EDUCULT Talks: with Johnny Mhanna
Johnny Mhanna is 24 years old and originally from Syria. He fled his homeland since he would have been forced to fight in the civil war. In this war he had already lost his father, who disappeared under the Assad regime.
Johnny performed in several theatre- and movie productions in Syria and in Lebanon before he came to Austria in August 2015. He now works as a professional actor in Austria as well. To this day he smells the same perfume on stage that he had noticed the first time he went to the theatre when he was eight years old: For him, theatre smells like freedom.
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EDUCULT: Please, tell us a little bit about you!
Johnny Mhanna: Lately, I’m happy that I already have been an actor in three countries. I left Syria at Christmas 2012 to Lebanon and stayed there for three years and three months. In Lebanon they are producing TV series and films and they have amazing theatres there. We speak the same language but with a different accent. It took me about three weeks to learn this accent.
In Beirut I went to a casting with one of the best theatre directors in the Arabic world, Lina Abyad. She hired me for a play at LAU (Lebanese American University) for three months. But, after that I had to work at McDonalds for nine months. And I played another six plays in LAU and 20 short films with the students. I also played at the Sun flower theatre and in two science fiction films for the cinema and for a TV series.
These three years in Lebanon as an actor were the best years for me. Because I could speak the Lebanese accent very well I really worked a lot. I played in important productions and learned very much.
EDUCULT: And why did you have to leave Lebanon?
Johnny Mhanna: Because in Lebanon, no matter what you do, even if you are a Superman, there is no future. For Lebanese there is no future in Lebanon, so imagine how it is for Syrians.
The second problem was that in the last year I was in Lebanon the rules changed. This was a disaster for the Syrians. Suddenly, they needed a Visa to come to Lebanon. And for me, who was already in the country, the rules said that I need a Lebanese sponsor if I want to stay. I didn’t find a sponsor and therefore I became illegal without official papers for two months. Then I decided to go to the UN to sign myself as a refugee there. Then I took the papers from the UN to the Lebanese embassy to get new papers. But with my new status of being a refugee I was not allowed to work anymore. And I also didn’t get money from the UN because I was living in Beirut and not in a camp of the UN. This is one of the reasons why I left.
And the second reason: In Lebanon literally it’s the worst life you could ever live. It’s not a stable country. Since May 2014 they don't have a president, that’s one of their problems. The dream of each Lebanese is to get out of Lebanon.
Then I came to Austria, where I have already played in two plays and now I am playing the third show here. I just love the idea to work as a professional actor in three different countries and maybe after some years there will be a fourth country, who knows? Maybe I’m an actor without a border.
EDUCULT: That’s a great idea. But are there any major differences in performing in Syria, in Lebanon, in Austria? Are there other theatre traditions in your regional countries? Are there other methods?
Johnny Mhanna: Actually, no, an actor is an actor anywhere. Facing the audience, it’s the same. But one difference is the language. The Austrian actor speaks German and the Syrian actor speaks Arabic. But the way of thinking is not different. For example when two different Austrian actors play Hamlet of Shakespeare, each one of them will play the role in his own way. And if two Syrian actors play the same role, they will also act in their own way.
EDUCULT: You mentioned Shakespeare and he is a very European author, maybe he is a global author?
Johnny Mhanna: It does not depend on the countries, but on the directors of a play. And yes, there are differences between a Syrian and an Austrian director, because they have had a different education, culture and a way of thinking. The Syrians in Syria will never think like the Austrians in Austria. The Syrian director will do the Hamlet like he sees it. Even in America or in the UK, everybody will do it in his kind of way.
But sure there are differences in theatre that go back to the culture of a country. The theatre scene in Syria is very similar to the theatre scene in Austria. How actors live, how they run after chances, they are always out of money – all this is so similar.
Before the war in Syria we had a lot of TV productions, much more than in Austria. Each year they were producing 30 to 35 TV series and three or four films in Syria. And we had theatre. The space for being active as an actor was bigger than here in Austria. If you were not working in a theatre, you worked for TV or for the film. The cinema here in Austria is more underground – it’s all about theatre. But on the other hand, in Syria we don’t have musical theatre. We only have one musical theatre play every three or four years. It’s not so familiar to the audience.
EDUCULT: What is the particularity of the Syrian culture compared to Austria? The way of living together?
Johnny Mhanna: There is a cultural difference. Our life in Syria is not the same like your life in Austria. And also within Syria it depends very much on the region. The living in Damascus is not the same as in Aleppo, Homs or Hama. Syria is a big country, it’s more than double bigger than Austria.
