Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A theatrical case history

Nehad Selaiha hails a new play by Dalia Basiouny about the struggles of independent women theatre-makers in Egypt

Al-Ahram Weekly

Kawalees (Backstage), written and directed by Dalia Basiouny, Sabeel Troupe, 13-16 May, 2016 at Falaki Theatre and 2-4, June, 2016 at Rawabet.

A few days ago, I received an email from The League of Professional Theatre Women in New York announcing a Suffragette-themed march through Times Square they are planning on 15 June at 5:30pm. The purpose of the march is to raise awareness about the underrepresentation of women in theatre and the performing arts and end gender disparity in theatre, the email said. I had recently twice watched Dalia Basiouny’s latest play, Kawalees (Backstage), first at Falaki theatre, where it opened on 13 May, then, two weeks later, at Rawabet, and I immediately thought that had Dalia been still in New York, where she spent eight years (from 2000 to 2008) reading for her PhD in theatre and working with women theatre groups there, she would have been at the forefront of that march.

Prior to her New York experience, Dalia Basiouny had spent years working with independent theatre troupes in Egypt. During those years, like many of her 1990s’ generation of female theatre-makers (who write, direct, and often design and perform in their plays), she experienced firsthand the evils of a theatrical establishment that has remained patriarchal, male constructed and dominated ever since the profession was formalised and institutionalised on the Western model in Egypt in the 19th century. This experience turned her into an ardent feminist who believes that for women to make their own theatre in Egypt is nothing short of a political, revolutionary act against the patriarchal system in all its manifestation. This led her to set up her own independent troupe, Sabeel, in 1997. Significantly, the troupe that she revived in 2009 upon her finally settling back in Cairo did not really come into its own until the January revolution in 2001, in which Basiouny took an active part.

Like many of Cairo’s independent theatre artists, Basiouny was in Tahrir Square from Day 1, fighting alongside the revolutionaries, collecting stories and documenting that historical event in detailed, graphic reports which she emailed to her friends from there. In her Tahrir Stories, staged during the 18-day Tahrir sit-in and later at Manf Hall in February, she merged her own experience of the revolution with the testimonies of members of the troupe and other eye-witnesses (artists or otherwise, alive or dead) who actually took part in the Tahrir demonstrations. Describing this piece on this page on 7 April, 2011, I said: “Delivered in person or by proxy, the testimonies there had the authentic ring of truth; they were simply phrased and candidly delivered, had no trace of empty rhetoric or hollow sounding heroics; they intimately dwelt on what going to Tahrir Square had been like and what it had meant and done to the testifiers. In all, one major theme was breaking the barrier of fear and feeling empowered. Another was recovering a sense of belonging to something called Egypt and taking pride in the fact, together with a sense of dignity and personal worth.”

In the heat of the revolution, Basiouny’s artistic talent, political consciousness and feminist convictions matured. Sabeel’s next production, Solitaire, a dramatic monologue staged at Rawabet on 30 March the same year (2011), was no less revolutionary, albeit in a more personal vein. In it, Basiouny drew on her own personal experience as an Arab, Muslim student in New York after the 11 September bombings to question the hegemony of the new world order which she saw as another evil manifestation of patriarchy at its most ferocious (see my extensive review of the performance in the Weekly, Issue 1043 “More Tahrir Tales”). In Sehr El-Burullus (Lake Burullus Magic), which followed two years later, Basiouny’s revolutionary political activism takes on a definite feminist character as she rewrites Arthur Miller’s The Crucible from a decidedly feminist point of view, projecting it in the context of an Egyptian village on the shores of Lake Burullus and redefining the persecuted so-called ‘witches’ as emissaries of joy, liberation and enlightenment. Like other feminists the world over, Dalia sought in this play to disrupt the world patriarchal cultural heritage by appropriating its hallowed narratives and classical texts, deconstructing them to expose their gender-biased ideological underpinnings and reproducing them from a contradictory feminist perspective.

Basiouny’s latest play, Kawalees (Backstage), follows a similar policy. The initial inspiration for this project was the 1936 famous American play Stage Door, which was later made into a movie. Written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, it tells the story of a group of hopeful, starry-eyed young women who live together in a big house in New York City, sacrificing comfort and security just to be near enough to Broadway to audition for the opportunity of getting into the profession even in a minor, or just a walk on part.  In Kawalees, which presents the last week of rehearsals for a new independent theatre production, written and directed by two women friends, Basiouny reads against the American text, using Stage Doors as a springboard to dramatise the struggle of women theatre-makers in Egypt, particularly those who, like herself, work on the fringe. While the American play rarely questions or critiques the theatrical establishment in any fundamental way and the struggles of the women center on just getting into it on whatever terms and bending to its rules, in Kawalees the women artists tear the theatrical establishment to pieces and strive to create an alternative theatre of their own where they are in control and express themselves without commercial pressures, male domination, societal censorship, or oppressive cultural codes.

