Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

25 years of independence

Nehad Selaiha remembers the birth and progress of the independent theatre movement on its silver jubilee, celebrated at Al-Hanager from 27 March to 2 April

25 years of independence
25 years of independence
Al-Ahram Weekly

On 23 August 1990, a group of theatre artists, critics and activists met at the Acting Professions Union in downtown Cairo to protest the decision of the Ministry of Culture to cancel that year’s edition of the Cairo Experimental Theatre Festival due in September on account of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In this historic meeting the idea of the independent theatre movement as ‘third way’ (to borrow Eugenio Barba’s phrase), or alternative to both the state and commercial theatres was born. Initially, all that was hoped for was to create a pressure group to persuade the Ministry to allow a non-governmental national theatre festival to go ahead if an international governmental one was deemed politically embarrassing. It would cost nothing; an elected committee from amongst the artists themselves would volunteer to organise and manage the festival and all the Ministry had to do was to hand over some venues and their facilities to the artists for the duration of the festival.

The discussion however soon slithered from practical considerations of the proposed event to the politics of theatre itself. The meeting had attracted groups from the Fringe – young and ardent self-supporting offshoots of the university and regional theatres who faced many obstacles and constraints and lacked official recognition and legal status. The relation of those independent, non-commercial theatre groups to the state was the urgent issue; how could they get the state to support them without bringing them under its full control and thus compromising their freedom and artistic integrity?  How could they win the right to practice their art without harassment by the state security apparatus, particularly in the presence of emergency laws? These are preeminently political questions and it was, therefore, no wonder that the festival that resulted from this meeting and was held from 1 to 10 October that year in the small hall and open-air theatre of the Opera house was christened “The First Free Theatre Encounter.” The word ‘encounter’ was preferred to ‘festival’ as the latter had become deeply associated with all state-organised events of this kind.

In December 1991, the second Free Theatre Festival invaded the stronghold of the National and overran Al-Taliaa state theatre, taking for its central theme the works of Youssef Idris who died that year. That second encounter was a crucial milestone in the development of the movement, it brought the ‘free’ troupes not only critical acclaim and wider publicity, but also official recognition in the form of government awards to the tune of ten thousand pounds. New groups joined the movement, swelling the number to twenty-three and some of those newcomers proved valuable assets. Soon afterwards, the newly opened Al-Hanager Centre attracted these groups who eventually discarded the epithet ‘free’ as somewhat romantic, preferring to call themselves ‘independent’.  Though itself a state institution, Al-Hanager acted from the start and for the next eighteen years as a meeting point between the state and the independent groups, adopting a collaborative policy which guaranteed state funding for them and spaces for rehearsals and performance without interference in their work or erosion of their individual artistic identities and names. However, Al-Hanager could not accommodate the ever swelling number of independent troupes and was itself closed down in 2007 purportedly for renovation. It did not officially reopen until January 2012, but had sometimes put on events and shows during its official closure in defiance of the authorities. 

In an article entitled “Nothing can defeat her”, published on this page in 2008, I said that Al-Hanager was not a building: ‘it was people, a living idea, a set of values and shared beliefs, and a mode of operating based on sharing, nurturing and mutual support’. That was why it kept alive and active long after it was deprived of its theatre, gallery, offices and cafeteria. When the building was closed, its artistic director, Hoda Wasfi, insisted that artists keep on working under its umbrella and patronage, helping them to squeeze money out of the government and to find alternative rehearsal spaces and venues. The first Season for Independent Theatre at Al-Hanager was launched at Rawabet on 18 February, 2008, but on 20 March the following year, Wasfi opened the second Season at the Centre’s closed theatre where it ran until June 22, offering 10 new productions, totalling 80 performances. Writing on this page at the time I said: ‘the fact that this second season, unlike the first one, which was hosted at Rawabet last year, will take place at Al-Hanager’s own headquarters, in defiance of officialdom and its suspicious and quite unwarranted insistence on keeping it closed, is in itself a significant political act of protest and has drawn to the opening hordes of angry young artists and sympathetic supporters”. 

As the independent theatre movement continued to grow, the official cultural bodies that could support it – like Al-Hanager and the Cultural Development Fund that set up in 1995 a short-lived ‘committee for the promotion of independent theatre in Egypt’ – could not cope with the needs and demands of the old groups, let alone of those rapidly mushrooming all over the country. In a famous document entitled ‘Now or Never’, drawn up by a number of the movement’s core groups and submitted to the minister of culture ten years after the first Free Theatre Encounter, they asserted that; “Loose and random collaborations with official bodies do not provide the minimum requirements for the groups to develop at a rate commensurate with their ambitions and artistic abilities, nor do the current working conditions and existing laws allow them to become professional, non-profit theatre companies entitled to legal/financial status.” The document also complained of “the scarcity of adequate performance spaces to accommodate the volume of theatrical activity in Egypt today and the prohibitive costs of rending such spaces as are available and deplored the existence of a bureaucracy that effectively deters independent groups from using state theatre spaces when not in use and of restrictive laws that prohibit the use of non-traditional performance spaces.”

