoom. It made them question why they should put money, effort, time spent away from their family and increase their carbon footprint by travelling to conferences and why universities should endure the additional financial costs needed to cover such expenses if the same objectives could be achieved online.

Academic classes also had to be offered digitally, encouraging lecturers to look for alternative ways of making their teaching material more accessible and enjoyable to their students. Social media platforms also provide virtual spaces for networking. Interestingly, many academic journals now recommend that their authors produce animations and promotional videos to publicise their articles. In brief, knowingly or unknowingly, through the use of technology, academia is heading in the direction of democratising access to research and how it may be disseminated. The traditional boundaries between the academic, the policy maker and the public are also fading with time, making public engagement a greater priority.

Why is public engagement important to you?

Mona: There are several reasons. Firstly, my interest in public engagement is influenced by three experiences that I had Gaza. (1) After my MSc graduation from Oxford and my return to work at two of Gaza’s universities as a lecturer and a manager, I became cut off from the libraries and publications that were available to me as a scholar in Oxford. The blockade meant that books in Gaza were very limited and mostly outdated. The departmental seminars at Oxford that I used to enjoy very much were mostly unavailable online. I so wanted to be able to attend these seminars to continue to learn and to feel connected with the academic community, but this was simply not a possibility.

(2) Working in a challenging environment in Gaza, I struggled to make sense of the theories and books that I read and how they might apply to the Gaza context. Eventually, I had to leave them behind, learn the new codes of the reality of Gaza and find new ways of engaging and of creating impact, and (3) I lived through the 2008 war in Gaza where I could have been killed by a falling bomb at any point. This made me question my earlier interest in ‘long term impact’ and feel a sense of urgency and the need to create impact. During the war, I also felt that my and other people’s voices in Gaza about our experience were not heard. In that sense, we were the public, but we had a lot to say and a capacity to engage, but, although we could have lost our lives in the war, we were marginalised (and dehumanised) because we were not the policy makers, i.e., the specialists, or the powerful when it came to war diplomacy.

Secondly, today’s challenges in conflict-affected areas and the Middle East require leaders to have a variety of skills and an interdisciplinary knowledge. For example, during my work as a manager in Gaza, I did not have the luxury of dedicated IT support all the time because there were few IT staff and they had a large workload. But if I wanted to implement a certain idea, I could not do it without their help. Consequently, I realised I had to take a proactive approach to solving problems and find innovative ways of dealing with the challenges or, despite having the title of a manager, I wouldn’t be able to manage anything. Also, in the Middle East, where favouritism and nepotism are common, today’s public audience could be tomorrow’s policymakers and conversely those who become policymakers may not necessarily have the power to improve things. So, there is a fluid space that should be considered when thinking about creating impact. In a more positive context, educating the public contributes to a more democratic approach to policy making.

Thirdly, I am aware that de-colonising academia is a process, and so I have encountered instances where I have felt that people have preferred my voice as a Palestinian researcher to be silent or neutralised. So, through creating a podcast, animations, photo films, a research GIF, research games, comic scripts and now a theatrical play, I am creating a platform through which I can share important research on the significantly under-researched context of Gaza, which could also be useful to support work in other conflict-affected areas.

All in all, I feel so grateful to have the opportunity of having studied and worked at two elite universities, which has enabled me to have relative freedom, peace and mobility. I am doing my best to honour this and contribute as much as possible with my research to improving people’s lives in Gaza and to create bridges between them and the world, which most of have not yet seen because of the blockade.


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