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The fringe in focus
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 07 - 2008

Nehad Selaiha is delighted that two thirds of the productions at the third Egyptian National Theatre Festival which opened last Saturday come from the fringe
Whether one likes it or not, festivals, governmental or otherwise, have become a prominent feature of our cultural life and one of the major mechanisms through which cultural work is processed. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the area of theatre where production is prompted and regulated by a series of annual events centered round a competition. Besides the state-organised ones, such as the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre, the Egyptian National Theatre Festival (the third edition of which opened last Saturday), the Cultural Palaces' many regional festivals, including one for Theatre Clubs and another for Women Theatre Directors, the Universities Theatre festival, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's Creative Forum for Independent Theatre Groups, and the Opera House's Modern Dance Theatre Festival, there is a host of non-governmental competitive theatrical events, also held on an annual basis. These include: the festival of the Egyptian Society for Theatre Amateurs (ESTA), the French Cultural Centre's Festival des Jeunes Createurs, the Eencounter of the Egyptian Free Theatre groups started in 1990 and usually held at Al-Hanager, the Festival of Independent Theatre Troupes organised by the theatre club of Al-Mu'assassa Al-'Umaliya (Workers Association) in Shubra Al-Kheima, the United Christian Drama Teams festival, the Cultural Societies festival, and the Independent Theatre festival established by El-Sawy Cultural Centre together with a separate annual festival for Pantomime, another for Monodrama. And this is by no means an exhaustive list.
One could understand the irritation of those who protest that we have far too many theatre festivals, that no sooner than one ends than another begins, giving one no time to catch one's breath or digest what one has seen. I often feel that way myself, particularly when festivals overlap or run simultaneously. Indeed, only last week I was told that El-Sawy Centre's Pantomime festival would open on 6 July, only one day after the new opening date of the National Theatre festival. Even if the National festival had not been especially delayed for five days to allow time to prepare a special commemorative section in the festival's book on Saad Ardash who died on Friday, 13 June, only two weeks before the festival was due to start, -- if it had opened on 1st July, the same as last year and the one before, the two festivals would have still clashed, making it impossible for anyone keen on following both to do so. Fortunately, however, the Pantomime festival is only two nights, which leaves me 9 whole days to enjoy what the other festival has to offer.
There are also people who would tell you that this recent fad for festivals has negatively affected theatre in terms of budgets, long- term policies and audience attendance. Rather than plan for seasons ahead and put together a well-thought out, steadily increasing repertoire that can build a regular clientele, the argument goes, theatre managers now are guided by the lure of prizes and the prestige that goes with them and plan their productions accordingly. While this may be true of mainstream theatre, it does not apply to the fringe. Indeed, for independent, regional and amateur theatre troupes, such festivals are a vital life line, providing not only opportunities for public exposure and critical appraisal, but also the chance to perform on proper stages, in well-equipped theatres and, sometimes, to get a little cash as well to help pay standing debts or plan for another production. Without these festivals, many groups would just give up and disappear and the majority of theatre critics wouldn't know half as much about the fringe as they do now. It was through exposure in these festivals that some independent troupes, like Abeer Ali's El-Misaharati, managed to build enough credibility and audience appeal to enable them to sell performances and apply for funding.
In this year's national festival, as in the two previous editions, troupes like Abeer Ali's provide the bulk of performances. And had it not been for the notoriously strict and ruthlessly exclusive selection committees appointed by every theatre producing body in the country, state-affiliated or independent, the number would have swelled beyond the capacity of any festival of that duration. What appears on the festival's schedule is only a small fraction of the number of fringe troupes that actually applied and were sifted through. As the chair of the selection committee assigned to the independent theatre groups this year, my colleagues and I were faced with as many as 30 productions out of which we had to nominate 3 for the competition. It was a difficult task, and quite painful given the fervent enthusiasm of all the troupes and the cruel disappointment those left out were bound to feel. After long deliberations we opted for Kastoor (Cotton Flannel), a satirical musical piece performed in striped pyjamas by Mohamed Abdel Fattah's 'Hala' (State of Mind) street-theatre troupe, Al-Ragul Al-Ta'er (The Flying Man), a poignant tale of a lonely dumb youth who longs for love and dreams of flying, beautifully written and directed by Mahmoud Gamal and sensitively performed by 'Al- 'Azifeen' (Players) troupe, and Daqit Mazzika (Musical Beat), a hilarious social satire by a group called 'Harmony', featuring a bunch of lunatics undergoing musical therapy in a farcical asylum and tracing their individual traumas to their roots in social and political oppression.