The Austrians focus on their work. They work, work, work the whole day and they go out at the weekend. This is their routine daily life. For example in Damascus we don’t have this routine. The night life is more important than in Vienna. The shops don’t close early and you can find supermarkets that have open 24 hours, so you can buy everything you want at 5 am. We don’t have this meaning of weekend as you have. We don’t say “Let’s see on Friday or weekend”, no, we see each other today.
And the people in Syria show more emotions. For example you could walk in the streets and you know everyone working in the shops and you say “Hi” to them. The people are simple, but not in a negative way. It’s positive, that they are much closer to each other and there are more emotions in their hearts. This goes back to our culture. We have a mix of religions and you can find small places which are only linked to one religion. There are different habits and different ways of living.
EDUCULT: Why did you become an actor? What were your motives?
Johnny Mhanna: This is a hard question. The first time I watched a play I was eight years old. My aunt took me to the play. Since this moment when I entered the theatre for the first time I smelled a perfume. I don’t know what it was, but I smell it till now in each theatre I enter – in Syria, in Lebanon and even here in Austria. And that’s why my favorite novel is “Perfume” of Patrick Süskind. And the main character of this novel is the character of my dreams. I would love to play it.
When I was 18 I finished my baccalaureate and I started in a theatre club of the university. I love about playing that you can be anybody. You can be a homeless and you can be a king, you can be a doctor and you can be a secretary. That’s why I really love to play. And I don’t say I’m “acting”. I say I’m “playing”. I play a role. I hate the word “acting”. Until now nobody knows about the real meaning of acting. It’s playing and anybody who loves to play can play. At least you can play one character that is your character, without learning to act. For me anybody in the street can play, but in a limited way.
By playing a role, you can touch anybody. Maybe you touch only five of 400 of the audience, but this five are enough, when you really touch them. When the audience can identify with your playing, you are touching them, because you are living their roles. And that is what I really like about playing or being on stage, to get in touch with the people.
EDUCULT: Was your training as an actor an important part of your life?
Johnny Mhanna: The first thing for me as an actor is to watch people. I can be in a public place and there is a strange tone or voice, then I keep listening to it trying to copy it at home. This is some kind of stealing from the people. I steal movements from the people how they move their hands, how they look like, how they walk. This stealing is the most important thing when you are playing characters, to open new spaces for yourself. Copying the real people gives you a lot of choices for playing a character. In workshops of the theatre club at the university we were getting prepared for being an actor. It was full of exercises about theatre, about memories, about imagination, about reading, about pronunciation, about the history of theatre.
Any exercise you do or anything in life you do helps you. Because, maybe, in one way or another I will have a character where I can use this information. Being an actor is about to start from A to Z and to build, build, build and to learn and to know things. If you are working as an actor, the more characters you play, the more knowledge you will get.
EDUCULT: How does the Syrian education system work? Do the arts play a role in everyday school life? Does music, theatre and dancing play a role in schools?
Johnny Mhanna: No. But since 2002 there are lectures in music about the history of music, of musicians and composers. And there are drawing lessons. But there is no theatre in schools, only a few voluntary participate in some plays out of school and there is also a theatre festival each year. But only a few pupils take this chance.
EDUCULT: I can imagine that many of last years’ achievements and changes are getting destroyed at the moment. I can imagine that there is no regular education at all.
Johnny Mhanna: Yes, but there are still some safe areas, for example the center of Damascus – and the center of Damascus is not small. But around Damascus everything is destroyed. Or in the city of Tartus at the Mediterranean Sea there is no war and the people are living normal there, partying and learning, going to University – like it’s out of Syria.
EDUCULT: May I ask about your situation here in Austria? Do you have any plans for further performances?
Johnny Mhanna: Ich habe eine weiße Karte (Translation: I have a white card) and I am waiting for my appointment of the asylum procedure to get residence permit and a passport. I’m not allowed to work. When I am part of a theatre play I have to do it for free. At the moment I’m not allowed to take money.
EDUCULT: Do you want to stay for a longer period of time in Austria?
Johnny Mhanna: Yes. I came to Austria. I didn’t want to go to Germany or Sweden.
EDUCULT: A big question for me and I think for many people here in Austria is: Do you want to go back to Syria when the conflicts are over or are you planning on starting a new life here in Austria?
Johnny Mhanna: I don’t know when the war finished if I go back or not. I don’t want to lie and say “Yes, I go back then”. I really don’t know.
EDUCULT: Do you feel prepared to start a new life somewhere else? I can imagine this is a hard job?