By way of a solution, this historic document proposed a new collaborative production formula that would involve the state (in the form of annual grants, logistical assistance, tax concessions, lover publicity rates in the state-owned media and nominal rents for state-owned venues) as well as local and international funding. On their side, the groups hoped, when funds were available, to establish a centre comprising several performance and rehearsal spaces and an office to fulfill production, organisational and fundraising needs for all independent companies on a regular basis. This proposition, though it seemed utopian and came to nothing at the time, seems in retrospect like a blueprint for the independent theatre support unit that was proposed by a number of independent theatre artists at a workshop organised by the Supreme Council for Culture in September 2014 and was officially established by ministerial decree 108/2015 during Gaber Asfour’s brief term as minister of culture in 2015. [Curiously, it was to Gaber Asfour, who was the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture in 1999, that the aborted ‘Now or Never’ proposal was submitted to be raised to Farouk Hosni, the then Minister of Culture.]

The new Support Unit has been hailed by the independent theatre movement as a long-awaited, hard-won triumph. It is affiliated to the Supreme Council for Culture and comprises seven elected representatives of the movement as well as the heads of all the departments of the Ministry that can assist the work of the unit – namely, the heads of the Production Sector, the State Theatre Organisation, the Cultural Palaces organisation, the Cultural Development Fund, the National Theatre Centre, and the Supreme Council for Culture. Initially the Unit will have an annual budget of two million pounds to be allocated for artistic and research projects by independent theatre artists on competitive bases. The Unit will also provide logistical support to groups and individual artists in the form of rehearsal spaces and venues and arrange on demand joint production projects with the State Theatre Organisation’s different companies. Currently, the representatives of the independent theatre in the Unit are still drafting its internal statute and guidelines. However, to mark this important milestone in the progress of the movement and celebrate its struggle for recognition since 1990, the Unit, in collaboration with the Egyptian ITI and several other non-governmental theatre groupings organised a week-long independent-theatre silver-jubilee celebration which opened significantly on World Theatre Day, 27 March at Al-Hanager. Both the date and venue have symbolic value. 

Besides four free workshops by experts on acting, mime, production management and scenography, an exhibition of photos, documents and video recordings representing the work of dozens of independent groups over the past twenty-five years and two roundtables on censorship and legislations hostile to the performing arts in general and to independent theatre artists in particular, the week-long event featured eight live shows by leading troupes representing different stages in the life of the movement. The celebration opened with Atab Al-Beyout, a new story-telling piece, with film footage, by Mahmoud Aboudoma’s Alternative Theatre troupe, one of the earliest pioneers of the movement, and ended with Still Here, another story-telling performance, this time with songs and stick-dancing, by Hassan Al-Gretly’s Al-Warsha, a still earlier pioneer troupe. In between, we enjoyed once more Hani Al-Mettenawi’s riveting production of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s masterpiece, Oscar and the Lady in Pink, a work of remarkable beauty and poignancy which was first seen at the first independent theatre season in 2007 at Al-Hanager; Hani Afifi’s haunting Ana Dilwaqt Mayet (Right now I am Dead), first presented at the French Cultural Centre’s Third Festival des Jeunes Createurs in 2005; Mustafa Huzayen’s delightful and moving one-hour pantomime piece Three Performances and One Troupe which won the Best Choreography Award at the national theatre festival in 2013; Shadi Al-Dali’s poignant and visually intriguing Plastic dream, first performed in 2012, then hosted at Al-Taliaa theatre the following year and chosen to represent Egypt in an Arab Festival in 2014; Gomaa Mohamed’s Nile Tales from Menya, which features songs and stories from Upper Egypt; and last but not least, Stages in the Journey of Al-Qafila, a presentation by Effat Yehia, the founder of Al-Qafila (Caravan) troupe of her work in theatre since 1992, with scenes from the plays acted live by members of the troupe or shown in video recordings. Except for Aboudoma’s, Al-Gretly’s and Gomaa Mohamed’s shows, all the works mentioned above were covered in Weekly at the time they were first aired. Indeed, in a sense, the Weekly has served as a faithful record of the work and progress of the independent theatre movement in Egypt since 1990, the year both the movement and this very dear paper were launched.

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