The young and ambitious always seek challenges; they innovate and gracefully cross traditional barriers. This is exactly what Mazen El-Gharabawy and Wafaa El-Hakim have done since last year. Accomplished theatre artists, the two teamed up to create a new theatre festival outside of the centrality of Cairo, creating the Sharm El-Sheikh Youth Theatre Festival, whose second edition took place between 1 and 9 April.
Launching the festival was not the only challenge. They also aspired to defy international political and security attitudes towards Egypt as repercussions of the mid-air explosion of a Russian airplane after take-off from Sharm El-Sheikh in late 2015.
Since the very beginning, El-Gharabawy and El-Hakim planted seeds for a theatre event that would also have political, national and international significance.
Therefore, the Sharm El-Sheikh Youth Theatre Festival was not born out of coincidence; nor only due to a desire to expand theatre activities beyond the central city of Cairo. It was born in direct relation to the specificity of Sharm El-Sheikh and of its political and international situation.
A theatre festival at its best is not only the performances it presents; it is also its cultural context and references, as well as the political stand it takes. A theatre festival is a public statement in a timely and artistic tone.
Love in A Glass of Water, Russia (Photo: Adel Sabry)
The festival's second edition
Made of artistic events throughout the day, the festival offered seminars, professional encounters, workshops and performances. The city of peace witnessed hundreds of visiting artists from nationalities as various as Kuwait, Bahrain, Italy, Spain, Mexico, South Korea, Tunisia and Belarus.
Distributed between indoor and outdoor venues, the festival celebrated the city, on the one hand, and provided a vision of another Sharm — one primarily cultural and artistic, and that constitutes a new touristic experience and human encounter — on the other.
To see the “Lady of Arab Theatre” Samiha Ayyoub present every day at all the events of the festival, supporting in every sense the young artists as president of the festival, was a great signal of what artists can do for their communities. This public role was one of empowering the youth, putting youth leadership in the foreground while being always there for advice and guidance.
This is rather rare model in a society where an older leadership often refuses to make way for younger generations. For decades, Egyptian artists have been living with the same circles of leadership, in spite of all good intentions and revolutionary statements made.
The Boat, Tunisia (Photo: Adel Sabry)
To move away from Cairo and Alexandria is to find a near desert of cultural services. To have the ministries of culture, tourism and youth support the expenses of the festival, including a large chunk of international and domestic flights, is only one way to help decentralisation. Another way would be to support the artists of outlying communities, so they can regularly create their own art and culture, while empowering the local infrastructure of cultural services to gradually make the provinces places of attraction for visiting performances across the year.
If such a dream were achieved, the impact of the Youth Theatre Festival in Sharm El-Sheikh would grow incredibly. It would also develop to another level of outreach and embeddedness that could transform it from a visiting festival into a resident one.
It is worth mentioning that the executive team of the festival is made only of young people, while everyone has a foot in the performing arts and another in the administrative and managerial work. Executive director Injy El-Bestawy is a tireless and forever smiling cultural operator that was sleepless for at least 10 days prior to and during the festival. She is a genuine model of what young women can achieve in Egyptian society, overturning prejudice and sterotypes alike. It was not only El-Bestawy who was sleepless; most of the festival’s contributors as well as audiences lost sleep.
Running from a seminar on new international playwriting trends to a professional meeting on festivals and networking, to a workshop on acting and then to two performances back-to-back, is quite an intense mission for anybody.
Mid-Night Summer's Dream, Mexico (Photo: Adel Sabry)
Maybe the intensity could be reduced or redistributed, for the sake of more community-based events. And maybe there could also be stable state venue for the festival dedicated to yearlong activities organised by the festival, even if those activities take place across long intervals.
The festival offered prizes that were decided by an prestigious international jury headed by actress and theatre professor Samira Mohsen. The prize for best director went to the Egyptian Said Soliman for “The Good Person,” produced by Taliaa Theatre (Avant-Garde Theatre), while best choreography went to South Korea’s “The Butterfly”, and best production to Italy’s “The Farm."
The festival managed to gather a group of the most prominent faces in Arab theatre, including the Lebanese artists Randa Asmar (actress) and Shadia Zeytoun (scenographer) and the Kuwaiti star Dawood Hussein.
It has proven the possibility of escaping the gravitational pull of cultural offerings in Cairo; of challenging them while succeeding with a theatre initiative of massive scale.
The Sharm El-Sheikh Youth Theatre Festival is live evidence of what young cultural leadership can do. It defies many of the state’s aging events within the culturally and creatively aging Cairo. And it is defying the surrounding death and the profoundly rooted Egyptian sadness.
The Flower, South Korea (Photo: Adel Sabry)
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