Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Owning the street

Soha Hesham rediscovers street theatre at the neighbourhood of Al-Imam Al-Shafei

Owning the street
Owning the street
Al-Ahram Weekly

With the great Islamic scholar’s imposing shrine at the centre, the venerable neighbourhood of Al-Imam Al-Shafei is as busy today as it’s always been – one of the reasons the young Al-Imam Al-Shafei resident Eslam Saeed, a 2007 graduate of the High Institute for Theatre Arts, chose it as the setting for his latest project. Saeed studied both acting and directing, and after appearing in such Ramadan TV series as Esm Moaakat (Temporary Name), Rakam Maghoul (Unknown Number), Mariam and Asia he became a popular neighbourhood character. During the June 2013 curfew he started meeting with his neighbours, finding out about their talents.

“We started gathering once a week at the most popular meeting point: outside Al-Imam Al-Shafei Mosque,” he recounts, “and I got to know my neighbours better. Their talents began to surface during those gatherings. One could sing, another could act. Some could play musical instruments, others wrote poetry. And that’s how we started to put together a large collective project with everyone contributing to the script. At last the play came to the light under the title Fi Midan Al-Imam (At the Imam Square) in 2013, funded by contributions from the community. All the neighbours were very cooperative throughout, they granted us moral and financial support.

“After two or three months we found out that the Sawiris Foundation was cooperating with the Ministry of Culture to launch the first street theatre festival in the Arab world, focusing on real street as opposed to itinerant theatre, which relies on professional, not amateur actors with a visceral talent like ours, infused with the environment of the neighbourhood and willing to develop their talents. We have, for example, a taxi driver, a small-scale businessman who rents cars, secondary school and university students, workmen... Anyway, at the Alwan Festival, we received 11 awards not including my own special jury award. From then on the idea grew. 

“We discovered a screenwriter in the neighbourhood, for one thing, an engineer and Cairo University research assistant named Shadi Nagi, who wrote our second play, Ful Sudani (Peanuts). It was a one act play and it was eventually performed outside the mosque then, on the invitation of the theatre manager, director Ahmed Al-Sayed, at the Kemet Theatre in Ramsis – along with Cultural Palace performances. The taxi driver received the best actor award, competing against professional actors from all over the country despite the challenge of performing on stage for the first time. I’ve since received the State Award for Creativity for my work in the field of acting and directing, which ise one of the highest ranking paid grants in the Middle East. I will be studying at the Egyptian Academy in Rome for six months.”

Saeed insists that his work as an actor facilitated his directorial achievements, and vice versa. “Your sense of the camera is different when you’ve studied directing and this added to my skill in coaching people with no acting background, showing them how to use all the senses to deliver a performance and how to differentiate characters. Ful Sudani was to be performed at the Jesuit Centre but it’s had to be cancelled because of me going to Rome. We have however been preparing another play, a street theatre adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Waiting for Gouda.” 

Saeed was not initially confident that street theatre would work in his local environment. After all, there is no tradition of street theatre in Egypt. “Once I found out that many of the greatest directors in the world conducted street theatre experiments,” he says, “my concerns vanished. Through theatre, some of these people even changed their local environments. Theatre director Augusto Boal, for example, who worked in Peru at a time when it was part of Brazil, was among the factors that led to Peruvian independence. Literacy rates were low and he used theatrical techniques to teach people to read and write, how they could draw the letters with their bodies. He worked with factory workers who later fought for higher pay and health insurances through theatre, and so the industrial revolution took a new turn. He also worked with farmers in the fields, using the sounds of the environment...” 

Not that Saeed’s work was free of problems. “The night before the Ful Sudani performance was due, the police told us we could not perform on the street due to security measures, so we decided to perform at one of the youth centres affiliated to the Ministry of Culture, where over 1,000 seats were taken with people standing in the corridors. That day the film editor Mohamed Badie, also an Al-Imam Al-Shafei resident, asked for permission to use some of the play’s material and transformed it into a short film. It was screened at many film festivals and it won a number of awards.

“The maximum duration of a street play is 45 minutes because of the uncontrollable circumstances of the street. In the majority of cases this is the first time for the audience, so we can’t expect them to be committed to a longer show. Because of the religious character of the neighbourhood, what is more, we had to self censor and explain that we we weren’t doing anything against religion, and gradually – as we had hoped – people grew tolerant of us and of the idea of street theatre.”

As for his sojourn in Rome, Saeed feels it will be useful for him as both actor and director. “In the acting field I want to build strong ties with filmmakers,” he announced. “I also believe that exposing oneself to different schools of directing is necessary and beneficial. I will follow my passion for street theatre, which is quite widespread in Europe. Between acting and directing I don’t feel I am compromising either, I believe the two complement each other. Many significant figures around the world were actors, directors and in many cases also producers at the same time.

“I hope to attract more attention after I come back from Rome and find more appreciation in my own country. Another eight people are travelling to study in Rome with me, and there should be a vision for putting the right people in the right places to overcome the usual obstacles. I hope our stay in Rome will help with that.” 

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