by Savas Patsalidis*
Cairo’s International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre (CIFCET) is a noncompetitive annual festival funded by the Ministry of Culture of the Arab Republic of Egypt. As stated on its website, its mission is “to create a forum for communication and dialogue among diverse populations and communities by means of the various forms of theatre and performance. It aims to introduce the latest developments in the international theatre scene to Egyptian and Arab audiences, while also serving as a platform for local and regional theatre productions for the benefit of specialists and interested festivals from all over the world.”
It is considered one of the most important festivals established in the Arab world. It was launched in 1988 and, according to the Minister of Culture of those days, Farouk Hosni, its aim from the start was “to deepen the idea of dialogue and of accepting the other and to create a space that [would allow] for the free play of passions and the imagination.”
Following the collapse of the Mubarak regime, the Festival ceased to operate, just like many other state institutions. Five years later, and after long and heated discussions, the Festival came back to life, this time carrying the word “contemporary” on its title to differentiate itself from its earlier association with the Mubarak regime and, at the same time, to indicate its new course which, in the words of its new protagonists, was “to broaden the space for mutual understanding” and to “introduce the latest developments in the international theatre scene to Egyptian and Arab audiences.”
The first edition of the revised Festival was announced in 2015 and launched in 2016. The Festival now hosts about 20-25 productions in each edition. One third comes from Egypt and the rest from the Arab and the Western world.
Dina Amin, its artistic director, was on the Festival’s first five-member executive committee, established in 2014.
Dina is also a stage director and an Associate Professor of Drama and Performance at Cairo University’s English Department, Faculty of Arts. She is the author of Alfred Farag and Egyptian Theatre (2008), co-editor of Salaam: Anthology of Middle-Eastern-American Drama (2009) and From Orientalists to Arabists: The Shifts in Arabic Literary Studies, Journal of Arabic Literature (2010). Dina holds a PhD in Dramatic Literature from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA in Directing from Carnegie Mellon University. She is the recipient of the West Coast Drama Clan Award (in honor of William Ball) for best director at CMU for her production of Ibsen’s A Lady from the Sea. She directs in both the U.S. and Egypt, in Arabic and English. Her most recent production in Cairo is Al-Farafir (Flip Flop and His Master, 2017), Arden (an Egyptian adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2016), Matsanafneesh (Don’t Label Me, 2015), and Segn al-Nisaa (Women’s Prison) by FatHeyyah al-`Assa (2013).
I first met Dina in Thessaloniki (Greece), as a guest of Dimitria Festival (Oct. 5-10, 2018). It was then that the idea of this interview occurred
Founded in Paris in 1972 by Andres Bossard, Floriana Frassetto and Bernie Schürch, MUMMENSCHANZ has become one of the leading groups in Mime-Masque Theatre. Their production You and Me was part of the official opening ceremony of the 25th edition of the Festival (2018)
Dina, this is your fifth year as the artistic director of Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre and, as far as I know, the largest and most visible theatre event in Egypt. Do you feel any pressure? How demanding is this post, especially after the Festival’s restart in 2014? What is your vision?
The first year was hard labor as we all needed to search, collect and restructure the Festival’s lost database. Gradually, things started picking up momentum. It’s a very demanding post because it is year-round. I’m a university professor, stage director and mother—you can imagine the amount of joggling I have to do.
We work as an executive board, so we all build the Festival’s vision together. As a collective vision, we all would like to see the Festival growing as inclusive as possible, with as many nations as possible and, in particular, with nations of the global south.
Among the goals of the Festival is to create a forum for communication and dialogue among diverse populations and communities by means of the various forms of theatre and performance. Dο you think that this goal has been achieved after 25 editions?
