Coming of age
Nehad Selaiha reads clear signs of maturity in the fourth edition of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's Creative Forum for Independent Theatre Groups
Fourth edition of the Creative Forum for Independent Theatre Groups: Europe-Mediterranean (1- 10 February 2007).
This year's forum was very special. From the word go you felt a change. At the door, the security seemed less forbidding and I couldn't believe it when I caught some of them actually smiling. I remembered how they had looked and behaved on the same occasion four years ago. Mahmoud Abu Doma, the director of the forum, and a former student of mine, had wisely advised then, when I complained to him about their rough treatment of the audience, to "give them time to learn new ways". "They know no better, poor things, and in their zeal to do their job they become offensive. But we are working on them too. You wait and see," he had added. And he was right. With their rigid, high-calibre security training (they are carefully hand- picked), and narrowly restricted, traditional outlook, we must have seemed to them initially like a frivolous, good-for-nothing crowd or weird aliens bent on destroying the very fundaments of their being. That Doma and his team could open them up, expand their horizons, and make them more tolerant of "difference" so they could receive us this year as friends rather than unwelcome intruders is no mean achievement. Events should be judged, partly at least, by their effects on their immediate environment; and in this respect, as far as it has changed the whole conduct of the security at the Bibliotheca, softening the grim features of the place and turning it into a friendly, popular haunt for artistically-inclined Alexandrians, the forum has made good its claim to being a liberating force, an energy that draws people together, sinks barriers and provokes you to rethink your self-image and your relation with the "other".
The spirit of "a free space for all" where one has to wrestle for a place, without becoming actually pugnacious, squeeze so close to strangers that your body smells become indistinguishable and you experience that frightening, heady sensation of being about to melt and expand, permeated the whole event and was enshrined in the new make-shift, rough and versatile performance space created by Doma in the gallery -- in a moment of real inspiration, I like to think. Next to the new gallery theatre, with its humble, wooden, fold-up chairs and fabricated tiers, is the Middle Hall -- an elegant, first-class small theatre with luxurious seats. That eight out of the 12 performances hosted by the festival opted for the gallery theatre, despite the discomfort and oppressive closeness, struck me as a sign -- as if the artists sensed Doma's purpose in devising this new space, grasped its symbolic meaning and sought to give it credence. Like today's world, highly technological, so overcrowded, and at once terribly threatening and overpowering in its promise was the gallery. A shared, communal place, to explore the self and the world with the audience, in a temporary simulation of the conditions of physically existing in the world, with all the consequent fears and tensions, was the experience communicated by all the gallery shows, regardless of theme or artistic merit.
That the inaugural show, Solar Plexus, a Swedish/ Egyptian venture by Studio Oscuro, described by its creators as "a reaction to the growing intolerance, racism and segregation in European society", chose a boxing ring and the relationship of boxer to trainer as both location and axis to investigate questions of violence and self image, "using suburban cultural expressions in a mixture of theatre, dance, music and visual effects" was quite telling. That the sturdy, graceful boxer, Phax Ahamada (from Senegal), had no visible opponent and consistently performed slow motion, seeming to tread on air or water, his muscles rippling to the tempo of some secret music, and only had his alternately bullying-pushing/kindly- solicitous trainer, Ramadan Khater (from the Egyptian Al-Warsha troupe), to deal with, expanded the visual sportive metaphor, investing it with profound political dimensions. On the boxing ring, director and light designer Charlie Astrom superimposed the image of a circus ring where freaks are put on show, dressing Khater in tails and top hat like a master of ceremonies introducing to them an elephant man.