Johnny Mhanna: It is really hard. But since you take this step and decide to go as an illegal immigrant, this whole trip – since you take the first step you cannot think back. When you buy the ticket for Turkey, you should forget your past. Because no one knows how long the Syrian war will last. It will not be finished before ten years. I do not hope, but I think so.
EDUCULT: But do you feel prepared for this?
Johnny Mhanna: Yes. It’s actually something beautiful to learn new languages and to meet new people that I really love. And I had this experience before, because I was in Lebanon. It was also about starting a new life even if it was easier because of the Arabic language. So starting a new life is not that new for me.
I’m having fun when I’m learning German. On my way here I thought I have to forget about acting for four or five years because of the language. But after ten days in Austria I started rehearsals in the music school of Traiskirchen with the group “Die Schweigende Mehrheit”. I arrived at 28th of August and I played the first show on 12th of September in Arena Wien, only 15 days after I came here.
And later my English helped me to get another role in another play. There I also played nine lines in German, which was my choice not the director’s choice. This is playing. I always have to learn new lines. When it is in Arabic, I have to think more about how I would say it exactly, because it’s my first language. It was easier for me to play in English or now in German. Then I am playing to speak this new language and that’s a level of acting.
EDUCULT: This might be a “dangerous” question; we have quite a broad public discussion about that: Refugees that come to Austria or Germany should share common values, whatever that is. It was also provoked by what happened in Cologne. There is a different idea of gender equality and the idea and importance of religion. What would you say: Do we share common values in your experience?
Johnny Mhanna: Actually, it is a hard question to answer, because of two things. I am not a strong believer, I am not so religious, but I am a Christian. And this makes some things easier for me than for a Muslim guy to deal with the Christian Austrians. I am not saying that this is good or bad, it’s just a fact. In one way or another I can completely understand the way of living of the Austrians. And that’s not only because of my religion it’s also because of my way of living in Damascus. You cannot deal with me the same way like with a guy for example from Deir ez-Zur in the East of Syria.
EDUCULT: You mean the culture gap already starts in Syria, not in Europe.
Johnny Mhanna: Yes. I was living in the capital and if I go to Deir ez-Zur there I would be unique. I would be some kind of tourist for them, maybe they look at me as some kind of high class because I’m from Damascus. It would be hard to connect. So imagine how hard it is to connect for a guy from this region to connect with a Viennese. Even for me it is in one way or another hard to connect with a Viennese.
There are a few refugees that are blinded by their religion and they closed their minds because of the religion. Any European country – I’m not talking about Hungary or Croatia – but any European country is better than Syria or Iraq, that’s obvious. Because of respecting the people, because of the way of living.
You can find some refugees that came here that don’t want to learn the language or they don’t want to mix with Austrian people. They want to stay with their own culture and they want to publish their culture here. But that’s not the way. You come to this country to be safe or to live better. If you want to live better you have to live how the people here live, not as you were living in Syria. That’s impossible. You have to understand the other person so that he can understand you.
EDUCULT: What should we do with those refugees that do not want to share the way of living here?
Johnny Mhanna: This is a difficult question. If someone does not want to learn the language at the first level you cannot force him. He will never learn and it’s his problem. There are a few refugees thinking that they will get their papers and then they will get “Mindestsicherung” of about € 850 from the state. And they think they can stay in their houses and get this money every month. That’s how some refugees are thinking, of course not all of them. That’s a problem because I don’t know if the government keeps silent and just give them monthly money or if they send them back.
Me I would work for free just to get out of home. I would work for free to have a social life. But some people could sit all the day at home.
EDUCULT: How would you characterize the cultural sector in Austria? What is your experience with the cultural life here in Austria?
Johnny Mhanna: What I really love here in Austria is respect. Here people respect each other more than I was used to. That’s what is perfect because I really took my place in the play “Schutzbefohlene performen Jelineks Schutzbefohlene” and since the people of the group liked me and my talent I have won their respect. And this respect for me opens like one hundred doors in social life for me – because of their connections, because of their help, because of the play itself. If anybody watched me playing on the stage the people give me their respect and that’s amazing. The people I worked with are not forgetting you after leaving the theatre. They got really close friends of mine. They could call me about 12 am when they are thinking about an idea. This is all because of respect.
EDUCULT: I fear not all of the Austrians are the same, but it is great to hear that you made this experience.
Johnny Mhanna: I have never met any bad Austrian.
EDUCULT: If you get asylum, what would be the next steps for you?
Johnny Mhanna: Then I would get a Deutschkurs for free every day which is really good.