Scouting for new talents
Nehad Selaiha hails a new venture by Studio Emad Eddin
When the independent theatre movement was launched in 1990, it was soon discovered that for such troupes to continue and develop, what they most needed were rehearsal spaces, information and opportunities to train, hone their skills and explore new horizons. When several years later Ahmed El-Attar, himself a writer and director and the founder of a prestigious independent troupe, came up with a plan to establish a centre that would cater for such needs, his proposal was enthusiastically embraced by many of the troupes. To prepare himself for the task, El-Attar took an M.A. course in Arts Management in France and after a period of intense lobbying of prospective sponsors, he managed to persuade the Royal Netherlands Cultural Development Fund and the Swedish International Development Association (SIDA) to fund the project.
El-Attar teamed then up with Niveen El-Ibiary, an old colleague and close friend, and a director in her own right, and together they found a big derelict flat in one of the old Khedivial buildings in Emad Eddin street, facing El-Rihani theatre, which they rented and spent months renovating. They called the new centre, the first of its kind in the Arab world, after the name of the old street that was once the hub of theatrical activities in Cairo, and in 2005, Studio Emad Eddin finally opened and the dream came true. Since then, the centre has provided rehearsal spaces for independent artists at a nominal fee, offered free advice and information abut venues, festivals and ways of fundraising and organized with the help of visiting European experts several training courses and workshops covering most aspects of theatre and performance, including dance, improvisation, writing, directing and scenography. Though the Studio has been around for only four years, anyone familiar with the independent theatre scene in Cairo would readily tell you what a real godsend it has been for the movement.
Lately, El-Attar and El-Ibiary have decided that the Studio should go a step further and sponsor small productions by young directors and writers. The "2 B Continued..." 3-day festival held at Rawabet last week (from 12 to 14 January) was the first fruit of this decision and was dedicated to the airing of new directorial talents. Next year, the focus will be on new playwrights. The formula of a triple bill of one-act plays to be repeated on 3 successive nights seemed ideal (both artistically and budget-wise), and out of the many candidates who presented themselves at the Studio when the project was publicly announced last September, El-Attar and El-Ibiary chose the most promising three, allowing some of the others to assist with the productions in various capacities to gain practical experience.
Sadly, many of the candidates, as El-Attar tells me, seemed unaware of the wealth of local and foreign one-act plays that lies around and wanted to adapt full-length plays to make them fit the time-limit requirement. He, however, like many theatre managers in Egypt in the 1960s, thought that one-act plays were the best way to test the potential of budding directors in terms of technical precision and artistic coherence. He sent them reading in different directions and finally 3 plays were chosen: Hallucination at the Post Office by the Italian writer Alfredo Balducci, translated by Islam Imam; Eugene Ionesco's The Lesson, in Hamada Ibrahim's Arabic version; and Ali Salem's The Buffet.
Offered together in one evening, the three plays made up an exciting and varied triple-bill which has not only unearthed an excellent and hitherto unjustly neglected piece by an old hand like Ali Salem, but also introduced the ordinary theatergoer to two delightful foreign specimens of the genre. Set in a post-office, as its title indicates, Hallucination, though it has a cast of five, is more of a solo performance and consists of a long monologue, accompanied by film projections, and fitfully interrupted by bits of inane conversation with marginal characters that could be easily dispensed with. To alleviate the drabness of her existence and the tedium of her marriage, the heroine, a young post-office worker, indulges in romantic fantasies in which she sees herself as a famous and glamorous film star or ballerina and is courted by a gallant seafaring captain.
Director Hani Abdel Nasser chose a professional ballet dancer (Hind Rida) for the lead part and got Mirret Michel to choreograph some dances for her to supplement the romantic film shots in the long day-dreaming sequences which dominate the play. This entailed quick changes of costume which were done behind a white screen at the back on which the filmed material was projected, and this happened so smoothly that it often seemed as if the dancer on the screen had suddenly stepped out of her fantasy world and onto the stage. Mohamed Fathalla's lighting helped in this respect, and his minimal stage set (which consisted of two small office desks, a window frame on a pole on one side and the white screen at the back) allowed the dancer enough space to spread herself around. However, his idea of lining the set on three sides with a forest of long, neon lamps that were lighted to mark the heroine's return to reality was quite unfortunate: not only did the lamps fail to come alight at the same time, or when they were meant to do, they also blinded the audience, making it painful to look consistently at the stage and nearly obliterated the facial expressions of the actors.
