The show must go on
Nehad Selaiha wonders how long the stamina of independent theatre people can hold out
Falling between two theatre festivals, one -- Al-Saqia's late July mime festival -- completely independent, the other -- the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET) due in September -- a thoroughly official, governmental affair, the 4th Independent Festival for Light Comedy, held at Al-Hanager from 1-7 August, with an LE50,000 subsidy from the Ministry of Culture, seemed to symbolize in its timing and major venue its equivocal status, paradoxical affiliations and abiding dilemmas. Fifteen years have passed since the movement was launched on 23 August 1990, in response to the cancellation of the CIFET that year on account of the first Gulf War. The initial slogan which rallied the groups -- mostly graduates and students active in the university theatre, as well as directors and amateur actors working in regional cultural centres and theatre clubs under the umbrella of the Cultural Palaces organisation (then called Mass Culture) or the Ministry of Youth and Sports -- was "war or no war, the show must go on." By the end of the first meeting, however, held at the Actors Union downtown in a symbolic gesture of rebellion against state control of the arts, it had gathered many political shadows and acquired something of the dimensions of a mini civil rights movement.
The structure of theatre in Egypt was discussed and vehemently denounced as inimical to creativity and the freedom of the artist, and the question became: how to forge a new relationship with the state as partners on an equal footing, a relationship in which state subsidies to the arts do not entail state control and censorship. What those young people dreamt of then, still dream of now, is an alternative to both the state- theatre companies and the private, commercial companies -- and not only in terms of financing and administration, but artistically and ideologically as well. Though nebulous and dimly perceived, something akin to what Eugenio Barba has described in one of his books as "the third way" was envisioned then and passionately embraced.
Once born, the idea not only seemed to take root in the minds of the many young men and women present that evening, but has continued to fire the imagination of young artists, inspire many talented groups up and down the country and inform their work. True the practice has often fallen short of the dream, and it is not uncommon to find desperate groups bartering their independence for measly sums of money or the promise of a venue to air their work. Nevertheless, the idea has survived, gaining credence even in official circles, and continues to be invoked in any discussion, official or otherwise, of the future of the Egyptian theatre. Despite many dismal stretches, when the free theatre movement seemed to lose its way or get bogged down by petty squabbles and rivalries or heavy official pressure, the idea continued to glow, like a distant star, inspiring new artists with a sense of dignity, giving them light and hope and guiding their faltering steps.
Of the four festivals held by the movement between 1990 and 1994, only the first can truly qualify as a thoroughly independent initiative. By 1992, the Ministry of Culture had succeeded in luring many members of the movement to work under the umbrella of Al-Hanager, with the promise of modest subsidies and a technically-equipped venue. Not surprisingly, by 1994, the independent theatre movement seemed to run out of steam and its fourth festival seemed at the time to sound its death knell. My report on that festival published on this page under the title "Out Flew the Web" on 13 January, 1994 reads very much like an obituary notice-cum- mournful elegy. Fortunately, however, time has proved me wrong; though the movement dispersed for some years, not coming together again until 1999, when another festival was conceived and summarily aborted by ministerial intervention, the best of the groups, the genuinely talented and original, like Al-Shazya (Shrapnel), Al-Haraka (The Movement), Al-Qafila (The Caravan), Al-Misaharati (The Sleepers' Waker) and the Atelier, managed to survive and new ones kept arriving on the scene. Many of those were given a comfortable nest at Al-Hanager, thanks to the artistic acumen and farsightedness of its artistic director, Hoda Wasfi.
With deep discernment, Wasfi managed to take hold of both horns of the dilemma (how to work with the government and still remain independent) and knock them together into a kind of uneasy reconciliation. The groups working at her centre would have a credible show of independence. Artistically and administratively, they were free to do as they liked and, to boot, they would be financially supported and the names of their companies would appear on the posters and flyers, in equal print-size, side by side with the name of Al-Hanager. Wasfi's shrewd, conciliatory policy bore many fruits and has introduced onto the Egyptian theatrical scene many a brilliant director and some really unforgettable productions. Indeed, at many times, Al-Hanager seemed to offer the only palatable stage-fare on hand and the most brilliant promise of theatrical survival and rejuvenation. I personally will remain indebted to her for some of the most wonderful and memorable shows I have seen in Egypt.