The plot, which spans six days of rehearsals encapsulated into fifteen short scenes, is simple enough. Aided and abetted by her artistic mentor, playwright and theatre academic Dr. Iman, Farida, who has worked as assistant director for years, is directing her first play. The play is naturally by Dr. Iman. The production, we learn, was made possible by a grant from some nongovernmental quarter and had been repeatedly interrupted and derailed by the political turbulences following the January revolution in which both the playwright and director were actively involved. Farida is shown grappling with all the problems that beset independent theatre-makers in Egypt, e.g.: working in a hired, cramped rehearsal space, stretching the budget to cover the high rent of a venue for only three nights, having to rely on friends to provide some services gratis, not to mention doing all the jobs and attending to all the niggling details that in the professional theatre would be assigned to sundry assistants.

The production seems to be progressing well despite all the obstacles and unforeseen hitches and Farida’s occasional bouts of self-doubt are soon dispelled thanks to the generous moral support of her mentor and her devoted male assistant. However, within two days of the final dress rehearsal, the project threatens to come to a halt when the leading actor and actress suddenly quit the show in favour of offers of minor parts on television. The problem of the absconding leading actress is promptly solved when Farida persuades the playwright to take on her part after some pressure. The withdrawal of the leading actor, however, is more difficult to cope with, both artistically and emotionally. He and Farida had been lovers for years and his desertion at this critical stage in both the show and her career hits her as a double betrayal. Despairing of finding a substitute at such a short notice and loath to give up the project or put off the opening, she opts for the lesser of two evils: she decides to cut out one of the two roles he plays, reduce the second and make alterations in the text accordingly.

After some initial violent opposition, the playwright comes round to Farida’s point of view and sees the need for resilience to make her voice heard. As Farida tells her, to get across half of your message is better than having the whole of it suppressed. The need for resilience is a lesson that Basiouny has learnt through experience. When the first version of Kawalees was rejected by the funders (probably because of its use of the January revolution as a major theme and its more outspoken criticism the professional theatrical establishment), Basiouny bent a little to the wind ‘like a bamboo reed in order not to break in the storm,’ to use her own metaphor. Rather than get up on her high authorial horse, crying ‘all or nothing’ and consigning her play to a place in her drawer by the side of other unperformed ones, she rewrote it in a more subtle way, cunningly interweaving into it references to the fate of that old version. Indeed, for those familiar with Dalia’s progress in life and art, this second version of Kawalees comes across as a kind of artistic autobiography in which life and art merge into each other.

The two main characters, Iman and Farida, reflect the two aspects of Dalia as playwright and director. Like her, both are ardent feminists and have some background of American culture. The artistic idealism of the writer/academic and the practical resilience of the director represent facets of her own personality. More to the point, Basiouny herself plays the playwright in Kawalees and her previous play Burullus Magic is the play the characters are rehearsing. Furthermore, as Dr. Iman, Basiouny not only re-enacts her real-life role as the author of the actual Burullus Magic play, but is also forced by the plot to take on the same role she actually performed in that play when she staged it. Watching the play felt like gazing at many mirrors, all reflecting each other.

Basiouny’s feminist views were not only dramatised in the action but informed the characterisation and were openly expressed in the dialogue as well. Besides the confident, articulate and motivated Dr. Iman (played by Dalia) and the young, outspoken and ferociously talented Farida (Nadin El-Sheeti), a quartet of characters – two men (Komi and Alaa, played by Hassan Abdalla and Ahmed Al-Sherbeeni) and two women (Miriam and Sally, played by Nancy Alameddin and Madrona Selim) – complete the list of dramatis personae. Played off against each other, they create telling contrasts that promote the feminist message of the play and provide elements of humour and irony.

Miriam’s free spirit, positive self-confidence and brave defiance of oppressive traditions and societal codes sets off Sally’s thoughtless, compromising acquiescence in the abuse and exploitation of women in the acting profession within the traditional theatrical establishment, which she mistakes for expediency and practical commonsense. In a similar way, the lively, intelligent and highly resourceful though half-educated Komi, the director’s male assistant who loves her in secret and unselfishly supports her though he knows she loves another, stands in sharp contrast with the unprincipled, exploitative and narcissistic ‘Alaa who cheats on his wife and deludes Farida with vain promises. The interplay of the characters, their stories and relationships weaves a moving, heartening and often darkly funny story about success and failure, love and ambition, comradeship and human perseverance. In it, the personal and artistic are intertwined to show the resilience of women and how even when knocked over the head and emotionally bruised and battered they can spring back to continue the struggle.

In dramatising her own experience in making theatre, Basiouny was assisted by an excellent cast and crew, including set and costume designers Saad Samir and Nirmeen Said, dramaturge and acting coach Ahmed Amer and video-artist Ahmed Al-Sayed Rubi. Their artistic proficiency complemented Basiouny’s intellectual integrity and goes to prove that female theatre makers lack no male sympathisers and supporters at least in the independent theatre sector.

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