It was a great pity we could not also nominate Jeanne d'Arc by the 'Theatre without Borders' troupe, adapted from Jean Anouilh's and Bernard Shaw's plays of the same title by Metawli Hamid and directed with a lot of flair by Tamer Karam; the 'Ein Shams' group's In a Quarter of an Hour Things will be Sorted Out about a group of passengers mysteriously locked up in the Mubarak underground metro station and desperately trying to get out; Al-Igra'aat (Procedures) by 'Al-Gozoor' (Roots) troupe, also about a group of people whose existence is confined to a public square and the hours between midnight and dawn and who are eternally doomed to play out the same detective story over and over again; an updated version of No'man Ashour's famous comedy El-Nas Elli Taht (The People Downstairs) by 'Al Masrah Al Hor' (Free Theatre) troupe; the 'If' group's colloquial version of Mahmoud Nessim's verse drama, Al-Ghorfa (The Room), the 'Waves' troupe's production of Lorca's House of Bernarda Alba which they first performed at the French Cultural Centre's festival des Jeunes Createurs earlier this year, scooping the best performance award; Samaa Ibrahim's A'ool Eih (What Should I Say), a masterful one-woman show which won best performance and best actress at the third El-Sawy Centre's Monodrama Festival in March this year (see review in the Weekly, 3 April, 2008); and last, but not least, Mohamed Fawzi's The Zoo which he created and first performed with members of his Studio Mansour 95 troupe at the recent 9th Modern Dance Theatre Festival (also reviewed in the Weekly on 26 June, 2008).
Other brave attempts which, however, did not artistically quite come up to the mark included: Farouk Gweida's poetic drama A- Wazir Al- 'Ashiq (The Amorous Vizier) by the 'Hamasaat' (Whispers) group; the Camp Chezar troupe's Iblees (Satan), an original play by the same Mahmoud Gamal who authored The Flying Man ; Irwin Shaw's Bury the Dead, staged by the Orchestra troupe; and the Acting Champions Society's I'saar (Hurricane), adapted from Mohamed El-Sharqawi's Al-Sharkh (The Crack) by Soad El-Qadi.
I have no doubt that the other selection committees assigned to the amateur, the cultural palaces, the civil societies, the business companies, and the university theatre troupes had to see an equal, if not larger, number of performances as our committee did and faced the same ordeal. But though the criteria applied by the various selection committees were extremely rigorous, the outcome was still in favour of the fringe. Out of the 32 productions allowed into the competition, only 10 come from professional, mainstream companies, all belonging to the state. That of these 10 as many as 4 were contributed by the Youth Theatre Company is significant and says a lot about the future direction of the Egyptian state-theatre. Equally significant is the fact that, for the third year running, and with the exception of Galal El-Sharqawi's Masrah Al-Fann which participated last year with a musical version of The Merchant of Venice with an all-student cast, all the private, professional companies have kept away from the festival. Some attribute this absence to the paucity of new productions in that quarter and their generally lax artistic standards, others, to arrant superciliousness and unbridled vanity; but, whatever the reason, it strikes me as a disturbing sign of an unhealthy deepening rift between 'serious' and 'commercial' art.
As six of the productions offered by the state theatre have already been extensively reviewed on this page, one of them, the Popular Arts and Music Sector's revival of Sa'id El-Faramawi's/Isam El-Sayed's Tales of Mahrous Farm, as far back as June, 2001, I shall say nothing about them here or in my next article. You can read about Yamama Bida (A White Dove) in the 10 January, 2008 issue of the Weekly ; a review of the Youth theatre's production of Max Frisch's The Fire-raisers was published on 20 December, 2007; Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist, also by the Youth theatre, was reviewed more recently, on 5 June, 2008; Al-Ghad theatre's entry, Qissat Hob (Love Story), was the subject of the 4 October, 2007 review; and El-Tali'a's Al-Bu'asaa' (Les Miserables) was covered at length on 15 May, 2008. These reviews are available on the net and I hope they can help you steer your way wisely through the festival. The four remaining state theatre entries -- the Youth theatre's Ma Agmaluna (How Beautiful We Are) and Taht El-Saytara (Under Control), the National's Al-Eskafi Malikan (The Shoemaker as King) and the Popular Arts and Music Sector's Zai El-Fol (Just Fine) -- will make part of my article next week.
If, however, you find the state theatre productions not quite to your taste and decide to explore the fringe, you would do well to sample Al-Hanager's three entries which made part of its first season for independent theatre at Rawabet earlier this year. All three will play at the small hall of the Opera house at 6 o'clock, though on different days. Someone is Trampling on my Heart, written and performed by Abeer Ali's Al-Misaharati group is scheduled on 7 and 8 July; Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's masterpiece, Oscar and the Lady in Pink, staged by Hani El-Mettenawy's Society for Theatre Studies and Training Troupe, on 10 and 11; and Al-Haraka's (The Movement's) A Mouse in our House, written and directed by Sayed Fu'ad, on the 13th and 14th. Reviews of these and other plays in that event are available in the Weekly issues from 28 February through to 1 May, 2008. Equally enjoyable is the Creativity Centre's Qahwa Saada (Unsweetened Turkish Coffee) which I gave a rave review on 12 June, 2008. Fortunately, it plays every night throughout the festival and I advise you not to miss it.
