Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 July 2003
Issue No. 647
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In progress: A will to perform

By Sherif Iskander Nakhla

Sherine El-Ansary, 32-year-old storyteller, was born in Cairo, raised and schooled in France. In 1992 she was among the first class to graduate from The American University in Cairo with a BA in Theatre. After a few acting roles in feature films, short films, documentaries and theatrical productions Sherine created a storytelling performance for children, Moon Story, which toured around the country. Her career began in 1996 when, funded by the Cultural Fund of the Netherlands Embassy, she developed a repertoire of stories from the 1001 Nights. Since then Sherine has continuously been working, performing in French, English and Arabic, in Eastern-Europe, South Africa, Lebanon, Kenya, Morocco and other countries. She has just returned from touring her most recent show, Badr El-Bodour.

Early in my career I started rewriting stories from 1001 Nights and made adaptations from them, and as time went by the adaptations became more and more free, keeping the story's plotline but presented more through my voice. I try to maintain the story's essence and structure along with its themes and conflicts though I do change many things within the story itself. The more I rewrite the stories the more they become contemporary.

I prepare shows that are basically cycles of stories connected to one another. Each cycle has a theme or an idea that connects the stories together, such as a color or a bird or passion or betrayal etc.

I really can't say that I have particular themes that I like working on, but most people who give me feedback about my shows tell me that I deal with love, sex and food and that I make a connection between them. It's the poetry of the situation that inspires me as opposed to the actual texts or poems. I'm mostly attracted to stories that contain elements that contradict each other, creating conflict.

In these types of performances it's important that the storyteller be the backbone of the show, it's one of the aspects that differentiates it from melodrama. When performing I do not play the role of the storyteller, I am the storyteller and I go in and out of characters to guide the audience through the story. It is on-stage where I feel the real Sherine exists. It is hard to describe why, but I feel comfortable and in the right place when I'm performing. It is as if time stops and every moment becomes a year. It feels like I am accomplishing a great deal from nothing, which is absolutely opposite to everyday life where people struggle everyday for so little.

There are many techniques that storytellers use to spoon-feed stories to the audience as if they were children. I'm not very fond of these techniques. I prefer to keep a psychological distance between me and the audience to give them time to wonder, "Is she really saying that?" I like to give them a chance to think whether they are amused or disturbed by what they are seeing. It's important for them to anticipate where the story is going to take them next, though it cannot be too predictable. Of course, there are some exceptions, depending on the story but in general I like to keep a thin line between the audience and myself as a storyteller, which is probably the greatest similarity my work has with theatre.

Both theatre and storytelling have a great deal to gain from one another, just like sculpture and painting do, or documentary and feature films. They use different languages, but there is much to be learned from both sides. Even though I'm a great lover of theatre I'm a bit upset with it. I feel that it alienates the audience and is targeted towards a certain elite and that many people do not understand it anymore. This is why I say that the theatre industry should learn more from street art or storytelling or acrobatics: theatre has become codified and hence finds it difficult to reach certain audiences. Storytelling is more user- friendly and more likely to get a message across. One problem with theatre is that there are too many techniques involved and most members of a cast and crew feel like they have to show that they have been well-trained, that they are the best at what they do.

In my last production I made an adaptation from a traditional story from 1001 Nights and I took the audience somewhere different, I made some changes in the story, ended it before its original ending, added a number of contemporary elements, political and social statements and tried to make it sensual as well. My experience has taught me that I can't predict how an audience will respond to my projects until I'm actually performing. Even if I tell my ideas to a great director and he or she likes it, I still wouldn't be able to predict how an audience would react because the spontaneous response of an audience is completely independent of the vision of a director. This is one of the reasons why storytelling is so different to theatre. In the theatre a director will rehearse to present his vision of the text. During my last production I felt that I had an understanding audience which is important because of the way I work, I only write half of the story and let the audience fill the other half by themselves.

I am currently working on a selection of stories from many different sources, using the structure and story format of 1001 Nights. The content includes bits and pieces from ancient mythology together with stories that have happened during the past few years. The whole project deals with the war within oneself verses the war around you. There is much violence and passion. I plan to open it in Cairo during October but I am still not sure where the performance will be.

My main objective now is to minimise the theatrical, technical aspects of my projects -- props, set and light design etc.-- so I can perform anywhere I want to, depending only on myself. So far I am doing a relatively good job at that, I've been able to perform in old houses, in the White Desert and on Mount Sinai.

Whatever, at heart I am a performer and at the end of the day I don't care where I perform, in a luxurious theatre, in the street, on top of a car. Anywhere, just as long as I can perform and reach as many people as possible.

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