The Birth of Paper is a work of “distance theater” with virtual and mail elements, created by the Pittsburgh-based company RealTime Interventions and presented in their international postal-plays festival, Post Theatrical, in 2021. It featured Milia Ayache in the role of playwright Molly Rice. It was streamed live on Zoom from Beirut, June 24-29.
Through the magic of technology, we are in Milia’s living room in Beirut.
MILIA pulls out a big beautiful handmade envelope.
She unseals it.
This starts the play.
MILIA carries the online audience onto her balcony to listen to the sounds of Beirut at dusk, prompting them to type in their impressions of what both Pittsburgh and Beirut look, sound, and smell like. She reads the answers out loud.
Ok. Now we know where we are a little.
Some of us here in Pittsburgh have heard about the difficulties of being there in Beirut right now. The sense of crumbling at the center. We know about the revolution. The government abandoning you. The money turning into just--paper. The fuel and electricity shortages. We know these things are happening right now as we sit here together. We know Milia is running her internet off her personal generator just to be with you tonight. We’re sorry if it gets a little choppy.
We also heard that there are a lot of things that are difficult to get where you are. Milia wrote me a list a while ago. Here are some things on it:
From another scrap of paper, pulled from the big envelope.
“Coffee, Tea, Books, Magazines, Baby formula, Meat and chicken, Chocolate, Tampons, good sleep, Shampoo, fuel, Toothpaste, a sense of safety, new clothes and socks, paints, pens, notebooks, crayons, relief from rage, good internet, makeup, moisturizers, milk and cheese, hope, electricity.”
I added a couple in there based on conversations with other people.
Rusty and I—Rusty’s my producing partner and husband. He’s a redhead with a magical scraggly beard. He’s the person who directed this play. You can’t see him but he's here with you right now.
We have been over here in the little room where we do our thinking, thinking about this, feeling helpless, trying to figure out how to do something good with what we have.
Our first thought was about raising money and sending it directly, but customs doesn’t allow it. Plus money can disappear on its way to where it’s going.
And then I started seeing things around the house that made me think of Milia.
A collection of hand towels.
A little mirror.
A box with a picture of the ocean.
When Milia comes to visit us in Pittsburgh, she always brings us little gifts.
I love that.
I love the anticipation, then the surprise, then the warm rush of gratitude after. And the trail of memories that a gift creates. Like little bright stones on a path leading back to our time with her. She’s giving me that path into the past as well as the gift itself.
She said that’s something common in Lebanon, gift-giving. That Lebanese people bring gifts to each other’s houses, for all kinds of occasions. Is that right?
So some of us in Pittsburgh pulled together and made some things to send you.
We know it’s very little.
But maybe it’s something.
Maybe a beginning of something.
By the way, there was more. Actually, a lot of the things we wanted to send weren’t allowed by customs. Just know there was more. And so many more people wanted to be part of the sending. They’re out there right now, all over Pittsburgh. In their houses, or at work, or in their car listening to the radio. You can’t see them right now, but they’re there.
Milia and the online audience in Beirut open their packages sent from Pittsburgh. Inside the packages are unique writing apparati made of recycled pencils and hemlock branches yoked together to create something completely new.
Those of you at home, if you have a branch or a pencil, hold yours up too.
Let’s stay in the forest while I tell you a story.
When I first wrote this play in 2003, I lived in a forest in Texas. In a small, very rare stand of pines called the Lost Pines, who got separated from their brothers that grew in a massive forest somewhere far away. Like the stand of Cedars up in your mountains, who were also supposedly once part of a huge forest in Turkey, did you know that? They just got separated from their brothers up there long ago.
Anyway, I had another husband back there in Texas who wasn’t very nice, but I didn’t know it yet. A dog and two cats. A big house with a cool cement floor and lots of birdfeeders and my father’s old binoculars for birdwatching and over 20 species of birds that came to visit me. I loved that life. I did. As we’ve been working on this play, as I’ve held the objects you hold in my hands, and smelled the scents and read some of the words from back then, I’ve remembered my old home.
But the lost pines all burned down in a fire.
They’re truly lost now.
This was soon after my life burned down
and I could never go back.
But paper was there to catch me as I fell
and I told it everything
and it listened
and I became a writer.
They can put down their pencils.
It’s funny, when you lose something. Especially something big. A stand of trees to hide in. A patch of sun that was once just your size. Good sleep. A sense of safety. Hope. When you lose these things there’s a falling feeling. I remember that, falling, wondering how it would sound when my bones finally cracked on the ground.
You think you know.
You can imagine the sound.
You picture what you will be when all is lost.
An empty shell. A burned-out stump.
You think, I’ll be nothing. Because you can imagine nothing. We’ve all seen an empty space.
But you’re always wrong when you imagine the future.
We’re just not creative enough to imagine what will grow out of nothing.
This branch became a pencil and ended up in your hand. Look. I am sure the branch and the pencil could never have imagined being this.
“I might look like a branch.
But wait. Look harder.
Imagine what I really am.”
She holds hers up vertically.
Now we’re in the forest together.
Molly Rice is a playwright/experience designer whose work gravitates toward unusual collaborations, offbeat musicality and site-specific enchantments. Published & produced across the US, her work’s honors include Brown University’s Weston Prize for Playwriting, selection for the Women’s International Playwriting Festival, nominations for the NY Innovative Theater Awards, the Kesselring Fellowship and Pittsburgh’s Mayor’s Award for Public Art, and numerous grants and national residencies. Molly is Co-Artistic Director and Lead Playwright of the community-fueled, performance-based arts company Real/Time Interventions in Pittsburgh.