El-Warsha opened its summer season with the eight-night consecutive performance of operetta Qeyama Qayma (Doomsday) this week (3-10 June).
Ahram Online talked to Egyptian director Hassan al-Geretly, whose El-Warsha Theatre Company has brought the country’s folk heritage closer to modern audiences.
The stairs of an old downtown Cairo building lead up and around to a marvelous stained glass window, the perfect symbol of Egypt's pre-eminent independent theatre company.
In the warmth of a sunny morning, he shares his romance with Ahram Online, replete with theatre, folk arts, and story-telling.
"Will you kiss Soad's hand?"
"I was nine years old and playing in the yard of my school Maadi Qawmeya, when I noticed a funny scene, a theatre rehearsal, going on through the music room window. 'Al-Geretly, come and join us,’ shouted teacher Fatma Hassan, and she explained the scene from the school play where I would replace the boy playing the khedive Ismail at the inauguration of the Suez Canal. 'Will you kiss Soad's (playing the empress Eugenie’s) hands,’ she asked me. In that way I got my first role, and I haven’t stopped kissing Soad's hands ever since," he laughs.
Born to an Egyptian economist and former minister of finance in 1954 and a Scottish mother who worked at the BBC during the Second World War, al-Geretly and his sister grew up against a background of the arts. Opera nights and artistic flair made up the ambience at home.
"I took parts in school plays, and I'd be singing and acting and so on. I was also an A student, and there was always pressure to be at the top of my class, but my father always pushed me in the artistic direction. ‘All work and no play make Jack a dull boy,' he used to say as he switched off the light in my room when I was up studying. I also remember how he valued knowledge in all its forms. ‘The only thing they can never take away from you is what you have learnt,' he used to tell me.”
"I studied theatre at the University of Bristol in England, but my passion was French theatre, so I got in touch with French theatre companies and in 1972 became an assistant director at the Bellac Theatre Festival which was putting on Victor, or Power to the Children, a 1928 surrealist drama,” he says.
Al-Geretly's passion for theatre then took him back home as managing director of the Al-Hanager Theatre in Cairo, where he helped to redesign the Theatre and make it as forward-looking as possible. However, he finally left in order to focus on his own independent theatre company El-Warsha in 1987
"Tell the story and live "
As its name suggests, El-Warsha (the Workshop) puts on folk heritage in the form of theatre, such as story-telling, epics, and folk songs, and reintroduces them to modern audiences eager to be reminded of this folk legacy in danger of being washed away by time.
However unlike many other companies, El-Warsha's charm lies in the fact that it is an ongoing workshop for talents to flourish and nurture one another and where the younger generations can give their own interpretations of older material. The result is a mélange of authentic lyrics that are sung with the same vivid spirit as by their original creators, leading audiences to be able to witness rare moments where timeless classics meet modern spectators.
"Tell the story and live" is El-Warsha's motto. The Company has also sought to preserve and revivify the country’s oral history. In 2007 and in partnership with the Goethe Institute and the French Cultural Centre in Alexandria, El-Warsha put together 13 stories from the oral history of the Siwa Oasis in a publication called Desert Stories. Members of the Company also participated in Hekaya, a project aiming to preserve traditional story-telling techniques in the Arab world.
A residency by Said al-Dawi, a master story-teller and the only sira (epic) poet to memorise thousands of verses from the country’s long tradition of oral story-telling, showcased an enchanting dialogue between modern and traditional story-tellers in 2012.
The company’s Gaza Monologues was a form of solidarity with the people of Gaza and their resistance to Israeli aggression through story-telling. The monologues were gathered by the Ashtar Palestinian Theatre Group in 2010 and were read by 33 artists and story-tellers gathered by El-Warsha to commemorate the deaths of 1,380 Palestinians, including 431 children, during the Israeli wars on Gaza from 2008 to 2010.
It was followed by training workshops on story-telling conducted by El-Warsha for women from the Arab region, especially Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan.
Working side by side with workers in folk arts gave al-Geretly insight into the immense freedom and flexibility of the region’s folk arts. "We sometimes think that folk-art practitioners are rigid in their practices, but in fact the opposite is true. Those that I have worked with, whether shadow puppeteers like Hassan Khanoufa or sira poet Said al-Dawi, have been in a constant state of improvisation and looking for renovation," al-Geretly explained.
“In the early 1990s when we decided to look to the folk arts we decided to work on mawal or traditional folk songs. These are very rich and dramatic and need real story-telling skills. Coming across the treasure-trove of the Stories of Dakahlia, a compilation of folk stories, El-Warsha took a first step into the world of story-telling.”
Throughout the years, al-Geretly has also come to realise hidden dimensions of time. Between the duration time that a play takes to perform, the historical time frame of the play itself, and the perception of the performance of a company’s own time is "convivial time," he says, al-Geretly's most important cross-cutting theme.
"It's the time shared between me and the audience, like festive time. This feeling of being with people, acting for people who you care for, means that time stops moving forward and becomes convivial time. This is the uniqueness of story-telling – its production of convivial time."
"But the story-teller that I cherish above all is the average citizen. When you look at an architectural drawing, there is often a small figure at the bottom to give the scale. We have focused on this figure, as we are not concerned with the classic story-teller who comes infused with knowledge or the story-teller who is going to recount history as it happened. We are more into the story-teller who gives the scale of things.”
Al-Geretly also believes in the merits of multiple retellings of the same story. In his play Zawaya (Angles), the story of the 25 January Revolution becomes many narratives, as a way of breaking up the hegemony of any one point of view.
“As the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once said, history is written by the victors, but he was more interested in possible reversals. Like Darwish, we like to see stories from the perspective of the small figure at the edge,” al-Geretly says,
He has recently worked on oral history with this in mind, one of his main sources being the work of researcher Alia Mossalam whose doctorate was on “songs of resistance” in Egypt from 1952 to 1974 and beyond.
“Over the past 30 years I've learnt a few things. One of them is something that the late film director Shady Abdel-Salam once said to me – ‘in this country you have to stay in front of the door you are knocking on because when it opens it is important to be there.’”
“Then there are the lessons from El-Warsha relating to the audience as both a destination and a source, making creating a form of dialogue. The past, present and future merge in our work, and our future projects want to continue in this direction – staying in-front of the door, modifying our compass slightly, and continuing to train others.”