The 2nd of February was the time for "writing under erasure", or "sous rature" -- a way of writing, devised by the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger and adopted by the French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, which involves crossing out words, but leaving them quite legible in the text. In the title of the show: Return to Sender -- Letters from Tentland, the first part was crossed over, but you could equally cross out the latter. Doma stumbled upon this German/Iranian show in the course of his theatrical scouting for the forum and thought it was the jewel that it has really proved to be. He fully realised the risk: it would be shocking, controversial and, perhaps, quite offensive to some. But isn't the forum just about this? Luckily, I was prepared for this quite traumatic show. In January, I received an e-mail from its creator, Helena Waldmann whom I had met twice before in Cairo and Berlin. This is what she had to say about her show:
"The piece which we perform in Cairo and Alexandria, Return to Sender, does already have a past: Letters from Tentland. Letters from Tentland was directed and premiered in Tehran in 2005. Six Iranian women performed in the piece. Since May 2006, this very successful piece is forbidden by President Office of Iran. Return to Sender, performed by six exiled Iranian women, who live in Berlin, is somehow the answering piece, the change of perspective on Letters from Tentland. Why Letters from Tentland has to become Return to Sender? Like envelopes for messages from a foreign country, our colourful Iranian tents stood on the Letters from Tentland stage. We had posted these messages together with six female Iranian performers in Tehran in 2005, letters in the form of dance, spoken word and song. The women told of their life, the chador, of the liberties they had to fight for, the opportunities generated, nevertheless, thanks to the protection of their veil. Letters from Tentland has been shown in many European countries, in South America and Asia. In the second half of the performance, the audience could listen to the women's tales about the events behind the façade of the religious nation. Since the presidential elections, the political situation in Iran has changed dramatically, and the piece, which had been created during a phase of openness, is no longer welcome. Muslim authorities prohibit any further performances as of 21 March 2006, the Iranian new year. This only encourages our wish to answer these letters and to let the women know how their messages have been viewed here. Return to Sender is about this very change of perspective: How does Europe view the country that the media currently posits as a major threat? Which images define the homeland the exiled women long for? And how do six Iranian actresses living in European exile describe their situation? Their stories are the starting point for a revised investigation on stage, which looks at the issue of Western and Eastern projections. Return to Sender plays with the echoes left behind by the Iranian performers, with the empty envelopes, the tents, and the questions asked during the course of the work. The performance counters the political pressure built up in Europe and Iran with a multi-layered approach, which is essential for the exchange of answers between cultures. Letters from Tentland was metaphorically charged due to the pressures of censorship. Now, Return to Sender is creating a language developed to read the alphabet of tents in new terms. Hope so very much to see you in Egypt and looking forward to hearing from you soon. Best regards, Helena Waldmann."
You must have guessed by now that Waldmann is a poetess of the theatre, a dramaturge and director who works in metaphors. Banned from Iran and cut off from her fellow, female Iranian collaborators, she decided to carry on with the exploration, sending them messages through compatriot substitutes. Waldmann's letters, flashed on a back screen and functioning as interludes, or punctuation marks between the performative sequences, were so starkly honest, candidly searching, and heart- rendingly affectionate. Always signed with an "H", for Helena, they invariably ended with a brutally abrupt audio- visual termination in the form of a big, red stamp announcing, with a loud, harrowing thump: "return to sender". A dialogue here was interrupted, brutally terminated; but Helena remains undefeated; she has found new soul mates and collaborators in her new six enchanting expatriate Iranian actresses, and together, they have created a truly mesmerising show. The dialectics of the seen and unseen, of openness and enclosure, of freedom and taboos, of you and I, of how you intuitively, historically and spatio- temporally, locate yourself in the world, physically situate yourself in relation to space, and culturally construct your relationship to history and your surrounding, topical reality, was the focal theme in Return to Sender.
When suddenly the stage became written all over with Sufi verses and paraphrases of the best known suras of Al-Qur'an, drowning the six imprisoned women, and quite obliterating them as they struggled for freedom in a sea of holy writ, I knew that the forum had decided to reach beyond its modest beginnings and venture where "angels" fear to tread. The Polish Basic Needs (by the Theatre A PART), a semi-nude show which delved deep into the lives of women, projecting their inner, subconscious fears, biological traumas, and sexual fantasies in a lurid, quasi sadistic vein, together with the tension of living up to media-popularised male expectations, and using the poetics of black theatre, corroborated this impression. Further confirmation came from the Greek Dalika Dance Theatre's Pouthena (Nowhere, or, as my friend, critic Menha El-Batrawi read it, Now Here). I loved her interpretation of the title which seemed to perfectly tally with the purport of the show. At every point in the present we think we are here, but, in fact we are no where. That the signs we have inherited in our various cultures can no longer help us to navigate our way in today's complicated reality and that we have to physically sculpture new ones if we are to survive, was the message of the show. It was also the message of an enchanting Italian reworking of Beckett's Waiting for Godot ( Sgorbypark by the Fabbrico del Vento) where a man and a woman, dressed to suggest vagrants as well as bedraggled trench soldiers, strive to construct a place and time with the help of fantasies and dreams. Technically, it was an amazing example of how the arts of clowning can be developed and made to address serious political, social and existential questions.
