Ahram Online (AO): How was the festival idea born?
Ahmed Al-Attar (AA): It’s been several years that I have a serious concern regarding the Egyptian theatre scene where we do not find enough, or not at all, theatre and dance productions from abroad. On the international level, theatre productions are not varied enough. The concept of “watching” is an important element of actors’ training and it carries a broader sense for professionals who practice theatre or dance. It is also important for the audience.
Personally, when I left for France and lived there for a while (obtaining a masters degree from the Sorbonne in cultural management), one of the elements that helped me develop as an artist and a director was by attending two or three performances a week for two years (I had a friend who was a casting director, hence I had free tickets).
I greatly benefited from this experience; it was an extensive training, though I had already completed my studies and I have been practicing theatre directing for some time. Experience is one of the essential elements in the artistic life of men and women, and it is an important element for the audience. In Egypt, in fact, we see nothing. Troupes tour very rarely; often they are chosen by officials and this is not their job. The idea of the festival is hence directly linked to permanent programming, something that has interested me for years.
I met Karim Shafei from the Ismailia Real Estate Company (the real estate development company responsible for the downtown district). He purchased several buildings, including Cinema Radio and Hotel Viennoise, which is used as a gallery at the moment. His idea was to set up a festival to boost the image of downtown and to reinvigorate its cultural dynamism. I was asked to be in charge of this project. Immediately I thought of a multidisciplinary festival: theatre, music, dance, visual arts, cinema.
We chose this specific time (29 March to mid-April) based on the calendar of artistic activities taking place in other Arab countries. We noticed that at this time of year, there is the Sharjah Biennial, the Dubai Art Fair, the Forum in Lebanon. We thought it would be good to fit into this dynamism, to give an interesting stopover in Cairo for someone who goes to Dubai (to attend the festival of course).
AO: What were your criteria regarding invited performances?
AA: From the very beginning, as an art director who runs the festival, I had an opportunity to choose the troupes (being myself an independent director since 1990). For contemporary dance, I collaborated with a specialised association based in Barcelona, because our programme is very special: it offers performances in public spaces. Otherwise, each discipline has its own artistic director who decides its programming. Mahmoud Refaat handles music; Mia Jankowicz is responsible for visual arts.
As a general criteria, we give an overview of a variety of contemporary disciplines with which the Egyptian public is not familiar. Regarding theatre, for example, we see stagnantion in this sector of the Egyptian arts scene for decades now, so I wanted to propose new ways of making theatre. Hence, we present the British troupe called Forced Entertainment described by The Guardian newspaper as the most brilliant British experimental theatre troupe today. It’s an iconique troupe. There will also be a show that lasts six hours, another without actors (surprise!), a third one by Ghayat Omar, an Egyptian who lives in Switzerland and who will perform a work based on a text by Alaa El-Aswany. We’ll also have Lebanon's Abu Essam Khaled, who is focused on the artifice and theatricality, but taken from a different angle than we look at it. There will also be Kuwait's Al-Bassam Solayman with his latest show The Speaker's Progress.
AO: What about the budget?
AA: The initial budget was LE4 million. We managed to create this festival with LE1.5 million! Support was extended by many parties: almost all cultural centres, the European Union Delegation to Egypt that will cover the costs of all the companies, actors, Ismailia Society, and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. As for the Ministry of Tourism, we are still waiting ... We are still in need of LE250,000 to cover some costs. The festival is certainly the largest ever in Egypt. I do not compare it to those organised by the state, that has all the means.
All traditional Egyptian sponsors, without exception, refused to subsidise us. It's a shame because I think that this festival comes at a very important historical moment. It's now time to safeguard against obscurantism. We wish to show how Egyptians after the revolution are capable of initiating an event that reaches international standards, and of welcoming these prestigious troupes.
AO: What audience do you target?
AA: We took a decision from the very beginning: it will not be a free festival. It's not about money, because if all tickets were sold, it would not make 10 per cent of the budget. The idea is to build respect for artistic value (I think of those who pay LE30 at the cinema for a ticket to see a movie of poor artistic value). Our idea is rather that the ticket is a contract between the viewer and the festival. I define it this way: You pay, you get the best.