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Artist Nagi Shaker has the world on a string

Nagi Shaker, the chief designer for Al-Leila Al-Kebira, Cairo's iconic marionette theatre musical of the 1960s, speaks about his life and work

Doaa Hamza, Sunday 25 Dec 2011
Nagi Shaker
Nagi Shaker
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Nagi Shaker, chief designer for Al-Leila Al-Kebira, Cairo's iconic marionette theatre musical of the 1960s, speaks to Doaa Hamza about his life and work.

Ahram Online: How did it all start?

Nagi Shaker: My love for cinema started at an early age. Our neighbour downstairs owned a cinema projector. So as I child I became attached to the magic of the white screen. My brothers and I wanted to know more about cinema. We would go to a home accessories shop nearby and buy used film footage, which was sold at half a piastre per metre. We would take these back home and rig a rudimentary device to project them on a white sheet, using my father's field binoculars. The images would appear on the screen, but in reverse. Then we got curious about animation. The first animation film I saw was Pinocchio. I was only 13 and it blew me away. I had started drawing when I was a child. I was very weak and was often bed-ridden. So I used to exhibit my drawings on the wall above my bed. My parents encouraged me and found me an Italian art teacher. I studied fine arts, but I kept thinking of cinema all the time. I kept thinking about the films that I saw. I saw films like "A Midsummer Night's Dream," performed by marionettes. They seemed so magical, so out of this world to me. This is how it all started.

AO: Your graduation project was about marionette design, though your college didn't teach this type of art. How did you pull this off?

Shaker: I was in love with marionettes, but everyone was against it. I started reading magazines to see how artists produced marionettes abroad. My professors said, 'Fine, you're on your own.' I did the project and it was reviewed by the judging panel. The project was about making marionettes and it was accompanied by a two-minute film. The panel loved it. Then the college staged an exhibition for outstanding projects and Ali Al-Raye, who was in charge of the theatre, saw my work and it inspired him to start a puppet theatre. He requested marionette experts from Romania to teach this form of art in Cairo. I resigned from my work and joined the newly-created Marionette Theatre. The first show we staged was "Al-Shater Hasan" (Hasan the Streetwise Boy). Our resources were modest and we used to rehearse anywhere, sometimes in a cellar in Abdin Palace or in a windowless room in the Opera House. It was hard, but we were in seventh heaven. Then the poet Salah Jaheen joined us and he was in love with marionettes.

AO: You love cinema, and yet you did marionettes for the stage.

Shaker: Theatre and cinema are interlinked. All forms of art are connected. I had started out as a painter, so my experience is visual. All forms of drama have something in common.

AO: Who pioneered the Marionette Theatre?

Shaker: The first designers were the ones who figured it all out. I was the chief designer. Then came the 12 manipulators ( the ones who control the marionettes on stage) and those were selected from 200 puppeteers. One of them was Salah Al-Saqqa, who was quite well-educated, a lawyer by training. He was the best of all the manipulators. The designer Mostafa Kamel worked on that group at the time. Salah Jaheen became one of the most enthusiastic writers for the Marionette Theatre. The musician Ali Ismail was among the composers. Our second show, "Bent Al-Sultan" (The Sultan's Daughter) was written by Bayram Al-Tunsi and the music was by Ali Farrag.

AO: How did Al-Leila Al-Kabira start out?

Shaker: Before the Romanian marionette experts left the country, they asked us to stage an all Egyptian production in a marionette theatre festival in Romania. I was listening to Al-Leila Al-Kabira on the radio, and I had always dreamt of doing something with this operetta. The original operetta, written by Salah Jaheen and composed by Sayyed Makkawi, was utterly brilliant. So I said, let's do it with marionettes. Everyone was taken aback. They called me crazy for wanting to do a show about a moulid (a festival marking a saint's birthday). I suggested that we structure it like a tour of the moulid, with thecrowd scenes painted in the background. In the end, they relented. Salah Jaheen added a few lyrics, Sayyed Makkawi tinkered with the music. At one point, we added the scene about the girl who went missing. I made 45 marionettes, all engraved wood. In the end, we took second prize for stage scenery and marionette design in Romania. I won the marionette design prize and Mostafa Kamel won the scenery design.

AO: Al-Leila Al-Kabira has been popular since the early 1960s, but why hasn't the Marionette Theatre maintained it?

Shaker: It all depends on the team you have put together. The foreign experts chose us carefully and knew what they were doing. They selected only the best. Now people get hired because of their connections.

AO: Do you think that the government is still as interested in the Marionette Theatre as it was during Ali Al-Raye's time?

