Wednesday,23 May, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1392, (3 - 9 May 2018)
Wednesday,23 May, 2018
Issue 1392, (3 - 9 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Early stages

Nora Amin decries a new wave of restrictions on university theatre

University theatre plays a vital role in preparing a new generation of artists and audiences. For one thing it is a kind of laboratory where new experiments by the young can develop after graduation, becoming part of the professional production scene, also renewing inspiration and connecting with young audiences. The university theatre of the 1980s and 1990s in Egypt fuelled a revolution in the theatre scene which later resulted in an entire movement called Independent Theatre; this movement officially celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016 at the the Hanager Arts Centre.

In many countries, student activities form a vital channel for young people’s cultural expression, their political visibility and their participatory rights. In Egypt, student unions were always buzzing with cultural activity, and during sensitive periods of confrontation between fundamentalist groups and liberal forces, university theatres were always on the front line leading resistance and advocacy, and proving that creative young Egyptians can hold onto their diverse and liberal identities. Groups that trained and presented their performances under the rubric of university theatre include The Shrapnel, The Movement Troupe and Encounter, among others; this, in addition to a huge number of individual artists who emerged from university theatres and did not go on to form independent troupes. The list of prominent artists who grew into their in university theatre ranges from Fouad Al-Mohandess and Adel Imam to Khaled Saleh and Khaled El-Sawy. Almost all the artists who did not graduate from the Higher Institute of Drama at the Academy of Arts were "graduates" of the laboratory of university theatre, and even some of those who studied at the Academy came originally from there.

Taking all this into account, it is easy to see any threat to university theatre as a direct threat to the performing arts in Egypt in general. Such a threat could also undermine young people’s rights to public self expression and participation, and pose concerns for the general health of our educational system.

Despite all the officially announced support for the arts as a medium to confront fundamentalism and terrorism, six university theatre productions were cancelled on the orders of the university's administration. This number is relatively large compared to the number of existing university productions. Productions including The Last Days of Earth and Inherit the Wind (the latter based on Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee’s text) were cancelled at the Faculty of Education, Tanta University, the Faculty of Arts, Mansoura University, the faculties of Agriculture, Science and Pharmacy, Alexandria University and the Faculty of Physiotherapy, Cairo University. Inherit the Wind was performed at its makers’ own expense. All the productions were cancelled only a few days before they were due to be performed, and the directors – in shock and dismay – took to social media to complain. But why did educational institutions act in this way? What reasons were given referred to the political content of the plays, though the plays were not themselves political. Tarek Al-Dewiri’s version of Inherit the Wind, for instance, was performed at the National Theatre where it won awards, meaning it was approved by the censors.

It was a shock to all the artistic teams who had worked and rehearsed for months hoping to meet their audiences and compete within the annual university theatre festival. It was also a blow to the current aspirations for national development and cultural progress and an especially clear threat to creativity and freedom of expression. It was also announced that 30 new branches of the existing Department of Censorship are to open in the provinces, suggesting intervention by security and administrative bodies that goes beyond even the worst expectations.

The official committees of theatre and youth do not seem willing to respond. Only individual artists have criticised those practices via social media, among them the independent actor Said Qabil, who put together an overview of the canceled productions, and writer Rasha Abdel-Moneim, who frequently uses her page to advocate for freedom of expression and theatre. As far as the theatre committee at the Supreme Council of Culture is concerned, it seems cancelling six student productions in one go is neither a threat to the practise nor worthy of comment; no one from the Ministry of Culture has expressed solidarity with the young artists.

A clear message emerges as you try to put the pieces of the puzzle together: either play farce or don’t make theatre! Maybe the plays of Molière will become popular again, or those of the Egyptian repertory of comedy and farce, or maybe artists will just refrain from making theatre in what could look like a liquidation of the Egyptian theatre community. Maybe the Department of Censorship will start reviewing plays from the previous centuries, including Ibsen’s and Shakespeare’s texts, for political content (the classics having been exempt from any censorial procedure). The situation is deeply disturbing, not only to creative young people aspiring to a better future but also to established and professional artists who will definitely be affected by all those measures and practices. It gives Egypt and indeed any endeavour to achieve change or progress a bad reputation.

As of now, we need to find a way to support the productions that were cancelled, either by mediating and negotiating with the administrations that cancelled them so that they can be performed on campus or by hosting the performances independently, even if that means we still need to go through the Department of Censorship. Who knows, maybe the state’s official censors will prove more liberal and understanding than the universities’ administrations.

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