That you can only reach out by reaching in, and that any reaching out could very well involve spiritual hazards, physical stresses, unsettling mental migrations, and, often enough, breed an abiding sense of anxiety and alienation, was told over and over in this festival, and not only on stage. The two-day round-table discussion, organised by the Palestinian Munir Fasheh, focussed on theatre as a medium for dialogue, investigating in its first session (moderated by Mon Knio, from Lebanon) cultural pluralism, and in the second (moderated by Hassan El-Gretli from Egypt) the relation of culture and knowledge to institutionalism and hegemony. Tediously pompous and thoroughly rehashed as such themes may sound, the accent in both sessions fell on personal experiences and existential yearnings, investing any dry academic concept or definition with an overpowering sense of urgency. Round the table of the central discussion and pumping into it great vitality were the five Arab expatriate authors who contributed plays to a volume called The Immigration Theatre, a new publication venture initiated this year by the forum, in cooperation with the Swedish Institute in Alexandria . Another significant literary contribution by the forum was a volume bearing the title Three Texts from Contemporary German Theatre published with the generous help of the Goethe Institute in Egypt. Two of the young playwrights, both women I am glad to say, were present at a discussion of the volume moderated by Girgis Shukry, the theatre critic of the Egyptian Radio and Television Magazine.
There were of course the usual two-day technical workshops which have become a regular, and quite popular, feature of the forum. This year, Simon Sharkey, an associate director at the National Theatre of Scotland, launched in February 2006, and the receiver of a bursary from Britain's National Endowment of Science, Technology and Arts to research "cultural leadership" got a lot of attention. Apart from his NESTA session, in which he explained what "cultural leadership" meant and why it was relevant in the 21st Century, and presented the fruits of his work both in Egypt and Jordan, Sharkey gave a workshop on "Verbatim Theatre" -- a brand of "compelling and urgent theatre", in his words, which uses personal testimony, news, disclosure and poetry to put across its message, and, in the process, frees actors from the constraints of text and enables them to make themselves integral to the drama. Ten more workshops were on offer: one on the art of lighting by Mona Knio (Lebanon), another on story- telling by Hassan El-Gretli (Egypt), a third on stage- management by Alan Wright (Scotland), a fourth on body analysis by Marika Hedemyr (Sweden), a fifth on music and sound effects by Bashar Shammout (Palestine), a sixth on text analysis by Marie Elias (Syria), a seventh on voice training for actors by Neveen Alouba (Egypt), an eighth on how to exercise improvisation as a liberating gateway to creativity and self-expression within the restrictions of plot and character, by Caroleen Khalil (Egypt), a ninth on scenography, by Richard Andersson (Sweden), and last, but not least, a pilot project on building the audience, by Brita Papini (Sweden).
But far more rewarding were the classes those very same artists who conducted the workshops gave at the Swedish Institute in a new nine-day, 45- hour, free educational programme for beginners in theatre. The programme, entitled: International Classroom for Theatre Students: Dialogues, was the brainchild of Doma and was jointly sponsored by the Bibliotheca, the Swedish Institute and the International Association for Creation and Training (I- act), an Egyptian NGO recently established by Doma, with help from Sweden, in Upper Egypt. At the end of the nine-day daily classes, a discussion was held on "self-image and others", moderated by the Palestinian Fasheh. Doma came out of it in tears, declaring it was the best thing he had ever planned and that young people were really the future and the best antidote to cynicism and despair. And again he was right. At the farewell party, generously hosted by the Goethe Institute in Alexandria, Doma's fledgling protégés scintillated for a while, amid wine, music and roses, then drowned us in oceans of tears when the bus arrived to carry some of them to the airport and it was really time to say good-bye. It's a wonder how much human bonding can take place in the space of ten days. While we, the older people were nostalgically remembering similar moments, secretly envying our young comrades their passionate abandon and trying hard to suppress our tears, Maestro Sherif Mohieddin, the president of the forum, stepped into the arena to lead us all to a dance to the tune of "I will survive."