Magazine article American Theatre

Cairo Nights: In Post-Revolutionary Egypt, a Theatre Culture Beset by Crises and Censorship Continues to Search for Its Identity

Magazine article American Theatre

Cairo Nights: In Post-Revolutionary Egypt, a Theatre Culture Beset by Crises and Censorship Continues to Search for Its Identity

Article excerpt

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD, AND the word was with theatre, and the word was theatre.

You can say that sort of thing in Egypt with no trace of hyperbole. The nation's long and myriad history stretches back toward the dawn of language, a time when theatre was the cradle of the word, and all other art forms were born out of it.

Theatre as we practice it today--modern theatre, for want of a better term--has its roots in the folk traditions and street performances of 17th-century Egypt. It only became a bona fide, respected art form in the mid-19th century. Theatre went on to blossom in the 20th century when Egypt became the cultural hub of the Middle East; then, with the arrival of the Mubarak regime in the late '80s, the arts, theatre included, crashed and burned. [For a concise tour of Egypt's theatrical past, see the sidebar on page 24.]

Some new life was injected into the theatrical life of Cairo and Alexandria with the rise of independent theatre at the beginning of the 1990s, and the Jan. 25, 2011 political revolution conferred these local efforts with much-needed significance and vitality. Now, with stern censorship looming from the new autocratic regime that is currently being assembled--and the continuous stagnant state of a structureless art form discarded by the government--the future of Egyptian theatre remains perilous.

To make a difficult situation worse, the various theatre festivals that in the past brought international visitors to Cairo and Alexandria--the National Theater Festival, the Experimental Theater Festival and the Dance Theater Festival--all failed to fulfill their initial promise, becoming embroiled in the ongoing corruption. Like most government-sponsored initiatives during the Mubarak regime, the surviving festivals have ultimately become little more than parodies of themselves.

It was in the face of this decay that independent theatre rose, from the ashes of both public and private theatre practices, to challenge the establishment. This independent wave has kept Egyptian theatre afloat, carrying it for nearly 20 years while the traditional art form struggled to find a place in a rapidly evolving cultural scene. And it's this generation that would plant the seeds for the biggest uprising Egypt has ever witnessed.

VETERAN THEATREMAKER AND AMERICAN UNIVERSITY in Cairo (AUC) graduate Ahmed El Attar is director of the downtown Cairo Falaki Theatre, and founder of an important new arts festival known as D-CAF, the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival. El Attar considers himself part of the independent movement that started out in the late '80s after Egyptian director Hassan El Geretly founded the pioneering company Al-Warsha (the word in Arabic means "workshop"), which boasted a marquee of immensely talented thespians--among them Abla Kamel, Ahmed Kamal, Mahmoud El Lozy and Sayed Ragab, all of whom have gone on to garner phenomenal success in TV and film, as well as theatre.

"The reason why we created D-CAF is because for so long, Egyptians were deprived of theatre," says El Attar, referring to the Mubarak era's anti-theatrical stance. "A big part of my learning experience has been watching hundreds of plays from all over the world--this, in many ways, shaped my vision. One reason why theatre lags behind film, music and visual arts in Egypt is the fact that you have access to all of these art forms via different methods. That's not the case with theatre--you cannot download a play and watch it online. In Egypt, theatremakers don't see anything except their colleagues' works. This is why, for instance, the dominant style in independent theatre for more than a decade now is minimal performances, where actors sit around in circles, tell stories and sing. Some artists do it very well, others are abysmal--but at the end of the day, they're all the same."

El Attar's D-CAF festival, now in its third year, is an ambitious attempt to rectify the situation. …

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