The harshness of the neon lights was perhaps intended to communicate the harshness of the reality the heroine inhabits, and such an idea could possibly work on a bigger stage, though I doubt it; but in Rawabet, with its small performance space, it was no less than disastrous. Equally frustrating was the poor quality of the filmed scenes which were often fuzzy and tiresomely repetitive. The acting too left a lot to be desired. Hind Rida is definitely a proficient dancer, but she was barely audible and seemed to derive all her ideas about acting from cinema and television; and while Samir Abdel Samad, as the dashing captain of the heroine's dreams, was an obvious miscast in terms of age and looks, it seemed a grievous waste of talent to cast a gifted and experienced performer like Mohamed Abdel Mu'iz in the puny, redundant part of heroine's colleague.
In Ali Salem's satire The Buffet, the acting was substantially better. Mohamed Abu Si'da, as the alternately oily and menacing theatre manager, and Ihab Nasser, as the nervous playwright who first obstinately refuses to have his text censored or tampered with to suit the manager's views, but finally capitulates when subjected to torture, gave powerful performances and dexterously negotiated the play's tricky shift from realism to expressionistic nightmare -- from an ordinary business meeting, quite cordial at first, to a grueling police investigation into the thoughts and opinions of the writer with the intent of breaking his will and turning him into a mouthpiece for whatever dictator happens to occupy the seat of power.
As the grimly silent waiter who mechanically obeys whoever occupies the manager's seat, Zaki Al-Ghoneimi looked fittingly fearsome and almost inhuman. To prepare for the emergence of the metaphoric dimension of the play, director Iman El-Harmeel opted for a realistic set (by Ahmed El-Masri) that looked studiedly theatrical and suspiciously artificial. Despite its realistic furniture and back wall, the theatre manager's room was outlined on the 3 other sides (which had no walls) by strings of tiny, lighted bulbs. Outside the cube drawn by the lighted bulbs, all was darkness. And it is out of this darkness that the dumb waiter mechanically emerges in response to the bell on the manager's desk either to carry in refreshments, or to drag away the writer to the torture chamber.
What a pity such a good design was marred by excess. In their zeal to underline the idea that the realistic aspect of the room was a gaudy fabrication, an artificial facade for a horrible reality, set and lighting designers Ahmed El-Masri and Yara Radwan, with the approval of director El-Harmeel, no doubt, stuck to the moving ceiling of the room dozens of dangling bulbs which came alight as it ominously descended during the harrowing investigation. But for those bulbs, the detail of the ceiling slowly coming down would have been highly effective and quite chilling; as it was, the bulbs kept getting into the actors' way, knocking against their heads and obstructing the audiences' view of their faces. It seems that El-Harmeel and her crew have yet to learn the wisdom of the proverb which says, "sometimes, less is more."
Of the three plays in this festival, Ahmed Hussein's slightly adapted version of Ionesco's The Lesson was the most satisfying. With a simple, realistic set which, except for a back wall covered with a number of clocks each showing a different time and presumably intended to generalize the significance of the play, was quite unobtrusive, a subtle lighting plan (by Saber El-Sayed) which sensitively suggested the shifts in mood and atmosphere, and 3 excellent actors, director Ahmed Hussein powerfully and lucidly communicated a message which said that lack of communication, tolerance and mutual understanding inevitably leads to violence. Imad Ismael, who has proved his tremendous acting powers in a number of previous performances, led the cast here, giving a remarkable, intricately shaded and finely tuned performance as the professor, while Lana Mushtaq rendered the part of the housekeeper with a mixture of grotesque tenderness and macabre humour. But the real surprise here was Do'aa Hamza. Though 'the pupil' is her first stage part, she seemed quite natural and acted with ease and great charm. Her face was like a clear mirror reflecting her growing boredom, unease, frustration, pent-up anger and finally terror. She sat in a chair most of the time, and yet you could detect in every slight gesture and every change of position her mounting stress and tension. Ahmed Hussein's The Lesson was a little masterpiece and one of the best renderings of this Ionesco play I have seen on stage whether here or abroad.
Taken all in all, the first "2 B Continued" festival was a step in the right direction and has introduced us to three directors of considerable promise. Hopefully, the next edition, which will consist, as El-Attar and El-Ibiary plan, of a number of stage readings of new one-act plays by young writers will be equally rewarding. A side benefit could be reviving the once popular multiple bill tradition and giving the one-act play as a literary form a further boost.
Studio Emad Eddin and Orient Productions "2 B Continued..." festival, 1st edition, Rawabet, 12-14 January, 2009.