The Cairo Experiment - International Theater on the Nile

By Henkin, Stephen | The World and I, December 2000 | Go to article overview

The Cairo Experiment - International Theater on the Nile

Henkin, Stephen, The World and I

Egypt boldly turns the clock ahead with an experimental theater festival that brings together East and West, Christian and Muslim, and a wide range of innovative works.

For the last twelve years, Egypt has invited a surprisingly broad range of theatrical productions to the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. Yet the most significant experimentation is not found in the highly innovative, frequently ambitious works staged but in the festival itself. After all, what other artistic setting can boast such a diversity of nations, cultures, and religions represented as the event that takes place in the ancient city by the Nile for ten days each September?

At times as bustling as Cairo's famed bazaars, the annual festival showcased fifty-seven performances from forty-five countries in venues ranging from the stately, mosquelike Cairo Opera House to converted halls in some of the crowded city's poorest neighborhoods. The obstacles of language were overcome by using individual translation devices that made plays in Arabic, English, Romanian, Lebanese, Finnish, Korean, Polish, and many other tongues intelligible to overwhelmingly enthusiastic audiences.

Of particular note were the numbers of Egyptian youth who pushed and shoved to get inside to see Western experimental theater--anything from the outside world. Their desire to attend seemingly outdid the motivation shown by the international mix of seminar contributors, journalists, jurists, and selection-committee members, who brought to the event a world of theater knowledge and a strong desire to share it across cultural boundaries.

Although the performance schedule was not made available until the opening ceremony at Cairo's magnificent Opera Hall, there was a sense of excitement and eager anticipation that we were involved in a process of rejuvenating the experimental form--and ourselves--through an unprecedented cross-fertilization of theatrical viewpoints. Criticisms of the festival concerning censorship, artistic criteria, jury and awards selection, and the Egyptian government's influence on the event proved secondary to this rare opportunity to view and critique experimental works in such exotic surroundings. The festival was generously sponsored by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture through its Cultural Development Fund.

At the end of the day, real progress was made, not only in the exposure and development of some truly interesting experimental companies (many from barely accessible places--Iraq, Yemen, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Burkina Faso) but in overcoming long-standing barriers to international dialogue on the theatrical arts.

Indeed, with its 5,000-year-old reputation as a world crossroads and its current open-door policy to the West, Egypt seemed ideally situated to host an event of such diversity. "There is a great deal of ignorance in Egypt about the West, and a greater ignorance in the West about what is happening in Egypt and the Islamic world," says John Elsom, chairman of this year's festival preselection committee. "The festival is unique because it brings a wide range of plays to the stage--Islamic and Christian, Arabic, European, and North American, even Asian. It is the only festival run by an Islamic country which has a cultural openness with other parts of the world," insists Elsom, who formerly served as president of the International Association of Theater Critics.

He is quick to note linguistic obstacles at the event. "When we translate Arabic rhetoric into English, it sounds bloodcurdling, but it is just a problem of language, like the use of the word dog," says Elsom, clarifying: "When President Carter was in Poland, he brought his own translator. When he said, 'I want to extend my hand to the whole Polish nation,' the translator said, 'I lust after the whole Polish nation.' It caused an uproar!"

Earning their keep was no easy task for the preselection committee, which consisted of chairman Elsom; Richard Martin, the French director of the Torksy Theater; and Spanish playwright Ricard Salvat. …

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