Wasfi's cushioning artistic policy, however, has its drawbacks. One could argue, as some have repeatedly done, that it has offered an easy way out of the arduous, long-term struggle for independence envisioned in 1990. By setting the attractive promise of immediate, piecemeal achievement against the difficult choice of a real revolution, the argument continues, she has craftily sapped the rebellious energy of the movement, absorbing its best talents into the Ministry of Culture for which she works. But who could blame her? Compromises seem to be an ineluctable mode of life for anyone working within a dictatorial establishment with the sole purpose of helping to alleviate its harshest rigours and create some breathing spaces for real creativity and freedom of expression. To realise the risks Wasfi takes in championing the independent movement and her integrity in allowing them to perform whatever they choose uncensored, you have only to remember the timidity and caution of Ahmed Nawwar, the head of the Fine Arts Sector at the Ministry of Culture.
Anxious to gain more grounds for their activities, to prise new spaces out of the jaws of the government, to spread their activities beyond Al-Hanager and explore more untraditional venues, the Independent Light Comedy Festival, initiated in 2002 -- eight years after the last independent festival -- at the Russian Cultural Centre in Dokki (before it moved to Al-Hanager the following year), approached the Sector of Fine Arts in the Ministry of Culture for the use of the underground exhibition hall at the Mahmoud Mukhtar Museum called Nahdat Masr. Last year, things went smoothly and the hall hosted a number of shows. This year, however, for no comprehensible reason, the head of the sector, Ahmed Nawwar, asked to censor the shows he was going to host. He wanted to see the written scripts and watch the videos, something Wasfi, the arch sponsor of the festival, had the decency and wisdom never to ask. But the truly unforgivable thing is that he made this request only one day before the festival opened, after the shows had been located and the programme printed.
With no funds to rent another space, no time to hunt around for a free one and unwilling to cancel any of the scheduled shows, the organisers of the festival, Hani El-Mittenawi and Mohamed Abdel-Khaliq, together with the members of their newly-founded Theatre Research and Training Centre, an NGO comprising many groups and established to provide them with a legal umbrella, faced a hard choice. They consulted with Wasfi and the groups and it was unanimously agreed that rather than surrender to censorship, something which would have discredited the festival at the start, two of the groups assigned to the Mahmoud Mukhtar venue -- Mishwar (Errand or Task) from Alexandria and Café 87 would perform in a curtained-off part of the cafeteria of Al-Hanager, while the third, Al-Qafila (Caravan) would squeeze its performance in a corner of the gallery, already occupied with the set of Lenin El-Ramli's ' Ein El-Hayah (Spring of Life) scheduled for a repeat after the festival. It was a brave choice which restored one's faith in the seriousness of the movement and its guiding idea. To guard their independence and prove that the show will go on whatever the obstacles, those three valiant groups were willing to make artistic sacrifices and put up with primitive performance conditions and forgo many technical amenities. My heart bled for the actors in the Café 87's Bara'l-Gurnan (Apart from the Newspaper) -- Jihan El-Sherif and Ahmed Aboul- 'Azm -- as they struggled to put across the tender, pathetically humorous encounter of a shy middle-aged couple, scripted by Yasser Allam, a recent and gifted theatre institute graduate, above the hubbub of the cafeteria clientele. That one was moved and touched by the play was no mean achievement. The same was true, I am told, of the Mishwar group's performance, written and directed by Mohamed Mursi, which I, unfortunately, missed. In the case of Al-Qafila's monodrama, The Scintillation, written and directed by Effat Yehya, the founder of the group, and performed by Nehad Aboul-'Enein, the atmosphere in that partitioned-off space of the gallery was so claustrophobic I kept cursing the head of the Fine Arts Sector under my breath the whole time. Indeed, compared to Wasfi's, Nawwar's attitude appears like a riddle: both are artistically gifted and academically trained, and both serve in the Ministry of Culture: why is one (Nawwar) timorously wary of risking anything while the other (Wasfi) is willing to risk all for something she deeply believes in?