This has always been the mission of the Festival and, every year, we try to expand the scope of dialogue and inclusion as best as we can. Can we do more? Certainly! The world changes constantly and the need for artistic dialogue changes too; we try to represent the moment and deepen our dialogue with it. Therefore, what we are currently trying to do is keep this dialogue going all year round, not only in September. This is reflected in our new approach of covering the proceedings of most of the festivals in the Arab World on our webpage. This way, CIFCET encompasses theatrical movements in the entire region and helps disseminate them.
The title of the “revised” Festival now contains the words “contemporary” and “experimental.” How close are these words to the philosophy and practice of the Festival? Do you see any difference between the philosophy and the strategies of the old Festival (prior to 2010) and the one running in the last four years?
Changing the title of the festival to now include “contemporary” as well as “experimental” is meant to make the choice of plays broader and more inclusive of genres, styles and periods. Thirty years ago, the founders of the Festival felt the need to popularize the avant-garde in its larger context, which is great because they have enabled us to build on this solid base. Today, we include both text-based as well as non-textual performances; works based on physical movement and works ingrained in the mimetic; musicals, documentaries, biographies. There is no limit.
Regarding the participation procedure, you seem to follow a different strategy. Instead of inviting artists to come to the Festival, you ask them to apply and, then, choose whom to include. Do you think this policy pays off? Does it bring to your Festival what you really want to have in terms of quality, contemporaneity, etc.?
As you know, we are a state festival, which means that we are financially under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. This translates into two things: first, we receive a budget from the government, and, second, our work is perceived as public service. Therefore, we do not generate any income from the Festival; rather, we work with a tight budget as all performances, workshops and symposia participation are all free admission. These parameters make us very selective in the way we spend. So, all things considered, yes, it does allow us to bring high quality works and artists.
I know that you have a screening committee for play selection. What are the criteria for the final selection? Any politics involved?
Purely artistic, no political or country representation considerations at all.
Just wondering: What is the impact of the Festival on local theatre life? Is there any dialogue between local and international theatre people, in terms of exchanges, collaborations, joined workshops, etc?
Actually, all the above constitute the festival’s impact. Apart from the apparent benefit of presenting international performances to Egyptian and Arab audiences, the workshops open local artists to international trends and theatre makers, and, indeed, many collaborations have led to projects as a result. Furthermore, the symposium allows for intellectual exchanges and debates, which brings about joint research and translation possibilities. Not to mention, of course, that the daily gatherings before and after performances allow for the development of new friendships and real face-to-face conversations across the board.
Are you satisfied with the audience attendance? What feedback do you get? How receptive are they to the new and the experimental?
You must understand that the Festival is very well attended by Egyptians as well as Arab audiences. Each participating troupe gets to perform twice, and, often, audiences request more shows, but we are bound by the schedule of course. Also, admission is free of charge for, as I mentioned before, the festival is public service; this fact brings more viewers to theatres as well. So, yes, we are very satisfied with our audience attendance.
What is the situation of theatre in Egypt right now? Has the “Arab Spring” changed anything in theatre’s policies?
The five years after the revolution were quite rocky for theatre and the arts, in general. However, during the last four years there has been a steady comeback to theatre productions, whether subsidized by the government or produced privately. Many festivals such as CIFCET are back in Cairo, and a number of regional ones have been founded lately.
As a follow-up to my previous question: How close is theatre to local sociopolitical life?
Theatre and politics are sort of intertwined, so, of course, there are always political overtones in all performances. However, what has been on the rise lately is the aesthetics of physical (and non-verbal) and dance theatre. We’ve also seen several documentary pieces.
How similar or dissimilar is Egyptian theatre compared to Western theatre? I know, this is a huge topic that requires space and time to answer. Just very briefly, I would like to hear your view.
Yes, indeed, this is question that requires a very long answer, but the short one could be this: the audience is the differentiating factor. Egyptian audiences like to be active participants in performances, so the European fourth wall took longer to set in in Egypt than in other places.
In the last few years, and especially during the “Arab Spring” movement, we have been hearing and reading things about the position of women in Egyptian society. What is the situation of female playwrights now in Egypt? Do they have the same exposure and the same opportunities as male playwrights?
