Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The Arab league of theatre festivals

Nora Amin warns against cultural ghettos and their insidious authority

In recent years a remarkable phenomenon has emerged in the world of Arab theatre: festivals.

The rise and speedy growth of this phenomenon does not mean that we did not have theatre festivals previously, what it means is that we never had as many of them. This business of theatre festivals is relatively new. The festival map fills the entire calendar, from the United Arab Emirates to Morocco, the one country that holds the largest number of theatre festivals, many of them with support from the ministry of culture or the municipalities, cities and provinces. Young and independent theatre festivals are very popular in Morocco, but do they make up for lack of support for art? Isn’t it true that, as the prominent Moroccan scholar Khalid Amine formulates it, the artistic field of theatre develops primarily through the growth of the artistic productions and the development of the relevant cultural infrastructure? Why then should the support given to festivals, whether they are forms of temporary celebration, or of dissemination, exceed the support given to performing arts productions where the independent sphere is almost entirely deprived of state solidarity? 

A festival is of course one form of cultural production, but it works mainly through recycling existing cultural products like theatre and dance productions. Most of the time, a theatre festival works on the distribution, the dissemination, the outreach and the visibility and exposure of the products/productions it presents. A tiny minority of festivals work towards funding and producing new work, or creating workshops and collaborations that eventually lead to new productions. Therefore the question is highly valid: what happens to a culture that provides a lot of visibility via festivals but has a limited number of products to present within this potential visibility throughout the year?

The situation is paradoxical. And the result is that we often see several productions repeated and recycled in several festivals across the Arab region. For example, it is not uncommon to watch one production of a state-owned theatre house in the Days of Sharjah festival, then find it next month in another festival in Jordan or Algeria, or at an international festival held and sponsored by its country of production. This gives the impression that the production in question is touring the festival circuit, but who is the brilliant curator who is organising this tour? Are festival managers and boards operating as curators? What determines whether one theatre production fits the selection criteria of all those diverse festivals? Or is there no diversity among them?  

It is not uncommon either to find the instructors of the workshops offered by one festival giving workshops in the next festival in the neighbouring Arab country. The speakers at usually unnecessary and audience-less festival conferences or round tables are almost always the same. Not only is this due to the discrepancy between the limited number of productions and the growing number of festivals, it is also due to a certain wave of regional cooperations that are taking place via protocols of partnership. These protocols provide the possibility of exchanging recommendations regarding the best productions to present, the most popular speakers and instructors, as well as sharing the best practices in terms of structuring and running theatre festivals. 

I fear that this wave of cooperation is gradually shaping and re-shaping Arab theatre festivals under a unified code, making many festivals look indistinguishable. The special and powerful advantages of cooperation can slowly become disadvantages as they result in one form, one way of doing things and one artistic taste. A bigger risk is to fall into monopoly and accidentally produce a new kind of domination cutting across the whole Arab region and controlling the colour of its festivals, and therefore controlling the nature and style of artistic productions that aim to participate in those festivals. That would be scary.

I believe that there exists an aspiration common to the theatre artists of the Arab countries, which is to provide growth, diffusion and exchange for their artistic productions. Cooperation and networking among all the communities of Arab theatre is an absolute necessity; nevertheless, it is equally necessary to prevent manipulation, power encroachments and mediocrity. If the rising trend of Arab theatre festivals is going to end up leading us by to a new, false flourishing in distribution and dissemination while empowering a small network of festival makers and beneficiaries, then it is much healthier to go back and withdraw from regional exposure and cooperation in order to focus on one’s own artistic quest. As dangerous as this suggestion may seem, it could help us to preserve the right of creativity and artistic expression beyond the leagues of mutual interests, and beyond the temptation of touring which might force young theatre makers to deviate and go for a kind of “one recipe for all festivals” creations. After all theatre is a local art, and it is so for a reason. The genuine and authentic creative forces, sources and goals should plant and drive the artistic production in order to serve the community. The personal glory or pan-Arabic success should not rule the artist’s initial dynamics of creativity, nor should they decide the style and tone of the artistic process.

If we want to provide the best conditions for arts production and creativity, supporting festivals and regional partnerships, then we should formulate the connection between those two wings. We should clearly reexamine our cultural policy: what priorities do we have in the field of cultural production? what is our plan for the empowerment of the performing arts community? what are the existing budgets? how do we develop a strategic plan that would offer more support and funds for the creation of new work and for the development of existing theatre companies? And at the end comes the question of how to guarantee a balance between the number of artistic productions of theatre and the number and size of theatre festivals among other channels that offer dissemination and distribution? In my opinion the attention to and support for theatre productions must be multiplied while fewer festivals with of longer duration and broader geographical extension would be more effective. 

I say this while totally aware of the Egyptian ministry of culture’s restricted budget, but also knowing how crucial it is to support the arts in the correct way. I believe that the existing informal network of Arab theatre festivals can soon develop in a direction that emphasises the specificity of every country and theatre community and avoids potential ghettos of theatre authority, breaking out of unnecessary redundancy, falsehood, irrelevance or the tendency to reproduce a single style of management and taste across the Arab world. I am full of hope that some day the Arab region will also develop a common strategy and cultural policy for the production, exchange and dissemination of its performing arts sectors. As far as Egypt is concerned, I can only be even more hopeful that, after the new presidential elections, a new chapter will start for ministry resources and cultural production at large, which necessarily entails a review of our cultural policy and all the terms in our constitution related to legislating the performing arts and arts in general.

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