Tuesday,26 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)
Tuesday,26 March, 2019
Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The NAS syndrome

Nora Amin discusses the Nahda Arts School, an example of non-governmental initiatives for training in the performing arts

The NAS syndrome
The NAS syndrome

Widely known in Cairo as the Jesuits’ Theatre, the Association for Scientific and Cultural Renaissance has been working in the field of cultural and societal development for 20 years, decades before the term “development” was even fashionable. The enlightened priests of the Jesuits as well as the active teachers in their schools had an unprecedented awareness of how civil society should support progress. With their high standard of education and general culture, they knew they had to begin with their community, the Dhaher and Faggala neighbourhoods in Cairo. Not only were they interested in the dissemination of progressive cultural values, they were also interested in the societal development of their community in terms of daily behaviour, collective activities, charity, health awareness and healing and artistic endeavours starting with children.

Today the Jesuits and Brothers’ work in Cairo, Alexandria and Minya has become a brand of excellence. Their performance venues remain a vital force for the arts in the three cities. In Cairo, the children of Faggala have grown into artists and community activists. The association renewed itself several times over the years, with the unmistakable leadership of Father William who is rightly known as the godfather of the Jesuits cultural initiatives. As a child and teenager going to a French school, I often came across the name of Father Nabil Ghobrial as a famous figure in the cultural and artistic projects of the French schools in Cairo. He was a prominent figure and a mentor to all those who aspired to a civil society project fusing education, development and culture. In my school, we were very jealous of the students of the Jesuit and Brothers schools. We looked up to them as models of what we aspired to. They were the stars, presenting famous theatrical productions, creating festivals, having their own theatre venue and even having a mega-star like Adel Imam visit their stage and play there. They even initiated the most successful and outstanding public event to raise awareness of agriculture and transforming the desert into a green paradise, “Khadra”: a gigantic gathering and artistic event that took place in the stadium in the mid-1980s.

It is very interesting to know that the current location of activities of the Association for Scientific and Cultural Renaissance is the old Studio Nassibian where some of the most important movies in Egyptian film history were made. The Marvellous Studio which was previously burnt down to ashes has now transformed into a wonderful performance venue. With relentless enthusiasm and passion for the arts, Mohamed Talaat has reinvented the space. The independent theatre scene owes much to Talaat, for he is not only a master in scenography and all technical matters related to performance, he is also a pioneer in building and re-building performance venues. He is an artistic leader of his own kind, and a real mentor to a whole generation of stage managers, technicians, and coordinators. Those people — like their mentor — are the anonymous engine behind every production and every performance venue. Talaat was also behind the launch and success of Rawabet Venue for Performing Arts (on the premises of the Townhouse Gallery in downtown Cairo). Now Studio Nassibian, or the Jesuits’ Theatre, is regarded as a central place when it comes to experimental and progressive work. The old and monumental name of “Studio Nassibian” has transformed over time, becoming the name for new and emerging performance talents. The process of bridging was amazing: cinema and theatre, past and present, destruction and (re)birth; the tragedy of a fire destroying one art space becomes a hope for a revival of the arts. 

In order to build such bridges, many educational initiatives took place. It was clear that the future has to be present if we want the bridges to work. For it is only the future and its perspective that can fill gaps and reconcile opposites by fusing everything for a new generation of artists and cultural operators. Those initiatives are now gathered under the sector of the Renaissance Academy for Arts and Humanities, they include the cinema school (with many graduates actually producing short feature films and documentaries) as well as the animation film school, the humanities school and finally the more recent NAS (Nahda Arts School, aka the NAS School for Social Theatre). Again, the inspiring leadership of Father William comes to the surface with his absolute faith in arts education as a means to a better enlightened and progressive future. In my opinion, the two wings of the Jesuits’ Association in Cairo are indeed NAS and Studio Nassibian: the school and the performance venue. Mustafa Wafi and Riham Ramzi are the relentless forces behind NAS. One is easily stunned by the amount of work they have both achieved as a very successful duo in arts management and educational initiatives. The independent performing arts community has previously produced several similar endeavours, such as CASS (the Cairo Arts School) by Hani Al-Metennawi, and the Forum for Contemporary Arts by Adel Abdel-Wahab and Ahmed Saleh in Alexandria. Yet NAS appears to be a model of sustainability. 

NAS is truly a school. It is not a series of workshops, nor is it a fluid system that works randomly with irregular activities (which might of course carry meaningful artistic value and content, though it cannot reflect the system or structure of a school). It is actually an evening school that operates through the year. Administratively the design of the school system is a model that can be reproduced anywhere in communities with a desire for further education for professionals or emerging talents. The subjects, content and curriculum are specifically tailored to young Egyptian arts practitioners who want to acquire decent training in performance in general. The school embraces many disciplines: acting (including improvisation, character building and voice), dance, movement, mime, directing, play writing, arts management and stage management, among others. The teachers come from Egypt and abroad (the US, Spain, Sweden and France), and they are all prominent names in their respective fields: Rasha Abdel-Moneim, Reem Hegab, Hamdi Al-Tonsi, Pepa Conde and Salam Youssri, to name but a few.

In its first year of operation (2013-14), NAS designed its courses to be taught over 11 months, then offered three additional months for the production and presentation of the graduation projects. In 2015-16, the courses continued in the same way, and each year there were 30 graduates, almost equally divided between full time candidates and participants of specific subjects or topics. In 2017-18 the school will extend its courses to operate over 17 months. NAS will have a special focus on the topic of migration for all its graduation projects. It will be amazing to see the productions of the students staged at Studio Nassibian, to witness the outcome of education and community work in the form of a cultural production occupying the regenerated sphere of a once shattered and burnt-down cinematic studio. This in itself is a powerful public statement: one non-profit entity has successfully connected the dots, the Scientific and Cultural Renaissance Association has linked the Jesuits’ pedagogical tradition in Cairo with grassroots community work, charity and outreach, and with an excellent operating performance venue that remains very special among the few available in Cairo, with support and development from a new wave of well-trained artists who are fully equipped to become future leaders in the performing arts world. It’s a model I wish we could have all across Egypt. We need not one but 100 NASs.

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