Shaker: No, or it would not have fallen on hard times. Officials are interested in the Marionette Theatre, but only superficially, like everything in the country. It is not based on the right attitude and lacks proper selection criteria. The marionette is hard to control, it is just a piece of wood dressed in fabric. The manipulator is the one who gives it life. If he is not good enough, it's going to be terrible.

AO: Are you called upon to help with your expertise in designing marionettes? And why did you leave the Marionette Theatre?

Shaker: I run the stage props workshop in the Creativity Centre, along with Khaled Galal. In the few times they asked for me, I found that what they wanted to do was not worthwhile. I believe that the marionettes have their own language. This is why my last show was called "Doqqi Ya Mazzika" (Let the Band Play). It was a show for grownups and was staged late in the evening, but whole families came to see it. The show, written by Salah Jaheen, Fouad Haddad, and Sayyed Makkawi, involved a fair share of social critique. It was accompanied by a live band, not recorded music. The show started three months before the 1967 war. At the time, they wanted me to run the Marionette Theatre but I refused because I don't like to be an administrator. Unfortunately, the new theatre manager was intent on turning the Marionette Theatre into a child theatre. So he started making changes. The first thing he did was send nearly 30 manipulators away to jobs in storehouses and what have you. Among those were 10 people I worked with. I was very upset about it. I decided to go to Italy and never went back to the Marionette Theatre.

AO: You have done stage scenery and film projections in a few stage plays. Please tell us about that.

Shaker: In the late 1960s, I worked on "Al-Zir Salem" (the main character in the oral history epic Al-Sira Al-Helaliya) with Alfred Farag and Hamdi Gheith. The show had 46 scenes and Hamdi Gheith was intent on making 46 stage settings. The budget was LE120. You can do a lot on stage with the simplest material. I also worked on a Tawfiq Al-Hakim play, "Sahra Maa Garima" (Soiree with a Crime), at the Taliah Theatre. I did these shows before going to Italy.

AO: "Sayf 70" (Summer 70), the only film you made, is connected with your time in Italy. Why did you make this film?

Shaker: I went to Italy because of the cinema, but my fellowship was for the theatre. Then I met a young Italian man who had wanted to study cinema but didn't get the chance to do so. I suggested that we make a film together. We came up with two films. His was half an hour long and mine the same length. The films involved us portraying one model. Our ideas were improvised, and the production stopped for a year and a half. By chance, the director Shadi Abdel Salam was in Rome in 1970. He was my friend, a graduate of the same college, one year my senior. He used to take me to meet famous directors and their families who helped me finish the film. The film was shown in festivals and won prizes. It was screened in Egypt after I came back in 1973.

AO: You designed the sets and costumes for the film "Shafiqa Wa Metwalli" 1978. Why didn't you do more of this work later?

Shaker: After I returned to Egypt, I thought of working in film. Salah Jaheen and Shawqi Abdel Hakim wrote a wonderful script for this film, with Soad Hosni in the lead role. It was a great opportunity. I recall a moulid scene that was crucial and should have lasted 20 minutes, but Badrakhan cut it down to four minutes. I created the moulid on a large scale, because Soad Hosni was supposed to walk through it, looking all innocent and naïve, young and impressionable. She was supposed to experience things that would make her mature. This was a crucial part. But all the old work was cancelled and only a few shots remained. At one point, I had to build an entire city with Sayyed Issa and went around scouting new places and making new props.

AO: Do you think of going back to the theatre?

Shaker: In 1999 I thought of making a show for the Marionette Theatre. I had a great script and it could have been a big hit, but jealousy got in the way. The contract was cancelled and I was devastated once again.

AO: How do you like working with young artists in the Creativity Centre?

Shaker: I love working for the Creativity Centre. There is an ongoing project by Khaled Galal aiming to produce a generation of set designers. I enjoy working with young people like Laila Soliman, with whom I worked in the show "Ghorba" (Exile), designing the set to fit the director's idea. Now I am a consultant for most of Laila Soliman's shows.

AO: What do you miss most about the marionettes?

Shaker: Doing marionettes is a multidisciplinary activity. You need a good writer, a good scriptwriter, a good director. The director is crucial. We once thought of setting up a department for marionettes in the Theatre Art Institute or the Child Institute. Without study, you cannot get anywhere. We cannot keep looking back. The director who works with marionettes must love the marionettes. Now you get manipulators who cannot move the marionettes correctly, and keep bouncing them about. "Al-Layla Al-Kabira" cannot be performed with poor manipulators and fixed scenery. The idea was for the scenery to keep changing. The last time I have seen it on stage, I was really annoyed. I tried to fix it and got the lighting right, and I tried to bring back some of the old manipulators, but still I am not happy with the results.

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