Amidst the dark times we are living throug, theatre appears to be a place to revive the hope in goodness and humanity. This is what the Sharm El-Sheikh International Theatre Festival for Youth (SITFY) recalls.
Held for the second year in a row, the festival brought us back to the city of Sharm El-Sheikh as “The City of Peace”. The city that was once threatened, its hotels evacuated and its people in despair, became one vivid model of celebration and survival from 1 to 9 April 2017.
Originally conceived and designed by Mazen El-Gharabawy (theatre director) and Wafaa El-Hakim (actress), SITFY is a project of an Egyptian non-governmental association founded by the legendary Samiha Ayyoub and funded by the ministries of culture, youth and sport, and tourism. The festival represents quite a rare encounter of international companies from across the globe: South Korea, Italy, Spain, Mexico, France, Tunisia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Belarus. The gathering of so many foreign companies in Sharm El-Sheikh was a clear statement that the city remains safe and attractive, that arts fuel hope and resistance in the face of the encroaching sadness.
The Flower, South Korea
This year’s edition of SITFY was dedicated to the name of the iconic actor and theatre director Karam Motawei. A special session was held to commemorate his artistic achievement in the presence of his wife, the prominent actress Soheir El-Morshedy, and his daughter the TV and film star Hanan Motawei. The festival also paid tribute to artists and intellectuals who passed away during its period: the great Ragaa Bin Ammar, a symbol of Tunisian theatre and a leader of avant-garde theatre in her own community, and professor Abdelmo’ty Shaarawy. It was unique to see the management of the festival adding new sessions to keep up with the recent sad events while presenting a dose of hope and bonding that helped everybody to overcome the heavy impact of death.
SITFY gathered together a group of the most prestigious theatre scholars and critics in the Arab world, who presented their papers in the daily seminar and contributed vividly to the discussions. One important session of the seminar discussed outdoor performances. It was moderated by the critic and theatre scholar Dr Mohamed Samir El-Khateeb. The session offered many different perspectives but insisted mainly on the importance of outdoor practices as a way to reach out to more audiences and break through the restrictions and crisis of institutional theatre. Some voices directly connected outdoor performance to street performance and hence to a certain wave of change and socio-political critique that has to take place outside the state owned venues, while others claimed that street theatre belongs specifically to a culture of outdoor celebration. The question was left open at the end, ideally formulated by El-Khateeb: “Can outdoor performance be a solution to our theatre crisis?”
Another session of the seminar dealt with the topic of festivals and networking. The most influential presentation was by Abdallah Malak, founder and president of the Owal Theatre festival in Bahrain. Founded in 2005 by the oldest theatre company in Bahrain, the Owal Theatre Company, which was formed in 1970, the festival recently turned from a local to a regional and an international event. Mazen El-Gharabawy contributed to the expansion of the scope of the Owal Theatre Festival by helping to curate the international performances, as well as Dr Gamal Yakout (theatre director, founder of the international Egyptian theatre festival “Theatre without Funding”, and founding member of the Egyptian Association of the International Theatre Institute) who offered his regional and international expertise while being the head of jury in this year’s edition of Owal.
Al-Assaad Al-Jamoussy, the head of Carthage Theatre Days, presented a glimpse of how the festival-encounter works, and added very interesting information on “MASA” (Market for African Performing Arts) in Abidjan. His words emphasised the importance of having the North African-Arab countries in the African performing arts sphere, a necessity if those countries aspire to expand, to find new markets and territories and to challenge Western hegemony in cultural and artistic exchange.
From the Asian sector of the Arab world, on the other hand, came more contributions and initiatives in the framework of festival design and distribution: the impressive experience of Sharjah (UAE) and the inventive initiative of Oman. Sharjah is the one place in the Arab world that has the biggest number of theatre festivals and events by. The sector of culture and media managed in a record time to establish an impeccable reputation in arts management and cultural policy. Under the auspices of his majesty the Ruler of Sharjah – himself a playwright – the sector became an Arab mecca for theatre. One can hardly keep track of the many festivals organised there, some of them are under the supervision of Essam Abo El-Gassem who spoke about the wide range of diversity represented in their festivals’ design, covering desert theatre, duo theatre, children and youth theatre, international theatre, Gulf theatre, among others. El-Gassem was especially interested to question the present structure of Arab theatre festivals, claiming that very little development has been made in structure and design since the launching of the Damascus Theatre Festival. He insisted on the necessity of moving out of the centre, a point that SITFY indeed served in the core of its design. It was amazing to hear all those perspectives coming in from so many prominent festival designers and managers sitting around one table in SITFY. It suddenly felt as if Sharm El-Sheikh had become the centre of the world.