Personally, I intend to go off the trodden path and try to catch as many of the student, amateur and regional performances as I can, regardless of whether they figure on the competition list or not. I am curious to see what the students of Hilwan university would make of Lenin El-Ramli's Afreet Li Kul Muwaten (A Demon for Every Citizen), how the acting team at the Suez Canal university would negotiate Durrenmatt's The Visit, and how Abdel-Aziz Hamouda's Al-Nas fi Teebah (The People in Thebes) would shape up in the hands of Cairo university students. I am also intrigued by such titles as Hasad El-Shakk (The Harvest of Doubt), by the Eastern Tobacco Company, Hikayat Masriyya (Egyptian Tales), by the Coptic Anglican Society, Musim El-Damm (The Blood Season), by the Cultural Palaces, and Shaklaha Bazit (It Looks a Mess), Ma Benehlamsh (We've Stopped Dreaming), and Hawel Marra Ukhra (Try Again) -- all three by the Egyptian Society for Theatre Amateurs. It pays to be adventurous, I have always thought. Still, I wouldn't advise you to follow my example unless you are ready and willing to take the consequences -- whatever they may be. In festivals, if you go off the beaten track, there is no telling what you could encounter.
Third Egyptian National Theatre Festival, 5-16 July, 2008 .
For venues and schedule see below.
Schedule of the third National Egyptian Theatre Festival
Thursday 10 July
Fragile, Al-Gomhouriya Theatre (6pm).
Oscar and the Lady in Pink, Opera Small Hall (6pm).
Kastoor -- Cotton Flannel, Small Hall, Floating Theatre (6pm).
Try Again, Al-Arayes Theatre (8pm).
Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Al-Salam Theatre (8pm).
Under Control, Galal El-Sharqawi's Al-Fann Theatre (8pm).
Going, Going, Gone, National Theatre (10pm).
The Blood Season, Balloon Theatre (10pm).
Musical Beat, Al-Salam Theatre (10pm).
Jeanne d'Arc, Miami Theatre (10 pm).
Friday 11 July
Zoo Story, Al-Gomhouriya Theatre (6pm).
Oscar and the Lady in Pink, Opera Small Hall (6pm).
Kastoor -- Cotton Flannel, Small Hall, Floating Theatre (6pm).
Try Again, Al-Arayes Theatre (8pm).
Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Al-Salam Theatre (8pm).
The Lower Depths, the National Theatre (10pm).
The Blood Season, Balloon Theatre (10pm).
Dustoor Ya Siyadna or Pardon, Spirits, Al-Salam Theatre (10pm).
Jeanne d'Arc, Miami Theatre (10pm).
Saturday 12 July
Zoo Story, Al-Gomhouriya Theatre (6pm).
The Flying Man, Small Hall, Floating Theatre (6pm).
It Looks a Mess, Al-Arayes Theatre (8pm).
The Harvest of Doubt, Galal El-Sharqawi's Al-Fann Theatre (8pm).
The Lower Depths, National Theatre (10pm).
Dustoor Ya Siyadna or Pardon, Spirits, Al-Salam Theatre (10pm).
The Visit, Miami Theatre (10pm).
Sunday 13 July
A Mouse in Our House, Opera Small Hall (6pm).
The Flying Man, Small Hall, Floating Theatre (6pm).
It Looks a Mess, Al-Arayes Theatre (8pm).
The Fire-raisers, Yusef Idris Hall, Al-Salam Theatre (8pm).
The Harvest of Doubt, Galal El-Sharqawi's Al-Fann Theatre (8pm).
Just Fine or Zai El-Fol, Balloon Theatre (10pm).
Egyptian Tales, Al-Salam Theatre (10pm).
The Visit, Miami Theatre (10pm).
Monday 14 July
Yerma: Lorca's Women, Al-Gomhouriya Theatre (6pm).
A Mouse in Our House, Opera Small Hall (6 pm).
What Should I Say?, Small Hall, Floating Theatre (6pm).
We've Stopped Dreaming, Al-Arayes Theatre (8pm).
The Fire-raisers, Yusef Idris Hall, Al-Salam Theatre (8pm).
The Shoemaker as King, National Theatre (10pm).
Just Fine or Zai El-Fol, Balloon Theatre (10pm).
Egyptian Tales, Al-Salam Theatre (10pm).
A Demon for Every Citizen, Miami Theatre (10pm).
Tuesday 15 July
Yerma: Lorca's Women, Al-Gomhouriya Theatre (6pm).
What Should I Say?, Small Hall, Floating Theatre (6pm).
The Shoemaker as King, National Theatre (10pm).
A Demon for Every Citizen, Miami Theatre (10pm).
Wednesday 16 July
Closing Ceremony and Awards, the Opera Main Hall (8pm).


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