Though labelled "light comedy", no trace of levity could be detected anywhere in the festival. Regardless of the artistic merit of the shows, and three of them -- A Photo, an adaptation of Lenin El-Ramli's stage-hit In Plain Arabic, by a new group from Mansoura, ominously, but quite appropriately, christened Al-Khoroug (Exodus or Exit), Basqot bil-'Agwa (Date- stuffed Biscuits) which, incidentally, featured neither dates nor biscuits, by another new group, this time from Alexandria, called Bidayah (Beginning), in a very unpromising start which led many to nickname it Al-Nihayah (End), and a wishy-washy adumbration of Fathiya El-Assal's Betwixt and Between, by yet another new group called Lamma (When) -- were pretty ham and painfully clumsy, in all of the festival's performances you could detect a serious, questioning vein, a spirit of genuine, sober protest, an ardent engagement with daily Egyptian reality and a feverish groping for a way out of its deadly stagnation. This explains, perhaps, the dominance and recurrence of the confessional, sketch-narration formula in most of the festival's offerings. Rasha Abdel-Mon'im, a brilliant young dramaturge who first collaborated with Al-Misaharati group on their superb Hakawi El-Haramlek (Tales of the Harem), then moved on to the Atelier group to help them shape their explosive satirical skit on terrorism -- A State of Emergency -- explained to me the secret of the popularity of this formula. "It is the mood of a whole generation, a generation that needs to talk, to express themselves directly, without much artistic hedging, through real stories, real experiences, truthfully narrated, as well as distant memories and half-remembered myths and folk tales." "It is their form of catharsis," she wound up.
Rasha bewitched me, as she always does. Nevertheless, and granted people need to let off steam or explode otherwise, I was deeply worried by the artistic standard of some of the shows and took my worries to Hani El-Mettenawi. As director of the festival, he defended his choice of shows on the grounds that he wanted to expand the movement by hosting plays from other places than Cairo, make the festival into a forum for free expression, regardless of technical merit and expertise, and offer it as a space where budding artists can find their feet, test their products, get exposure and learn from their mistakes. This new strategy has led him and his companions at the Theatre Research and Training Centre to rope in the French Cultural Centre in Alexandria and the Jesuit Centre in Minya as partners and get them to hold parallel festivals, hosting a number of the shows on offer on their respective premises. Quite a step forward this is. The next, according to Hani, is expanding the festival across the frontiers by hosting independent groups from Mediterranean countries. Now that the movement has a legal umbrella, it can apply to the European Union for grants to mount an international festival. This confirms one's first intuition that this movement is inherently political and not just artistic.
Hani realises, however, that a festival that barters art for politics is doomed. He therefore studded his festival with such enchanting jewels as Al-Ghagar's (The Gypsies'), Bint Benout (Vestal Virgin), adapted, directed and starred by the gifted Azza El-Huseini -- a poignant, tenderly humorous piece about the increasing number of middle-aged virgins in Egypt which seemed to touch a raw spot in the female members of the audience, mostly veiled, and seemed to release a lot of pent up tension in the form of riotous laughter. Other jewels included Ti'eesh Enta (literally You May Live, but, idiomatically, All is Lost), a vocal/dance piece by the Tut company, based on a variety of literary sources, including texts by Chekhov, Yehya El-Taher Abdallah and Tahar Ben Jelloun and directed by Bassim Adli; the 'Ar'ar Man (The Man who was taken for a Juniper Tree), a collaborative project between the Charisma and Roots groups, written by Mohsen Youssef and directed by the ever fresh and surprising Amir Salaheddin; Ana Delwaqt Mayet (I am Dead Now), collectively written by Al-Sa'aa (Hour or Watch) group and directed by Hani Afifi, the Alexandrian Acropole's slightly adapted version of Eugene Ionesco's Delire a Deux (A Frenzy for Two); Metwalli Hamed's ingenious take on Shakespeare's Othello, in which a realistic, parallel plot, engaging the actors behind the scenes, goes hand in hand with the plot in the Shakespearean text, cleverly intersecting it at many points. In comparison, the Atelier's State of Emergency, which reflected on the meaning of terrorism and its various manifestations in daily life; Al-Misaharati's Helwe Masr (The Sweetest in Egypt), which strove to explore, in the style of a documentary, with a mixture of songs and funny sketches, the recent history of Egypt and the events that led to the 1967 defeat and its effect on the evacuated, uprooted population round the Suez Canal; and the Hala (State or Mood) group's 76, referring to the article in the Egyptian constitution which was altered to allow the choice of a president from among may candidates, performed in the open air, outside the box-office of Al-Hanager, with all the actors refreshingly irreverent and half nude -- all seemed in the early stages of development, still in need of more revision, rehearsing and rethinking.
But this is critics' talk. The audience thrilled to everything they watched and a festive, convivial atmosphere marked the whole occasion. Every night, people gathered as if to celebrate and greeted every show with enthusiasm, loud, often raucous laughter and fervent applause. A rare theatrical mood spread over everything like an invisible mantle, establishing links and bridges between all present and infecting everyone with a deep sense of exhilaration. What more can one ask of a theatre festival?