Drinkable Death, Iraq. Ten spectators volunteer to join the individual corpse wearing identical T-shirts photo: Nora Amin
The performances participating in the festival were carefully selected, representing a coherent vision and excellent artistic taste. Among them the Tunisian-Canadian production Al-Shakaf (or “The Boat”) was the most timely and relevant. Produced by Al-Hamra Theatre in collaboration with The Arab African Centre for Theatre Training and Research and the Carthage Theatre Days, the performance was originally conceived by the iconic Tunisian theatre maker Ezz El-Dine Janoun, and directed by his daughter Serene Janoun with the Lebanese-Canadian director Magdy Matar. The production gathers eight actors from four nationalities: Benin, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon. The actors are all graduates of the Arab African Centre for Theatre Research and Training, founded by Janoun. The performance embodies the concepts of organic theatre that Janoun advocates, it is a style in which not the spoken language but the vital and physical presence of the actor is the centre. It is a style of acting and of performance where every action counts, and only actions count, and the alphabetical language comes only as a component of those actions. The stage was totally transformed into a boat, the actors were illegal immigrants from the four countries searching for a better life. The design insinuated the movement of the boat and the waves of the open sea. The actors shook their bodies and brought about the whole sea situation with their gestures while speaking the text and interacting with each other. The very small space they shared turned out to be a basic condition for the collective energy they were able to radiate, and the bond they established with the spectators. The size of the boat that restricted their movement in space was actually a mechanism for unity, projection and collective interaction. I believe that the concept of collectivity in performance was crystallised in this production, something that has a certain direct political impact, because when we see a group acting as one, we immediately recall our collective experiences of oneness and bonding relating to confrontation, resistance and protest. Indeed “The Boat” was a live protest against injustice, a requiem for the victims of illegal immigration and human trafficking and a tribute to the survivors. It was also a model of the best level of acting one can achieve within the Arab region.
From almost the opposite end of the world came the South Korean Flower, another example of bonding, this time against collective rape. A movement and dance performance by an all-female cast transformed the stage again into an arena of militancy. The superb performers created an epic rendering of the tragedy of gang rape as a war weapon, using only their bodies and the of their organic feminine bonding to cut through the flesh of pain and touch the soul of every spectator in the house. Their brilliant performance belied decades of labelling Asian performances as traditional or folkloric, removing layers of prejudice defining what Asian performing arts can do and reinventing our perception of who they are and what they can do by offering us the universal experience of the body and soul of the female during conflicts and wars, a suffering that all cultures witnessed and all women tasted one way or another.
Strangely enough the South Korean performers lost their “Koreanness” on stage. For a moment they seemed to be anyone and anywhere. One could easily expect to hear them utter words in Arabic or Hindustani, that wouldn’t have felt strange at all. The performers excelled not only due to the superb choreography, which won the best choreography prize at the festival, but mainly because of their dedication and craft. They projected a rare kind of dedication that borders on spirituality. To make theatre with such dedication transforms the performance into a prayer in which the performer leaves his or her own ego at the door of the temple to meet a higher reality that connects with the whole universe. At that time The Flower felt like a ritual going from soul to soul, seeking peace and elevating the universal trauma in order to find healing.
Actually, it is this quest for healing that SITFY manages to pursue although it was not announced in any of its publications. The festival never described itself as political, nor has it expressed itself as an endeavour for healing, yet this is what it was in its best performances. SITFY became a healer of the wounded city of peace, Sharm El-Sheik, just as the South Korean performance became a healer of the universal wounds of women and just as much as the outdoor performances became healers of public spaces for transgression. Although this year’s edition has fewer outdoor performances compared to last year’s, which is a real pity, one performance is enough to recall the impact of occupying the public sphere and utilising performance as tool for dissemination, participation and public statement. The Iraqi outdoor performance A Drinkable Death re-enacted the tragedy of fleeing death only to meet with death in the sea via a performance on the sea shore, with the spectators gathered to incarnate the crowds who gather on the shore when a boat has arrived or a corpse is washed up. The spectators suddenly became a vital part of the re-enactment, the participation was a condition to the success of the equation and to the success of its impact. The performance transformed the shore of Sharm El-Sheikh to a Western shore of asylum, it reversed geographies and embodied the iconic image of a dead child, or a corpse, thrown up by the waves to the shore of its dreams, only this time the corpse is that of an actor, a public offering crying for peace.
We owe such statements to the young and ambitious, those who created this encounter, and the vision they have for a better world. Only young cultural activists of this calibre can produce change, confront terrorism and recreate theatre as a space for survival.