Women have a very strong presence in Egyptian theatre as actors, directors and critics; however, we still need more plays written by women. There are more novels, short stories and poetry by women than there are plays; perhaps, the reason for this lack is the nature of theatre itself. It requires long and late hours of work, and, very generally speaking, we are a conservative society.
I understand. Who do you think are the most prominent women playwrights in Egypt right now? What is the focus of their work?
I can think of two right away, Rasha Abdel Moneim and Nora Amin, both concerned with social and philosophical issues.
And what about most frequently staged playwrights, foreign as well as Egyptian?
Most frequently staged, in terms of Egyptian playwrights, would be Sameh Mahran, President of CIFCET, Lenin al-Ramly, Abu Al-Ela Al-Salamouni and texts from the 1960s, which is considered the golden age of Arab drama. Regarding foreign playwrights, there are lots on the repertoire of Egyptian artists, most important of whom is Shakespeare, as well as writers that belong to the so-called tradition of the theatre of the absurd.
How do you explain their popularity?
It stems from the timelessness of their themes as well as from the philosophical/existential questions they raise.
And what about directors? Whom do you consider as the most representative of contemporary, experimental theatre in Egypt now?
Essam el-Sayyed, Coordinator of CIFCET, is one of Egypt’s prominent directors. There is a number of important directors and I don’t want to miss mentioning their names, but the ones who come immediately to mind are: Khaled Galal, Hassan el-Geretly, Abeer Ali and Ahmad al-Attar.
Let me shift our discussion to money. Theatre is a very expensive art. In a world where money talks, do you think Egyptian theatre can survive without state funding?
It can and it does. In the 1990s, a movement called “free theatre” emerged specifically for that. It was to counter the impact of State-run theatre and to create opportunities for young independent artists. Today, there are several independent companies that not only produce their own work, but also curate their own festivals.
This is very encouraging to hear. I assume it is the exception rather than the rule. What I find worrisome is the gradual reduction of state funding for theatre. The Arts, in general, are not so appealing to the gurus of global economy. At least that’s my impression. I hope I am wrong. Just let me ask you this: You travel a lot to various festivals held in Arab countries. Do you think there are things that make you feel optimistic regarding the future of Arab theatre?
There are many things that make me optimistic. I find that fellow Arab artists are as keen on producing good and important theatrical works as any other in the world. Theatre artists here in Egypt, in the Arab World, across the world all endure difficulties whether in the form of war, censorship, budget cuts, lack of support or inclusion, yet all forge on to keep bringing about meaningful works. Don’t you think this is a cause for optimism?
Yes, it is. Theatre’s survival kit has kept it going for well over 25 centuries now. I hope it continues to fight for a better world. In Europe, as you know, two major political issues dominate: the rise of extreme right-wing parties and the refugee problem. Both issues are reflected in most new works now produced. I would like to ask how does Egyptian theatre reflect on these issues? I mean, do they have any impact on the plays written or staged?
Historically, the radical right and refugee problems (don’t forget Palestine) have always been central issues that Arab theatre has had to deal with. Today, it affects Europe too, and we welcome plays that discuss it.
Here is my last question, sort of personal one. You are also involved with teaching. What are your plans from here onwards?
Time permitting, I would like to focus again on directing as well as do more translation.
*Savas Patsalidis is Professor of theatre and performance history and theory in the School of English (Aristotle University, Thessaloniki), the Hellenic Open University and the Drama Academy of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is also a regular lecturer on the Graduate Programme of the Theatre Department at Aristotle University. He is the author of thirteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. His latest book-length study Theatre & Theory II: About Topoi, Utopias and Heterotopias was published in 2019 by University Studio Press. In addition to his academic activities, he works as a theatre reviewer for the journals lavart, parallaxi and the greekplay project. Ηe is currently the president of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, member of the curators’ team of Demitria Festival and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.